Gamelan Returns to Tennessee

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The UTK Gamelan Ensemble (with electric guitar), in performance in Fall 2017, the semester prior to me joining.

Last Spring, I had the pleasure of joining the UTK Gamelan Ensemble, led by my friend, colleague, and erstwhile committee member Leslie C. Gay. The band (so to speak) was composed of an eclectic mix of students and community members ranging from the musically gifted (e.g. David Webb, Kali Altintasioti) to the less so (Tyler Sonnichsen). I was excited to continue with the ensemble this Fall semester when I received a disappointing email from Les saying that there would be no Gamelan until the Spring. This was nobody’s fault; our Gamelan had been borrowed from some institution in California, and the music school’s term of lease had expired. The good news was that an all-new Gamelan contracted for UTK was in the works somewhere in Bali. The bad news was that it wouldn’t be ready on time to ship and arrive in Knoxville anytime this Fall. As the saying goes: cheap, fast, or good… pick two (and even two is often pushing it).

I should have anticipated how much I would miss the Gamelan, considering how busy last semester was. Last Spring, it became a perfect break from my routine: two hours every week where I crossed campus, unplugged from the matrix, and played music that I never had to feel guilty for not practicing because I couldn’t practice it (unlike those childhood piano lessons for which my mom essentially set her money on fire…sorry, Mom). This semester, being back on the full teaching schedule, highlighted the Gamelan-shaped abyss in my life.

First, What is Gamelan?

I’m going to pretend we’re having a conversation, and you just asked me this question and that you’re not reading this on the internet with the ability to open up a new window, scroll through dozens of articles explaining it, hundreds of photos, and thousands of hours of streaming video of people performing it better than I ever could. But, since that’s the first question I get whenever I tell anyone in person that I was in a Gamelan ensemble, I’ll answer the question here as I would in person.

The Gamelan is a coordinated set of percussive instruments intended to be played (often, but not always) in syncopation. It’s associated with Southeast Asia, predominantly Indonesia, though different islands have differing styles and approaches to performance. I’d be loathe to call it a “performance,” too since the islanders willed it into existence as something more spiritual and communal.

Spiritual AND Communal? Tell Me More!

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via FactsofIndonesia.com

This is my favorite thing about Gamelan. Everybody in front of a set of chimes or the gong (the one Indonesian word that sneaked its way into English) is equal. Almost any of the instruments can be foregrounded in performance. Anyone can sit down and play. Of course they would improve the more time they spend playing just as with anything, but it’s a percussion ensemble that encourages everyone to play, not just the handful of people who can shred. That being said, the Gamelan can integrate an electric guitar and nobody would complain. This Spring, Jorge Variego sat in on bass clarinet to debut what could only be described as an avant garde art piece (free-Gamelan, in other words, like free jazz), and the audience ate it up.

An epiphany I had at our first practice was that this was an approach that much Western popular music had forgotten. I know that trained musicians (or musicians in general) in countries like the States have been gradually disappearing in an age where STEM has conned its way into near-hegemony in our schools and funding for music programs is being slashed. Still, music cannot fully shed its promordial function as a group activity, not something reserved for a privileged few. Prior to the modern phenomenon of music publishing and copyrighting (less than 200 years old in the United States), music had enjoyed a long history of user-friendliness and root populism. Broadside ballads like “Barbara Allen” were meant to be sung by inclusive groups of revelers in parlors, as seen here in one of my favorite movie scenes of all time.

Arguments do exist that music predates language; humans are born with a variety of potential instruments on their person. Tuvan throat singing styles clearly mimic sounds of nature. Hamboning, an autopercussive song-and-dance style, worked its way into the Southern legend via slave traditions. Even some 80’s dream-pop songs with non-linguistic, non-lyrical vocals could be argued to be instrumentals.

So, Why Is It Important?

Obviously, in the handful of communities (mostly Universities) lucky to have one available, the novelty of Gamelan is one reason for its surging popularity in the United States as much as its accessibility. You know it’s novel enough for Fred Armisen and IFC to cart one in for a joke in the Documentary Now! series. But, novelty breeds fads, which gamelan clearly isn’t. The syncopation, timbre, and democracy all form a trusty foundation through which to expand the music’s appeal worldwide.  In so much Western music, percussion is relegated to the background of the band, and percussionists (well, rock drummers) become the butt of jokes.  Even in bands where the drummer is the best actual musician (e.g. Fugazi, Manic Street Preachers), fans tend to take them for granted. It’s always gratifying when percussionists get the respect they deserve, and even better when Gamelan foregrounds all the different ways, usually several within the course of one performance, someone can simply be a percussionist. To put it most bluntly, it sounds gorgeous, and most importantly, it’s just really, really cool.

For me, at least, being in a gamelan ensemble provided the grounding experience for which so many people turn to yoga, meditation, prayer, or some combination of the three. It was great to have in my life for a semester, and then it was difficult getting used to not having it. Today, however, I got a message from my old friend Konstantine, who will be stepping in for Les and leading the UTK Gamelan Ensemble this semester. Our first meeting/practice/jam session is next week, and I can’t wait. I’ll announce it again as it gets closer, but make your calendars for April 17th.

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Ceng Ceng (pronounced ching-ching): the single hardest instrument (for me) to play (well) in the Gamelan.

 

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Did YOU Have to Explain ‘Blossom’ to Your Students Today?

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In case any of you were wondering, yes my PhD is hard at work, discussing the dated early-career arc of Joey Lawrence to a group of confused students in my Population Geography class. Let me backtrack and explain how it came to this.

The University of Tennessee opened a 1906 time capsule left entombed somewhere in the Estabrook Building, one of my favorites on campus (and slated for demolition). I watched it on their Facebook Live video feed with my Population Geography students before they took their final exam this morning. I also paid attention the livestream of comments, which were a heady mixture of demands they stop blabbing and open it already, self-deprecating “jokes” about Tennessee Football, and (after they opened it and found… desiccated nothing) righteous anger and Geraldo Rivera references.

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They historians on hand, including my colleague Bob Hutton (who would no doubt appreciate that last link), did a great job recovering from the disappointment. They had a comprehensive catalog of the items the 1906 crew left in the buried box, most of which had been preserved lovingly in the UT Archives behind them. They also took this opportunity to reiterate the value of well-maintained and funded archives, a sentiment upon which I’ve doubled down on multiple occasions.

Another curious byproduct of this experience was the seemingly inevitable reminscing about the Nickelodeon time capsule, which Mike O’Malley and Joey Lawrence buried in Orlando, on live television, on April 30, 1992. It was moved when Nickelodeon studios moved in 2005, but it is still slated to be opened on April 30, 2042 – fifty years to the day after it was buried.

The first epiphany I had was that 1992 was 26 years ago. 2042 is in 24 years. Society is more than halfway to the finish line of waiting to unearth this sealed box of early 90’s ephemera, most of which is readily available in thrift stores and vintage shops. Popular movies on VHS. An Orlando-distributed issue of TV Guide with Burt Reynolds on the cover. A hat embroidered with “WHOA! ’92” in honor of Joey Lawrence, then at the height of his teenybopper fame.

The latter item made me and an older student in my class (three years my junior) laugh out loud. When I saw the younger students looking on in confusion, I informed them that once upon a time, there was a show called Blossom that helped catapult their teenage cast to fame. I never watched the show, so I forgot that it starred Mayim Bialik , who is still incredibly famous as a star on The Big Bang Theory, perhaps the worst and most culturally caustic show ever produced (not a personal knock on Bialik by any means).

gi_153511_green20gak20lo20resIt’s impossible to predict these things, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the video camera they put into the capsule (after being unable to eject the tape) wound up being the most valuable thing upon unearthing in 2042. That, or the Barbie Doll in it’s original packaging. Or, maybe even the tube of Gak, a sticky slime compound cross-promoted with Nickelodeon shows whose name, somehow, functions as a stand-in for cocaine. You can’t make this stuff up.

So, in conclusion, time is like sands through the hourglass; I fear I may blink and it may be time for Mike O’Malley’s great-grandson to crack open that thing LIVE on YouComvrizoncasTube Mentalscreen Googlevision. There are more important lessons here, though, which can be applied to our experience from today. First, keep your archives funded and well-maintained by enthusiastic historians and lovers of material culture. Second, whenever your university gives you the opportunity, pull up a local Livestream to watch with your students. It may pull everyone on board, even temporarily, with campus civic life, and you never know what cultural revelation you may find, even if the capsule is empty.

GeoSym 2018 Call for Papers!

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I’m very excited to pass along the Call for Papers for the third installment of this great little conference. I’m biased because I was the chair for the second installment in 2016, but this time around it’s in great hands with my good friends and colleagues Savannah Collins-Key, Emma Walcott-Wilson, and others from the GeoGrads. Savannah was an outstanding co-chair in 2016, too; I’ve gone on record before about all the work she did organizing the paper sessions and basically ensuring that I didn’t burn the whole thing down.

Also, this year’s keynote speaker, Dr. Marshall Shepherd, is one of the biggest authorities on climate and landscape in the Southeast. His name has been getting bigger on a near-monthly basis in the meteorology and Weather Channel world, so you really don’t want to miss the chance to see him speak in this smaller-scale setting.

At any rate, it’s free to submit and participate (a rarity among any kind of academic conference), and you have the rest of December to get your papers ready. Paper deadline is January 1st, 2018, and the Poster deadline is January 15th. More information can be found at the departmental website here or on the Facebook Page here.

GEO 320: Core Concepts in Cultural Geography (Fall 2016)

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I’m excited to announce here that I’ll be teaching Geography 320, our department’s core upper-level cultural geography course, this coming fall. This class has no prerequisite, though general proficiency in global geography (GEO 101, for example) is recommended. I’d be happy to have students from other disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, and ethnomusicology, especially those who haven’t been able to take a geography course yet while at UT-Knoxville.

Cultural Geography, like culture itself, is incredibly fluid. But with this course, I’m aiming to focus on how the relationship between people and place is interpreted through media, popular culture, religion, and public memory. By the end of this course, students should be able to understand and describe the effects of nature of culture, and vice versa.

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East TN music historian Shane Rhyne delivering a guest lecture in my GEO 101 class, October 23, 2014.

Similar to how I connected with the East Tennessee History Center’s “Made in Tennessee” exhibit in my GEO 101 curriculum last year, I’d like to continue that collaboration with their new “Come to Make Records” exhibit. This is one of a handful of interactive projects I’m looking forward to pursuing with this course, in addition to some great guest speakers and elements that students will be pleasantly surprised to find in a geography course. I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach it while working on my dissertation.

The syllabus will be a work in progress over the summer, but if you’d like a preview of a some material I look forward to incorporating, check out (1) Duncan Light’s entertaining and informative 2014 piece on place names and (2) this article about Steven Lee Beeber’s research on punk rock’s manifestation of Jewish New York. Hopefully you enjoy this tip of the iceberg; if not, there is plenty more well outside of both those subjects. If you’re a UTK undergraduate student and interested in attending the course, don’t hesitate to write me and ask any questions at SonicGeography[at]gmail[dot]com.

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A Message from Kurt about the TN State of Geography Education

[I’m working on a couple of new entries today and tomorrow, but once again I’d like to cede my blog to my friend and colleague Kurt Butefish of the TN Geographic Alliance, who sent this around my department this morning. If you’re in TN and care about geography (at least the latter part should apply to 99.9% of you reading this), take a few moments, read this, and help out where you can! Thanks, talk to you all soon – Ty]

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FROM THE DESK OF KURT BUTEFISH

I’ve got a big favor to ask, but it is very important.

I apologize for the length of this email, but there is a great deal of information I need to covey to you.

Continue reading

GeoSym2016: A Look Back

I’m excited to report here that my first foray into academic conference production was a success! The 2nd biennial University of Tennessee Geography Research Symposium (or GeoSym2016, thanks to colleague Alisa Hass for the truncated and easily hashtaggable nickname) took place earlier this month on February 5th and 6th at the University of Tennessee. We are currently working on putting updates and links to all of these on our official departmental page, but I figured I would use my personal site to dig into the event a bit more.

In many ways, this event built on our debut Symposium in 2014. The committee, headed by me and my good friend/colleague Savannah Collins, chose to hold the Symposium a bit earlier in 2016 than they did in 2014, for a couple of reasons. We wanted to make sure that it happened early enough in the semester to avoid any of the stresses that build up toward spring break. We also wanted to make sure to give our participants a good breather in between this and AAG (which will be held earlier than usual this year, the final week in March, in San Francisco), all while providing a window during which to edit and improve their paper talks where needed beforehand.

One of GeoSym’s greatest strengths, as a small conference, is to provide a platform for more embryonic and ambitious research, where researchers can share their ideas in a lower-pressure environment, not subject to perceived pillorying from a room full (depending upon your time slot) of high-pressure academics at one of the biggest conferences in the world. While we were walking to dinner on Friday evening, our keynote guest Dydia DeLyser told me how remarkable and refreshing it was to see so much early-stage research coming from so many early-career researchers, who often wait until completely sewing their projects up before daring to bring it to a paper session. I told her how happy that made me to hear.

Speaking of Dr. DeLyser, she was everything I had spent the past year or two hyping her up to be. From the moment she landed in Knoxville, she was engaging, excited for all of our work, and of course encouraging. Her keynote talk was every bit as groundbreaking (materialities are already beginning to gain steam as a concept in cultural geography) as we had hoped, and the well-attended keynote audience on Saturday afternoon certainly thought so. We made a video of Dydia’s talk, as well as the closing ceremony (of sorts; we were pretty informal about it), now up on the UTK Geography Youtube page for anyone who either missed it or just wants to relive the moment, shaky audio and all.

We were also fortunate to have Matt Cook (our committee’s webmaster) and Dr. Liem Tran, both photography enthusiasts, on hand to capture the proceedings. Their full collaborative photoset is here, but I’ve pulled a few of the highlights to paste below here.

[UPDATE: Deadline Extended!] Submit for the 2016 Tennessee Geography Symposium at UT (Deadline 1/1)

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** UPDATE: DEADLINE EXTENDED TO 1/15 FOR ALL SUBMISSIONS**

Dear colleagues near and far (as well as those I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting yet),

This is just a call and reminder that the deadline for (free!) submissions to present at the second biennial University of Tennessee Interdisciplinary Geography Research Symposium (or GeoSym) is approaching! Please take a few minutes by Friday, January 1st, and visit our page and form to submit your abstract for your paper, your panel, or your poster (Undergrads have until 1/15 to submit for our poster session).

This February 5&6, we’ll be welcoming keynote speaker Dr. Dydia DeLyser of Cal State-Fullerton to our event. Her presentations have been a highlight of every event I’ve seen her speak at, and her research in the field of cultural geography continues to be groundbreaking. In short, she is not to be missed. Here is some more background on Dr. DeLyser:

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Also, if you haven’t yet, please RSVP to our Facebook event and invite anybody on campus or in the region who may be interested. The more interdisciplinary we get, the better the program.
I’ve kept relatively mum about it on this site thus far, but I’m honored to be one of the chairs of the coordinating committee for GeoSym this year. Anyone who was at the event in 2014 knows and I can’t emphasize enough, this is our event as an organization of Geography graduate students and in representing our discipline on the UT Campus and in the Southeastern Region. It also provides an excellent opportunity to run your research in preparation for AAG or any other conference you may have coming up this Spring. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me or co-chair Savannah Collins (scolli15@vols.utk.edu).
On behalf of the GeoSym coordinating committee, I hope you’re all having a great Holiday season and have a happy and healthy New Year!
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Dr. William Moseley (Macalester College) delivers his keynote speech at the inaugural UT Geography Symposium in 2014. (Matt Cook Photo)