Music and the Ever Changing World

by Serrano Sianturi

We are nearly at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, and humans continue to create changes (for better and worse), and at the same time try to cope with such changes. Convergence and advancement in telecommunication, computer and technology, along with globalization have contributed to the betterment of our well being as much as created problematic issues.

The advancing information technology has provided individuals and communities around the world with access to linkages, data, news and entertainment within seconds and around the clock. This condition, on one side, is an opportunity to gain useful knowledge and develop network or cooperation, while on the other is a possible threat to local culture. Digitalization – another technological advancement – has enabled us to do things, again good or bad, that were impossible.

Globalization with its deregulation, privatization, and free market policies was an attempt to balance the economic gap between the affluent and developing countries; the result so far is the reverse. The global economy with its one- fits-all model that seeks similarity due to massive production obviously encourages uniformity rather than creativity and diversity.

Economics as the intellectual fabric of economy has lost its very soul – morality. Human has no longer been the most determinant factor; people have been treated simply as numbers in mathematical equation. Fundamental economic terms have been redefined with much reduced meanings: exchange to buy & sell, benefit to profit, and values to prices. The so called economic development has emphasized on material well-being, not on quality of life, and been commodity-centered instead of people-centered.

The fuss on the idea of creative economy seems to shift from materializing the idea to simply fashionable thing without an adequate understanding. The writing of The Rise of Creative Class by Richard Florida, among other writings by other people, somewhat represents this situation; it is an attractive writing, but quite gimmical from the economic standpoint.

So, how do these changes affect music and musicians?

Music, musicians, and the technological wonders

The advancement of information technology, including digitalization, as said earlier, has made unimaginable things possible, and there are more possibilities yet to come. As for the music sector, such advancement has impacted many areas. Sound technology, for example, has reversed the condition from musicians challenging the technology to technology challenging the musicians.

Sound production that involves sound creation, recording, enhancement, manipulation, and storage has challenged musicians to bring on all ideas they have. Besides challenges, this technological progress also brings convenience. Mistakes or below standard sound quality can now be corrected easily. Unlike in the phonograph or record era, in which each side can only contain 24 minutes of material, music with long duration can now be enjoyed without interruption.

Such advancing sound production or reproduction technology, combined with the internet, also impacts how people evaluate music making or composing. With abundant downloadable sound and music materials, anyone can utilize some fragments, notes, chords, and phrases to his own liking and then make compositions out of them. From this one practice, we actually face so many questions. So how should we define authenticity or originality in this case? Can we also call this creative? When someone makes a musical composition out of copy & paste, can we say that it is a musical collage? If we answer no to all questions, then what is created that way is not music, or still is? If we say yes, does it mean that everyone can be a composer?

How about musicians? How do we differentiate musicians from people who play (with) instruments? Or are they all musicians? With today’s technology, anyone lacking adequate knowledge and techniques can play instruments and produce “likable” music. So what would be the standard requirement that anyone should meet to gain the titleship as musician? Or such standard is no longer relevant at this point?

Of course, anyone has the right to do what they want, including composing and/or playing music, but isn’t this a political statement rather than an aesthetic one?

Music, musicians, and the economic malpractice

As mentioned earlier, economics has forgotten its history and lost its morality; development has concentrated on material well-being rather than human life; development has also been commodity-centered, not people-centered; and global economy has encouraged uniformity, and resulted in unjust wealth distribution.

Creative economy is understood merely as an income generating activity. Creativity is judged only by how much money that whatever invented can make. The focus then is on what to produce, at what quality level, and where and how big the demand is. As a result, even cultural manifestations as intellectual, spiritual and expressive creations are now positioned simply as traded commodities. It seems that most people are oblivious to the fact that it is the creativity that sustains inventions. It is the creative mind, combined with the right attitude, of the people that should be heavily nurtured, not the manufacturing and distributing.

Music, for example, in the last four decades has transformed solely into a commercial good, and treated more as entertainment package. Its important and specific roles as system of thoughts, reminder of values, medium of expressions, bond in social interactions, language of dialog, as well as healing and creative force in human life are in the brink of total disappearance. The understanding, practice and development of music have narrowed down to commoditization (manufacturing and distribution) that is much associated with the creation of wealth, not on the above-mentioned fundamentals that are collectively the core strength that make up the true value of music.

Commercial value of music is a subsequence; it is neither the reason for nor the force behind the birth of any respectable creation. Music (and other art forms) has long been a unique “product” of humankind due mainly to its independency. In any condition (economic depression, poverty, war, political suppression, etc), extraordinary music has been continuously created. This is possible because music is one of the self-reliant supportive systems in our lives. Such an important function is the one that should be cultivated, not the commoditization. If this function disappeared, would there be any value of the “price” we pay for music? Or, even worse, would there be any music at all?

The creative economy that the world has considered as the future of our economy, as said earlier, emphasizes on the income generating aspect, not on the functions and roles of the arts. It seems that economy has forgotten what makes the arts can generate income in the first place. Works of arts can create wealth because they contain intangible values such as historical, social, spiritual, natural, aesthetical or technological. Without these, what is there to “sell” out of any work of art?

Due to such economic practice, many of today’s musicians seem to see their occupation simply as a profession to make a living, not a role to make a life. Not only that they no longer understand the functions and roles of music, but also no longer know what their roles as musicians in society. Their roles as messenger of values, healer, or mirror that reflects issues in society have diminished.

They also believe that their existence as musicians depends fully on the manufacturing and distribution in the music industry. This thought, and logics perhaps, is far fetched from the logics and history of economy. First of all, the business of invention has never been the nature of the manufacturing and distribution of most industries, and more so in the music industry. If we look at all the musical genres in the world (classical, blues, jazz, reggae, rock, flamenco, rap/hip hop, etc), none of them was created by the manufacturing and distribution sectors. What they actually do are producing mechanically, mobilizing, and creating stars within the genre. The creation has always been the musicians’ role, and it is their new creations that will sustain the life of the manufacturing and distribution. So it is illogical if musicians think that their music depends on the “industry”; it is the other way around.

Historical facts reveal that music has been with us at least for 4000 years. Its life without the “industry” was much longer than with the “industry”. So let us ask ourselves this, would people stop making music if the “industry” died?

Serrano Sianturi is the Founder and Chairman of Sacred Bridge Foundation.

GAUNG: 21st Century Global Music Education

by Bob Rose

At the end of April, a bold and ambitious journey took place in Bali to pave the way for 21st century global music. Participants were invited from all over the world, and a diverse range of inspirational gurus and facilitators gathered to share their wisdom. This educational event, ‘GAUNG: 21st Century Global Music Education’ is unique in its vision to combine spirituality, cultural economics, music theory, and a wide range of contemporary and ethnic influences.

The GAUNG workshop was set up by the Sacred Bridge Foundation, an Indonesian not-for-profit organization established in 1998 by Franki Raden, Tony Rudyansyah and Serrano Sianturi. The workshop has been several years in the making, with previous versions including the Rhythm Salad Music Clinic that has run for the last two years.

In the inspirational setting of Bedugul National Park in Bali, participants were randomly allocated to three separate lodgings ranging from decent to luxurious, an incredible feat considering that the total cost of the ten-day course including accommodation and food was a mere US$100 per person.


Given how ambitious the scope of this course was, it was inevitable that ten days was not going to be enough but all the gurus and participants gave it their all. It wasn’t unusual for events to run until two in the morning and then start again early the next day. The major strength of this course was in the diversity and quality of everyone involved. The participants included a theatre composer, an expert on music from Thailand, a guzheng (Chinese zither) teacher, a jazz saxophonist and lecturer from Kuala Lumpur and a range of other talented musicians.

Perhaps two of the most interesting gurus present were the contemporary composers Jean-Claude Éloy and Greg Schiemer. Jean-Claude is a French composer who studied under Milhaud, Messiaen, Boulez and Stockhausen. As most of the participants had never encountered 20th century modern music before, reactions ranged from ‘is this music?!’ all the way through to enthusiasm for using these new techniques and ideas within other styles of music. One of the participants, an artistic programmer for the Singapore Esplanade (the main arts centre in Singapore) had been previously unaware of this genre, but because of the course, she is now considering exposing Singaporean music goers to new unfamiliar music.

Greg, the other contemporary composer is an Australian who specializes in electronic music. His performances using mobile phones opened minds and inspired new ways of thinking. The pieces involved performers swinging the phones around their heads to create entrancing and hypnotic effects using Doppler shift.

But to balance what could become a somewhat cerebral and advanced foray into avant-garde aesthetics; gurus such as American jazz bassist Christy Smith kept things practical and entertained everyone with his earthy humour. As the course did not include enough time for participants to compose pieces to be played at the performances, there was a lot of emphasis on improvisation and Christy played an important role in guiding some of the younger, less experienced musicians. In contrast to Christy’s coaxing of high energy performances from shy participants, the prolific Japanese master percussionist and composer Stomu Yamash’ta encouraged musicians to reflect on the beautiful surroundings and express this spirit through their instruments. He also brought up the idea of establishing awareness of the music played among the audience rather than trying to impress them.

There were also a number of gurus and facilitators in place to introduce everybody to the central concepts of ethnomusicology by studying the new women’s Kecak group in Ubud – the only one of its kind in Bali. Unfortunately, with such a tight schedule some of the practical field work couldn’t take place when the Kecak group were a little late. It was still useful though to be given preliminary guidelines for working in the field, interviewing the performers and even being taught Kecak while at Bedugul by the Balinese guru who helped these women form their unique group.

As well as the musicians, a number of spiritual gurus such as a priest from Sulawesi, a Sufi master, and a Japanese monk had been invited. They would hold regular meetings with the other music gurus and facilitators to discuss life, the universe and everything although there seemed to be some controversy as to the purpose of these meetings. One of the organizers had intended for the results to be made public afterwards, whereas another emphatically denied the idea of sharing as it might be too private. I personally feel that the results of these conversations could have been shared with the participants in the evenings, so that anybody could follow up on issues raised directly with the spiritual gurus in their own time. If not, it seems a little self-indulgent to invite all these inspirational people if the participants aren’t able to benefit from them.

The course had ambitious goals, but one of the largest benefits of being present was to network, meet new people and become open to new ideas. But it wasn’t just the invited gurus and participants who were inspiring. The founders of Sacred Bridge also have a wealth of interests and experience to learn from. Franki Raden, for example is a particularly inspiring musician, interested in spirituality, protecting ethnic music from globalisation and composing contemporary music. He is also an accomplished composer, a respected music critic, an ethnomusicologist and more.

Also worthy of a special mention is Serrano Sianturi who, with help from his small but dedicated team, made a superb job of organizing the logistics of the course. A highlight of the event was his rousing presentation about cultural economics, which explored the possibility of being a musician with integrity without fearing the manufacturing and commercializing side of the music industry. Serrano teaches this subject at post-doctoral level at universities in Europe and United States for a couple of months every year; we got a very simplified version of it! But I think these ideas should have been explored much more. In our current world, the future of music depends on economic factors and music has been widely turned into a commodity. GAUNG was set up in order to fight this trend and discover music’s true meaning.

The GAUNG experience was an opportunity to tie together many varied and interesting worlds and I really appreciated the opportunity to mix socially with such interesting and creative people.