Gamelan professor demystifies Javanese culture, music


During a trip to Indonesia in 1971, Susan Walton fell in love with not only the music, but with the culture and the language.

Walton, lecturer IV in the Residential College and in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, now draws upon this experience as an ethnomusicologist with research interests in Javanese gamelan music.

Gamelan is a set of drums, gongs, metallophones, some stringed instruments and singers. What sets gamelan music apart from Western music is its focus on cyclic repetition of phrases and coincidence of important pitches in those phrases. Cyclicity and coincidence are key elements in Javanese cultural beliefs.

 “Gamelan music and dance are vehicles for expressing and experiencing this deep harmoniousness not only between humans, but between humans and the divine,” Walton said.

Susan Walton discovered her love of gamelan music during a trip to Indonesia in 1971. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

Walton began her journey to the University of Michigan as an undergraduate in 1967. She played the flute in the LSA music program when her world music class first introduced her to gamelan. She studied Southeast Asian studies in graduate school at the University of Washington and the University of Michigan. After her first trip to Indonesia in 1971 to study gamelan music, she has returned many times to conduct her research.  

Walton’s courses beyond gamelan focus on religion, politics and gender in South and Southeast Asia. Studying Javanese gamelan also involves the study of Islam because Indonesia is the largest Islamic country in the world.

It’s important to recognize the role religion plays in forming culture, and that culture plays in forming musical traditions, Walton said.

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To explore this theme, Walton is co-hosting two Javanese choreographers and dancers who are teaching classical Javanese dance and gamelan music to U-M students, culminating in a concert on April 10 in Hill Auditorium. The event will include a dance drama choreographed by the two artists, which celebrates the core beliefs in Islam of peace and compassion.

Walton’s research focuses on female singers who perform with the gamelan. Known as taledhek in the early 20th century, they sang on the streets and attracted men and tips with their flashy attire and suggestive lyrics.

Some of these singers moved to institutional settings (courts, radio stations, conservatories), where they adopted a new name, pesindhen, and the reserved gender values of middle-class women. Walton, herself, has performed as a pesindhen in the United Sates and Indonesia, London’s Royal Festival Hall, Sydney, and the capital of New Zealand, Wellington.

Walton still teaches gamelan to her students. In all of her years of teaching, she has a simple message for her students: “There are deep cultural differences but those deep cultural differences don’t mean we can’t understand other people, (that) we can’t empathize with them.”

Q & A

What moment in the classroom stands out as the most memorable?

One student told me, “I was unable to connect with Indonesian society at the beginning of the class. … But when I heard the gamelan, the gong tone rumbled in my stomach and made me realize that Indonesian people aren’t that bad. I could experience something on the same level as an Indonesian could.”

What can’t you live without?

My husband, Kendall Walton.

Where is your favorite spot on campus?

When we are practicing for our gamelan concert, and we all know the music very well, and we sound really good.

What inspires you?

The sheer beauty of gamelan music.

What are you currently reading?

“Beauty is a Wound” by Eka Kurniawan, “Letters from Thailand” by Botan, “What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic” by Shahab Ahmed.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

My graduate school mentor and friend Judith Becker, and my Javanese vocal teacher, Supadmi.


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