In his new book The Island of Bali Is Littered with Prayers, BYU musicologist Jeremy Grimshaw chronicles launching a gamelan—a Balinese orchestration of gongs, metal xylophones, drums, cymbals and bamboo flutes—in Provo, of all places.
The story begins in 2008, with Grimshaw unpacking a shipment of Balinese instruments—all hand-crafted, intricately detailed works of art showing scenes of sacred Hindu scripture. Grimshaw, drawn to Balinese music at an early age, also covers his own studies with Cudamani, a world-renowned musical group, outside Ubud, Bali.
Ubad and Provo might seem strikingly dissimilar, regarding the arts, at least. Art appreciation within the Mormon culture is deeply ingrained: Mormon pioneers built a playhouse before a tabernacle or temple, Grimshaw says. In Bali, “there’s a divine impulse to create; there’s beauty in art, in and of itself. It’s strikingly valuable and devotional.”
Bali surely inspired Grimshaw’s words, windswept in poetic prose; he never lets his metaphors run rampant, though. In comparing the rice harvest to gamelan, gems arise, like the line “The gods, who measure years with a metronome, surely hear the rhythms of the harvest with musical ears.”
Though he diverges from the book’s musical mission to discuss a cremation ceremony, it’s an interesting tidbit that adds anthropological value. One of the more amusing chapters brings together the disciplines of science, religion and art and has BYU physicists computer-mapping the instruments using complex programs, trying to decant their beauty, tuning and devotional creation.
Overall, Bali is a poignant book of music taking root in an unlikely place, empathetic in describing a culture’s subtleties while challenging the reader’s perceptions of art and music.
As a teacher, Grimshaw has seen students develop a collective intuition and friendships over Balinese music. In most gamelans, there’s no steady beat, just notes in time, spaced discreetly. When learning, players use a sixth sense tuned to those around them and play off that, Grimshaw says.
If this book piques your interest about foreign music, it’s best to withhold your expectations, lest you be disappointed, Grimshaw warns. “Just listen to it and let it do what it’s supposed to do on its own terms,” he suggests. “That’s the most important takeaway.”
THE ISLAND OF BALI IS LITTERED WITH PRAYERS