An interview with Mormon musicologist Jeremy Grimshaw

Yesterday, I posted an excerpt from Jeremy Grimshaw’s new book The Island of Bali is Littered with Prayers, which is available from Mormon Artists Group. Younger denizens of the Bloggernacle might not recognize Jeremy’s name, but he started an excellent blog focused on Mormon culture called Orson’s Telescope way back in February, 2004. He brought sharp writing and humorous commentary to the mix and I became a major fan. Sadly, but understandably, he had to shut the blog down just a little over a year later to focus on his dissertation. The attempt at discipline must have worked because now he’s an Assistant Professor of Music at BYU.  In the following interview, we talk about his new book, his work on Mormon minimalist composer La Monte Young (which AMV has featured before), and a couple of other topics.

So last the Bloggernacle was really aware of Jeremy Grimshaw was when you shut down your excellent blog Orson’s Telescope to focus on your dissertation. Catch us up briefly — how did you get from there to where you are now?

I completed by Ph.D. in musicology with emphases in American experimental music and world music.  Out of grad school, I taught for two years at Denison University, a small, wonderful liberal arts college in central Ohio. I never really anticipated returning to Utah, at least not so quickly, but some curricular changes at BYU resulted in the creation of a new position. Next thing I knew, I was in Provo.

Some of our newer AMV readers may not be familiar with your work. Can you re-explain your studies and analysis of the work of La Monte Young?

Although his is not a household name, except perhaps in certain circles, La Monte Young is one of the most important American composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. As an central figure in the New York scene of the 1960s, he curated a famous experimental concert series at Yoko Ono’s loft, collaborated with Andy Warhol, was a mentor to founding members of the Velvet Underground, and became the patriarch of the minimalist movement in music.  He became known for such works as his monumental 6-hour composition for alternately tuned piano, The Well-Tuned Piano, and the ongoing electronic installation known as the Dream House, which he created with his wife, the visual artist Marian Zazeela. Brian Eno, the electronic composer and producer for Talking Heads, U2, and David Bowie, calls him “the granddaddy of us all.”

Partly due to a generous benefactor, Young has remained largely outside of the public eye for the better part of forty years. He and his wife have produce a lot of artistic work, but they have not had to interface with the art/music business in the way most artists do: they self-publish their work, release recordings on their own label, and give out interviews very rarely.  So, despite his importance, there has not been a lot of scholarship on Young’s work.  There was also another aspect of Young’s life that fascinated me: he was born in Bern, Idaho, on the shores of Bear Lake, and was raised in a devout LDS home. Although he has been a non-practicing Mormon since his adolescence, his religious upbringing had a profound influence on the worldview he developed.  I was luck enough to make Young’s acquaintance several years ago, and ended up writing my doctoral dissertation on his life and work.

Let’s talk about about Bali.What took you there? What did you do while there?

There was a Balinese ensemble at the Eastman School, where I did my graduate work, and I played in the group for a couple of years. I fell in love with the music, initially as a diversion from my academic work, but eventually it became a second area of scholarly interest. While at Denison, the opportunity arose to purchase some Balinese instruments for the school, so I undertook more serious study in order to be able to teach it.

It’s a fascinating culture, partly because there’s just so much art crammed onto this little tiny island. When Islam spread southward and eastward across the Indonesian archapelego between the 13th and 16th centuries, the painters and woodcarvers and silversmiths and musicians and dancers that had been employed by the great Hindu courts of Java moved ahead of the wave of Islam and congregated on Bali–the whole island was kind a big artists colony.  As a result, the island’s culture has a profound aesthetic inclination.  As the saying goes, “In Bali, we don’t have ‘art,’ we just do everything as beautifully as we can.”

After studying Balinese music with experts in the U.S. for a few years, I finally had an opportunity to go there in the summer of 2008.  I spent a few weeks in a workshop with a famous musical group, Ã‡udamani, and later studied privately with the highly regarded musician and composer, I Ketut Gede Asnawa.  Also, as chance would have it, I happened to be on the island during one of the most elaborate public events in Balinese history.  The king of the city of Ubud was cremated, amidst an incredible days-long series of ceremonies: concerts in the palace, processions of hundreds of offering-bearers, dancers and musicians, weeks of complex religious rituals, and finally a cremation ceremony that rival the Rose Parade in terms of its size and scope (some readers may have seen the write up in the New York Times).

Still on Bali: you got to tell us (well me, really) about the food. What were some of the amazing things you ate while there and how did food intersect with the music?

Much of the Balinese food I ate was rather bland on its own, but was usually served with an incredible hot sauce made of peppers and shrimp paste called “sambal.” Rice is served with virtually every meal, accompanied by chicken or fish. One of the best meals I ate was in someone’s home, and consisted of rice, a little dried fish, some sambal, and toasted coconut. The Balinese also make an incredible roast pig called “Babi Guling.”  They serve it in a bowl with various parts of the pig arranged on a bed of rice.

Music and food and religion are all tied together in intricate ways in Bali.  First, both music and food are considered offerings to the gods. Along with the meals for mortals, the women spend much of each day preparing beautiful offerings containing rice, meat, fruit, flowers, and incense, which they leave all around their homes and temples. Before musical performances, these offerings are also presented to the spirits thought to inhabit the musical instruments, especially the gigantic bronze gongs.  Also, any important event in Balinese life–a marriage, a cremation ceremony, the anniversary of a temple–is marked by copious amounts of both music and food.

What have been some of the reactions at BYU and in Utah in general to your efforts to bring gamelan music to the Wasatch Front?

It’s been wonderful. First, and most importantly, the students have eaten it up. One of the things that makes BYU such an interesting place to teach is the contrast between many students’ experiences or backgrounds and their aspirations. Perhaps because they have served missions abroad or anticipate doing so, some students who have had very little exposure to cultures outside their own nonetheless show an amazing eagerness to step outside their comfort zones and immerse themselves in something new.  Second, because the gamelan touches on so many different aspects of music and life, it has opened up all sorts of opportunities for interdisciplinary work.  A physics student wrote a fascinating article on the acoustic properties of the ensemble’s giant bronze gongs. Asian Studies students came to examine the Hindu iconography on the instruments. We had several students learn some Balinese dance.

One concern I had in the beginning was that some LDS students or listeners might be uncomfortable with the inherent religious (Balinese Hindu) component of the music. In Bali, all art is inherently devotional, so you can’t really extricate the musical tradition from its religious context. But I have been pleasantly surprised at how little this has been an issue for our students.  At our first two concerts, we had Balinese guests who actually presented offerings (baskets of fruit and flowers) and uttered prayers at the beginning of the performance. I think most audience members found it quite moving and beautiful.

At our most recent concert, we didn’t have any Balinese guests. It wouldn’t really be an authentic performance, though, without some recognition of that element.  So I prepared a basket of fruit and flowers to put at the front of the stage.  Since I’m not Balinese Hindu I didn’t light incense or say a prayer or sprinkle any holy water, I just put it there. “You made an offering?!” one student asked.  “Nope,” I told her, “just a centerpiece.”

What led to the book? Can you say something about the process of its composition? What did you learn about authoring and/or yourself and/or about Mormonism while writing it?

My main goal for my first trip to Bali was to study musical repertoire, not to do fieldwork or research to turn into a publication. Balinese music is almost entirely composed, not improvised, but it is also taught orally rather than with notation. So, it takes a lot of effort on the part of teachers and students to learn repertoire.  I simply wanted to come back with a few more pieces under my belt that I could teach to my students. However, so many wonderful, moving things happened while I was there–not least of which the once-in-a-lifetime experience of the royal cremation ceremony. When I emailed some friends and family about these experiences, Glen Nelson of Mormon Artists Group suggested I put them in a book.

The book took shape as a series of reflections on certain aspects of Balinese music–the way the instruments are tuned, the way the rhythms fit together, etc.–that seemed to be metaphors for broader ideas about the way people interact with each other and the way they think about God. It also became a cross-cultural reflection, as I followed concepts I learned in Bali to their applications in a room full of Mormon students in Provo. The book became simultaneously an exercise in contrasts and in reconciliations. I kept looking at these two musical and religious cultures from opposite sides of the world that, on the surface, seemed like they could hardly be more different; and I kept discovering ways that they actually resonated with each other in profound ways.

For me personally, the most important lesson Balinese culture has taught me is the importance of beauty for beauty’s sake–the importance of worshiping through art.  In the West we sometimes thing of art as a vehicle for devotion–the sugar that helps the medicine go down. But art itself can be devotional, it can be the message, the medicine, simply by its being beautiful.  As I describe in the book, at one point my Balinese teacher and his family came to work with our group for a few days. As guests in our home, they asked us if on one night they could observe an important holy day on the Balinese calendar by observing a certain ritual of offerings and prayers in our home. Each word and gesture of the ceremony was beautiful, so much so that it profoundly affected my experience of my own faith thereafter — I started noticing the beauty of performing the physical acts of my faith.  We Mormons often thing of things in terms of their purpose or goal, their usefulness (we even call it temple “work”), and because of that, and because I grew up in the church and everything about it has such a familiar choreography to me, there were aspects of my faith — or rather, of the outward actions and executions of my faith — that had become invisible, or at least blurringly proximate to me. Watching the acute aesthetic care with which my Balinese guests worshiped, their unthinking inclination toward the beautiful, made me suddenly see with new eyes the beauty of the physical experience of my own faith.

What creative works by Mormon and/or non-Mormon artists — whether writing, music or visual art — have you really been digging lately? What more would you like to see in the Mormon market/scene, in particular?

I’m lucky enough to be near an epicenter of great Mormon art, and many of my colleagues at BYU are doing some very impressive, creative, innovative, wonderful stuff. Anyone near Provo should check out performances by BYU’s Group for New Music and Group for Experimental Music. My colleagues Michael Hicks, Steve Ricks, and Christian Asplund all have great recordings available. I’m not as up to date with the “Mormon Lit” scene as I should be–but I enjoy very much what I’ve read of Levi Peterson, Douglas Thayer, Terry Tempest Williams, and Brady Udall. Also, I should mention that since I’ve been walking into the fine arts building every day for the last couple of years I’ve been quite impressed with the caliber and creativity of the students in visual arts at BYU.  One of my favorite student exhibitions, of strangely beautiful faux-antique portraits of people with animal heads, turned out do be the work of a second cousin of mine, Adam Grimshaw. He later ended up making some beautiful photographs of our Balinese instruments, and a few of his photos appear in the book.

Also, and I don’t say this just to root for the home team, but Glen Nelson with Mormon Artists Group does some wonderful stuff; Glen has great eyes and ears.

Beyond Mormondom, and since you asked, I’m going to take the liberty of recommending a wonderful novel by a friend of mine, Preeta Samarasan, Evening is the Whole Day.  It’s a beautiful and tragic story about an Indian immigrant family in Malaysia, ingeniously constructed around both the emotional frailty of a six year old girl in a house falling apart and the racial tensions of a country falling apart.

What’s next for you? Any other projects you want to tell us about?

I’m putting the finishing touches on a book, based on my dissertation research, about the life and work of La Monte Young.  It is under contract with Oxford University Press, and should be coming out late next year.

Thanks, Jeremy!

5 thoughts on “An interview with Mormon musicologist Jeremy Grimshaw”

  1. Great post. Worlds of interesting stuff that I didn’t know existed. Thanks Wm. and Jeremy!

  2. .

    I love the idea of seeking the beauty in our physical worship. (How does one teach that to deacons?) Sometimes I think we’re too darned pragmatic. I suppose a pioneer heritage can do that to a body.

    I also appreciate learning of aspects of Mormon arts outside what I know. I’m thinking I’m going to make it part of my personal mission to bring more people unknown to us (me) into AMV. Because I found this interview quite enlightening.

  3. Thanks for the kind words, S. P. and Hunter.

    Theric: I think you’re right about the connection between pioneer survival-mode and pragmatism.

    It is said, for example, that Utah has the highest per-capita piano ownership in the country. And I’ve noticed in my classes at BYU that nearly everybody even in my general ed. classes has some music reading ability. This is something we should certainly be proud of. But if you were to ask all those moms why they drag their 11-year-old sons to piano lessons every week, their first instinct will often be to give you pragmatic answers: so he’ll be more “well rounded,” so he can play in priesthood opening exercises, so he can play on his mission, etc.

    Those are all perfectly good reasons. Also, I think there’s a genuine artistic impulse somewhere underneath all of that. But we often don’t articulate that much. We either think in pragmatic terms or feel an obligation to explain in pragmatic terms.

    How would it be, though, if we thought of all our artistic efforts–even our most “practical” ones, like teaching deacons how to play a few hymns, or even getting a congregation to sing in sacrament meeting–as offerings, as acts of consecration?

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