Review by Matthew J. Forss, Goddard College, Vermont
In Modern Noise, Fluid Genres, Jeremy Wallach provides an ethnographic and historical study of music and its cultural and social significance in Jakarta, Indonesia from 1997-2001. Drawing upon nearly 250 different reference sources, Wallach “aims to examine the processes of production, dissemination, replication, and interpretation of popular musics in Indonesia by tracing how these processes implicate and connect producers, performers, and listeners – all of whom play an active, creative role in the ongoing circulation of musical culture” (4). Essentially, this book’s approach to musical ethnography examines the “lives and concerns of actual people involved in the various stages of those cultural processes” (5). In contrast, previous studies have mainly examined cultural music from a “macro-level” or “transglobal” perspective. Of course, Wallach’s study is not meant to be an authority on global music discourse, but rather a specialized examination of local musical identity and culture, which provides a framework to study the “Indonesian-ness” of the music and its people.
After a short twenty-five-page introduction on the impact of political and social regimes on the music of the 1960’s through 1990’s, Wallach covers several different types of music genres in chapter one. The genres of pop barat (Western pop music), pop Indonesia (Western-influenced pop music), dangdut (Arabic/Indian/Malaysian pop music), musik daerah (regional music), and musik underground (metal/grunge/gothic) are described, as are several sub-genres. Importantly, these musical genres are explored in the modern post-Soeharto era, after years of oppressive sensibilities toward anything loosely defined as “non-Indonesian music.” Wallach does not investigate the more familiar, at least for Western audiences, genre of gamelan or court music.
Chapter two delves deeper into the inner workings of Jakartanese living. Wallach more than adequately describes the sights, sounds, and social developments throughout the city – paying close attention to examples of modernity, gender roles, and Internet cafes. Wallach does a fine job of pointing out the benefit in conducting an ethnographic study of musical culture that considers the continual flow of social experiences into living conditions and musical performance. In other words, musical investigation should be, and here is, carried out in an open system of ever-changing social, political, and religious constructs.
One of the highlights of this book includes a well-researched section in chapter three on cassette retail outlets. Such outlets include cassette stalls, mall stores, “large” music stores, reverse outfits of underground music, and mobile music vendors. This is a rather understudied arena, but nonetheless important area for any study of musical cultures and consumer culture. Wallach explores the retail business of music where a plethora of information on socioeconomics, consumer behavior, musical genres, and “metaculture” (culture about culture) can be obtained. Two pages are also devoted to cassette piracy and its impact on the commercial and underground music industry.
Chapter four covers sound production as part of the studio recording experience. Examples of recording techniques, problems, and organization of the musical recording experience are discussed, with special attention given to instruments, language, technologies, and cosmopolitanism. Chapter five examines the role of music videos as a form of musical expression and national identity. One highlight is Wallach’s study of a music video shoot that ended up with his being in the video for “Cahaya Bulan” (“Moonlight”), by the group Netral. Here, the reader is given a diary of sorts explaining the tiresome and somewhat dangerous act of filming a music video. However, Wallach always incorporates the larger picture of musical culture by noting social views on violence, cultural expression, ethics, sociality, and iconography.
Chapter six draws attention to the music constructed and performed in less structured environments in informal contexts. In essence, Wallach investigates the ethnography of “hanging out” and the social expression of playing music for fun. The primary reason for performing music in this context is that it creates a sense of commonality between individuals and a spirit of camaraderie. In a similar manner, Wallach spends a good deal of chapter seven on live musical expression from the streets of Jakarta to large stadium rock concerts. The performance style of dangdut music encapsulates the content of chapter eight. Dangdut incorporates a “gendang, suling, two electric guitars, electric bass guitar, two electronic keyboards, tambourine, trap drum…in some cases, electrified mandolin…or a brass section” (190). Other styles, such as rock and pop, are covered in chapter nine. This chapter explores other live venues and arenas of musical culture. For example, cafes and student-organized events, and the role of women and performance are also explained. The lesser-known style, at least for Westerners, may be Indonesia’s underground music scene. Chapter ten looks at this music and associated aesthetics of musical performance, including moshing, dancing, lifestyles, and issues associated with inclusionary expression. In summary, Wallach concludes, “[I]t is more appropriate to view Indonesian popular musics from dangdut to underground, as soundtracks for hanging out with others than as facilitators of private, contemplative listening” (251). In other words, “musical encounters are usually social affairs, and they derive their meanings and emotional resonance from intersubjective experiences” (251).
Overall, Wallach provides the reader with an in-depth, ethnographical study of musical cultures of Jakarta. For good or bad, Wallach also incorporates a lot of Indonesian words throughout the book, which may be distracting to some. However, every word is defined to prevent confusion. Appendix A and C provide additional notes on language usage, while Appendix B focuses on other Indonesian music genres. A helpful glossary is included with notes to each chapter. A CD is included and features six popular music tracks representing dangdut, pop alternatif, and underground music styles. Unfortunately, the lyrics to the songs are not included, but could have been beneficial for the reader. That being said, this is a highly recommended text for undergraduate and graduate students in Southeast Asian music, or anyone interested in Indonesian popular music in particular.