«The Abduction of the Signifying Monkey Chant: Schizophonic Transmogriﬁcations of Balinese Kecak in Fellini’s Satyricon and the Coen Brothers’ ...»
Vol. 18, No. 1, June 2009, pp. 83Á106
The Abduction of the Signifying
Monkey Chant: Schizophonic
Transmogriﬁcations of Balinese Kecak
in Fellini’s Satyricon and the Coen
Brothers’ Blood Simple
Michael B. Bakan
This article examines the de- and re-contextualisation of 1960s audio recordings of
Balinese kecak performances in two landmark films, Federico Fellini’s Satyricon (1969)
and Joel and Ethan Coen’s Blood Simple (1984). It begins with a historical overview that situates kecak’s own history as a Balinese cultural phenomenon within broader frameworks of hybridity, schizophonic and appropriative processes, and international filmmaking, devoting special attention to the contributions of Walter Spies. It then proceeds to close studies of kecak’s use in the soundtracks of Satyricon and Blood Simple from a theoretical position of schizophonic transmogrification, which is defined as the rematerialisation and thorough reinvention of people and places whose voices and sounds, as inscribed on sound recordings, have been separated from their original sources of identity and meaning and resituated in entirely alien contexts*real or imaginary or somewhere in between*for purposes that serve especially to evoke the strange, and often the grotesque and sinister as well.
Keywords: Kecak; Bali; gamelan; Fellini; Coen brothers; Blood Simple; Satyricon;
schizophonia Michael B. Bakan is Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology and Head of Ethnomusicology/World Music at The Florida State University, where he directs the Balinese gamelan programme and the Music-Play Project, a
programme for children on the autism spectrum and their families. He is the author of the books World Music:
Traditions and Transformations (McGraw-Hill, 2007) and Music of Death and New Creation: Experiences in the World of Balinese Gamelan Beleganjur (Chicago, 1999), as well as numerous refereed journal articles and other publications. He is the series editor of Routledge’s Focus on World Music Series. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org ISSN 1741-1912 (print)/ISSN 1741-1920 (online)/09/010083-24 # 2009 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/17411910902778478 M. B. Bakan 84 Introduction In a temple courtyard, more than 200 men squat in tight concentric circles around a small central space reserved for the chief protagonists. Suddenly, their sharp cries of tjak begin one of Bali’s most thrilling musical experiences*the ketjak, or monkey chant... Ostensibly, the ketjak is a reenactment of the battle described in the Ramayana epic*in which the monkey hordes came to the aid of Prince Rama in his battle with the evil King Ravana*complete with a chorus imitating monkeys, as they chant the syllable tjak.
But as perceptive observers have noted, the ketjak is primarily a dance of exorcism. Its connection with the sanghjang [ritual] remains unbroken. As pointed out by Walter Spies and Beryl de Zoete in Dance a
The evocative description above is from David Lewiston’s liner notes for the LP Music from the Morning of the World, a 1967 compilation featuring diverse examples of music recorded by Lewiston in Bali in 1966. It was this record that provided many ethnomusicologists and other international music enthusiasts of the time (and times since) with their first introduction to the compelling sounds of Balinese instrumental gamelan music and related forms, including the ‘voice gamelan’ (gamelan suara) music of kecak (ketjak), otherwise known as the ‘Balinese Monkey Chant’.
The kecak and gamelan examples from Music from the Morning of the World, and also from other LPs of the period that featured Balinese music, followed predictable pathways to archives and university libraries, public radio station playlists, college course syllabi, and the private record collections of global music connoisseurs. But as they spun out from their locales of origin and into these expected frameworks of dissemination, they also followed different trajectories to more surprising destinations, including the soundtracks of certain European and American films.
Processed and manipulated excerpts of the kecak recordings made by Lewiston in the 1960s served as accompaniments to a killing and other vicious mayhem in the soundtrack of Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1984 debut film Blood Simple, a movie set in Texas. Some 15 years before that, excerpts of another kecak recording, this one from a mid-1960s Le Chant du Monde Indonesian music compilation LP recorded and produced by Maurice Bitter, were employed to underscore and animate acts of violation, perversion and degradation in Satyricon (1969), Federico Fellini’s disturbing cinematic fantasy on an ancient Roman theme.1 This article is a study of the decontextualisation and recontextualisation of these Balinese kecak recordings in Satyricon and Blood Simple. It is also a case study of what I will refer to as schizophonic transmogrification, which links Steven Feld’s phrase ‘schizophonic mimesis’ (2000, 263; see also Feld 1994), discussed below, to the term ‘transmogrify’, meaning ‘to transform or change completely, especially in a grotesque or strange manner’ (Webster 1983, 1940). Schizophonic transmogrification is thus a process involving the rematerialisation and thorough reinvention of people and places whose voices and sounds, as inscribed on sound recordings, have been Ethnomusicology Forum 85 separated from their original sources of identity and meaning and resituated in entirely alien contexts*real or imaginary or somewhere in between*for purposes that serve especially to evoke the strange, and often the grotesque and sinister as well.
Though the schizophonic transmogrification of kecak in Satyricon and Blood Simple is the central focus of the article, precursory instances of related schizophonic processes are evident in earlier appropriations of kecak that occurred on Bali itself, and these too are discussed. Kecak, in the past and still today, has been marketed and promoted as an article of authentic, exotic Balinese culture, a portal into the deep and distant Balinese past. Few of the millions of visitors to Bali who attend a kecak performance have any idea that what they are witnessing is in fact a twentieth-century invented tradition designed for tourist consumption and born of the collaborative enterprise of Western expatriates and Balinese performing artists. The birth of kecak was inspired by traditional forms of Balinese ritual performance, as we shall see, but the genre’s crystallisation occurred within the context of early international film projects and developed as a Balinese cultural institution in response to the commercial incentives of an emerging cultural tourism industry. Thus, the story of kecak’s employment by filmmakers such as Fellini and the Coens is in a very real sense a tale of cultural appropriations of prior cultural appropriations.
From Schizophonic Mimesis to Schizophonic Transmogrification For Steven Feld, the phrase ‘schizophonic mimesis’ encompasses ‘a broad spectrum of interactive and extractive processes’ that ‘produce a traffic in new creations and relationships through the use, circulation, and absorption of sound recordings’ (Feld 2000, 263).2 Consideration of these processes compels us to ask ‘how sound recordings, split from their source through the chain of audio production, circulation, and consumption, stimulate and license renegotiations of identity’ (ibid.).
This is essentially the core issue explored in the present analysis of kecak’s use in Satyricon and Blood Simple, but there is also a twist. Feld posits schizophonic mimesis as generative of ‘new possibilities whereby a place and people can be recontextualized, rematerialized, and thus thoroughly reinvented’, but he also indicates that the new productions stemming from this appropriative process ‘... of course retain a certain indexical relationship to the place and people they both contain and circulate’ (Feld 2000, 263). For all of the myriad misrepresentations and representational abuses he identifies in his insightfully critical study of schizophonic mimesis in what he calls ´´ ‘pygmy pop’ recordings, from Zap Mama’s ‘Ba-Benzele’ to Deep Forest, Feld shows that the African peoples known as ‘pygmies’ and the places of their Central African rainforest homelands remain referentially present, and generally explicitly so to some degree at least, in these productions. They may be egregiously stereotyped or genericised into proxy universal symbols of the primitive, the exotic, the African, or the helpless global victims of ecological catastrophe via the schizophonic mimesis process, but they never fully disappear from view and they are never fully extricated from their assigned ‘pygmy’ identities.
M. B. Bakan 86 In the case of Bali and the Balinese musicians whose voices are inscribed in the soundtracks of Satyricon and Blood Simple, however, there is nothing even remotely Balinese about any of the people or places encountered in these films, and the use of kecak does not serve semiotically to reference Bali or Indonesia in any way, or even ‘Asia’ or the like in any broader sense, exoticist or otherwise.
In both films, the Balinese voices captured on the original kecak recordings function to evoke and invoke emotional states of terror, aggression, and sex-andviolence-inspired voyeurism that are ambiguously mixed and shared among the onscreen characters and the film viewer. It is the presumed unfamiliarity of kecak’s sound to viewers*yielding an intriguing and profoundly alien otherness that binds the sound object neither to Bali, Balinese people, nor any existing people or place in the real world or any representation thereof*that accounts for that distinctive sound’s affective and significatory power in the unique and disturbing cinematic worlds created in these films by Fellini, the Coens and their respective collaborators.
The quality of otherness invoked is anything but neutral. It taps into a visceral, arguably bio-acoustic, quality of affect that inheres in the forceful masculine energy and sonic virility of kecak sound itself. That sound, generated by 100-plus men chanting together in intense, tightly coordinated, complex rhythmic polyphony, lends itself readily to semiotic coding that reinforces long-standing Western cultural identifications of the Other*and a stereotyped ‘primitive’ male Other especially* with savagery and brutal violence, including sexual violence.
Indeed, this affective potential of kecak sound relative to violence is salient not only in its foreign, schizophonic appropriations, but in its local Balinese cultural domain as well. As is implied in the opening quotation from Lewiston (1988 ), it is a sonic signature of ‘monkey hordes’ engaged in epic, often gruesome, battle, as characterised by a giant male chorus charged with the task of bringing forth their more base, animal natures (albeit of monkeys of a higher, mythical form than the standard earthly ones) for dramatic purposes. But context determines many other codes for kecak sound in Balinese settings as well. For example, it is used in sanghyang rituals (discussed below) to nurture female spirit mediums into altered states for benevolent purposes; it also serves to regulate the emotional states of other sanghyang ritual participants toward calmness and reassurance. And even in the modern kecak dance-drama, the distinctive rhythmic chanting of the ‘monkey chorus’ is as often tied to scenes of humour, celebration and heroic triumph as it is to those highlighting violence or brutality.
In Satyricon and Blood Simple, however, kecak sound is quite exclusively associated with scenes of violence, violation and vengeance that show no evident, explicit relationship to kecak’s Balinese ritual or dramatic content or conventions at all. The radical reconstitutions of kecak identity that occur in these films would seem to exceed the boundaries of schizophonic mimesis, since the source referent’s complex and nuanced identity as a Balinese cultural symbol has essentially been erased and replaced by an identity to which kecak as such is wholly unrelated (but for its bare, recontextualised sonic presence). A more accurate gloss, then, might be schizophonic Ethnomusicology Forum 87 transformation, but that phrase fails to adequately account for the qualities of monstrosity and alienation evinced in these radical instances of separation and reinvention. There is a need to go one step farther to account for these factors and this takes us to schizophonic transmogrification, a phrase that evokes the complex convergence of separation, dislocation, alienation, mediation, recontextualisation, polysemous ambiguity and affective power that occurs as the appropriated musical source materials and the onscreen moving images to which they become attached cinematically act to mutually inform, and in turn reform, one another.
Precursory Schizophonia: Re-image-ining the History of the Balinese Kecak The scholarly literature on kecak describes the genre in terms of its status as a Balinese dance-drama and musicultural phenomenon, an invented tradition of modernism and cross-cultural collaboration in the twentieth century, a creative synthesis of earlier Balinese genres including sanghyang dedari and wayang wong, and a lens through which to view Bali’s position and status within larger webs and networks of international tourism, commodification and global cultural flow.3 Yet for all that it encompasses both topically and theoretically, this literature remains anchored in a fundamental premise that the story of kecak ultimately flows from and returns to Bali itself and that an essentially autochthonous Balineseness represents the root identity of the genre.