Asia Barong in Great Barrington, Bali, Berkshires, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Indonesian Gamelan, John Cage, Lake Buel, Longhua Temple, Ludwig van Beethoven, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Route 7 in Massachusetts, Wat Chalong
“The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”
I like surprises. The opening motto for this post is from Henry David Thoreau’s The Pond in Winter. Sorry, but none of us are as hip as we think we are. I keep urging people to get over themselves and not be indifferent to traditions. Beethoven and Emerson were big fans of the Bhagavad Gita long before the 60s and the Beat Generation.
I’ve spent a lot of time going in and out of Asia since 2002. Multiple trips to Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Laos, China and Taiwan, twelve if I’m bothering to count. I’m sure to be back as soon as possible to experience India, Indonesia, Bali, Singapore and Penang, Kuala Lumpur.
Jan and I’ve been hooked by the food and philosophy, the complicated history (I love a good story and just trying to sort out the Soong Sisters is a historical page turner), the music and the landscape, the medical ideas and body use disciplines of yoga and Thai massage, the poetry and the I-ching and Tao Te Ching, but most of all the people, which now means old friends.
People aren’t their governments and Planet Earth is full of wonderful humans. Language barriers? Here’s a tip – smiles don’t need translations or apps.
These young Thai students have removed their shoes to enter Wat Chalong in Phuket. Their pink uniforms are from central casting and the attention paid to their teacher was impressive. This is one of many happy photos I could have chosen. None of these perceptions erase the serious issues facing Asia. But we have a few of our own here in the States.
But I’ve been shaped by many experiences in Asia over the last twelve years. There’s a reason most of the best students in the world are found there.
OK, back to New England. My walk, illustrated above, was my first morning at a small cabin in New Marlborough. A light rain had fallen around 5 AM and the birdsong spoke to my inner Messiaen. I also got inspired to read the biographies of Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville and Whitman via Wikipedia before going to sleep last week.
Like I hope many Americans, I read Thoreau and Company in high school, and though I was very aware Beethoven was captivated by Indian philosophy, I needed to be reminded of the Ganges influence on 19th century American Transcendentalism. 20th century Cage certainly went down this Thoreau inspired path with Sonatas and Interludes and Sixteen Dances. And I’ll go ahead and use the word masterpiece to describe these works.
As we were driving home from Melville’s house in Pittsfield on Route 7 (posts to follow about Stockbridge and environs) we spotted Asia Barong. Stopped and parked. And went to Asia in Massachusetts.
The owner, known to us only as Bill, has been going in and out of Asia for 30 years. He is renovating a Hindu Temple in a small village in Indonesia, outside of Jakarta if I recall. He could have at the drop of a hat provided sets for Col. Kurtz’s compound in Apocalypse Now for Francis Ford Coppola and Marlon Brando.
And in thinking about the American Transcendentalism that grew up in Massachusetts in the 19th century, Asia Barong and Bill’s shop fit in perfectly.
To paraphrase Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz “Toto, we aren’t in Massachusetts any more.”
No worries, there’s more.
Bill has more Buddha’s than you’ll ever need.
Sorry, California and Hawaii, we aren’t even close to a shop like Asia Barong.
And speaking of Bali, every musician since Debussy has been hooked on the glowing metallic sounds that encircle both body and mind. Britten described the background technique as involved as Schoenberg and left us The Prince of the Pagodas as Exhibit A, Bartok was mesmerized, Boulez admits to needing to have his ears washed clear of the West, Cage’s prepared piano is a cheap imitation, Lou Harrison loved gamelan so much he left Western composition entirely and would build his own American set of instruments, and by now every college campus all over the world has a group.
French intellectual curiosity was good for something. The Paris Exhibitions at the Champs de Mars brought these Indonesian sounds to the West for the first time. Debussy planned a ballet set on Taiwan for an Indonesian gamelan ensemble. Talk about a project not realized that I wish had been part of his catalogue!!!
Though I’m rather certain that Debussy felt more confirmation than influence from hearing gamelan ensembles, the contact didn’t hurt. He was well on his way to creating a huge rupture with harmony and color as anyone had imagined them before he ear traveled to Asia in Paris (that’s a big story and yes I’m writing a book about it).
I resisted temptation but will continue to dream of this wonderful set of instruments upstairs at Asia Barong.
I could have hundreds more photos. Full scale houses from Indonesia, I kid you not. Mammoth statues. And Bill will carve anything you want. Or go back and find it on his next trip. Anywhere you want. After thirty years, he’s not getting started.
And Jan and I could hear Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Cage all saying about Asia Barong “What took you so long? We could have told you so.”
Best, best, best,