Of Prophets And Bandits - Interview with Slamet A Sjukur

Father of Indonesian contemporary classical music Slamet Sjukur speaks candidly about Tari Pendet and life in general.

Malaysians (or at least some Malaysians) may hold the view that our great nation is superior to our neighbour, and possible ancestor, across the Straits, but one only has to look at the music scene to know that this couldn't be further from the sad truth. I am not talking about Gamelan, because to do so would only bring further embarrassment to ourselves, but of the contemporary classical music scene. While we were still struggling with putting joget and keronchong into orchestral dress, one Indonesian pioneer was already making the archipelago known amongst the ranks of the Paris avant-garde in the 70s.

Slamet A Sjukur is generally considered the father of contemporary Indonesian music. Born in Surabaya in 1935, Sjukur studied music at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris with distinguished composers like Olivier Messiaen and Henri Dutilleux. A leading figure in the promotion of new music in Indonesia, Sjukur founded the Asosiasi Komponis Indonesia in 1994 and taught many of the important new generation composers like Tony Prabowo and Otto Siddharta.

Meeting Sjukur by the roadside waiting for a bus that had already left, my first encounter with the man during the Asia Pacific Festival 07 in Wellington was one of high adventure. He was dressed more for safari than an evening of high art, and I found myself bundled into a car along with his student Otto Siddharta and a nice fellow from the Indonesian embassy who had offered to rescue us, as we sped along the hills of the city looking for the concert venue, me with a map and Sjukur looking for landmarks, arriving at the concert like participants from The Amazing Race Asia. Although we were the last to arrive, we were not sent home.

In November this year Sjukur will make presentations at the Kuala Lumpur Contemporary Music Festival 09. Aware of the recent acrimony between our countries over the case of stolen tunes and dances that started some time back with Rasa Sayang Eh (it's from Maluku), then the recent Tari Pendet advertisement (it's from Bali) and even Terang Bulan (it's from Seychelles and Indonesian bangsawan) for which us artists have received numerous hate mails from our Nusantara counterparts, I contacted Sjukur fully prepared for verbal abuse.

Aside from the sad fact that, while the ad agency was eventually blamed for the Tari Pendet incident, none of the folks in the Ministry could tell the difference between Balinese costumes and Malay ones, I had to admit our Government has never been known for great originality anyway.

Seeing the opportunity to clear the air with at least one sympathetic comrade across the Java Sea, I braced myself. What I got instead was his usual charming warmth, requesting me not to address him with "Pak" but "Mas".

OTE: Mas Slamet, what do you make of the recent spat over Malaysia's shameless plagiarism of Indonesian art?

Slamet Sjukur: I know of these of regrettable events, and am really sad that such kinds of things continue to exist in the civilised world. But I have also particular opinions about government. They do not always represent the people.

That is why, for example, Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said created the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999, to bring together young musicians from across the political divide in the Middle East. I also have a strong belief that the horrible George W Bush is not the voice of America.

I am for democracy, but reserved concerning the value of majority. History has taught us that there were, and still are, more bandits than prophets.

OTE: What is it like being a composer in Indonesia?

Being a composer in Indonesia is amusing; no one cares about his living or his usefulness. He is free to be a prophet or a bandit.

OTE: Going back a little, what was your experience in Europe like in those early years, for example meeting with the great Olivier Messiaen?

My meeting with Messiaen was just by chance. The French government who gave me the scholarship arranged it, and I was rather sad because [at the time] I did not know who he was, and my intention was studying composition not analysis. I came from the 3rd World and knew nothing about what European musical life really was.

I did admire Messiaen only later. The way he saw Wagner's "The Valkyrie" and his analysis of Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande" were revelations. And every Sunday I came to church Trinite, not for praying (I am a believer but not of any particular religion) but to listen attentively to the profound beauty of his improvisation on the pipe organ.

I studied composition with Dutilleux, another personality who is as humane as Messiaen. But it really was my piano teacher Jules Gentil who found me a way to study six years for free at Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris after my one year official scholarship at Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris.

It was most exciting for me when I was accepted in GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales) led by Pierre Schaeffer at ORTF, the French radio and television station [GRM was an experimental music establishment that featured composers like Stockhausen, Boulez, Xenakis and Varese]. There I found a completely new world of sound and there I met many composers, including [Russian composer] Ivan Wyschnegradsky with whom I felt very close. And one of my most unforgettable experiences was when I conducted my own piece commissioned by the Biennale de Paris 1969.

OTE: How do you reconcile your essentially Asian nature with a European tradition in music learning?

I was and still am too lazy to think that there is problem of reconciling East and West. I know the differences but I have an ability to appreciate both. My primary school education (very nationalistic against the Dutch, but not chauvinistic) has prepared me to be so, and my experience with GRM affirmed my attitude.

OTE: What are you involved in now in Indonesia?

I teach composition privately, at Sekolah Musik Kilang in Surabaya and in the postgraduate program of Universitas Pendidikan Indonesia in Bandung. I also organise monthly seminars in Surabaya to stimulate the public's appreciation of music, for example in listening, discussing and analysing many kinds of music.

Aside from composing, I am also member of the Akademi Jakarta, the institution that thinks about and exposes issues that have public interest, like how to solve the problem of noise pollution.

OTE: What are the challenges for new music in Indonesia and in South East Asia?

The situation is slowly changing, beginning some 30 years ago. There is progress and no one can stop it anyhow. But it is not a thing to take for granted neither. The efforts are necessary, as for many other things. There are problems of lack of information, and limited opportunities to have direct contact with music itself.

OTE: Composing is such a solitary business, why do you do it?

All my life I had liked to spread a world without noise, music as beautiful 'viruses,' which people ignore anyway. When most musicians dream of 'going international' or being 'recognised', I talk to my surrounding colleagues of how to feel time deeply within ourselves, and the importance of timing, that music is not a profession, but rather a belief system.

OTE: Do people really need composers?

As long as the people's sensibility is poor, they need composers. We the composers are here because we try to show them the intelligent awareness to nearly everything, especially whatever that is audible. One day when people have found music in everything, then no composer will be necessary.

- Off The Edge, October 2009

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