Yogyakarta Gamelan Festival 1997

Report by Jody Diamond, epilogue by Sutanto

"Gamelan is a spirit, not an object," says Sapto Raharjo, "the instruments are just the medium." His definition of gamelan is a extension of the usual "gong-chime orchestra that originates in the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali." As the director of the Yogyakarta Gamelan Festival, Sapto has made a significant impact on the definition of gamelan, both in Indonesia and abroad. He envisions a world of "gamelan lovers" at an annual international gathering of gamelan groups coming together to share music and ideas, to play together and to recognize each other's presence in the development of the global gamelan tradition. For Sapto and those who work with him, gamelan is not just a set of instruments, but a musical world that encompasses tools, musical structures, social processes and spiritual sensibilities. In much the same way that the Javanese gamelan unites disparate timbral elements into a sumptuous orchestration of elegantly organized sound, Sapto uses this festival to present gamelan as a conceptual domain in which we can create the future by building on the past, honoring the origins of gamelan while we expand its horizons.

This year's Yogyakarta Gamelan Festival was held from 2--6 July 1997 as part of the month-long Yogyakarta Arts Festival, an annual province-wide event in Yogyakarta, a cultural center of Central Java and the 13,000 islands that comprise the nation of Indonesia itself. More than 24 different groups performed on five successive nights, showcasing the compositional and musical talents of artists from the United States, the Netherlands, France, Australia, Singapore and many cities in Indonesia: Medan and Padang Panjang in North Sumatra; Jakarta, Bandung, Surakarta, Yogyakarta and Surabaya on the island of Java; and Palu in Central Sulawesi. Meetings and seminars were held during the day, allowing for more intellectual interaction on topics such as hybrid music for gamelan (the subject of a presentation by Sumarsam of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut) and composition for gamelan by non-Indonesian groups (about which I gave a presentation). Plans were also made for 1999 hosting of the meeting of the Asian Composers League by the newly formed AKI (Indonesian Composers Association).

The festival was held at an open-air stage located on the campus of Gadjah Mada University, whose student body is one of the largest and most diverse in Indonesia. The students and members of Yogyakarta's thriving arts community made for a very enthusiastic and responsive audience. In fact, the degree of reaction during a performance by the Dutch gamelan group Ensemble Gending caused Jurrien Sligter, director of the group, to comment to the crowd, "Never have we received such a response from an audience, both positive and negative. It is amazing!"

The concert program this year was notable for its large number of collaborations. These brought together artists from different Indonesian regions as well as fostering several international partnerships. Some of these collaborations were intimate, consisting of programs by a small number of musicians. Sapto himself was involved in two of these: a duet that combined his computer-driven gamelan samples with the vast percussion resources of the Jakarta-based drummer Innisisri, and a set with French vibraphonist Alex Grillo in which Sapto played drums along with an excellent group of young gamelan musicians with whom he frequently performs and records. The Trio Madois, made up of Margaret Bradley, from Sydney, Australia, Ismet and Dody Satya Ekagustiman of Bandung, combined flute, kecapi, voice and percussion in several songs. Slamet Sjukur presented a somewhat long-distance collaboration, bringing a large youth chorus from Surabaya to perform a piece by German composer Dieter Mack. An American musician named Sathya Burchman gathered his fellow students from the Yogyanese arts institution ISI (Indonesian Institute of the Arts) to join him in a new work for the occasion.

Ben M. Pasaribu, a composer, percussionist and arts activist from Medan, worked together with me, using gamelan instruments and the Sumatran-tuned drums called taganing to present a program of duets that focused more on the interaction between players than on the instruments, particularly in a set of game pieces by Krystyna Bobrowski titled "Yellow Flower Burial." In the last movement of this piece, an instrument is covered with organic objects and finally buried under yellow flowers until no sound is produced by the other player. While this would have a strong visual effect anywhere, in Indonesia the meaning was heightened considerably: yellow is the color associated with the ruling government party, and thus an interpretation of the piece as representing voices silenced by that party was strikingly obvious, eliciting many thinly veiled political comments. I also worked with a dedicated and spirited group of Javanese students from ISI to perform my composition "Sabbath Bride," a piece for full Javanese gamelan that is based on a Hebrew Sabbath melody.

Many groups expanded the customary definition of gamelan as a certain set of instruments, adding percussion instruments or vocal styles from varied regions of Indonesia as well as instruments prevalent in Indonesian and Western pop music. I Wayan Sadra brought a 14-piece ensemble that included Javanese gamelan, Balinese suling (bamboo flute), guitar, bass, keyboard, violin and a pair of djembe, as well as singers. In this, his first attempt to combine diatonic instruments with gamelan, he took the approach of "bringing everyone to zero" and looking for a common ground defined not by tuning differences but by timbral interaction and the development of new techniques. In a section where all the instruments accompanied a Javanese dancer, the contrast between the classic dance and the brash wall of timbrally rich yet tonally amorphous sound rising behind her was especially striking. A group from La Salle University in Singapore played several gamelan pieces---including compositions by Dzul Rabul Jallil---with an electronic keyboard as a centerpiece. Another well-received group using a new combination of instruments was Gaung Sumatera Utara (Echoes of North Sumatra), led by Irwansyah Oe'Harahap, a composer and ethnomusicologist from USU (University of North Sumatra) in Medan. He was joined by ethnomusicologist and performer Rithaony Hutajulu Irwansyah on vocals--- wonderfully influenced by her studies with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan---and several other players. The three pieces played by this group centered on Irwansyah's skilled expressiveness on both the Turkish oud and the Malay-Sumatran lute called the gambus, and showed a highly creative and well-planned use of elements from Middle Eastern, Indian, Malaysian and Sumatran musics. During performances by this group and several others, the spirited response of the audience was clearly as much in admiration of the high level of musicianship as it was in appreciation of the musical content.

A few groups concentrated their efforts within the traditional set of Javanese gamelan instruments, although each took a different approach. Each evening's concert began with one or two performances by groups of local children, all stunning in their musicianship and stage presence. Several of these presentations also included dance and a kind of stand-up comedy common in Javanese folk theater. It also showed gamelan as a thriving community art. Ensemble Gending of the Netherlands played fully notated new pieces for Javanese gamelan, some with tape, all energetically conducted by their director. A large group from ISI Yogyakarta performed a piece by Trustho combining the sacred and the contemporary: instruments from the gamelan Sekaten, which is played annually to celebrate the birth of the Prophet Mohammed, were combined with finely layered choral parts redolent with contemporary harmonic experiments.

The New York Indonesian Consulate Gamelan, led by Anne Stebinger and Javanese artist I.M. Harjito, was the one visiting group to play classical Javanese repertoire. With careful dedication and assistance from a few Javanese artists who visited their New York rehearsals in the past, this group ably demonstrated the results of their focus on the music associated with the royal courts of Surakarta and Yogyakarta in Central Java. In recognition of their abilities and of those attained by other gamelan players from England, Japan, Australia, Scotland and the United States, the Sultan Hamengkubuwono X of Yogyakarta invited all these participants to play together on a gamelan located inside the palace in Yogyakarta, for which occasion all were required to don ceremonial dress. This was a showing mutual respect: of the foreign players toward the Javanese classical tradition that was the entry into gamelan for many of them, and of those who represent the repository of Javanese musical culture toward the players and the festival itself.

With some notable exceptions, such as the performance by I Wayan Sadra's group mentioned above, few of the concerts included dance or theatrical elements. Komunitas Seni Tadulako, an artists' collective from Central Sulawesi, performed stirring music to a background of a seeming tower of intertwined dancers moving slowly through a set of hanging hammers that swung back and forth silently. A group from Surabaya directed by Suwarmin employed a very theatrical setting for their sounds; such settings have been a hallmark of performances led by this composer for many years. The ASKI Padang Panjang group, performing a piece by Wisnu Mintargo, was very lively; the crowd at their performance prevented a more detailed observation.

Some have commented that, with such a range of performers, this festival might be more aptly termed a "new music" event. While nearly all of the pieces presented during the course of this festival would be at home in other venues, such breadth was especially characteristic of a few compositions directed toward pure musical elements. The largely vocal piece composed by the Surakarta-based singer Muriah Budiarti, for example, was so clear of cultural referents that nearby listeners could be heard guessing at her origin: Japanese? Malay? Minangkabau? Muriah's work was followed by that of I Ketut Saba, whose mastery of Balinese techniques transferred well to rebana drums and percussion. Performers from IKIP Bandung, formerly a teacher-education college but now home to a thriving arts scene, showed much attention to sound and structure in works by Lely Kurniawati and others. Dody Satya Ekagustdiman, also from Bandung, read poetry while a half-circle of singers alternately chanted and threw handfuls of dried peas onto the strings of his kecapi. Skip LaPlante, a composer and instrument maker who plays with several gamelan groups in New York City, constructed a large idiophone from cardboard carpet rolls on which he played his unwaveringly rhythmic "Shuttle" to great effect.

Sapto Raharjo, who untiringly attended every concert and lecture, interviewed a key member of each group after the group's performance. As a popular disk jockey, he knows how to talk---both to the crowd of young arts enthusiasts and to the artists themselves. During these conversations and in the final jam session---in which representatives of all groups joined sounds in the Javanese gamelan that had been on the stage in so many different roles that week---Sapto's goal of stimulating a vital contemporary role for all kinds of gamelan music was clearly evident. No one can dispute his success.

I admire Sapto's perserverance in making this festival annual and strong and continually growing. As someone who has organized gamelan festivals many times before (e.g. four years of "Planet Gamelan" in New England), I sometimes wonder how valuable these hectic extravaganzas are. Is it just another massive concert? What is the long term benefit for the participants or the audience? Attending the Yogyakarta Gamelan festival for the second year in a row (I went last year as a guest composer with New York's Gamelan Son of Lion) gave me some insight into the answers to these questions. A festival can serve as a touchstone, a point of recognition and validity for activities engaged in year round in widely disparate locations. The Yogyakarta Gamelan Festival locates international gamelan activity in Indonesia, making Yogyakarta a meeting ground for those whose efforts are largely expressed elsewhere, and connecting international gamelan activity to the source of its inspiration. This gamelan festival also brings together many groups from inside Indonesia, interfacing them with an international community, making connections between Indonesian artists and foreign-based artists (witness the large number of collaborations this year). And for the visitors, there is an added benefit. One of the biggest challenges facing gamelan composers and performers who live outside of Indonesia is that of creating a community that can appreciate and enjoy the music we play -- a task every bit as large as playing the music itself. In the Yogyakarta Gamelan Festival we meet a culturally educated and enthusiastic audience --- as well as our artistic Indonesian counterparts.

The final concert was packed with people drawn to see a group called Kyai Kanjeng. To gamelan instruments whose tuning was variously expressed by listeners as E minor, E Aeolian or G major, Kyai Kanjeng added Islamic songs, various drums, an accordion, a drum set, tape recorders and a vigorous, deep-seated energy arranged by two creative young musical directors, Setyaji Dewanto and Setyanto Prajoko. Appearing with the group was the popular poet Emha Ainun Najib. To hear college students yelling "Poetry, poetry!" and calling out titles of favorite works was inspiring. Emha responded with a long, spontaneous recitation that repeated the theme "Berkarya, berkarya, berkarya!"---which loosely translates as "Create! Create! Create!" This message seemed to eloquently point the way for the listeners and musicians of the moment, the Yogyakarta Gamelan Festival now and in the future and for gamelan lovers everywhere.

Epilogue by Sutanto (translated from Indonesian by J. Diamond)

Verbal expression of our experience is no longer necessary. What is important is what we do together in our "essential contemporary community"---made up of ourselves and our friends. We are all tourists. By this, I mean we can enjoy all music as something that flashes by us, a collage of random experiences, a volatile entity of many forms---and who knows what else?

We are all tourists---but not in the cynical sense in which tourism is commonly understood. After watching the world of music over the last 15 years, my new realization is that ears are tourists, composers are tourists, friends are tourists, audience members are tourists and organizers are tourists. This "Tourist Dimension" can be seen as an unimpeded gushing forth of thoughts, work and discourse that no longer has any structure.

Now we must focus on the power of our "Community of Contemporary Tourists"---a community, yet one in which we each have a strong individual authority to create a climate conducive to our journey into the twenty-first century.

Contact the organizers of the Yogyakarta Gamelan Festival .