Slamet Abdul Sjukur
OF MATHS AND MUSIC, SEX AND SEDUCTION © Duncan Graham 2006
Indonesia has a problem with talented eccentrics.
They’re tolerated, but sidelined - unlikely to become national icons.
Those positions are usually reserved for politicians and the military. As though the life of this rich and complex country can be celebrated only by defence and administration.
So there’ll probably be no state funeral or heroes’ cemetery for composer and musician Slamet Abdul Sjukur, even though he’s done more to raise the intellectual profile of Indonesia overseas than a file of bureaucrats or a parade of generals.
Not that he’s planning for internment any day soon. He may be over 70 but he’s not interested in rocking-chair nostalgia. The present matters. There’s more to do, see and hear. More lovelies to cherish.
Slamet credits his grandmother with teaching him the value of silence and allowing the music to communicate. From the Taman Siswa (pre-Revolution nationalistic school) in Surabaya he learned the gamelan music of East Java. He then spent four years at Indonesia’s first conservatoire in Yogya.
He founded a philharmonic society in Surabaya. Later he headed the music committee of the Jakarta Arts Festival and has produced music for the stage, films, orchestras and individual instruments. Anything that makes a sound can get a place in his scores, from ambulance sirens to wood blocks.
Wrapping a mind around complex notes and notions demands concentration in a supportive environment. That’s not available in the house Slamet inherited from his father. The setting is Lewis Carroll; a plain door in a plain wall leading into a warren stacked with musty books and mysterious music
Unfortunately that’s where the dream ends. It’s in a dense Surabaya kampung where mosques compete to generate the loudest reminders to prayer, as though volume equals virtue.
It’s a semi quaver quieter in Jakarta where his house is bigger. But in a country that doesn’t pension its creative artists or provide inspirational rural retreats, Slamet has to follow the work trail and compose wherever he can.
Last year he spent three months in Germany where his commissioned piece Game Land was performed using gamelan players from Bali.
If you like Indonesian Idol and think the acned applicants’ performances enrich life then you won’t swoon on hearing Slamet’s compositions - unless you’re familiar with maths, Kabbal numerology and the Ferment spiral (r2 = ao) – all used in one of his works.
His grandfather introduced him to the numerology that’s influenced his compositions. A piece commissioned for the 50th anniversary of Independence was built around the Proclamation date - 17, 8 and 45. “Then I added the emotion,” he said.
It’s esoteric and uncompromising stuff, minimalist and elusive. His music pushes the listener to sweat brain cells. To call it contemporary is like grouping Monas with Borobudur. They’re both monuments so what’s the problem?
Enticed by the music of Maurice Ravel and powered by scholarships Slamet spent 14 years studying in France. He’s fed on European high culture for so long only his Javanese reticence remains.
He’s read many of the world’s great thinkers in their original languages. He knows the conservatoriums and concert halls. He’s played at the shrines to composers past; the great weight of history that inspires musicians is part of his eclectic soul. Slamet is Indonesia’s Renaissance man.
And he loves women.
“They are the greatest beauty in the world,” he said – and it’s not just talk. After his public performances there’s usually a bouquet of admirers seeking his company, and every one stellar.
James Bond look-alikes must wonder what they lack. Slamet is small and has been crippled since childhood. He can’t move far without sticks. His dress sense wouldn’t warrant a glance. He has no car and little money. He’s softly spoken and doesn’t brag.
He looks like the stunted 19th century French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, though Slamet’s territory is the salons of Surabaya’s tiny culture set.
Like that bohemian habitué of the Moulin Rouge, Slamet has an equal lust for life, plus the magnetism that draws women to creative and charismatic men. If research linking creativity to sexual success is right then Slamet is a gold medallist.
So far he’s had two marriages and 11 relationships in several countries.
“I treat women as equals and independent,” he said. “I was brought up to respect women. Sadly many men in Asia don’t do that.
“I don’t want to monopolise a woman, take her freedom or curb her independence. I like strong and clever women. We should be kind and gentle to every living thing. Even the ant can share my sugar.
“I give women full attention and they find that sensual. I’m gentle and not in a rush. I don’t talk nonsense. I listen. Women like that.
“A woman instinctively knows whether a man is sincere. She can feel the vibrations of love. I don’t look with lust - I always look in a woman’s left eye because that’s linked to the right side of her brain.”
Slamet’s unorthodox approaches don’t stop with sex. He unsuccessfully sought to have ‘Music’ listed as his religion on his identity card. He asks his students to compose one piece lasting 12 seconds and another running for 20 minutes.
“I tell them they must feel the timing, be like a pickpocket,” he said. “They must create beauty in the shortest time. Music must touch the essentials.
“The language of law is precise and seeks to avoid ambiguities. In the language of art there are limitless interpretations. What is so important is the beauty of the curve of the melody.”
And the inspirational beauty in the curve of a woman’s body?
“Of course. How precious is every moment in our lives! Yet we forget this in the rush and routine.”
(Slamet will run a two-hour workshop at Erasmus Huis in Kuningan, Jakarta on Wednesday 5 April. This will be prior to a performance of his new work Paha (thigh) by the Dutch Brass. Details www.erasmushuis.or.id )
(First published in The Jakarta Post 31 March 2006)