Interpreting Indonesia’s sensuality through the Bard © Duncan Graham 2008
Living in one of the most isolated Western countries in the world requires adjustments and rituals. For Pakeha (white Kiwis) one essential has long been the big trip abroad known colloquially as OE, or overseas experience.
This journey, mainly to explore the northern hemisphere and seek the family’s roots, is an important part of the culture of New Zealand, a country still searching for its identity.
Young musicologist Jack Body was no exception. He’d already graduated with a masters degree from Auckland University and won a prestigious arts fellowship. In the late 1960s he headed for Europe where he studied in Cologne and at the Institute of Sonology at Utrecht.
Then he took the long way home wandering through Europe and South-East Asia with his mind and microphone open. The last stop was Indonesia.
“I was an innocent abroad and I knew next to nothing about the country,” he said. “I’d already been to India and was intrigued by the music I’d heard in the streets and villages.
“But Indonesia was quite different. By comparison I found India to be harsh. In Indonesia I started recording the sounds I heard, like other people take photographs of their travels.
“I followed my ears. I recorded birds, animals, street sounds, music. I was fascinated by the fantastic richness of the culture. I liked the way that people took things easily. They couldn’t be bothered to get hot and bothered.
“What attracted me most? The sensuality.”
Back in NZ Body transcribed some of the music he’d collected, a laborious task but one he thought necessary to understand what he’d heard. He also knew he needed more of the seductive archipelago.
In 1976 he scored a guest lectureship at the Akademi Musik Indonesia in Yogyakarta where he stayed for two years. On his return home he joined the academic staff of the School of Music at Wellington’s Victoria University where he’s now an associate professor.
He’s been a featured composer in the US and Holland, a widely exhibited photographer and he also runs a music publisher called Waiteata Music Press. His speciality has been cross-cultural compositions and experimental electro-acoustics.
In these jobs he’s set out to bring the music of Asia, and Indonesia in particular, to the attention of Kiwis and he’s done this with such success that he’s won a swag of awards, including a NZ Order of Merit in the 2001 Honors List. The following year his recordings titled Pulse won the NZ Music Award for the Best New Classical CD.
And all the time he’s been promoting Indonesian culture, along the way collecting a set of Javanese gamelan instruments for his university donated by Ibu Tien Soeharto, the wife of the late Indonesian president.
This year he’s been back to Indonesia twice, recording music played by the soldiers of the kraton (palace) in Yogyakarta. He said the music was an intriguing and ancient European-derived mix of fifes, drums and other instruments performed by men in quaint uniforms whose origins could well be the topic of a PhD.
Body’s work isn’t the only way Kiwis are learning more about Indonesia. He’s organized numerous residencies in Wellington for Indonesian artists and praised the Indonesian government for offering a range of cultural scholarships for structured three-month arts programs. These are expected to be enhanced later this year when an agreement between Indonesia and NZ is signed allowing young people from both countries to get work visas.
Now 64 Body shows no sign of going stale, repetitive or monotone. If he followed the Shakespeare formula he’d be ‘the lean and slippered pantaloon’ but he moves, physically and intellectually, as nimbly as his students.
He has the quirky mannerisms of a long-time creative artist living in a parallel universe where music rules. While he has to be involved in teaching and university administration his mind seems to be somewhere else, pulling sounds and ideas together for some future fusion.
His latest production (“exhilarating, the most ambitious I’ve ever done”), staged with help from the Indonesian Embassy in NZ and the Asia-NZ Foundation, was the Seven Ages of Man, a ‘cross-cultural, multi-media music theater’ piece based on Shakespeare’s famous lines in All’s Well That Ends Well:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
Body’s idea was to mix bits of the Bard in English with music from the Javanese gamelan and a Balinese gamelan, plus an electric violin, four vocalists singing in Javanese and Balinese, and have the lot interpreted in dance and puppetry.
Translation of the Shakespeare was not without difficulties. The verse about the soldier ‘full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,’ caused problems.
“In Shakespeare’s time most of the military were mercenaries, but in Indonesia being a soldier is an elitist occupation,” said Body. “We had to make some adjustments in the language.
”Many people in the English-speaking world have been taught the Seven Ages of Man and I found Indonesians related well to the sentiments.”
The composers included the Javanese gamelan director Budi Putra (originally from Solo but now a NZ resident) and the Balinese gamelan director I Wayan Gde Yudane. Most of the gamelan players were university students and staff, including Jack Body.
In the wrong hands this could have become a real dog’s breakfast, but in fact it worked brilliantly on every level – emotional, imaginative and creative.
There were several reasons; the inclusion of the masked multi-talented Balinese dalang (puppet master) I Nyoman Sukerta as a musician, singer, dancer and actor, was a masterstroke.
So was a lighting system that included a haze machine, recreating in the Wellington timber studio the misty, musty, dusty, mysterious, spooky, smoky and almost tangible atmosphere found in villages and kampongs of Indonesia come nightfall. The only thing absent was the scent of clove cigarettes, for NZ takes its anti-smoking laws seriously.
“The reception has been great,” said the exuberant ethnomusicologist. “I love this synthesis – I’ve long wanted to use dance and now I’ve got the theater bug. We’re hoping to take the production on tour around NZ, maybe even to Indonesia. That would be terrific.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 11 November 2008)