The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, October 19, 2009


The loneliness of the long-distance composer

An executive search for an international event organizer who could attract local and overseas funds probably wouldn’t give Michael Asmara a second glance.

Anyone who freely admits he gossips with geckos, shares his rice with the little lizards and tells them not to squabble should not be taken seriously.

Naturally the guy also looks a bit wild – certainly not a mile-a-minute man and no Indonesian army-style buzz cut. If he tried to wear a suit it would reject him. He’s so low profile he’s almost horizontal, great for a stimulating conversation through a evil fog of continuous cigarette smoke, but certainly no hustler.

Yet the 53-year old composer gets things done big time – though he says he’s not sure how.

Charisma and credibility have to be factors for the founder and director of the Yogyakarta Contemporary Music Festival. His talent is clearly acknowledged by his peers and his personal moral code means that he hasn’t used the festival to promote his works. Trust must be another for he’s not driven by lust for lucre.

Around him composers were going grey by the minute as their musicians either caught dengue fever or couldn’t catch the tempo. Committee members soothed spirits and boosted egos, sorted schedules and paid bills. Asmara turned off his handphone and lit another smoke

“I don’t know where the money comes from,” he said. “I can’t make a living through music but I survive. It’s quite difficult to explain. Birds get by without money – why not me?

“I tell the committee – don’t be ambitious. Be humble. You are nothing. Just learn, learn, learn. When they fight. I say- ‘don’t do that – live in peace.’

“Perhaps I’m a dreamer. Living in peace is my dream. I’m an atheist. I want to be at one with nature – maybe this affects my music. Sometimes I want to run away from life.” This comment didn’t ring true – Asmara may seek rest but he also has zest.

If Asmara doesn’t go looking for dollars they sure come looking for him. In the past he’s been invited to Europe, Japan, South-East Asia and New Zealand where his work has been performed and he’s given lectures.

This year’s festival picked up US $5,000 (Rp 50 million) from the Asian Cultural Council and support from a chorus of other local and overseas sponsors. That sort of backing doesn’t come for a Mickey Mouse show

The proof of Asmara’s abilities was clear with the staging of the fifth festival in mid October. This drew composers from 15 nations with 41 performances over three nights. Crowds of up to 250 came to hear some challenging music at the French Cultural Center. Most were young.
“I know 80 per cent prefer pop and jazz,” Asmara said. “I don’t force people to come. They can listen or not. I hope they’re stimulated. I’m not a music missionary – I just offer ideas.”

Asmara started the festival in 2003 “because I was lonely and needed friends.” This wasn’t just a slick line in self-deprecation. Other composers, like the immaculately suited Karen Keyhani from Iran – a standout among the jeans and sandals - also confessed to loneliness, the quest for the elusive, teasing tone, the right chord, the fickle note, the need to capture and escape.

If you don’t seek perfection above and beyond all else, then making music is not for you. If your partner is a composer expect to spend torrid nights alone while your lover strives to seduce the muse.

The festival took a rest because of the 2005 Yogya earthquake but is now back bigger and, well, maybe better, though Asmara said he was still dissatisfied with the quality.

But then this seemingly happy man never will be truly content. If you’re dispassionate about contemporary music you’re in the wrong genre.

The biggest applause was given to splendid performances by violinist Rieko Suzuki interpreting works from France and the USA – though both seemed more pre 20th century than post modern.

Hair splitters turned to the enigmatic veteran composer Slamet Abdul Syukur, 75, a Toulouse Lautrec figure always surrounded by elegant women, expecting the violin work to be condemned.

Like Asmara, Syukur is a composer who doesn’t just push boundaries – he jumps them with work featuring unusual instruments.

“I loved Rieko’s playing and the compositions,” Syukur pronounced. “They had emotion – that’s all that counts.” With this verdict the disciples stopped debating whether the works pre-dated the expressionist Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg who died in 1951. His Second Viennese School is supposed to mark the birth of contemporary music..

“The criteria is that the compositions must be new,” said Asmara whose past work has included Cooking Music featuring kitchen utensils. Another had motorbikes and sirens. Those who define contemporary music as electro-acoustic have closed off the options.

“In selecting the entries we looked for music that has been inspired by tradition. It must explore original ideas.

“We particularly want to encourage women composers, the old and the young like Yuri Nishida from Japan who is doing extraordinary work with the gender (a gamelan instrument).

“I feel uncomfortable if the participants are all men. I want to hear those from Asia. I want the festival to stay in Yogya, but this is not an exercise in nationalism – I hate that sort of thing.

“Yogya is rich in composers but they don’t get noticed. They don’t know how to promote their music. Typical Javanese – just enough is enough. I want them to get exposed to other ideas, to improve.”

Asmara sheepishly revealed he’d come from a Yogya ‘blue-blood’ family; as a child he was familiar with dance and Western classical music. His father tried to dissuade him from a career in music but the lad was already playing the organ and didn’t fancy a future in medicine checking other people’s organs.

He went to the Indonesian Institute of the Arts in Yogya for three years then studied in Japan where he married, though the relationship didn’t survive. He played the guitar and piano but wanted to compose. His work started winning prizes.

“I wasn’t frustrated by Bach and Beethoven,” he said. “I just wanted to enjoy myself, to compare the gamelan with Western music, to experiment.

“I get my philosophy from Javanese culture. I never think I succeed or fail. I want to feel, to think deeply. We couldn’t have done this (run the festival) in the Soeharto era. Too much bureaucracy.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 16 October 09)


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