A Man for all Cultures Duncan Graham
A prophet is not without honor – except in his own country and among his own kin.
Apart from being a Biblical text it could be the epitaph for Balinese composer Wayan Gde Yudane who finds his work better appreciated outside the Archipelago.
“To be honest, I’m not very popular in Indonesia,” he said in the New Zealand capital, Wellington while shuddering with a pneumatic-drill toothache.
“That’s why I like to live here. People enjoy my music and they respect me as a composer, though I’ve also had to wash dishes in a restaurant to make ends meet. I’ll have to get my tooth fixed in Indonesia. Dentists in NZ are so expensive.
“Despite these problems I can hear my music played here. I don’t know that I can do so in my homeland. The people there just listen to pop. In Wellington I offered to teach gamelan free. No Indonesians took up the chance – only Kiwis.
“I wrote the music for the NZ Trio when it performed in Jakarta. (In 2007) They play the best chamber music in the country, but when I went to the hotel they (staff) treated me like rubbish. Indonesians can be racist towards other Indonesians.”
The lean and lank Yudane wears the uniform of the Indonesian artist – black shapeless clothes, long hair, bearded wildman looks and benign countenance. His detached demeanor is at odds with intense feelings about his craft.
Though to call him an artis is to corrupt his creativity. The word, hijacked from English and since corrupted, has lost its quality of compliment. It’s been devalued by tabloid overuse, particularly when describing sinetron mayflies.
The 46-year old musician is no temporary talent or cultural monoglot. The son of an architect who made gamelan instruments, Yudane started his career, primarily as a sound and scenic designer in theater. That was after studying at the Academy of Performing Arts in Denpasar, graduating in 1991.
At that time gamelan music was everywhere. “I was surrounded by it – my family, my neighbors, my friends,” he said. “It wasn’t something separate. I was encouraged to become a musician.”
One of his earliest jobs was in Japan, at the Kumamoto Performing Arts Festival. He designed sets for the Singapore Arts Festival, then got a scholarship to study and work in France with the Le Temps Fort theatre company.
Yudane is now well known overseas, particularly in Australasia and Europe, as a contemporary composer experimenting in fusing the gamelan with Western music and instruments.
In Australia he won The Age newspaper’s Critics Award for Creative Excellence for his work with the Adelaide Festival. He also scored strong reviews for his “dramatic and technically ferocious” work Paradise Regained dedicated to the Bali bomb victims.
For the past six months he’s been working as artist-in-residence at the NZ School of Music. It’s not the first time he’s been in the South Pacific nation. He held a similar position eight years ago at Victoria University and is married to a Kiwi teacher.
Yudane’s farewell concert, titled Musical Hunters and Collectors (“I’m both) included Temporal Paradox, which involved a violin and a viola along with the gamelan, and the self-explanatory Causality for Piano.
Apart from his own compositions there were works by Wayan Lotring and Wayan Beratha.
Lotring, who died in 1983, is considered to be the most famous gamelan composer of the 20th century. He was responsible for a revision of Balinese compositions back in the 1920s; Yudane attributes this to the influence of the Dutch who brought Western music to the Archipelago.
Beratha, who is now 86, is credited with pioneering the gong kebyar style of gamelan, with lots of sudden clashing and mood shifts.
“I don’t know how to best describe gong kebyar,” Yudane said. Suggestions included fireworks, a metaphor he rejected because the image was too ephemeral. “Maybe like turning on a light switch – that’s better.
“I studied under Beratha – he’s my hero. But he won’t listen to my music – he doesn’t like it. He says it’s too Western, that it’s gone too far and is too individualistic.
“That’s OK. I’m a contemporary composer. The gamelan doesn’t just have to play traditional Indonesian music. I write what I like, though I want it to be listened to by everyone. My interests are eclectic. (The French composer) Debussy is my favorite.
“I tell students in Indonesia: ‘You must learn the tools. You must be able to write music. It’s OK in Indonesia to memorise, but you can’t do that overseas. You don’t need to go abroad but you must listen to music from everywhere.’”
Individualism: It’s the Indonesian curse (or quality) to be seen as different, strange, or maybe even dangerous if you stand apart from the crowd, like to walk alone and feel comfortable with your own company. No problems in the West, but a worry in the East.
“This is why so many follow pop kitsch (he spits out the words, as though he’s found a cockroach in his coffee) even though Indonesians claim to like gamelan,” he said.
“I don’t follow any trends, and I never will. Sometimes I feel that I’m not part of Indonesia.”
Wellington has two sets of gamelan, Balinese and Javanese, both played by performing arts students. Only one musician is Indonesian – Budi Putra, the cultural officer at the Indonesian Embassy.
Balinese gamelan music is quite different from Javanese, strident, energetic and declamatory. It’s also more disciplined than the enigmatic and subtle Javanese style.
By the time you read this Yudane will be back in Bali composing for film and theater. Then he’ll move to Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, where he’s been before, and expects his work will get recognition and respect.
That doesn’t mean the man is vain or arrogant – he’s humble and polite, but hates the superficiality of pop with a loathing others reserve for snakes in the toilet - along with the public’s indifference to Indonesian music.
“My message to other composers is this: ‘Please don’t just listen to what you like. Widen your interests. Every single day new music is being made in the world. Make sure your work is interesting and exciting. Don’t go with the flow’.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 October 2010)