A striking musician
Public servants in the Ministry of National Education must have had links with tourism promoters when they supported musician Rupert Snook for a prestigious Indonesian government award.
For the 22-year old exuberant New Zealander has a simple philosophy: “When you think something is really amazing then you want to tell everyone else about it.”
In his ‘amazing’ basket is Indonesian culture and music. Although he’s yet to mallet a metallophone in the Republic, he’s already vacuumed up more about the country and mastered more of the language than many long-term visitors. If all goes well he’s set to become an enthusiastic booster for the Archipelago.
“I fell in love with Indonesia as a teenager when I encountered the gamelan in Wellington,” he said. “The music is so alive, so outrageously innovative. It was like encountering an alien, though in a really good way.
“So I set out to learn more by reading and talking to Indonesians who’ve been helping me with Bahasa Indonesia. Later I’ll study Balinese.”
Last year he was named by the Indonesian Embassy as the best gamelan student in NZ. This year he graduated from Victoria University of Wellington with a degree in music. In July 2012 he’ll head to Bali.
As NZ’s only recipient of a 2012 Darmasiswa Scholarship he’ll study gamelan music at Denpasar’s Institut Seni Indonesia (ISI – Indonesian Arts Institute) for a year. The scholarship provides tuition fees and living expenses.
The Darmasiswa is ‘to promote and increase the interest in the language and culture of Indonesia among the youth of other countries. It has also been designed to provide stronger cultural links and understanding among participating countries.’
Commented Rupert: “This is extraordinary; I’ve never heard of a government offering scholarships to foreigners so they can study the culture. I’ve had a privileged life in NZ and so fortunate to be going to Indonesia.
“I don’t really know what to expect but I like being thrown in at the deep end. As the Indonesian government has accepted me I hope it shouldn’t be too hard.
“This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. The more I know of the music the more I learn of the culture. Through music we can bridge differences.”
Rupert started learning music when he was seven and living in the South Island city of Christchurch. He studied classical violin and piano but suffered from asthma so spent long periods in hospital.
Others might have found this experience depressing, but Rupert enjoyed his stays. He was so impressed by the professionals he encountered that he decided to become a doctor, following the example of an older brother and sister.
Then the family moved to Wellington where the teenager found his school grades for science were average while he was scoring 100 per cent for music.
Rupert attended Victoria University’s Young Musicians’ Program. Here he encountered ethnomusicologist and composer Jack Body, an academic at the NZ School of Music and manager of the Gamelan Padhang Moncar.
(The Javanese term means ‘growing brightness’ and refers to the Wellington gamelan being the first in the world to greet a new dawn every day. NZ lies just west of the International Date Line.)
Professor Body, who lectured at the Akademi Musik Indonesia in Yogya, is another musician infected by enthusiasm for Indonesia. He insisted that although Rupert was enrolled for composition he had to include units in performance.
“Rupert is the kind of curious, intelligent young musician who will undoubtedly maximise all the opportunities he is offered,” he said.
“Today's cultures are largely dominated by the West. It’s very important that we in the West make the effort to understand the cultures and values that are different from our own. Studying gamelan provides a perfect entry into the Indonesian world.”
There are two gamelan sets in Wellington, one Javanese, the other Balinese, called Gamelan Taniwha Jaya - a mix of Maori and Balinese words meaning a great supernatural creature. (Pictured left)
Apart from the tutors the players are Kiwis. Not all are students – some have been playing for pleasure for more than 30 years.
The orchestra has toured Indonesia in the past startling audiences encountering foreign musicians who have mastered the nation’s traditional instruments.
Tutor Budi Putra, who lives in NZ and is a graduate of the ISI in Solo, has been directing the Javanese gamelan since 1996. “Rupert is very smart and active,” he said. “I’m optimistic about his future.”
Balinese composer I Wayan Gde Yudane agreed: “His ability and comprehension is backed by his determination and hard work.”
Rupert joined the orchestra and found the collegiate environment strikingly different from what he knew as a Western musician.
“It’s a real ensemble experience and you have to go with the flow,” he said. “This isn’t something that can be practised alone at home – you have to be with a group and aware of others.
“There’s no conductor in the European style, though someone may lead. It’s better not to think too much about what you’re doing – let your hands do the talking. It’s wonderful to watch players’ hands fly over the instruments.
“There’s no tempo – yet everyone plays together using their peripheral vision to get cues. When we hit as one there’s an explosion of sound.”
When the orchestra played at the Embassy to a mainly Indonesian audience Rupert discovered an ambience different from any other venue and great appreciation. “It was such a pleasant experience,” he said. “Everyone was so friendly and wanted to share – and the food was also interesting.”
Like many NZ university students Rupert worked to pay for his education. For the past five years he’s been clipping tickets on the city’s trains, teaching guitar and helping a student with special needs.
“To compose you need to be totally focussed, very single-minded, and that’s how I’m approaching the language,” he said. “I want to be stretched to the limit.
“Getting the Darmasiswa is a really big thing in my life. You won’t recognise me in twelve months time.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 4 June 2012)