Silence or music beyond the grave?
Composer Slamet Abdul Sjukur, a true Javanese eccentric, has vacated the podium of Indonesian contemporary music that he’s dominated for more than 50 years.
He died in a Surabaya hospital on 24 March after suffering a fall. He was three months short of his 80th birthday and still working.
Fellow composer Michael Asmara, who founded the Yogyakarta Contemporary Music Festival, said Indonesia was lucky to have had such talent.
“Slamet should be inaugurated as a national hero,” he said. “His music was inspired by the gamelan. He explored the slow tempo and silences. He opened the door to contemporary music; now it’s our duty to continue his dream of sounds.”
Composer and ethnomusicologist Jack Body, former professor in the New Zealand School of Music who studied the gamelan in Yogyakarta, said Slamet was a pre-eminent Indonesian composer with an international reputation.
“More than this he was an extraordinary personality whose warm generosity, humility, and most especially, his wry, subtle humor attracted everyone who met him,” Professor Body said.
“His passing is a great loss not only to the musical world, but to the many, many people who had the privilege to be his friend. He is irreplaceable.”
Slamet’s music, which often married mainstream instruments with domestic sounds like ticking clocks, tinkling china and the hubbub of humanity, was intellectually demanding. But the man was richly funny, with a contagiously effervescent personality.
Physically he was short and crippled following a childhood illness. He had awful eyesight, bad teeth and hobbled with a crutch. Yet he was always surrounded by beauty, claiming that the secret of his sexual successes was to treat women as equals and independent.
“I was brought up to respect women,” he once told this writer (left). “. 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. 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.
“A woman instinctively knows whether a man is sincere. She can feel the vibrations of love. I don’t look with lust.”
He attributed much of his philosophy to his Eskimo grandmother Astikea who taught him the value of silence and “to do everything with love, because it’s the most important thing in life”.
His grandfather was a Turkish mystic called Arsjad who gave Slamet numerology; this features in his compositions, including one worked around the date of Indonesia’s Independence, 17 – 8 - 1945.
The couple’s daughter Canna married a Javanese pharmacist Abdul Sjukur. Their sickly son Soekandar was renamed Slamet [ ‘safe’ in Javanese] the traditional way to ward off bad health.
As a child he studied the piano privately for four years and the gamelan in Surabaya before entering Yogyakarta’s Sekolah Musik Indonesia [the Indonesian music academy].
Later he spent 14 years at the Paris Conservatoire with a French government grant. He was particularly drawn to the music of Maurice Ravel.
He was called home to teach at the Jakarta Institute of the Arts. In 1983 he was awarded Hungary’s Zoltán Kodály Commemorative Medal for his musicianship. Instead of this being ranked an honor for the composer and his country, the award cost Slamet his job.
Hungary was then a communist state and the Indonesian government reckoned their talented citizen must have been infected by ideology.
When the paranoia subsided Slamet became a life member of the Akademi Jakarta following further European awards, including Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government.
In Surabaya where he lived in a crowded kampong, he founded a philharmonic society. He headed the music committee of the Jakarta Arts Festival and composed for the stage, films, orchestras and individual instruments in Indonesia and Europe.
As a freelance composer he spent time every month in Jakarta teaching. He helped establish the Alliance Francaise and the Pertemuan Musik Surabaya [Friends of Music] which ran monthly concerts, lectures and workshops.
Last year his friends and admirers staged a four-day series of concerts and seminars in Surabaya celebrating his 79th birthday. They also published a 334-page festschrift.
At the time Slamet told The Jakarta Post: “I live music, I dream music. When I wake I must not get up quickly but take time to remember the notes … to feel the emotion, the truth. That’s what’s important.
“There must be a sense of balance and discipline in composition. This must come from within. After we play, we understand. Music can be the voice of God.
“When I look back on my early work I’m not ashamed. For me creating music is a necessity, it is something that must be done. Perhaps I am a magician.
“Music is the gift of life, but it must be treated with intelligence. I chose to follow a quiet road that’s far from the normal
“I’m not afraid of death – I’m too silly to think about it, though I might like a requiem, and I’m too busy. Why worry about age?
“The only problem I have is not having a problem. My advice to the young is to seek the new, to live and enjoy the moment, to maintain the spirit of togetherness.”
“I don’t know if there is music beyond the grave. I only know it is here and now. This celebration of my life and work is beyond my expectations.
“What do I want on my gravestone? Here’s something said to me many years ago by one of my students: ‘Here lies an artist. When we spoke, he listened and understood.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 26 March 2015)