domingo, 25 de octubre de 2009

The ghosts of the Young Dead Soldiers

Hey, it's Narcissism time!. But I can't help it, I am a composer. We are creatures of continuous self-doubt so we need, once in a while, a boost for our ego. Besides, what's wrong of being self-congratulary sometimes ? So, I have a declaration to make, besides quoting Oscar Wilde's answer at the immigration office at a certain harbour "I have nothing to declare besides my genius" for the question "Do you have anything to declare?".

My own music which I love the most until now is the song "The Young Dead Soldiers do not Speak" from my second cantata, LIBERTAS. If a dictator suddenly appears and tells me to burn all my work, I'd burn all of them but would ask to spare that piece. Not even the whole Libertas cantata. The work itself doesn't have complex rhythms or polyphony, no innovative twists nor it is brilliant in any ways ; it is just the music which really came out of my head. Every note of it. Like when you open the tap, the water just flows, and perhaps I wasn't even so critical about it when I wrote it. It is even filled with recitatives, and as you know recitatives are NOT meant to be beautiful, nevertheless, I just love it, deeply. Of course it was also due to the fantastic performance of the world premiere, when all the musicians were so commited and very passionate. And that's another thing : when I wrote it, I knew it will be sung by my dearest friends whose dedication to music is a bit more than 100% : the baritone Joseph Kristanto and the ITB Choir and its conductor, Indra Listiyanto. They and their love to music are very inspiring to me. Without them in my mind while writing it, the piece would sound different.
In fact, nobody has explicitly told me that that particular piece of music touched them deeply, or other flattery things about it. People told me that they have been touched deeply by my other pieces (some of them don't have the high esteem from their own composer!), and somehow I know that "Dead Soldiers" is not, and perhaps will never be included in "Ananda's greatest hits" in the future. So, I guess that my (musical) taste IS quite peculiar ... and again it's a proof that my taste doesn't coincide with the public's taste.

But being proud of one's particular creation brings certain problems. I always try to set my own standards both to my compositions and to my piano performances. Since finishing LIBERTAS, I felt that I would like to write another "dead soldiers", but I just can't. It's like I compare everything I wrote afterwards with my dear dead soldiers. Either I am making a bad photocopy of it, or I am trying to make something completely different, but nothing has satisfied me as much as that moment when I finished writing the Dead Soldiers. So, I think I'll have to forget it completely for the time being ... which will be difficult because it (with its companions that formed the whole LIBERTAS cantata) will be performed again at the Jakarta New Year Concert on the 3rd of January. And I will be involved, deeply, in its performance. So I'll just have to live with those young dead soldiers, just as the poignant text of Archibald MacLeish's poem :"They have a silence that speaks for them at night." And their silence, my friends, speak louder than the loudest screams.

lunes, 19 de octubre de 2009

Choral (too much) Fantasy ?

I have always admired the musical artistry of Aning Katamsi, as so have I always admired the poems of the recently departed WS Rendra. So when Aning, on behalf of her choir PARAGITA (who's gonna join forces with the ITB Choir singing my second cantata "Libertas" for the next New Year Concert -- having those 2 top Indonesian choirs sharing the stage is like having a (wet) dream come true !) commissioned me to write a choral piece using Rendra's poem to commemorate his passing away, I accepted it delightly without second thoughts ; even when the answer to my question about when the deadline would be was "a.s.a.p. please, since the concert will be next month." Ooops ...

But things got rather complicated, because apparently Rendra's poem has been set into a pop song by a pop songwriter, and he is the person who iniciated and organized this concert. So, what I should do is to "interpret" his song (Aning specifically told me not to "arrange" the song, so I guess the process would not be so different from my pieces such as the 3-pianos 6-pianists "Schumann's Psychosis" where I took Schumann's Toccata and "messed it all up", shall we say.)
The original song itself has the title Kantata [sic] Belavita (you know Indonesian pop musicians like to use the words "cantata", "symphony" and "opera" for their songs. I guess there are more "operas" in Indonesian pop music than the whole history of Italian music. I wonder why nobody puts other fancy titles such as Passacaglia or Concerto Grosso). So, certainly I wouldn't like to apply that title to my piece which definitely is NOT a cantata. He he .. in this case I really am an old-fashioned classical music composer. Therefore, my piece bears the fancy title "Choral Fantasy" (yeah, yeah, it sounds beethovenianly bombastic for a 6 and-a-half-minute piece, but at least it's correct!). But that's not the problem : the problem was that when I read the poem, I couldn't connect it to the pop song (I really tried, I did !). In other words, if I were given that poem, my tune and even the character of my music would sound completely different, and even directly opposed to the existing pop song which should be the basic material for my new piece.

So I was like the son of those old-fashioned parents who is told "Meet this girl, love her coz you're gonna marry her.", while I am like those rebellious sons who'd say "OK, I'll marry her but then I can have affairs with anybody I like". I guess the birth process of my Choral Fantasy was sort of like that. Therefore for my first extra-marital affair I took another element for my piece --to make things more complicated-- which is the rhythmic structure of Beethoven's First Movement of the famous 5th symphony. And so writing my Choral Fantasy became really fun !!

"Choral Fantasy" will be premiered on the 29th of October at Gedung Kesenian Jakarta by Aning Katamsi (soprano soloist) and the Paragita Choir accompanied by a pianist which I still do not know who will it be until now.

miércoles, 14 de octubre de 2009

Are you commissioning the right composer ?

This is certainly the most important question one should consider when one wants to commission a certain composer for a piece. I have been commissioned for many specific purposes : from easy music to be played by children, music written for handicapped people (e.g blind or limited fingers on one hand) to the most recent example : a concerto for piano and orchestra, with the prime reason that since I have a certain reputation as a pianist whose repertoire ranges from Rameau to Rueda, a piano concerto would be an interesting contribution of mine to the repertoire. I myself didn’t (and still don’t) think that this is true ; after all those Beethovens, Tschaikovskys to the quite recent “Nusantara” symphony of David del Puerto with that incredible piano concertante part, what could I contribute more to this genre? And so my concerto took almost 2 years to write, interrupted by many other pieces and being premiered every time in bits and pieces. And I still don’t think of it as a finished work, in its 17-minute duration. But no work of art is finished anyway, only abandoned, right ? And funny enough, the problem of my First concerto was that I had a false start, but continued on it. I got the impression that public liked it a lot, with its virtuosic elements and anything else that a piano concerto should have, but to be honest with myself, I now know how my next concerto would sound like, and in fact immediately after my First’s premiere I started sketching the structure and materials for the orchestral part of what would be either my Second or a concerto for another instrument. It would have more things which I want to express, instead of just a flashy virtuosic piece.

But I wanna point out another important thing, and that is about style. Certainly an institution (like an orchestra) or someone (such as one needing a birthday or wedding present for a loved one) wouldn’t commission a composer without knowing how his music sound like. But there is that unpredictable element that comes with it. In any case, this is a commissioned work of art, of a new creation. And in art there is always this concept of “freedom of expression”. Yeah, one can impose certain restrictions to the composer, such as its duration, formation and even technical difficulty, but what about how the music should sound like ?
Someone approached me after the piano concerto’s premiere, asking me for a piece for a certain ensemble that should sound “not so heavy”. His words were like “The concerto was really great, but your music always has some moments that needs a certain effort to listen to”. The way I interpreted him is that “my music are sometimes difficult to digest”, and he wants me to write the music which sounds not entirely “me”.

I think commissioning a composer is like asking him to marry you. You wouldn’t propose to marry your loved one saying “I wanna marry you, but I don’t like some aspects of you, so would you stay with me for the rest of our lives but only while we sleep?”, would you?

sábado, 10 de octubre de 2009

How Indonesian am I?

The majority of foreign (read : non-Indonesian) public like to ask me whether my music is “Indonesian music”. I guess nobody would’ve dared to approach Manuel de Falla or Isaac Albeniz and ask them whether their music is “Spanish”; it was pretty obvious, eh? But not in my case. Not only that my music doesn’t sound quite “Indonesian”, but also because the definition of “Indonesian” in music is still not clear. Therefore the answer to “my” audience’s question is not that simple, and whether you like it or not, it automatically relates to the question “What is Indonesian classical music?”

Let me tell you a bit of my life. I was born and raised in Jakarta, a metropolitan city where traditions and culture had disappeared long time ago. Jakarta is worse than a melting pot : it is a place where people’s eyes only focus on one direction : to the USA. I was like that during my teenage years : I wanna be anything American. I was like that until my early 20s when I already lived in Europe for a few years and discovered that there is a LOT to be proud of to be Indonesian, culturally speaking. But I have lived in Europe since I was 17, and even before that, I missed absorbing that thing called “culture” of Indonesia, except through some small examples through recordings of gamelan music or very few programs on TV. So, I can say that my perceptions of Indonesian traditional music and culture are like any other European’s, although I had the big advantage of experiencing the Indonesian way of living, thinking and of course its language. And music, any kind of music, is born from its culture and language and they way we feel, express and talk.

But then Indonesian music is not just gamelan. Gamelan is only a teeny weeny bit of Indonesia, and even gamelan music has different kinds of scales, timbre and “style”. And I must say that I have been influenced more by the classical music that I listen to and love, from Bach to Britten, from Scarlatti to Stravinsky. And I have more composer friends in Spain than in Indonesia, with their strong character which not only influence MY musical language, but the whole Spanish classical musical scene of this period as well. So I might say that my brain is like a melting pot of so many spices and ingredients, and hope that something delicious comes out of it, eh?

sábado, 3 de octubre de 2009

Neither English, nor a horn

You might think that my favorite instrument is the piano, but that's not completely true. I love it, of course, but it's always a drag for me writing for piano. As a pianist, I ought to write something PIANISTIC, right ? So I have to sit down on the piano and put my poor fingers on it everytime I write for this instrument. While for other instruments, I write my music anywhere else : from my desk at home to the seat of the airplane (with the TV screen off, unfortunately ...).
Well, I tell you who my true love is. It's the English Horn, which is in fact neither English, nor a horn (but it does make me horny listening to its sound, he he...) . The term came from its German name, engellisches Horn, meaning angelic horn. But engellisch also meant English, and so the English claimed themselves to be angels (or was it the other way around?). And then it acquired a French term, cor anglé, (angled or bent), but then mistakenly written as cor anglais (which means English, and now it's better that I don't make jokes about this). And about the horn, well, it's quite obvious that it has nothing to do with it, so I really don't know why it bears the "horn"....

Both my cantata "Ars Amatoria" and "Libertas", have English horns, whose players do NOT double the oboe. And both have an interlude that features the instrument quite boldly. Libertas even has an interlude for E.h and string quartet called Requiescat, which can be played separately. And both, intuitively written, deal with the tonality of D major and B-flat major.

I always perceive some tonalities in my head as associated with particular things, and I am always sure that I am not alone in this. A major, for instance, always give the impression of everything worldly, or earthly. Remember that Mendelssohn's Spring Song of the Lieder Ohne Worte is in A major, and also the last movement of the Franck Violin Sonata ... it's so beautiful and so down to earth ! And that's why Libertas starts with a boisterous A major, "Bentangkan Sayapmu, Indonesia" (Spread your wings, Indonesia), and the a cappella chorus, "Kita Ciptakan Kemerdekaan" (We create Freedom) is also in that happy tonality.

But then it's the tonality of B-flat major which is the real "nirvana" for me. The real truth, purity, perfection, divine. Listen to Schubert, that impromptu ... and the last sonata ! That's why the main core of Libertas, where the singers sing "For the poet, death is victory" is in glorious B-flat major. Glorious but in pianissimo. Festive but profound. Declamatory but so introverted. Only B-flat major can afford that.

And D major ? That brings me pain and sadness. "Requiescat", for english horn & strings (from Libertas) is all in that tonality. And the last song of Libertas, "Krawang Bekasi" starts with a lament of the dead heroes ... but then there is a transition from those cries of desperation to the other world ... which is in B-flat major. And that's where it ends, where they all cry "Remember us" .... from heaven. That is so different from another song "The Young Dead Soldiers do not speak" (poem by Archibald MacLeish), where it also ends with "Remember Us" ... but still from this world : in D major. The same words, "Remember Us" ... and yet with different meaning. You see how powerful music is to express feelings ? Even more powerful than words, eh?

And I can go on and on with talking about how tonalities work in my head ... but hey I don't want to bore you to death with it. The main point is that I almost always perceive my music in a certain tonality, and it always hurts me if one sings / plays my music by transposing it.
Anyway, it's weekend now, and you know what ? Weekend muses always make me write music for young people, because my daughter Alicia is always home (she won't be in a few years : she'll be in her BOYFRIEND's house ... aaaargh !!) and I just realized today that most of the pieces in "Alicia's First Piano Book" were written on weekends! So, my muse is pulling my shirt now and asking me to write something for her ... before I leave next Monday for a whole week. Hey, the Queen is coming to my concert, and I'll convince her to sign up on Facebook, ok ?