sábado, 26 de marzo de 2011

Eternal-Liz yours

As a huge admirer of the late Michael Jackson, inevitably I also admire Elizabeth “Liz” Taylor too, who remained as an idol for MJ until his death. Now that Liz died last week, and here I am alone in my hotel room in Madrid for a concert of Santiago Lanchares’ piano music on Sunday, March 27th, I feel like blogging on my thoughts on the American diva, though this is through the ideas of the absolute, irreplaceable idol of mine, Andy Warhol.

Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe & Jacqueline Onassis/Kennedy were the 3 icons of the 20th century, and Warhol had immortalized them in his creations. There are no royalties in the USA, but if there were, those 3 would be bestowed with those royal titles. The 3 divas achieved their aim to acclaim independence & equality of the female sex in a world of male domination. We all, with great intensity, love and hate those 3 divas, and they were the prelude of what Warhol called “the 15 minutes of fame”. Their struggle can best described in that catchy Pet Shop Boys song: “We’re shameless, we would do anything to get our 15 minutes of fame”. In case of the 3 divas, those 15 minutes were repeated constantly until the moment of their death. It was more difficult for them then, since there were no facebook and twitter as instruments to achieve popularity. Without them there would be no such madnesses of today’s Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and now it’s Justin Bieber. The iconic (if not fakely ridiculous) couples of today such as the Beckhams, Brangelina and Penelope/Javier (and even Cruise/Kidman tried, but failed) would not have existed if not modeled on Richard Burton-Liz Taylor, perhaps the most fascinating couple of the last century. Liz defied everything, from gossips to gravity with her numerous plastic surgeries, both on her face and on the story of her life.

Nothing went incalculated in the life of Liz Taylor; she planned every minute detail except her death. What will stay in our memories will be her natural ability to survive and flourish as a woman in a world of men, and as a celebrity unlike Beethoven, Van Gogh or Shakespeare we will remember her as who she was instead of what she had done. Shakespeare created great works of art, Liz Taylor was and will remain the work of art herself. Requiescat in Pace, Liz.

viernes, 25 de marzo de 2011

Satu satu, Aku sayang Ibu, yang anaknya diculik itu

I am writing this entry in Indonesian, since you will have to know (a bit of) Indonesian anyway if you wanna see my opera, "Ibu, yang anaknya diculik itu". But as google translator is getting more sophisticated nowadays, I kindly ask you to use that device if you wanna read this anyway (and am thankful for it).

Tanggal 16 & 17 April ini opera saya "Ibu, yang anaknya diculik itu" akan dipagelarkan lagi dengan soprano yang memperdanakannya 2 tahun yg lalu, Aning Katamsi yang dengan spektakulernya menggali segala macam emosi selama 40 menit durasinya. Sigmund Freud akan dengan antusias menganalisa keadaan Aning setelah dia selesai pagelaran!

Opera ini saya berani tulis setelah saya menonton operanya Francis Poulenc, "La Voix Humaine" yang juga ditulis hanya untuk 1 soprano saja. Voix Humaine ditulis juga berdasarkan sebuah monolog dari Jean Cocteau, tapi Poulenc dan Cocteau ada satu "advantage" yang saya tidak miliki: monolog mereka adalah seorang wanita yang "berbicara lewat telpon". Sedangkan opera saya adalah benar2 monolog seorang ibu, menceritakan banyak hal (termasuk juga menerima & berbicara lewat telpon selama beberapa menit). Jadi benar-benar monolog, bukan dialog (walaupun imajiner, lewat telpon).
Waktu itu saya kira saya akan membuat kesalahan, baik dalam proses komposisi maupun secara konseptual, karena ini sangat "experimental" buat saya : membuat musik untuk 1 soprano saja yang terus bernyanyi dan menguras tenaga selama 40 menit (hanya dengan 4 menit intermezzo di tengah, dimana sang soprano bisa keluar sebentar sementara saya dan pemain flute bermain intermezzonya). Tapi Aning Katamsi benar2 berkomitmen tinggi, dan walaupun saya tetap merasa bersalah membuat musik yang kadang-kadang ritme dan interval-intervalnya cukup ... ehm ... tidak begitu konvensional, saya tidak merevisi apa-apa lagi dari partiturnya. Kalaupun ada hal-hal yang saya tidak puas, biarkanlah ini menjadi dokumen dari "kebodohan" saya di tahun 2009. Apalagi untuk mengubah beberapa hal berarti meminta Aning untuk mempelajari hal-hal baru, dan dia sudah "rela" (oh ya?) untuk mempelajari hal-hal yang mungkin bisa disederhanakan atau diperbaiki. Jika saya harus menulis sebuah pocket opera berdasarkan monolog lagi, saya akan membuatnya dengan cara lain. Bagaimanapun, penulisan setiap karya adalah suatu proses pembelajaran buat saya, dan walaupun itu tidak menjamin bahwa karya berikutnya akan lebih baik, paling tidak saya belajar apa yang TIDAK akan saya lakukan di karya berikut. Mozart atau Britten pun tetap merelakan karya-karya awal mereka (yang juga penuh dengan hal-hal yang tidak memuaskan mereka sendiri) untuk diterbitkan. "A poem is never finished; it is just abandoned", kata penulis Paul Valery. Ganti saja kata "poem" dengan "piece of music" dan anda mengerti apa yang saya maksud. Kalau tidak begitu, setiap seniman hanya akan berkutat dengan satu karya saja seumur hidup!

Saya telah banyak bercerita tentang proses penulisan opera ini di blog ini, dalam bahasa Inggris (maaf saya kok lebih merasa mudah menulis dalam bahasa Inggris, walaupun grammarnya mungkin ada yang jeblok). Silakan cek di bulan Maret & April 2009 saja, atau silakan klik kata-kata yang menjadi "tag" dari artikel ini (IBU atau Aning Katamsi).

Ibu, yang anaknya diculik itu, akan dipagelarkan lagi tgl 16 & 17 April di Auditorium Bank Indonesia, Jakarta dengan para pemain yang sama. Selain Aning, Liz Ashford juga akan mendampingi saya dengan flute dan piccolo-nya, serta kami bersama-sama bermain beberapa instrumen perkusi juga. Silakan cek www.musik-sastra.com untuk info lengkapnya.

jueves, 17 de marzo de 2011

1 minute for Japan

One minute can last a lifetime. And life can change completely in one minute, whether it's love at first sight ... or death. As I did with my previous piece which last for even less than a minute, the Theme for Eric & Ananda Classical Eve, I now write again for my newest one, 1 minute for Japan.

Just as Spain was commemorating the March 11 terrorist attack (and I tweeted about it in the morning of that date still in bed of my hotel room in Zaragoza; you can check my twitter timeline on that date), a huge earthquake (which turned out to be the 5th most powerful since earthquakes could be measured) and the tsunami as its consequence happened in northern Japan. I first learned about it from several tweets just after I finished tweeting about the Madrid bombing commemoration, but as the tweets got more intense, so I turned on the television. And what I saw was (an unfortunate) history.

Those days I was rehearsing with the orchestra of Cadaques; we were preparing the weird but attractive Concertino for piano & ensemble by Czech composer Leos Janacek, as well as "Bitacora", a fascinating piece for piano & strings by Spanish composer Jesus Rueda. After we performed them in Zaragoza we all travelled together by train to Madrid (Zaragoza is 1,5 hours by fast train from Madrid). On the train, 2 days after the tsunami happened, I watched on TV the terrible impact it did to the Japanese people, land and most scaringly to the nuclear reactors. Not as usual travellings with companeros musicians full of laughs & jokes, this time was a somber one; we all watched TV and talked about it. All those sufferings triggered a melancholic feeling, so I took off my earphones and isolated myself to an empty seat at the back since something in my head started to sound. It turned out to be a simple melody, and even its instrumentation isn't so exact. So I wrote it down, and "1 minute for Japan" became a tune with an accompaniment of just long notes underneath it. The first version of it is for piano left hand alone, and I might use it as a material for a bigger piece in the future.

At home several days later I copied it neatly and played it on the piano. It sounded like a strange Japanese not-so-Dorian mode. I guess the very Spanish landscape of grassy plain savannas outside the train window did influence something on the piece. There is a kind of Copland-esque open-air-ness in it. Again, as in my observation with my other pieces, this one scarily reflected candidly what I felt at that time, which couldn't be expressed by words.

Although not written in the score, I had in mind while writing "1 minute for Japan" my Japanese musician friends who have worked with me in the past, such as pianist Kazuha Nakagara who premiered 2 of my Etudes (and yes, I will keep my promise to write a 6th etude for her) and Midori Goto, the world famous violinist who commissioned and performed many times my 5-minute string quartet "Lontano", as well as many other dear Japanese friends. The real dedicatees of my piece are obviously the numerous victims out there in Japan. I would like to ask the listeners of "1 minute for Japan" to pray during the duration of the piece (which turned out to be just a bit more than 1 minute) for the souls of the victims. That's the least we can do to them. So they can Rest in Peace.

I think the score of 1 minute for Japan will be included in "Alicia's Second Piano Book", but I am giving it for free to anyone who wants to play it. Just tweet me at @anandasukarlan .

jueves, 10 de marzo de 2011

Defining, defying, divine?

I am, honestly, deeply thankful for all your interest with our radio program at Delta FM, and really am very sorry for not being able to answer each one your questions and respond your comments to my twitter account @anandasukarlan . Please don't think that I answer only the questions that I like to, or worth answering, or other reasons. Well, there is one reason that I answer some questions at twitter, and that is because it can be answered in less than 140 characters. Some of your questions need really elaborate answers and I'll try to answer them in the radio program. And please, don't give up tweeting me and listening to our program because you thought I am ignoring you. When you went to the toilet during the program, it was when most probably I was responding your question!

One quite common "misunderstanding" among some new listeners (hopefully turn out to be future fans) of classical music is to think that composers wrote only a few works. Very wrong, folks. Usually a composer produces hundreds of works (and in case of Johann Sebastian Bach or Franz Liszt, thousands!), but it's true that his reputation lies in a handful of pieces of music. Ravel didn't only write Bolero, and neither you can say that it is his best work. It is his most popular, yes, and of course as any works of his, it's incredibly of high artistic quality. But note this: many times, a composer's best works are those which are not the most popular.
Composers cannot be pigeonholed with their "genre" of works either. Tschaikovsky wrote not only ballet music (such as The Nutcracker or Swan Lake) but many many songs, piano pieces and 6 symphonies among others. John Williams doesn't write only film music, he wrote great concertos (for violin, harp etc) and other orchestral works. Verdi and Puccini didn't write only operas. And in my case, some singers think I only write works for voice (which indeed take a big portion of my production: I wrote some 100 songs and 2 cantatas and 2 and a half operas) and some pianists think I write only Rapsodia Nusantara pieces (it's 8 and a half at the moment, only). Aaand, I wrote many many chamber music, for violin, viola, cello, flute, oboe, bassoon, string quartets, as well as choir works.

So, I don't think one has the right to call himself a composer by writing a handful of pieces. Not even with the case of Ignace Jan Paderewski who was the Prime Minister of Poland. He was, first and foremost a pianist and composer. OK, ok, his production went down drastically after he was elected Prime Minister, but before that he was extremely productive.
The same case with an instrumentalist, a pianist for example. One can't claim to be a professional pianist by having a repertory of, say, the same program for recitals and 2 (or even one!) piano concertos. In my case, I have played at least 20 piano concertos, and that's the least quantity of concertos a pianist should have in his hands. My colleagues usually have more than that in their hands. I have a good excuse: I compose too, so half of my time is dedicated to composition! Hehe .. good excuse eh? A composer, a pianist or whatever is like an architect, a medical doctor. It is a PROFESSION, and like in any profession, we do it almost on a daily basis, and therefore we inevitably produce a lot. It can be a lot of rubbish (as in my case!), but that's what you call luck. It's not a thing we do "in our spare time".The best works are struck with luck which we like to call inspiration. And luck or inspiration or whatever you call it doesn't come everyday. But we have to fulfill the needs of those commissioners, whether they are institutions, musicians or whoever who need our music and so we just gotta put our asses to work. No excuses.

Therefore usually composers bring a notebook with us everywhere. That flash of luck can come anywhere anytime, and that's when we write it down, whether in the middle of our sleep, in a dream, in the toilet, on an airplane etc. That thing we scribble down will be used in our works. And I always spare some "boring" tasks such as filling up orchestrations or making a neat score for my "unlucky" days.

Oh dear, I am revealing all the secrets behind the glamour of being an artist, eh? It turns out that we are just simply workers, like most of the rest of the mortals. No mystery anymore in our tasks. No divine involvement. It's so very human. We are not those incurable romantics, daydreaming and doing what we like. Now, do you still think we are special? A work of art is a product of 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, we always say. What a disappointment, eh?

martes, 8 de marzo de 2011

The Return of the Curse of the 9th

Yeah, intriguing eh, that curse of the 9th symphony? Since there were many questions from all of you (especially those who tweet to my @anandasukarlan account) who needed answers of (much) more than 140 characters, I've decided I'd blog (again) about this theme.

As I have answered in my radio program, the composer who broke, but not completely, the curse was Dmitri Shostakovich (oh yes, yes, I have this inextinguishable urge to say that he's the greatest composer of all time, too!). He managed to write 15 symphonies, and curiously enough, a same quantity for his string quartets, also 15. The last one is perhaps the most amazing quartet ever written in history, which consists of 6 adagios. Try to listen, if you can get hold of it.

Now Shosty, as I use to call him, wrote his 9th symphony and waited until the death of Joseph Stalin to write his 10th. Curiously enough, Stalin died at the very same day of the death of Prokofiev. It's rather disconcerting to know that when Shosty started to write his 9th he told his friends that he was writing a grand symphony, with choir etc. It turned out that his 9th is a very light, even Mozartian kind of music, and one of the (if not the) shortest of his symphonies. It's that kind of music which Stalin would be able to chew, or in a cooler term, "appreciate". So, was this a case that the curse was "transferred" to someone else?

At his lifetime, up to the death of Stalin, Shosty wasn't the "greatest" of Russian composers. Oh nooo, not at all. On the contrary, he was the biggest enemy of Russia's dictator. In fact, Shosty always kept a small suitcase in his house with some clothes and toiletries, just like any enemy of Stalin at that time. He was prepared that someone from the Secret Service would knock on his door anytime and take him to Siberia where he would "disappear". Can you imagine packing that kind of suitcase?
At that time the official composer (which means that he should be the one to be promoted so that the Russian people should know and admire) was Tikhon Khrennikov, who held high positions in the Soviet government. Needless to say, his music is that kind of "light" classic, that which entertains those who listens to it, just like any other "official" artists of any dictators (it also happened in other dictatorships. If you come from a dictatorship country, well, it's time to think and reflect about this). Everytime I came across his music, I always ask "so what?" when it's finished. It's nice, but it lacks a raison d'etre. From his music I learned that real music is not just something nice. Art, I think, should reflect the truth, and the truth, my dear friends, is not always nice.

Meanwhile the real artists, who created "honest" and profound art should be banned as much as possible, and in (not too) extreme cases, taken to "disappear". Some of them preferred to be exiles and live in another country where he could live and earn his living with dignity, and at that time the USA became the refugee camp for Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Korngold, Rachmaninov and many other great composers of the last century. A situation which is not exclusive for a dictatorship; it still happens in many countries until now. But it's always like that. A prophet is never loved in his own land.

viernes, 4 de marzo de 2011


Oh dear, did I write that Mahler is the greatest composer of all time in my last entry? But I've been saying that about Stravinsky too. And Britten. And Sibelius. And Mozart. And ... many others. Oh dear, it shows how unfaithful I am, eh.
Anyway, I do think that Mahler is one of them, if I have to mention my top 5 composers. Since I was listening to his great (and long! It's a bloody 70-minute piece) "Das Lied von der Erde" last week, I couldn't help uttering my total admiration and blind love to that music. And I do admit, I am obsessed again, as I have been about 10 years ago with him. So, in the course of 5 days, I have listened to "Das Lied" about 4 or 5 times complete, from beginning to end. And I plan to do it again one of these days. More than once, most probably.

What I have been lately thinking is about the "alcoholic" elements of the poems which Mahler used for "Das Lied", and how it became an important part of this Sturm und Drang thing of those Romantics. Some poems are by the Chinese poet Li Po, and in his poems he poignantly mixed the drunken euphoria with a deep sadness. A translation in English on one of his songs which I googled would sound sort of like this:
"The wine in the golden cup calls us, but first let me sing you a song of sorrow which shall ring laughingly in your soul. When sorrow comes the gardens of the soul lie waste, joy and song fade and die: Dark is life, dark is death. Master of this house! Your cellar is full of golden wine! This lyre I shall call mine, for emptying the glass and sounding the lyre are things that go together. A full beaker of wine at the right time is worth more than all the riches of this world: Dark is life, dark is death. The sky is endlessly blue, and the earth will long remain, and bloom in Spring. But you, Man, how long will you remain? Not even a hundred years shall you enjoy all the mouldering trinkets of this earth! A wild, ghostly figure crouches in the moonlight on the tombs - it is an Ape! Listen, its howling cuts through the sweet scent of Life. Now, drink the wine! Now is the time, comrades! Empty your golden cups to the lees! Dark is life, dark is death."

That reminds me of another dark, pessimistic and "alcoholic" poem, "The Age of Anxiety" this time by a Westerner, the great W.H. Auden, which I also have been obsessed by, many years ago. The poem talks about man's quest to find substance and identity in a shifting and increasingly industrialized world, set in a wartime bar in New York City, the most capitalistic spot on earth then (if it were now, I would say Hongkong or Singapore, eh? Or even Jakarta).

In both works of art, drinking becomes the symbol, a part of communal existence in the search of the meaning of life. One just wants to remain intoxicated .. and to sing, either with poetry or with a symphony. Both deal with the loss of personal identity and the gaining of total identity in a Bergsonian idea of the all and the nothing being equal. And both end with a farewell full of agony, once the effect of the alcohol dried up. All the four characters in Auden's poem thus said their farewells:

MALIN: "My deeds forbid me
To linger longer. I'll leave my friend,
Be sorry by myself. I must go away"

EMBLE: "I must slip off
To the woods to worry"

ROSETTA: "I want to retire
To some private place and pray to be made
A good girl."

QUANT: "I must go away
With my terrors until I have taught them to sing"
(W.H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety)

But also I was struck by a tweet by a certain @ravatama at twitter who said (and I retweeted it yesterday) : There are only two types of honest people in the world, small children and drunk people.

And therefore I believe them: Li-Po, Mahler and Auden. Apart from them being drunk I also believe that they remain small children when they wrote those mentioned works. No grown ups could create such masterpieces.

martes, 1 de marzo de 2011

A cat has nine lives, composers do too. But not more.

I start enjoying myself preparing programs for my radio show, Eric & Ananda Classical Eve. Since next Monday (March 7th) will be the birthday of my favorite composer Maurice Ravel, I tweeted and asked which favorite piece of Ravel should I broadcast. It turned out to be unnecessary, since we all know what it is. Hundreds of replies through twitter vote for: BOLERO! ....

... which led to another composer who I knew & worked with, the late Russian Jew Alfred Schnittke. The reason was because he parodied "Bolero" in part of his music for the film "Meister und Margarita". And that led to another topic, a conversation I had with him in one of the dinners we had back in 1993. He talked about "the curse of the 9th symphony" ; he was at that time writing his 6th. "I have 3 more to go", he said, and when I asked why, "well, noone except 'that guy' survived to write a 10th". I must keep "that guy" a secret for now, since I will reveal his name in my radio show next Sunday and tell you that in fact the curse wasn't broken at all by "that guy". Someone did die from his 9th symphony. It was from Schnittke that I learned for the first time about that particular curse, that nobody could survive further than writing 9 symphonies. Since then I lost contact with Mr. Schnittke, partly because he was already weak (he had 2 strokes in the previous years) and of course partly since communication was not that easy then as it is now, with emails. So it was my last contact with him. I performed under his supervision, by the way, his amazing Piano Quintet dedicated in memory of his mother.

Now the greatest composer of all time (at least according to me) Gustav Mahler was so afraid of this curse, that he took every way he could to NOT write a 9th after he finished his 8th. He wrote "A symphony for tenor, alto and orchestra" which is called "Das Lied von der Erde" (The song of the earth) in 6 big (when Gus said big, he meant REALLY big. The 6th and last movement "Der Abschied" alone lasts for half an hour, almost as long as the total of the 5 preceding movements) movements. He thought he could get away with it. Therefore he wrote his real 9th afterwards, and ...yes you guessed it right. He died when he started writing his 10th. He finished one movement of the 10th, by the way, but it was just one farewell too many. He succumbed to the curse : a composer should leave the earth with his 9th symphony. Just like Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Dvorak, and more after him: Ralph Vaughan Williams (he died when he just started to write his 9th, therefore his "official" number was just 8), Alexander Glazounov, Roger Sessions and of course .... Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998). I think there are more names. I remember I had goosebumps when I learned Schnittke's death, especially because I talked with his publisher a few days after, asking what he was composing when he got the fatal stroke and died a few days later. He had the same fate as Vaughan Williams.

RIP, maestro Schnittke. I'll never forget our meeting, our working together and of course your great music.

This entry I dedicate to my good friends, Spain's most prominent composers of symphonies today David del Puerto and Jesus Rueda. Both of them, in their late 40s (Jesus Rueda will celebrate his 50th this year) had written 3 great symphonies. May they be granted long and productive musical lives !