IO – “Every evening a wounded soldier arrives and cries, ‘Your servant brings you news of the wars your Majesty,’ – and it is always ill news…” declares Christine Hakim in an ancient voice dry as parchment. Throughout the opera Indonesia’s finest actress sits atop a high platform narrating the pain and despair of Gandari, mother of the Kuravas. Three white lights glare down upon the stage like three merciless prison strobes.
On the 14th and 15th of December 2019 the Yayasan Musik Indonesia or Indonesia Music Foundation launched the opera Gandari at Taman Ismail Marzuki, Jakarta. The opera is an adaptation of Goenawan Muhamad’s poem recounting the story of Gandari who was the the mother of the clan of the Kuravas. As anyone familiar with the epic Indian story of the Mahabharata will of course know, the Kuravas were on the wrong side of the Great War as they aligned themselves with injustice and greed. Gandari’s husband, Destarastas (or Dhritarashtra) the King of Hastinapura is blind and Gandari blindfolds herself with a black cloth in order to share Destarastas darkness as a symbol of her loyalty to her husband. Later she witnesses and mourns the death and defeat of her one hundred sons in the Great War against their cousins the Pandavas, who fought on the side of good…
“There remains but one town… and on its border is Kali, Goddess of Death standing on one leg for 15 thousand years, her face as black as the Semeru volcano at night gazing at 700 hundred skeletons… And Brahma laughs, “But you are death. You are Mertyu…” recites Christine Hakim grimly sounding as old as time and as unnerving as death itself.
The music for the opera Gandari was composed by Tony Prabowo, Indonesia’s most internationally acclaimed composer. His genre is classical contemporary music and Tony Prabowo’s discordant notes reflect perfectly the futility and meaninglessness of that Great War and Gandari’s despair. Jean Couteau the French art historian and Bali expert who attended the performance in his usual flowing white trousers and shirt commented that he had expected more of Goenawan Mohamad’s poetry as well as of the dancing. For him it was Tony Prabowo’s music that carried the performance. “Gandari is simply an outstanding musical composition!” he exclaimed.
And indeed, Gandari is Tony Prabowo’s magnum opus. It is his fourth opera and took him nearly one and a half years to compose, working 8 to 10 hours a day. Gandari’s first performance was held in December 2014 and when Tony finally heard his music for Gandari for the first time – he cried. It was performed by the Asko Schoenberg Ensemble (Amsterdam) and the Slagwerk Den Hague with Bas Wiegers as conductor. In 2015 he made some revisions to the opera and it was performed again in Frankfurt by the International Ensemble Modern Academy with Bas Wiegers conducting it again. The third time with further revisions, Gandari was finally performed in Jakarta.
The one hour opera is an extremely intricate piece of music and Bas Wiegers, himself commented on how complicated it is. The 264 pages of music are so intricate and sophisticated that they need an extremely good conductor to lead the musicians. Adila Suwarno Soeparno, a Jakarta producer of cultural events and films says that “Indonesia has several fine composers but Tony Prabowo’s music is very difficult to understand and enjoy. What made this performance bearable was the Australian conductor, Peter Veale. For me tonight’s Gandari was one of the best performances I have ever seen and what made that possible were the conductor Peter Veale, its director Melati Suryadarma, Christine Hakim’s splendid narrative and its artistic designer Jay Subiyakto. These are all big names but they were able to put their egos aside to create a truly splendid performance. When the dancers moved like a tragic wave across the stage it moved my heart! And really, Avip Priatna’s Batavia Madrigal Singers are the only choir in Indonesia up to performing Tony Prabowo’s complex music so beautifully and winning international awards for doing so! The lighting, the music, the dance, the singing, Christine Hakim’s amazing performance all conspired to make this the best performance of Gandari ever!”
Bernadetta Astari is an Indonesian opera singer graduated from the Utrecht Conservatory of Music with honours who performs in Europe and Asia. As the soprano in the Jakarta performance of Gandari she was thrilled to work with Tony Prabowo who is the most sought after classical contemporary composer in Indonesia. It is the first opera she has performed in Indonesia and she agrees that the music is not easy to perform, “But I think that is in part why it bound the team together so well. Everyone was supporting each other in every possible way to make it happen. The dancers, the choir, the orchestra, the whole team became extremely close during the preparation because of the same dedication to Gandari and it was probably one of the most successful musical projects ever done in Indonesia.”
Adila Suwarno Soeparno says that Tony Prabowo’s music is basically Western contemporary music to be performed by musicians of Western classical contemporary music. Nevertheless, his soul is Eastern and one senses that in his music. Tony Prabowo’s work has been performed by some of the great names of classical contemporary music including the Oscar winning Chinese composer and conductor, Tan Dun. The Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival is the largest contemporary music festivals in the United States. In 1999 as its artistic director Tan Dun asked Tony to send one of his compositions for him to conduct. Tony sent him his strings ensemble Requiem for Strings.
Tony Prabowo was raised in Malang, East Java. On his father’s side his grandparents were from Kediri and Kertasono and his father was a dancer and musician who played the gamelan but also the guitar. Tony’s mother was a mixture of Indian, Madurese and Tuban blood and she also loved music. Already since childhood they used to bring him to dance and music performances. When Tony was in the last year of secondary school he frequently skipped school and finally told his parents that he could not bear school anymore and just wished to study music. At first they were upset but finally they agreed to let him go to Jogjakarta. Next door to the house where he lived was the Sekolah Musik Indonesia or Indonesian Music School where he commenced his study of music. At the time Tony could play the guitar and a little piano. There he took up violin study because as a child he was very impressed by Idris Sardi playing the violin on the television. In 1974 his teacher was Edward C. Van Ness an American alumni of the Wesleyan Music School who taught at the Sekolah Musik Indonesia.
In fact Tony was somewhat too old to be starting to study violin but it was here that he became fully convinced that music was his life’s calling. After two years Tony moved to Jakarta where he continued his studies at the Lembaga Pusat Kesenian Jakarta (LPKJ) or The Jakarta Central Institute of Arts because he wanted to change his musical studies to composing music.
In 1976 Slamet Abdul Sjukur, an Indonesian composer returned to Indonesia after studying at the Ecole Normal de la Musique? in Paris. He was called back by Sumaryo L.E. who had established the Sekolah Musik Indonesia in 1952 but was then the head of the music division at LPKJ. Tony moved to the LPKJ in 1977 and there he studied with Slamet Abdul Sjukur for five years. “But mostly I had to work on my own. I would read books and Mas Slamet taught me something about technique but the important thing was learning to analyse musical compositions and mental discipline. I listened to Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps or The Rite of Spring, every day for a whole year. I listened and mentally dissected the composition, learning about depth and detail of composition.”
Igor Stravinsky was a musical revolutionary who extended the boundaries of musical design and there is no more influential piece of music in the 20th century than his Rite of Spring which transformed the way composers thought about rhythmic structure. After studying it for a year Tony understood how Stravinsky stacked up the common chords on top of each other and the rhythmical qualities that Stravinsky derived from old Russian folk music.
“I already began composing in 1977 for a string quartet a trio of flute, clarinet and piano. From the start I composed classical contemporary music. We call this Western classical contemporary music. We have classical music from the Middle Ages, Baroque, Beethoven, the Romantics, Ravel and the contemporary/modern music of Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. They were the fathers of the new world music and the pioneers of contemporary music of the 20th century. And this is the music I liked the most!” said Tony enthusiastically.”
After studying Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for a year Tony turned to Arnold Schoenberg a more methodical composer with a non-repetitive approach; the complete opposite of Stravinsky. Later other avant-garde composers such as Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis, Takemitsu, Helmut Lachenmann and Beat Furrer further enriched his musical explorations. Another factor that bears looking at is that the time of Tony’s musical studies in Jakarta was also a time when the avant-garde was at its heyday in the other arts: W. S. Rendra in theatre, Sardono in dance, Donarto in prose – just to mention a few of the Indonesian avant-garde artists at the time. They in turn influenced Tony who was also listening to the progressive jazz and rock of the likes of Emerson Lake and Palmer, Frank Zappa, Henry Cow and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Tony often went abroad after that for concerts. In 1988 he went with the Indonesian dramatist and poet W.S Rendra to the first New York International Festival of the Arts where Tony composed music for Rendra’s The Ritual of Solomon’s Children. New York has a lot of experimental theater, music and dance and after that Tony was often asked to create music for New York’s experimental theatres. He had many new creations and felt very inspired and enthusiastic.
Most of Tony’s music is created in collaboration with choreographers, dancers, actors, poets, theatre directors, filmmakers etc. His music is frequently a musical composition based on a poem or story created by someone else. The poet whose work has inspired his music the most is Goenawan Mohamad. During their 30 years of collaboration he has created dozens of musical pieces and four operas based on Goenawan’s poetry.
In 1995 Tony made music for a mixed soprano ensemble for Goenawan Mohamad’s poem A Tale Before Sleep at The Lincoln Centre, Alice Tully Hall in New York. “It is one of the most prestigious places in the world and my piece was performed by the New Julliard Ensemble. I was so proud and happy. Then I received a commission from the conductor of the new Julliard Ensemble Joel Sachs to compose a piece for a medium orchestra called November Steps. It was my first real commission and I was paid very well,” disclosed Tony.
After this Joel Sachs asked him for a piece of music for a chamber orchestra for three characters, choir and mixed ensemble. This was in about 1996 but it was finally only performed in 2000 because of the riots in Jakarta. Tony could not work and kept postponing the work. This was followed by work with a very good choreographer from China called Yin- Mei and visual artist Xu-Bing who settled in New York after the Cultural Revolution in China.
In 1998 Tony returned to Indonesia where he remained for six months. Then he created an opera in Seattle and since then has been moving in and out of Indonesia. Now he is building up the new Jakarta Modern Ensemble specifically for classical contemporary music. “That’s what Jakarta needs. It has classical music orchestras such as the Jakarta City Philharmonic which I conduct (it falls under one of the programs of the Jakarta Arts Council) and Avip Priatna’s Jakarta Chambre Orchestra. But besides full orchestras what Jakarta needs are mixed ensembles not following traditional classical music styles and criteria but specifically for contemporary music because in order to play such new musical compositions a musician must do a special study. To perform traditional classical music he need only read the score but for contemporary music the attitude or approach is different requiring a sharper hearing and a technique not taught in traditional classical music. The approach is totally different. For Gandari I brought in a conductor from Australia and an assistant conductor from Germany but the music was performed by the Jakarta Modern Ensemble and the singing was by Avip Priatna’s Batavia Madrigal Singers.”
Meanwhile, on the stage of Gandari, Christine Hakim asks stoically in a tone devoid of hope, “Tell me, what is saddest about war? Defeat? Or the hatred?”
And Tony Prabowo tries to explain that as an artist he is never completely satisfied with his work – even Gandari. Nevertheless, “It is a collage of many different atmospheres and images consisting of tension, despair, anguish, loneliness and at times even a freezing of emotions… but ultimately all of this together is somehow also a thing of great beauty…” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)