Tony Prabowo, Indonesia’s most celebrated composer and his masterpiece: the opera Gandari

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The opera Gandari performed in Taman Ismail Marzuki. On the platform Christine Hakim narrates Gandari’s sad fate with music performed by the Jakarta Modern Ensemble and the Batavia Madrigal Singers. The dance was by Studio Plesungan. Conductor Peter Veale stands in the foreground. (Photo by Witjak Widi Cahya)

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.

In 2019 the opera Gandari is Tony Prabowo’s magnum opus. (Photo by Witjak Widi Cahya)

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…

Christine Hakim made up to look as old as time itself narrates Gandari’s anguish and despair in a toneless voice perfectly reflecting the futility of her fate. (Photo by Witjak Widi Cahya)

“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.

He is the music curator at Salihara but now he is also building up the new Jakarta Modern Ensemble specifically for classical contemporary music. (Photo courtesy of Tony Prabowo)

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!”

On the left sits soprano Bernadeta Astari in white with dancers and singers standing behind her. Gandari is her first opera in Indonesia. She was keen to work with Indonesia’s most celebrated composer, Tony Parbowo. (Photo by Witjak Widi Cahya)

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 Suwarmo 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 by parents who both loved music and dance. His father performed traditional Javanese dance and played both gamelan and guitar. (Photo courtesy of Tony Prabowo)

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.

Tony Prabowo’s music has not only been commissioned and performed in such prestigious places as Lincoln Centre in New York and Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival but he has also worked together with some of the best musicians of the 21st century. (Photo by Witjak Widi Cahya)

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.

Gandari has only been performed three times. First in Amsterdam, then in Frankfurt and on the 14th of December 2019 for the first time in Indonesia. (Photo by Witjak Widi Cahya)

“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.

Indonesian composer Tony Prabowo composed the opera Gandari in 2014. It is an extremely intricate and complicated piece of music that requires an exceptional conductor. (Photo by Witjak Widi Cahya)

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.

During his studies to become a composer of classical contemporary music Tony Prabowo listened to Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps or The Rite of Spring, every day for a whole year.

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.”

Dancers performing in the opera Gandari. Christine Hakim the narrator asks poignantly what is worst about war: the defeat or the hatred? (Photo by Witjak Widi Cahya)

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)