CONTEMPORARY MUSIC IN INDONESIA Between Local Traditions, National Obligations and International Influences

by Dieter Mack

dieter-mackIs there really a ‘Contemporary Music’ or a ‘New Music’ in Indonesia? Sure there is one, although Indonesians themselves have different opinions about it, and „confusion” would be a convenient term to describe the current situation. Therefore it could be useful to rethink about both  – originally Western – terms, whether they can be transferred to other cultures with their respective different historical backgrounds or not.

According to my experience, and before any thorough examination of the Indonesian scene, there are two overall problems that have to be taken into account:

1. Globalization and Indonesian Music

My first point may easily be described and explained by music examples. Please listen to the following short excerpts of four contemporary compositions:

01 Jody Diamond: „In that Bright World”

02 Michael Tenzer: „Situ Banda”

03 Dody Satya E.: „Langendria”

04 Haryo José Suyoto: „Lahan”

Considering who these composers are and how their respective musical language sounds, it seems to be understandable that there is some “confusion” about what contemporary Indonesian music is.

To put the question in a different way: How does an Indonesian react to a composition of a Western contemporary composer, using more or less a traditional music language of Central Javanese Gamelan as a basis of a contemporary composition?

And how should a Westerner behave, when a Sundanese composer creates a piano piece using a musical language similar to a mixture of Eric Satie with Morton Feldman?

One could easily put an end to these questions or a similar discussion, by stating that artistic freedom in a postmodern period allows everything.

For me, this is not enough, because at least in the realm of cultural exchange, these “disturbancies” have to be thoroughly adressed. In so doing, we already encounter the second overall problem.

2. Oral Tradition contra Literal Tradition

Indonesian ethnic cultures are traditionally based on oral transmission. Although this is not a qualitative category at all, the implications are quite significant, compared with the Western situation.[1]

It means that a certain historical consciousness – in this case,  a consciousness oriented toward a more or less continuous musical development – is almost obsolete in Indonesia. Artists, who want to develop or to extend a certain traditional musical form, are even accused that they are about to “destroy traditionally grown values representing ethnic identity”.

Therefore, historical consciousness in Indonesia could be described as a big, bowl-like mass of events, where the events themselves are important, rather than the time when things take place, nor their specific succession.

I am convinced that this is mainly due to the fact of oral transmission, where change happens as well, but most people are less conscious about it. They have no dialectic reference to how it has been before.

In regard of these two problems, two popular misunderstandings occur that have to be adressed next:

Starting from the fact that traditional music forms are based on a thorough and stable musical grammar, a composition is considered “new” or “kontemporer” when it is completely different or separated from anything that people are used to. A refined development or extension of the existing musical language is commonly considered less relevant, because – see above  – it is seen as a potential threat to the tradition itself.

Consequently, most of these new compositions resemble a kind of “warehouse” of experimentally defined sounds, hardly parametrically controlled or determined.

In other words, there are a lot of interesting and creative ideas, but there are rarely conceptual attempts how these new ideas have to be treated and developed in time.

Such an experimental approach is very popular and even still compulsory at most art academies. I do not deny that in some cases one may discover good results. But my experiences over the last  20 years have mainly proven the opposite[2].

This is one extreme position within the whole contemporary music scene of Indonesia; and it may even be possible that this problem is not only due to the different historical consciousness. It may also be a result of a vague experience of some Western contemporary compositions that are generally appreciated as „very chaotic” and cut off from the tradition because the conceptual continuity in the West itself is understandably not known at all.[3]

Hence – if someone wants to be “kontemporer”, the music has to be chaotic!

I admit that this is a quite polemic statement, but it demonstrates clearly where some of the problems of orientation have their origin.

The following example is one of those typical patchwork-like compositions.  Fortunately it still retains a certain unifying atmosphere, in spite of a structure consisting of the juxtaposition of some experimentally explored sound textures.

05        Dody Satya Eka: „Diya” (excerpt)

The other extreme position is represented by those composers who where mainly educated in the West  or who grew up with the typical features of what is considered as “real Western culture”. And this  – again polemically – refers to the highlights like Beethoven’s 5th, Gounod’s “Ava Maria”, the “Meditation” of Massenet until the inevitable Richard Clyderman.

These people – together with their peers, mainly from higher and highest social classes – consider it to be “truly contemporary” if their music is based on a musical language of the Western classic-romantic period, or at least what that language is supposed to be.

Imitation is the main technique, causing an amazing melting pot of classical-romantic patterns enriched with pentatonic spices as a signature of their Indonesian ethnicity like in the following example by Trisuci Kamal:

06        Trisuci Kamal: „Gunung Agung” (excerpt)

Suka Hardjana describes the situation as follows:

‘The process of fragmentation of modern Indonesian music is always happening in the realm of Western standards and will go on continuously. It is a result of a fundamental fault of us at the very beginning of the whole development 500 years ago when Indonesia came in contact with Western culture for the first time. During our further development we never possessed any reasonable own roots. Until today, Indonesia has not yet experienced anything similar to the Renaissance (which is the genuine source of modern Western musical development). Therefore the fake, the imitation became our standard. Nothing was real or “on its own feet”, everything resembles a confused fragmented succession of trends without any connection.’[4]

This statement was written by a leading musicologist of Indonesia and not by a Westerner! If someone is wondering why Suka Hardjana does not refer for example to the whole „karawitan“-tradition of gamelan music, but only to Western influenced music, this is due to a peculiar approach in his quoted article. Suka Hardjana would be completely supportive of any contemporary activities coming out of the respective local traditional musics, as far as they really exist.

Both positions are the product of a regrettable consciousness about the term „culture” in an emphatic sense; a consciousness that was mainly caused by eurocentristic arrogance, not only during the colonial period but also in its actual form of global mass-media.

It may finally lead to an extreme form of alienation, where local traditions are marginalized and standardized like in a museum, mainly for touristic purposes. At the same time political interests (mainly during the Suharto era until the late 1990s) lead to another alienation, declaring some 30 patriotic songs in Western primitive style as the obligational national music.

07        Cornel Simanjuntak: „Maju Tak Getar”

It may be of some interest to have a look at the actual discussion about this problem in Indonesia itself. The discussion is not really new but was pushed forward again in public by the cultural magazine Kalam.

In its second volume from May 1994, “Contemporary Music in Indonesia” was the overall topic. To my knowledge, the main article so far was the first attempt to write a short but comprehensive history of contemporary Indonesian music[5]. It was written by the Indonesian musicologist Franki Raden.

Beside a few incomprehensible misleadings – the main Indonesian composer Slamet A. Sjukur was not even mentioned[6] – Franki pointed out that one can only speak of an Indonesian contemporary music since the beginning of Western musical influence at the beginning of the 20th century[7]. Consequently composers like Ismail Marzuki, Amir Pasaribu, Rudolf Wage Supratman (the composer of the national anthem) and also Cornel Simanjuntak, whose song we heard before, have to be considered as the first generation of a contemporary Indonesian music.

People who have a certain knowledge of Indonesian music as a whole will probably not connect these names with art, traditional or even contemporary music.

These musicians are well known as composers of those „national patriotic songs” which emerged during the independence movement and later on in connection with the founding of the Indonesian nation.

The fact that almost all these „composers”[8] are of Christian religion (and therefore received a certain musical education at missionary schools) is at least interesting. Their songs (and other compositions as well) mostly resemble typical popular songs in Europe.

To take these somewhat hybrid adaptations as the source or origin of a contemporary Indonesian musical culture seems to be highly debatable for several reasons:

First, there is a fundamental misunderstanding about what an artistic approach is. In case of these songs, one deals with functional music that has no connection to a genuine expression of a culture, an ethnic group, or even a person (seen from the applied musical language, not the text!).

Second, imitation, and further on the ideolization of a mere by-product from the Western cultural realm itself, can only be seen as another brick in the wall of alienation as it was pointed out above by Suka Hardjana.

A short time before that debate in the Kalam magazine, on the 6th of December 1992, the main national newspaper of Indonesia Kompas published an article that was written by the well-known Indonesian musicologist FX Suharjo Parto. The title was: “Budaya dan Kultur Indonesia” (which could be translated as: Culture and “Culture” in Indonesia!). FX Suharjo Parto pointed out that:

…traditional music cultures in Indonesia are elements of the “Budaya Indonesia” but the music does not represent a “Kultur Musik Indonesia”. Music of the so-called Budaya Indonesia is represented by all the ethnic music forms spread over the whole country. Unfortunately they are all of schamanistic nature, without any ideas, primitive and amateur-like. To develop an real “Kultur Musik Indonesia” one has to focus only on Western music culture and Western music education, while the local stuff can furtheron be used for folkloristic tourist performances’.

I think it is not necessary to comment this statement, it speaks for itself.

A third aspect is the latent elevation of a triviality – very simple Western musical language – becoming an imaginary art-product. The reasons are obvious and due to religious belief, but mainly to aspects of status in the realm of misunderstood internationalism.

A fourth and last point is the anachronism of such thinking itself, whereby a minor detail of Western musical development has been, so-to-speak, extracted out of its context, becoming the new paradigm of musical standards for Indonesia as a unified nation.

Once again we are back at the starting point of Franki Raden’s article on the history of Indonesian contemporary music.

During a panel discussion at TIM[9]-Jakarta on the 3d of January 1994, an argument had happened between Franki and myself. After explaining my critical attitude (almost similar to the points mentioned above), Franki replied that he could not accept my criticism. For him, a classical sonata-form would be as new as a serial composition of Stockhausen. He insisted on his right to regard historically grown music-forms[10] in a non-historical way. For him, all these models would be free to use.

It is self-evident that the adoption and adaption of existing musical material should not be “banned”. But the situation becomes questionable, when a composer asks for international acceptance with such an imitative product. One would equally deny international acceptance to a scientist if he would deliver the results of his research that are on a scientific level of 200 years earlier. Furthermore, a critical position like mine has nothing to do with an eurocentristic attitude or a lack of acceptance towards another culture. It is only a logic consequence in connection with such a fundamental misunderstanding about internationalism and individual cultural identity, especially in arts[11].

* * *

Now let me present some examples of those composers, who have found other, and more authentic approaches as individuals in a still mostly collective society as well as real individuals.

The first group consists of composers who primarily developed out of their own respective cultural traditions, including (in most cases) a thorough education in these traditional art forms.

Normally they refer to one special ethnic background, mainly Central Java, West Java/Sunda or Bali, which are the current centers of cultural activities; East-Java, Madura, North Sumatra (Batak), and West Sumatra (Minangkabau) have to be mentioned as well[12].

While the new activities are mainly concentrated on the art academies and similar institutions, Bali seems to be a complete exception. Out of various reasons, there are a lot of creative artists in all the villages over the island who work within their respective village-society.

A separation between art-music and folk music is almost not relevant. A similar situation can be experienced in West-Java, while Central Java is still more dominated by the culture of the big feudal courts, including the art academies in Yogyakarta and Surakarta, although there is a declining tendency over the last years in favor of a complete artistic autonomy.

The second group consists of composers that have received a thorough Western education in Indonesia or abroad.

While a minority of them exclusively refers to Western idioms in the widest sense of its meaning, most other artists have developed their respective individual ways of musical expression. The field of tension between their own and the Western culture resembles more a ‘reflection upon one’s own culture through the foreign’.

In other words: The foreign experience works as a filter for a critical perception of one’s own culture. At the same moment, a foreign culture may function as a catalyst for the respective personal artistic approach. Such an attitude of interculturalism (independent from all the problems mentioned above) probably has greater immediacy for an Indonesian than a European because of the ethnic plurality in Indonesia itself.[13]

In spite of the lack of public acceptance, the variety of contemporary Indonesian music is amazing, recalling the fact that individuality is not yet a main feature of the Indonesian mentality[14].

Stylistically, a „playful” attitude is an important compositorical element that works as a social link for most of these composers in their society. This playfulness could be interpreted as a strategy of transferring the typical Indonesian collective group-consciousness into the realm of an autonomous artwork.

Moreover, the term “autonomous art-work” (in its peculiar Western meaning) has to be put into question. In many cases the process of developing a composition together with all participants still seems to be more important than the final result itself. Nevertheless I would like to use that term as well, especially to distinguish this music from functional forms mentioned earlier.

The composer Rahayu Supanggah once said:

‘Perhaps “composer” means something different in the West and in Java. Perhaps “composer” isn’t the correct term for me, because when I compose, I just give the musicians a stimulus…’[15]

As we will see soon, Supanggah’s statement speaks for many composers, but there are already a lot with different approaches.

Now let me come back to composers with a strong local background. This group of composers is admittedly the most interesting for me, because they prove that every culture may cultivate its individual „contemporary art forms”.

Please allow me to focus in an exemplary way on Bali and West Java only.

It was already mentioned above that Bali is the big exception in Indonesia.

Musical development, change, and experimentation have an ongoing tradition during the 20th century.

One gets even the impression that the comprehensive cassette production and documentation since the 1960s has created a kind of historical, developmental consciousness. In other words, the audio documentation has overtaken the function of a written score.

The second part of the 20th century was mainly signified by the fast development of the so-called kebyar-style that swept over the island like a whirlwind. Today, kebyar music, especial the formalized kreasi baru type is still very popular.

This standardized model was once created by I Wayan Beratha and his pupils like Gedé Asnawa, Komang Astita, Nyoman Windha and others. Nevertheless creative artists do not appreciate standardization as a never changing model, and it was the generation of those composers who in the 1980s started to expand their music. Please listen to a short excerpt of Gedé Asnawa’s „Kosong”, one of the signature pieces during that time.

08        Gedé Asnawa: „Kosong” (excerpt)

As You may hear, the music still refers rhythmically to the typical interlocking gamelan style, but uses new sound sources like stones, custom built bamboo tubes, hand clapping and various vocal sounds, a tendency which was further developed by the Surakarta based Balinese composer Wayan Sadra, who even composed a piece of electronic music, during one of his visits to America. Balinese flutes sounds are electronically trasnformed becoming the following charming music:

09        Wayan Sadra: „Snows Own Dream”

Today the use of electronics has already reached Bali itself and various attempts may be found over there. But Sadra’s composition still remains one of the most convincing ones.

Nyoman Windha, who has worked often with foreign gamelan groups in America and Europe, is less interested in new sounds, but focusses on a sensitive extension of the musical language itself in terms of scale combinations, exchange of layer functions, new vertical combinations to achieve new sounds and counterpointal textures.

The following example „Tanah” from the „Catur Yuga” cycle from 1997, shows some interesting details of such manner in a chamber music-like setting.

10        Nyoman Windha: „Tanah” from „Catur Yuga” (transparency)



A step further goes Madé Arnawa from the leading younger generation. He was strongly influenced by various Western composers and started to develop new formal concepts and phasing structures but in a truly Balinese context. Listen to the end of one of his recent works called  „Komposisi No.2″ for angklung orchestra using two overlapping ostinatos.

11        Madé Arnawa: „Komposisi 2″ (end)


Let us now go to West Java. The music scene over there is very diversified, due to a lot of very local art forms that are less interconnected with each other. West Java has also generated some of the most interesting hybrid music forms.

Unlike on Bali, there are almost no active composers from the generation that is now in its 50s, except Dody Satya Ekagstudiman who has already been mentioned and who has studied in Bandung and in Freiburg with me and Mathias Spahlinger.

The most interesting and nationally renowned composers are from a younger generation, now in their 30s.

One of the most interesting is Iwan Gunawan, currently teaching composition at UPI Bandung. Although coming from a pure Sundanese gamelan background, Iwan has an astonishing ability to adapt Western music. He is a competent pianist, a composer writing his concentrated pieces in precise scores, and he is the painstaking director of his own music ensemble „Kyai Fatahillah”. Please listen to his recent composition „Fonem”, a piece for gamelan with computer sounds and voice.

12        Iwan Gunawan: „Fonem”


A more radical approach is represented by Ayo Sutarma, also a former student at UPI Bandung and currently working on and researching „composition in school education”. He was one of the composers invited to the Donaueschingen Festival in 2004. Although Ayo still retains a very local and socially integrated attitude in his village society, he is a real young radical, trying to create his music from every day materials. He only writes graphic scores and prefers a concentrated collaboration with his musicians as a social activity.

13        Ayo Sutarma: „Curig Sigay” (excerpt)


Now let us have a look on the second group of composers who are truly Indonesians, but have had a thorough education and experience in the Western contemporary music world.

The most well-known and still active artist who has influenced almost all younger composers, is Slamet A. Sjukur. Slamet was born in 1936, and received both an education in Javanese gamelan as well as in Western music. He then studied composition with Henri Dutilleux in Paris and stayed there for 14 years. Upon his return to Indonesia, he started to teach in Jakarta, but often came in conflict with the conservative establishment of the state-owned art institutions.

Slamet’s music is signified by two aspects:

First, a kind of „musical ecology” which seeks to find back to the roots of listening to sound in a polluted world. Furthermore he speaks of a „mini-max”-concept, which means to receive maximum results with minimal elements.

Second, Slamet prefers to write music about music as in the following piece „Ji-lala-Ji” for flute and percussion from 1989, based on the West-Javanese folksong „Jali-Jali”:

14        Slamet A. Sjukur: „Ji-Lala-Ji” (excerpt)


A similar background is that of Suka Hardjana from the same generation, except that he had studied clarinet and musicology in Germany. Upon his return to Indonesia, he started to establish chamber orchestras and initiated the „Pekan Komponis Indonesia”, the first and only festival of contemporary music for young composers at that time.

In his later years he also started to compose. One of his most interesting pieces is „Bulan Tertusuk Ilalang”. In the beginning it was supposed to be a film music, but then was performed as an autonomous piece only, dealing with various temporal levels.

These temporal levels are represented by different musical styles, traditional and modern ones, reflecting that imaginary story of the intended film[16]. The following example moves smoothly into a new sound world à la Györgi Ligeti after a traditional beginning.

15        Suka Hardjana: „Bulan Tertusuk Ilalang” (excerpt)

Last but not least I would like to present perhaps the most Western-orientated composer, Tony Prabowo, who was born in 1956 and is a former student of Slamet A. Sjukur.

From his very beginning as a composer, Tony was fascinated by Western music coming from the serial tradition and from Messiaen’s sound concept, but only in its textural character and less in structure. The following chamber orchestra piece was written in remembrance of Toru Takemitsu. The title „Autumnal Steps” represents the relation to Takemitsu’s „November Steps”, although there seems not to be any certain quotation in Tony’s music.

16 Tony Prabowo: „Autumnal Steps” (2d part beginning, manuscript with

conducting notes)


This was a short, though critical survey of the contemporary Indonesian music scene, a scene which earns much more attention in the future. As a matter of fact, attention by foreign persons and institutions or even nations still has a strong impact on national policy in Indonesia and would prove to be a healthy source of support for those local artists.

[1] Please note that I am speaking here as a Middle-European artist, where historical consciousness and responsibility is a conditio sine qua non for artistic production. Apparently in countries like America, Australia or New Zealand artists also have a less historical point of view.

[2]One may argue that my approach is typical Western or even European. But after more than 20 years studying the contemporary music scene in Indonesia, I found this proven enough, also among Indonesian artists themselves, because only a few have a perfect artistic control of their work. My critical opinion refers mainly to art academies where not necessarily everyone must be a genuine composer. Besides,  I am convinced that every musical material anywhere in this world is not neutral, but has certain impacts which have to be considered, consciously or unconsciously.

[3] Even a lot of Western hardcore traditionalists still deny this undeniable fact, so no one could blame people from other cultures. Nevertheless it has to be adressed.

[4] Suka Hardjana: Catatan Musik Indonesia-Fragmentasi Seni Modern yang terasing“, in: Kalam No.5, Jakarta 1995: 23. Translation by the author.

[5] It was the first focus only on contemporary music. There had been some other articles on history of popular music and gamelan traditions.

[6] Unfortunately Franki Raden was also asked to write a similar article for the New Grove Dictionary and he even went further in his attempt to expose his likes and avoid his dislikes in an almost criminal way. It is completely incomprehensible that such an important publication has not done any serious cross-checking.

[7]As pointed out by Suka Hardjana in the above mentioned article in Kalam No.5, Western musical influence can be traced back until the 16th century.

[8]Suka Hardjana refuses to call them composers. For him they are merely song-writers (comment of  Suka Hardjana during a seminar at STSI-Surakarta, 29th of April 1995)

[9] Taman Ismail Marzuki – the Art Center of Jakarta.

[10] Musical forms which in a way can only be understood within the respective cultural context, geographically and historically.

[11]I admit that my comparison is not perfect, because in case of other sciences, there is for example only one mathematics and not an European and an Indonesian one. In the field of arts, such an international obligation has (according to me) to be avoided, except if an art product has declined so far becoming only a commercial product. Similar tendencies can be seen in the field of fine arts.

[12]One could accuse me as well to be ethnocentristic because of this selection. I would like to state that there is no pejorative element in it. As a matter of fact, it is a cultural reality. Furthermore, the main target in this article is modern autonomous art music which can be found mostly in these three main cultural areas.

[13]Note: This statement is only relevant for teachers colleges (ex-IKIP) and not for the art academies (ASTI, STSI, ISI) which mostly concentrate on Indonesian music traditions. But unfortunately, these art academies have no relevance to formal school education. The Western music departments at ISI inYogyakarta and IKJ in Jakarta are exceptions. Since the late 1990s the situation seems to change and improve significantly but slowly, partly due to substantial projects supported by the American Ford Foundation and the German Academic Exchange Service.

[14]This aspect is worth an own article. Seen from the Indonesian policy and legislation, individuality and creativity are main elements, but the realisation is different. Traditional and modern hierarchy, group-consciousness, and the authority of a teacher are still more evident in practice. Some months ago, a performance of a theatre-group was forbidden by the government. The main argument was: ‘We do not want to impede creativity at all, actually we want creativity. But this piece could cause a ‘pro and contra-reaction’ in our society. We would like to have pieces that show the unity of our society.’

[15]Rahayu Supanggah during a panel-discussion: Indonesian Music – 20th Century Innovation & Tradition“, in Marc Perlman (ed), ‚”Conference Summaries”, New York 1992: 34.

[16] The film was realized with Garin Nugraho as director but with other music.

Sumber: Makalah Konferensi International Gamelan Festival Amsterdam 2007


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by arrome on Februari 10, 2009 at 19:09

    but there’s still a lot of composer out there…!!!

    yes every composer have there own ideological compositoris….and its growth continous automaticly


  2. Posted by boy barja on April 11, 2011 at 20:26

    aku suka . bagus


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