SEMADI [2008] - Sound and Music from life in Java

I first discovered gamelan music while studying as an undergraduate student. One day in the school library I came across a 1987 album called The Javanese Gamelan curated by Japanese ethnomusicologist Fumio Koizumi. Performed by the Yogyakarta Kraton gamelan ensemble, the album sounded like nothing I'd heard before. An exotic, dreamy music from a land I knew nothing about. I was curious to learn more.

In 2007 I moved to Yogyakarta in central Java to study Javanese gamelan music for a year. Together with a small group of other students on the Darmasiswa programme, we lived in the village of Geneng just south of the city. Music classes were held nearby at the Indonesian Insitute of the Arts (ISI) University where we learned the rudiments of the Karawitan tradition. Evenings and weekends were spent attending music performances in the city and travelling to surrounding villages for all-night Wayang Kulit shows (shadow puppetry). Throughout the year I continued to make field recordings in my own time. I experimented with the instruments of the gamelan (notably the Gender), combining these sounds with computer-generated material. Some of these electro-acoustic excursions were presented at a series of small Listening Puddle events in the village.

SEMADI [2008] is a collection of music I made during that time. Inspired by the sights and sounds of Yogyakarta, the material consists of environmental and instrumental recordings combined with electronic sounds and computer processing. Dedicated to the great master Pak Cokro whose elegant music I had the fortune of enjoying one evening at his home in 2006, the idea for this suite was to evoke the atmosphere of the majestic Javanese Karawitan tradition, while at the same time embracing the santai flavours of village life.

SEMADI No.1-10 -> sound/music: Rob Szeliga

SEMADI No.11 - Halus -> an improvisation one evening in the small village of Monggang with Shoichi (gender), Steve Burrell (computer) and myself (live processing)

“Without a serious understanding of their depth, the use of other culture’s instruments and music is a rip-off. Instead of new music, we get fashionable but shallow collages of images, and a reduction instead of proliferation of musical diversity”. [Pidgin Musics, Chris Brown]

For many years while living in Japan and Indonesia I've remained uncomfortably aware of this sensitive point - music and culture. Can I freely plunder the music of another culture? Is sound just matter - a sound object - to be manipulated free from context and tradition? If not, what kind of understanding of the music do I require in order to 'use' it? Should I 'use' it? Can this only be achieved within the culture itself, or learned far away in a university music department? How do we define 'a serious understanding'? Should tradition be simply preserved, or instead developed in new directions? Should I stick to the music I know? What music do I know and how do you define that knowledge?

Left-Right ['07-'08]: Koufun Ninjin at ISI University, Sumatra noise with Al Gozaldi, Darman at Listening Puddle #2, Shoichi drumming at Kedia Kebun, shamisen with Tony Maryana (kendang)

Left-Right ['07-'08]: Koufun Ninjin at ISI University, Sumatra noise with Al Gozaldi, Darman at Listening Puddle #2, Shoichi drumming at Kedia Kebun, shamisen with Tony Maryana (kendang)

Between the period 2004 and 2010 I had the opportunity to study traditional forms in both Japan (Nagauta shamisen) and Java (Javanese Karawitan). In each case my curiousity to experiment with these 'new' forms led me to create pieces that clearly removed these instruments from their traditional musical setting. Pieces that often combined these new, exotic sounds with modern techniques of audio sampling and digital signal processing. The SEMADI suite I put together back in 2008 may well be an example of this casual appropriation of culture - a 'shallow collage of images' as Brown puts it. Possibly.

Over the years I continue to think about these ideas of tradition, authenticity and understanding. Culture I think is a complex web of activity, pulled between a mythologised past and a fantasised future. In reminding ourselves of music as an inherently social, dynamic occasion that transcends all style and sound, we can come to a wider recognition of music as a univeral expression of being-in-the-world, of being together. That ultimately music and musicking itself is first and foremost not about sound but people.