Saturday, December 10, 2005


I was first introduced to the music of Indonesian composer S. Yasudah back in the summer by leading psychedelic batik artist Circle Brophy, who met him in the smog-enshrouded urbo-sprawl of Solo, Java. I think he may have even been living a few doors down from Circ.

The first time I heard Yasudah’s CD "Solo Selusur Soloensis" I was reminded of 20th century orchestral/chamber pieces by Boulez, Zappa and FZ’s mentor Edgard Varese, but instead of the shrill woodwinds, whistles, sirens, fat rasping brass and manic rattling percussive runs favoured by Varese & Co., this used warm, beautifully rounded ethno-perc like bowls, bells, gongs and tuned, Gamelan-like sounds in tandem with animal noises and found sounds…its nearest living (Western) relative is probably something along the lines of the synclavier pieces on Zappa’s “The Perfect Stranger”, like…oh, I dunno, “The Girl in The Magnesium Dress” maybe, but more concrete sounding, more organic…

On “Ambang”, cicada chirrups and disgruntled cats battle it out w/ sonorous temple-bowls, bells, rattles, ominous-sounding string sections, hyperventilating xylophone attacks and frenzied pizzicato pluck-alongs…

The sleeve-notes for “Polymodus” say: “Selain tangaa nada mayor and minor diatonis, orang bilang itu modus namanya. Ada blues, pelong, slendro, arabik, gregorian, kromatis, mikrotonis dll, dst…” I can’t speak Indonesian, but something here, I guess, about mixing Blues, Arabic, gregorian, chromatic, microtonal musics, maybe? Which is a fair approximation of how this baby sounds.

On “Fast Food”, spoof audience applause segues into a playfully dissonant church-organ workout that sits somewhere between Ernst Toch mock-spooky 1940’s horror-film s/trackwerk and the Mothers of Invention’s obtuse abuse of the Albert Hall in-house keyboard on “Louie Louie”…a piano tries to track the organ, chasing it up and down the keyboard in a lively recreation of Mike Garson’s p/no solo on “Aladdin Sane”. The track’s well-named: it sounds exactly like msg and food additive-frenzied shoppers scarfing entire bucketloads of MacD quarter-pounders, but never, ever satisfying their inner hunger.

Ndonya Mana?” sounds strangely familiar, like I should have heard it somewhere before. There’s a naggingly familiar Arabic-sounding melody line weaving in and out of tuned percussion counterpoints and sour-sounding strings. The result is very spacious and cinematic-sounding, but I don’t know why this should sound so comfortably familiar…jeez, what does it remind me of?

I like the fact that many of these tracks use some slightly eighties-sounding sound-sources (particularly some of the string-synth and bass sounds), something that Western producers/composers would never do, unless they were being intentionally ‘ironic’…here it seems so refreshingly unselfconscious and it gives the music a ‘lived-in’ feel, as if it’s been around for a few years and the listener has only just discovered it. I almost half-expect to find a worn vinyl copy of this album in a second-hand shop one day.

Ethno RoxPop Vol 1: Solo Berlin via La Romita” is less ‘composerly’, this is Yasudah exploring the peripheries of Western/Eastern Rock n Pop interfaces:

On board w/ Yas for this wild and crazy Poptastic Fifth World fusion-ride are his group Sarang Damelan:

It sounds like they’re having a great time playing this stuff, and the infectiousness rubs off on the listener. This is really great fun to listen to.

Initially, the opening track “Solo” sounds completely bonkers; it’s as if three or four songs are being played at once, but after a couple minutes yr brain starts filtering and readjusting itself and you start following some of the different musical threads that are weaving their way in and out of the tune. It all starts innocently enuff: a lilting flute and gentle percussive refrain are joined by a female vocalist, then all hell breaks loose: a lop-sided but up-beat tuned-percussion group decide to join in, creating something that sounds like The Residents playing their Gamelan/Partch tribute “Six Things to a Cycle”, then a percussive cascade rolls in on top of it that reminds me of “Uncle Meat” era Mothers of Invention falling down the stairs…but not content w/ the mayhem he has created so far, Yasudah unexpectedly pulls the rug out from under the listener and brings in a sudden rush of bass, keyboards and (himself? on) vocals, creating a DX7-tastic Quasi-Indo-Pop classic that sounds like The 3 Mustaphas 3 jamming w/ the Ensemble Intercontemporain, produced by Steve Lipson. Or maybe taking a handful of those old GlobeStyle world-beat sampler albums, and playing them all at the same time.

“Solo is my home town/ Of course I love so very much/ So Deep that feeling is/ Engraved in my heart,” he sings, and, well, dammit…that’s exactly how I feel about Yeovil. “When I was a child, my feet were used to green grass/ My senses were drenched in grass root art…” he croons, before concluding, in a rumbling clatter of collapsing percussion-kits: “I…I…I am a dreamer.” Marvellous.

There’s a great moment of “Berlin” where the clanking metallic percussion and the layer of woodwinds and girly vocals that hover and waver above the track like sped-up cloud footage suddenly drop away and Yasudah, unexpectedly exposed, growls “And do you know what I like so very much…!? Kneipe! Kniepe!...und biegarten weisst du? Wunderbar echt wahr…!” tracked by tiny little Ruth Underwood-esque percussion fills, before he lets rip w/ a mock-operatic yodel and heads back towards the rest of the song. The sudden switch to quasi-pompous Teutonic vocals and the percussive frippery on show here remind me “Sofa” by FZ, and when Yasudah yells “Kneipe!” it sounds like he’s shouting “Night-School!”, an unintentional reference to a late era Zappa synclavier piece. Ben Watson would have a field-day picking out all the unconscious/accidental Poodleplay Dialectics on show here, but fuck that shit, this is just a really great pop-song that unselfconsciously blends so many influences in thrilling, new permutations. It combines lovely, heart-felt melodies w/ moments of genuinely startling cultural implosion. And y’gotta love a musical tribute/love-song to Berlin that name-checks Check-Point Charlie and has a girl singing (beautifully): “Well-cordinated public transport/ Like there usually is in Germany or Europe/ From the bus, the tram or train to the ship/ For crossing the wide lake I like it/ But my problem are the prices.”

La Romita” sounds like Kid Creole & The Coconuts gone Rai: eighties-style slap-bass, “Aiy!? Aiy? Aiiiiy-YAA!” girly backing vocals, DX flourishes, tambales…willfully tricky, yet an insanely catchy little tune…”Zucchini! Zucchini!” yells Yasudah, and why not. Mike Garson turns up again and does some latin-flava’d piano-tumble gymnastics and there’s some sort of digital steel-band thing going on in there too. Imagine an insane Eurasian Pop-Prog version of “Take Me for a Night in New York”…

What I Want” combines a J Arthur Rank gong-bash intro w/ Richie Sambora string-bending guitar pyrotechnics, then gets bored and turns into a dancetastic Pop-Blues Stomper. A xylophone plays the motif from “Heard it Through the Grapevine” using an Asian scale. The biggest tympani on the planet is used as a Faux-Glam Rock snare while the band enthusiastically chants: ”A lot of money is what I want!”

It’s totally brilliant and far, far toooo much for my aching, skinny white brain to comprehend, so I tracked Yasudah to his “You Only Live twice” style Dormant Volcano HQ and asked him a few questions on yr (and my) behalf….many thanks to Yasudah for taking the time to answer this stuff, as I know he’s extremely busy with his radio program and the Contemporary Composer's Week which is being held in Solo right now. Tonight (10th Dec) there will be a live broadcast. Yasudah’s German wife Susana helped translate some of the more technical English (though, I must say, Yasudah’s own English is excellent…far better than mine or most of my friends!) and I must thank her for all her time and efforts on this. Susana is a top puppeteer, who stages performances across Asia and Europe, and has collaborated w/ Yasudah on some amazing projects (but more on that later)….

Do you come from Solo originally?

Y: Yes, my mother told me so and I believe her! She said it happened on October 24 1956.

Tell me a bit about the music on "Solo Selusur Soloensis" it came about...what were your inspirations (musical or otherwise) in creating this?

Y: Solo refers to solo, alone…Selusur means search, explore and tour…Soloensis alludes to the prehistoric Java man called Homo Sapiens Soloensis (which just means “coming from Solo…”).

"Ambang" means ‘threshold’ and depicts the constant process of being in transition throughout our whole lives.

"Polymodus" is about diversity in unity in our personal life as well as in the world, using all kinds of scales from pentatonic, diatonic to chromatic. They are not just put one after the other, but composed in a way that they interact with each other.

"Slow Food" is inspired by the relaxed and slow moving life of Java…well, at least how it used to be…therefore it uses a lot of Gamelan atmosphere.

"Fast Food" depicts modern life, which is hectic, but jammed…

"Ndonya mana" is the attempt to find harmony with nature…

"Dolan" in Javanese means to ‘play around’, but also the whole piece is composed with the tone ‘Do’ and percussion.

And finally "Lha" is a long story... I have a story before my eyes, like a fairy tale with a princess meeting a caravane in the desert and so on and so forth

These seven compositions represent a cyclus. For example, the days of the week or the seven ages in Europe from Renaissance to Expressionism, etc.

Were these pieces done on a computer? It sounds like maybe sound-fonts or samples, perhaps...

Y: All the music except the animal voices comes from my old and faithful keyboard which I baptized "Kanjeng Kyai Kothak Jedhung". A computer was just used for the recording not to compose.

The music reminds me a little of Frank Zappa's orchestral pieces, or maybe the music of his mentor-figure Edgard Varese, but some of the tones and sounds used sound like they've come from traditional Indonesian music....gongs, tuned percussion and so forth....

Y: I have studied composition at Jakarta Arts Institute with Slamet Abdul Syukur who had lived in France for fifteen years and was a student of Messiaen. With him, we studied all kinds of western music from classic to contemporary. So Schoenberg, Stockhausen, John Cage, Bartok, Stravinski, Boulez, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, Britten and so on… and yes, Zappa too!…they all inspired my explorations. But as I grew up in Jawa (Java) with Gamelan music…well, of course, this is influencing me as well.

Are there also any Pop or Rock influences that you've integrated into your music (Indonesian or Western)...?

Y: I try to not be fanatical about my contemporary serious music approach and explore other contexts too. So my E-Rp project, for example, is my Ethno, Rock and Pop Music approach. The three songs "Solo", "Berlin" and "La Romita" (on this CD) are an attempt to respond to the energy I felt in those places in musical terms…

“Solo Selusur Soloensis” is about my personal self-exploration…how to find a way to open-mindedness and orientation in the diversity of life. On “SSS” I tried to not limit myself to any context at all and wandered across all borders. So, automatically, Rock and Pop are integrated as well, just as Arabian, Gamelan, and so on. But I think it could not be said that I was influenced by any one particular group.

Do you ever play live in front of an there anywhere for a musician such as yourself to play in Solo? Or a local audience for the music that you compose and play? You music is quite ‘experimental’... are people in Solo sympathic to what you're doing, or do you have to travel further afield to find an appreciative audience?

Y: Yes yes, good question. Of course, the majority of Indonesians are not appreciative to "difficult music" and even much less so than in western countries. That is why I can only play my more experimental approaches in an academic context or in contemporary music festivals…and even there many people still don't understand.

I have recently started a one-hour radio program every saturday night 8 p.m. in Solo, titled "Musik Lain" (Different or 'Other' music). Here I play my music and all kinds of other music that for Indonesians is still very unusual and difficult to hear. I also invite other composers to introduce their music.

I’ve got to ask…I’ve heard a rumour that you wrote a piece of music for 100 cyclists (Solo being the bicycle capital of South-East Asia). What was that all about?

Y: Karnaval Sepeda Bunyi was a sound-bicycle parade at a contemporary arts festival in Solo in 1994. One hundred bicycles of adults and children were prepared with different objects like balloons on the wheels, and with bells and stuff, then cycled across the town. I directed the different groups, but there was not a fixed score. It was a ‘happening’ rather than a perfect composition. With this I was responding to my vision that the world is now more and more entering a phase where ceremony and ‘show & effect’ dominate.

Wow! Have you got a website I can link to, or that people could buy your CDs through?

Y: No, unfortunately not yet. But you can find further information in google search "Sarang Damelan" (name of my group).

Many thanks, guys.

If anyone wants to get hold Yasudah's music, then I'm happy to put you in contact w/ him.

Meanwhile, Susana and Yasudah kindly scanned some photos in for me, which are repoduced here. I'll let Susana explain:

"The photos are from our project Wayang Bunyi ("soundpuppets") with the title "Rahwana k.o.". It tells of the final showdown in the Ramayana Epos between Giant King Rahwana and Prince Rama, who wants to free his kidnapped wife Shinta. The figures are made from household items and Yasudah's instruments. Ramas party, meaning himself, Shinta, Monkey General Hanoman and the Monkey Army are made from natural materials, and their sounds are mainly bamboo and some strings...while Rahwana and his soldiers are made from metal and metal springs...

This project was developed in 2001 and performed at several festivals in Java with Yasudah's group Sarang Damelan. In 2002, Yasudah and myself gave workshops with wayang Bunyi in Hannover and Berlin, Germany, with performances at the end."

The photos are, as follows:

1.Yasudah playing the Rahwana soldiers

2. Yasudah as the white monkey Hanoman with monkeys

3. Susana playing the giant Rahwana

4. Rama with some monkeys.