Music and metabolism


This tongue-in-cheek homage to the Indonesian composer Slamet Abdul Sjukur was written after I visited him in April 2009 in his home city of Surabaya, where he very kindly put me up for the night in his modest kampong house and showed me around the city. Born in 1935, Slamet owed his interest in music to an attack of childhood polio, which left him lame in one leg, and to his grandparents, who introduced him to “stillness” and the I Ching. He studied for fourteen years in France, and helped established the Alliance française in Surabaya. In addition to introducing numerological patterns, free-tonal gamelan improvisations and multimedia techniques into his music, he considers that notation should leave space for the musicians: his scores are therefore never definitive. He died, aged eighty, in 2015, a much-loved and eminent figure in Indonesian culture scene.


“What’s that you’re listening to?” asked my wife the other day, “it sounds like Darmstadt music.”

Darmstadt is the German city that was famous for its International Summer Schools for new music in the 1960s, a regular fixture in the creative calendar for names such as Stockhausen, Xenakis and Nono. To go to Darmstadt you had to be a twelve-tone serialist, and (according to Hans Werner Henze) submit your manuscripts to Pierre Boulez for prior approval. “Anyone who has not felt—I do not say understand—but felt the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is USELESS.” Condemnations of that kind were one reason why the school, to which my wife’s family in Munich had some loose connections, eventually folded.

Surabaya seagate
Surabaya Seagate

I was listening to some pieces of music played by German musicians from the Musikhochschule Lübeck which were manifestly post-1945, post-Viennese School, perhaps even post-historical. They were otherwise absolutely unidentifiable on the musical map of the nations, although I knew their composer came from the other side of the world. The CD had been graciously sent to me in my Jakarta hotel by the composer Slamet Abdul Sjukur, who was born in Surabaya when Indonesia was still the Dutch East Indies, after an entertaining exchange of missives—in French—on my mobile phone.

This, to my ear, was more psychoacoustics than music. Anxiously metaphysical sewing-machines were being speeded up and slowed down in taped sequence before being dramatically cut short by a succession of boisterous clacks, whistles and honks. One of these pieces, Uwek-Uwek, was listed as being for two “mouth explorers.” It all gave way in one piece to the aerial ejaculations of what might have been a cosmic telephone—of the new-fangled kind Nietzsche accused Wagner of being (and not just of using)—or to the drone of a Zen master’s negation of a negation. The closest analogue I could think of was the zany prose of Gertrude Stein, which wants to tell us that most of life is repetition: even our most exalted moments occur against a background noise of sirens, ticks and hoots, as well as the aural by-products of car engines and vacuum cleaners. It’s not so much that we are mechanical beings, running on molecular clockwork (as some like to think); it’s that so much of what we experience is rhythm and recombination.

Slamet & me
Slamet & Me

But two pieces on the CD seemed to me to be true Darmstadt music, “Darm” being the German word for the intestine. (A millennium ago the city’s recorded name was Darmundestat, so the contraction to “intestine city” is entirely fortuitous. But nothing is fortuitous, the Zen master would say…)

Both were written for a bamboo ensemble. The first, Orak-Arik, translates as “scrambled egg with beans”: it is a shivering, clackety contraption for a bamboo instrument ensemble, as if the music were being produced by a fantastically busy set of cutlery and skillets. The other piece, Rondo Malam or nocturnal rondo—a self-standing part of Sjukur’s perhaps best-known work Angklung, which won the Académie Charles Cros “Disque d’Or” award in 1975—uses the same ensemble to good effect, and with a touch of asperity. I had the impression that the composer had actually enjoyed himself pioneering this new Indonesian musical idiom. Here was all the percussive strangeness of the gamelan tradition cheekily sabotaging the formal cadences of Western music. Here were those fiendishly complex Asian polyrhythms, as one percussionist slipped out of sync with another, which allowed musicians like Steve Reich to create his “phase shifting” techniques in the 1970s and made Conlon Nancarrow decide to write almost exclusively for the player-piano. But what made these pieces attractive to me was the disreputable appeal of the national, the quality in music that was so suspect after the end of the war—hadn’t the Nazis conscripted Richard Strauss as their court composer? Nationalism in music was the scandal that had allowed Boulez to cast himself as autocrat of the universal avant-garde, and bully others with his own rage for order. What I wanted to hear were the proceeding of the Indonesian Association for the Appreciation of Grasshopper Threnodies.


An Indonesian friend who knows Sjukur well sighed, when he heard that I was listening to his music: “his silences are so tremendous”. I like his sound-colour conjurations too. In fact, I don’t think he would be at all upset at my finding his music “intestinal.” Where else does music find its intentional or unintentional satire but in imitating our only partly-conscious bodily rhythms and the strange urge that humans have to extol the highest being? Modernism might be extolled as the rationality of the Machine Age, but its hidden side was its reorganisation of the human digestive tract through environmental design and new civic structures (concepts of hygiene and cuisine expressed in the bathroom and kitchen).

Having studied for a good part of the 1960s in Paris with Olivier Messiaen (the doyen of the Darmstadt School) and Henri Dutilleux (best known for his concerto for orchestra Métaboles), Sjukur is a self-confessed admirer of “French music”—a music of magpie individualists in opposition to the brassy conformity of German music: it had been first defended by Debussy as a gadfly riposte to the vulgar chromatic Wagnerian swoons that were sweeping the boards across Europe at the close of the nineteenth-century. Debussy had been so smitten by the traditional music played by a Vietnamese theatre troupe and Javanese gamelan orchestra in their respective pavilions in the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889 that he incorporated their sonorities into what he advanced as the other European tradition, the anti-Wagnerian one of finesse, delicacy and understatement—lepidoptery in sound. It sought the world but it didn’t want its heaviness. Ernst Guiraud, Debussy’s conservative composition teacher once played a sequence of simple parallel chords and asked him he would “get out of this”, meaning how he would place the harmonies in such a way as to move to a resolution: he found his pupil’s ideas “theoretically absurd.” “There is no theory,” retorted Debussy: “you merely have to listen. Pleasure is the law.” The parallel chords offered a kind of texture, a modal melody to which harmony was subordinate. No composer was more important in delivering the Western tradition from its exclusive concern with the line of the note to non-European music’s relish for sound—sound as a sphere, with depth and pitch and volume. (It was at this same exhibition that Paul Gauguin, similarly infatuated by the exotic, first thought of leaving Europe and settling in the Marquesas.)


With its five-note scale, Gamelan music, according to Debussy, “contained all gradations, even some that we no longer know how to name, so that tonic and dominant were nothing more than empty phantoms of use to clever little children.” As a sonic adventurer, it is appropriate that Debussy used pentatonic scales, along with wholetones, antique modes and the usual diatonics as a new way of building towers of sound—and an alternative modernism. Debussy’s orchestration was brilliantly fresh and novel, especially in terms of the geography of the orchestra and dealings between instruments, as well as being full of figurations and motifs that were quite unknown to the symphonic tradition. Even scrambled eggs and beans are poetry for a hungry person! (Much later, I discovered that Slamet had actually studied Debussy’s affinity for the gamelan on a grant from the French government.)

Asian composers have repaid the compliment to Debussy many times over. The history book Rhapsody in Red: How Western Classical Music Became Chinese tells an anecdote about an American visitor to China telling everyone around him, on first hearing some Chinese music, how much it sounded like Debussy. The composer replied testily. “No, this piece doesn’t resemble Debussy! Not at all! Debussy resembles me! Debussy resembles China!”

That’s how you discover what the World-Spirit resembles when your intestines are rumbling. You have a musician in your belly and you have to get him on your tongue.