Thursday, November 24, 2011

Iwan Gunawan Lecture-Demo

I attended last night a lecture-demonstration by Iwan Gunawan, a Bandung-based composer and director of the contemporary gamelan ensemble Kyai Fatahillah. Iwan is in the Netherlands for two months working together with the Dutch dance company LeineRoebana on a piece titled Ghost Track which explores the Indonesian heritage of the company's co-director the Dutch-born Harijono Roebana. Ghost Track, which premiered in Breda on 18 November will tour the country until 23 December.

Iwan spoke at length about his compositional methods, and also played a number of videos of his work (which combines gamelan with electronic music) and a few sound recordings. He also played a few pieces together with his group's sinden Endang and a suling/ tarawangsa player. (There are 7 members of Iwan's group performing in Ghost Track, along with 3 dancers from Solo.)

Iwan is a traditionally-trained musician, with experience in wayang golek, Cianjuran and calung. He studied music in university with Dieter Mack, who introduced him to the word 'contemporary'. Iwan's university studies also introduced him to the use of musical notation for composition, but after graduating he found that there were no musicians who could play his work, so he write music for his students who make up the members of his group Kyai Fatahillah.

He says he does not write for Sundanese, Javanese or Balinese gamelan but rather for gamelan generally. He tends to use central Javanese instruments (often combining slendro and pelog in one piece) but derives techniques from all 3 of these gamelan traditions. He is interested in exploring the sounds of gamelan. Sometimes this involves using a bow on percussion instruments, sometimes placing a gong on the floor rather than hanging it from a stand, sometimes experimenting with damping techniques. He references traditional forms; for example the electro-acoustic piece Fonem ( to wayang golek conventions in different ways. But he wishes to be able to have more control over intensity and dynamics than is traditional.

Over the last years, he has arranged and performed Steve Reich's Six Marimbas (1986) both with his own group and also Ensemble Gending, a Dutch gamelan group, for 7 and 13 players. He said what drew him to this piece was not Reich's minimalism - Iwan already knew about minimalism from gamelan - but rather Reich's techniques for musical development. This work has been performed here in Holland the international gamelan festival in Amsterdam, at Salihara in Jakarta, and also in Berlin.

The collaboration with LeineRoebana was sparked by a chance meeting with the company's co-director Harijono Roebana in Amsterdam in 2010. Roebana was interested in exploring his Indonesian heritage together with Iwan. Iwan approached the project with trepidation as he had not worked with a European choreographer before. He feels that the grounds for any collaboration is mutual respect, and wanted to make sure that their work together would be sensitive to cultural issues. Additionally Roebana wanted to 'use' traditional music in the work, and Iwan was not sure that he could do this in an ethically sensitive manner - one cannot just 'put' tradition into a contemporary frame.

Iwan and LeineRoebana sent materials (music, videos of past dance work) back and forth by email over some months, discussing their artistic philosophies as well. Then Roebana travelled to Indonesia where he worked intensely with Iwan over some weeks and auditioned dancers in Solo and did some initial exploratory workshops. Then Iwan and the Indonesia dancers and musicians spent 4 weeks in Holland for rehearsals. The piece was performed in Jakarta before its official premiere in Breda (where LeineRoebana is a company in residence).

Iwan said that some of the pieces in Ghost Track were already written, others especially composed for the work. Some parts are improvisational, others precisely notated. In rehearsal he found that sometimes he could create something with his musicians on the spur of the moment, but other times he needed to work out a score by himself in the privacy of his own room working on his computer. In Indonesia, Iwan said, music is like the weather, never completely predictable. In Europe he has observed everything needs to be fixed in advance.

This is not a bad thing, for Iwan at least, who creates music with notation (and has therefore sometimes been accused of being 'too Westerern' kebarat-baratan). For in Indonesia, when he has worked with dancers, they 'feel' the music but don't understand it intellectually. For example they are unable to identify shifts in meter.

As both Iwan and LeieneRoebana's dancers and choreographers understand metrical structures, there is a ground for communication.

In the lecture demo I enjoyed particularly hearing Iwan's sinden Endang (who trained with the late Euis Komarah) sing a solo, an improvisation by one of Iwan's musicians involving multiphonics and words spoken through a suling, and a lovely Cianjuran number (pictured above).

I look forward to seeing Ghost Track when it plays at Leiden's LAKtheater this coming weekend.

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