The Unrecognized Sounds of Asia
Growing up in Indonesia, I was exposed to various kinds of people, music, food, cultures, religions, and traditions. There are over 300 spoken languages and over 200 ethnic groups in Indonesia. For me, it is completely normal to mix a few different languages when I am speaking to family and friends. It is also completely normal to visit a nearby city or island and not understand their local language. When I first visited Bali, arguably the most famous place in Indonesia, I remember having to learn and remember their local traditions, culture, and customs in order to be respectful of their ways of living. I also did not understand their local language. I watched a Balinese traditional dance performance accompanied by their traditional music. The whole experience was foreign to me, even though this place is only 45 minutes away by flight from my hometown. It was like visiting another country. As an archipelago with over 17,000 islands, and a population of over 270 million people, it is no wonder that there are so many diverse cultures and music in Indonesia.
Yet not many people know much about my country. When I was 18, I moved to the United States for college. While attending the University of Kansas, many people asked where I was from, but most had never heard of the country of Indonesia, despite it being the fourth most populated country in the world (just after the United States, which is the third). I was quite baffled at this fact, although I thought that I also don’t know about every country in the world, so maybe it is normal. But many of them knew of China, Japan, and South Korea. Then I realized that there are more international students and scholars from those countries in Asia, and I could only find a handful of people from Indonesia in this small college town in Kansas at the time. I came to the conclusion that many people don’t know about Indonesia because they have not met anyone from Indonesia before. They likely have never heard any Indonesian music, seen any Indonesian art, read any books by Indonesian authors, or tried any Indonesian food before.
Every Classical musician and connoisseur knows Debussy and Ravel. Or at least they know of them or have heard their music before. Many non-musicians in the Western part of the world also know and have heard works by Debussy and Ravel. However, not many know that they are hugely influenced by the Indonesian gamelan. Debussy and Ravel both first heard the gamelan at the 1889 World Exposition in Paris and they were mesmerized by the exotic sounds of the gamelan. The influence of the gamelan can be heard in many of their famous works, such as Debussy’s Estampes and Ravel’s Miroir. There are many other prominent composers that were inspired by Indonesian music, such as Leopold Godowsky, and Francis Poulenc, and John Cage. And yet, despite its influence, many people do not know about Indonesia or the gamelan. Some might even argue that gamelan music could have had some influence on minimalism. The gamelan has been infused in Western music for so long and in many forms, without much recognition.
As a Classical pianist, I mostly studied and performed pieces from the Western piano repertoire throughout my studies. But I occasionally learned pieces by Indonesian composers, and made arrangements and improvisations based on the music I heard every day. These additional explorations outside from practicing the usual sonatas, preludes, and études helped me become a better musician. For example, gamelan music almost always has a part that is in perpetual motion, and often has syncopations or accented weak beats (or what is perceived as weak beats in the Western musical tradition) and is heavily layered. The experience of playing this type of music will strengthen one’s rhythmic skill. Music from different parts of the world focus on different ideas, some focus on rhythm, some emphasize the importance of patterns, some highlight different articulations, some are instinctive and improvisatory. There are many other aspects of music that are very different from those commonly found in Western music. Surveying and investigating different styles of music can only enrich our musical skill and knowledge.
Through my experience of being from a country “nobody knows,” it has been my goal to introduce Indonesia to more people. While doing so, I also learn more about my country and that there are so many different things I still don’t know about Indonesia and our music. As a piano teacher, I am very passionate about introducing the Indonesian gamelan to my students. One piece that I often assign to my students is Fragmen (1984) by an Indonesian composer Jaya Suprana. This piece is one of my favorites among his solo piano works. For more virtuosic solo piano pieces, I would recommend exploring works by Ananda Sukarlan. He wrote numerous pieces titled Rapsodia Nusantara (which has a similar basic idea as Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies). I would also encourage people to explore works by the female Indonesian composer Trisudji Kamal, who wrote many short pieces for solo piano.
I still make sure that my students are learning their Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, but I also think that it is my responsibility as a teacher to enrich their musical knowledge and repertoire beyond the Western piano repertoire. I hope that through this exploration, many people will recognize Indonesia and its music in the future, and more composers and artists will take inspiration from the country’s rich cultural and musical tradition, so they can be brought forth for the world to hear.
1. Some Indonesian composers and their works:
2. A video of my lecture on the Influence of the Gamelan in Western Piano Repertoire.
3. One of my own short compositions, Improvisations on Indonesian Folk Songs (2019). This composition is a short and accessible piece for intermediate or amateur pianists to learn, and it is based on two Indonesian folk tunes.
Dr. Regina Tanujaya is a Chinese-Indonesian pianist, collaborator, and educator currently based in Kansas City, Missouri. A sought-after educator, she was recently invited as a faculty to teach lectures and masterclasses at the Illumine Star Academy, Toronto, Canada, and served as a Piano Faculty for the Young Musicians program at the Conero International Music Festival 2021. She is a co-founder of Online Piano Camp, a virtual music-education platform for young and beginner music students and is currently an Adjunct Piano Faculty at MidAmerica Nazarene University.
An active performer around the world, she has performed in Carnegie Hall and had her debut orchestral performance with the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra in Perugia, Italy in 2013. In summer of 2019, she had concerts in six different cities in Czech Republic and she was invited to perform with the Topeka Symphony Orchestra in 2020. Dr. Tanujaya strives to present diverse and distinctive concert programming, which includes premiering new music and exploring lesser-known composers. She also works with the Emerald Coast Music Alliance, an organization that brings exposure to Classical music to populations that would otherwise not have access to such. Dr. Tanujaya is very passionate about doing outreach programs in performing and teaching as well as promoting Indonesian music, culture, and arts. Learn more at www.reginatanujaya.com.
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