Slamet Abdul Sjukur

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ecology, silence
Music (Gamelan Music)
Asia, Southeast
created on:
September 5, 2005
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Slamet Abdul Sjukur


The music ecologist

Born in 1935 in the East Javan industrial town of Surabaya, the composer Slamet Abdul Sjukur is widely recognised as the founding father of modern Indonesian music. For fourteen years he studied and worked in Paris under such composers as Olivier Messiaen and Henri Dutillieux before returning to Indonesia in 1974. Since then he has been living in Jakarta and Surabaya as a freelance composer, teacher and music critic. His compositions are notable for their minimal constellation of sounds and for their numerological basis which indicate the composer’s interest in a new ‘ecology of music’.
Slamet Abdul Sjukur, the figure-head of modern Indonesian music, appears an unprepossessing man with a paralysed foot. Had it not been for this physical disability, resulting from polio in childhood, he might never have become a musician. His parents had little interest in the subject, his father being initially a teacher and later a trader, but his grandmother had loved hearing a Dutch neighbour play the piano, so, at the age of nine, the family removed the young Sjukur from the taunts of other children and put him in front of a piano at home. From that time the piano became his refuge and consolation.

Whilst learning the Western tradition of music at home, he was taught the native East Javan gamelan music at the nationalistic school Taman Siswa, yet Sjukur himself believes that his key early influences came rather from his maternal grandfather, a tiny man of Spartan tastes, and the latter’s wife. It was his grandmother who made him appreciate stillness, and encouraged him to remain still at concerts in order that the music could communicate with him. Being versed in the I Ching, his grandfather also introduced him to numerology.

During the Japanese occupation of Indonesia (1941-45) the family fled to various East Javan towns, leaving all their belongings behind, including the piano. It was not until the Dutch recognition of Indonesia as an independent republic that the family moved back to Surabaya in 1949.

At this point, Sjukur’s father bought a new piano, enabling the boy to take piano lessons after a break of nearly five years. His teacher, Josef Bodmer from Switzerland, introduced him to French and Spanish music, which made him yearn to leave Indonesia for France. It was also Josef Bodmer who, in 1952, invited him to Yogyakarta, to the first Indonesian institute for Western music, Sekolah Musik Indonesia (SMIND). He there steeped himself in Western music until 1956. Having completed his studies, he took a ship from Yogyakarta with his father to have his disability treated in Holland, but the Egyptian blockade of the Suez Canal intervened, causing them to rush back with the leg untreated.

On returning to Surabaya, Sjukur was overcome by a pioneering spirit, which was of a musical rather than a political nature. Together with friends he founded a circle of music-lovers and finally, in 1960, the Alliance Française. On the 22nd October 1962 a new phase of life began with a grant to study music in Paris. This led to a stay of fourteen years abroad, the longest for any Indonesian musician of his generation, save for Paul Gutama Soegijo’s continuing stay in Berlin.

In Paris, Sjukur studied at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique and the Ecole Normale de Musique, and, until 1967, was taught composition by Henri Dutillieux. In the following years he worked as a freelance composer in dance and ballet schools and augmented his earnings by massage and traditional healing. For a while he also worked on an ORTF (Groupe de Recherches Musicales) project led by Pierre Schaeffer, the pioneer of musique concrète.

Since the start of the 1900s, gamelan music has influenced various European and, moreover, American composers. Reciprocally, Sjukur borrows from Western music and freely uses Western instrumentation. His compositions’ free-tonal idiom is made into a kind of ‘gamelan chamber music’, but the work ‘Game-Land’, commissioned by the HKW for the festival ‘Spaces and Shadows’ in 2005, is his first work for Indonesian instruments only. A German composer and expert on Indonesia, Dieter Mack, feels Sjukur’s Indonesian roots are revealed mainly in the use of improvisation which is part of traditional gamelan music. Sjukur does not believe that notation should be wholly definitive. He believes that the musicians should, on the basis of interaction with the composer, realise the notation in a clearly individual way. Only then, in his opinion, can music be imaginative and lively.

The composer’s sketches reveal his works’ underlying numerological structure. Sjukur composes by imagining worlds of numbers. His work ‘OM’ (1995) is based on the note A’s first 17 overtones. He associates this number with the Kabbalists’ Sefirot tree, with its Pythagorean speculation and further with the 50th Jubilee of Indonesian independence, for which the music was written.

By including multimedia components, some of Sjukur’s works recall musical drama, whereas others are notably didactic, suggesting that he identifies with his role as the father of modern Indonesian music. Like his grandmother he wishes to have hearers listen, to gain access to a world of new experiences. He once said in an interview: “Musical education could learn a lot from sex, not in the sense of physical gratification but in the sense of wedding the sensual to the magical” (cited by Dieter Mack, Zeitgenössische Musik in Indonesien, p. 444). Hence he strips music of all its trappings to reveal its naked allure, with sound reduced at times to a barely audible level. He calls this an ecological measure, used to counter ghetto-blasters, as Indonesian towns succumb to ‘musical environmental pollution’. From Pierre Schaeffer he had learned that everything and anything can be transformed into music.

Author: Heike Gatzmaga


Slamet Abdul Sjukur was born in 1935 in the East Javan industrial town of Surabaya. He studied at the first Indonesian institute for Western music, Sekolah Musik Indonesia (SMIND), in Yogyakarta from 1952-56. Upon returning to Surabaya he co-founded a circle of music-lovers with a group of friends, further establishing the Alliance Française in 1960. Two years later a grant enabled him to move to Paris, to study at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique and the Ecole Normale de Musique. Until 1967 he was taught composition by Henri Dutilleux , with whom he also studied both music theory and the piano. For several years he remained in Paris, working as a freelance composer and pianist for various dance and ballet schools. On returning to Indonesia in 1976, he taught music theory and composition at the IKJ (Institute Kesenian Jakarta), which he later directed from 1981-83. From 1977-81 he was the chief adviser for music on Jakarta’s cultural advisory board. Whilst his academic teaching career ended in 1987 many of his students of composition remained loyal to him and continued with private lessons. Since 1987 he has been a freelance composer, teacher and essayist, and, in 2000, he returned to academia, assuming the teaching of composition at the arts academy, STSI, in Surakata.


Indonesie: Slamet A. Sjukur´s Angklung Group

Published Audio,


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

Spaces and Shadows

Contemporary Art from South East Asia

(30 September 05 - 20 November 05)