Rahaju Supanggah

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Music (Gamelan Music)
Asia, Southeast
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September 21, 2005
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Rahaju Supanggah


Tradition and Renewal

Composer Rahayu Supanggah (1949) comes from Central Java and today is considered as one of the most prolific Indonesian artists in the realm of Central Javanese gamelan music. As an ethnomusicologist, he is both a pioneer and supporter of this genre in Indonesia. Via his participation in numerous collaborative projects he has contributed significantly to the international distribution and acceptance of Indonesian music cultures. After a traditional education in arts in Central Java, Rahayu Supanggah received his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology in Paris in 1985. Beside his compositorical acitivities, he is currently professor and head of the postgraduate department at the art academy, STSI, in Surakarta/Central Java. His works are characterised by strong ties to his tradition as well as by a differentiated interest in new concepts and developments. Nevertheless his aesthetical concepts are always in harmony with the Central Javanese music culture.
The Indonesian composer, Rahayu Supanggah, was born in 1949 in Central Java. As a composer as well as an ethnomusicologist and art critic he belongs to the leading figures in Indonesia. Coming from a dalang (shadow players) family, Supanggah grew up in an artistic environment. Nevertheless, during his early active years in music (whilst studying at the art academy ASKI/STSI in Surakarta) he considered himself more as a player than a composer. It was only in the late 1960s and early 1970s that he realised his growing interest in experimental music activities. Finally he became one of the most radical composers of that time. These young artists were supported strongly by the former rector of the art academy Gendhon Humardani:

At ASKI I was never an assistant because I was branded a troublemaker (...). Even after Humardani asked me to teach, I didn’t want to. I was afraid of the institution. I just wanted to be an artist (Rahayu Supanggah).

His aversion towards institutions has become a ‘signature feature’ of Supanggah’s way of living. Even as rector of the art academy STSI (1997-2002) he cultivated an open and anti-authoritarian atmosphere amongst teachers and students, where everyone could develop according to his/her own intentions. Yet, as an artist and educator, he always argued quite clearly and critically, especially if things got onto a political level.

Rahayu Supanggah was also often active abroad. As a 16-year-old, he was chosen to join an important official cultural mission to China, Japan and Korea in 1965. Numerous other activities in foreign countries in the context of official cultural missons (even during his student times), his doctoral study (ethnomusicology) in Paris between 1981 and 1985, his collaboration with Peter Brook in ‘Mahabharata’ (1990s) and the co-production ‘Lear’ with Ong Ken Sen (Theatreworks, Singapore) contributed significantly to the artistic development of the artist. Recently he became musical director in the ‘La Galigo’ production of Robert Wilson, based on a myth from South-Sulawesi. All those intensive experiences abroad and together with foreign artists have had a great impact on the compositorical attitude and consciousness of Rahayu Supanggah. Yet it is significant that, in spite of all these collaborations, he has never tended towards a superficial and patchwork-like juxtaposition of musical languages or elements. He has always succeeded in transforming all these foreign influences into his own musical language, based on the Central Javanese tradition. In this way, Supanggah’s creative output takes a special position in that country. A quite personal spiritual consciousness seems to be his ideological basis. By its nature, this fundamental attribute is almost impossible to be expressed in words. There seems to be a certain field of tension between the traditional Javanese philosophy of life and its confrontation with a new modern, technically-based global world. In the crossfire of these old Javanese values and the new, imported, ones, Rahayu Supanggah creates his art as a true contemporary Central Javanese artist.

Perhaps ‘composer’ means something different in the West and in Java. Perhaps ‘composer’ isn’t the correct term for me. Because when I compose, I just give the musicians a stimulus. I don’t decide everything. The work I have done is the collaboration between me and my musicians (Rahayu Supanggah in: Marc Perlman 1994: 34)

Supanggah’s artistic creative approach started to become consolidated soon after he had joined the art academy ASKI/STSI as a teacher. A concept of subtle further development in traditional forms and principles became increasingly important. Beside his numerous publications on art and his compositions, the most significant proof of this aspect came in the form of his concert of new works during the ‘Art Summit Indonesia’ festival in Jakarta in 1995. The former radical and more textural approach had vanished in favour of a more classicistic attitude, similar to that of his Balinese colleague, Nyoman Windha, or as found in some recent works by the Jakarta-based composer Suka Hardjana.
In a way, Supanggah returned to the complex forms and cycles of the Central Javanese music, above all to the concept of garap, which also became the title of his 4-part cycle performed in the festival. Garap refers to a concept of re-composition in music that already exists, or even to composing in a traditional style, but where the degree of ‘newness’ is not defined at all. Supanggah filled these four compositions with many subtle nuances of sound and gestures, where micro-intervallic aspects received special attention. These compositions are ideal examples of the fact that artistic actuality does not necessarily have to coincide with non-compromising radicality. Unfortunately there is not yet an official audio documentation of these four compositions.

An example for the earlier and more experimental approach on the basis of various stimuli and collective collaboration is the composition ‘Paragraph’ from 1991. The piece was composed during a residence in America. Supanggah also applies Western instruments (piano, bass trombone) but uses these instruments only as neutral sound sources without any cultural or musical connotation.

In 1991 a new CD called ‘Kurmat pada Tradisi’ (Homage to Tradition) was published. Although the title invites the notion of eclectic and conservative approaches, the music is in fact quite advanced. It consists of various smaller works with individual artistic problems (challenges) as a kind of musical mimicry. In this way, Supanggah demonstrates in a convincing and fresh way what it could mean to develop a musical tradition without falling into superficial boredom, but also without neglecting tradition.

Over the last few years Supanggah’s thoughts have focused more and more on multi-cultural issues. For him this is not only a question of a creative artistic approach. In this connection he refers more to education and teaching. Therefore, starting in the mid-1990s, he focused more on culture and politics. Nonetheless because of his conceptual influence, one could say that the art academy STSI in Surakarta is currently the leading institution in Indonesia with a high degree of artistic openness. In a recently published essay called ‘A Multi-Cultural Approach to Art Education: A Necessity’, Rahayu Supanggah writes:

Essentially, art no longer belongs to a particular ethnic group or region, despite being born and raised by that group and in that region. The Mahabhharata, which originates from India, now belongs to Indonesia. The Pandji legend from Kediri now belongs to the nations of Southeast Asia. The jazz music of New Orleans now belongs to the world, as does Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is becoming increasingly possible for the art of a particular region to be watched by people from other cultural areas, even more so with the existence of the recording or broadcasting media. In fact it is more common today for art to come to the consumer than for the consumer to go to a performance venue. That means that it is easy for the music of Africa to be heard by people from Europe or even Indonesia. Balinese dance is easily seen by Americans or Japanese. That is not all. It is quite common today for Javanese gamelan to be played by people in Finland, Egypt, or Israel. Western music is no longer the monopoly it was (...). Art can, and should; always have the ability to cross the ethnic and cultural boundaries of its own region.

Author: Dieter Mack


Rahayu Supanggah was born in 1949 in Central Java and grew up in a dalang (shadow players) family, which means in an active artistic surrounding. After visiting the music high school, KOKAR, in Surakarta, he continued his studies at the art academy ASKI/STSI. Between 1981 and 1985 he finished his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at the Université de Paris VII. He subsequently started to teach at the art academy STSI in Surakarta, and, between 1997 and 2002, he was appointed as rector of that institution. Currently he is head of the post-graduate department and teaches composition and aesthetics there. Various guest lectureships took him to America, Holland, Switzerland, France and Great Britain. Rahayu Supanggah is also well-known as an ethnomusicologist and as the author of numerous articles on music and aesthetics in Indonesia.

From the very beginning his artistic career was significantly influenced by his experiences abroad and by various collaborations with foreign artists. Yet he has never left behind or forgotten his Central Javanese roots but rather argues for an open and responsible on-going development and extension of his own music culture. His numerous compositions may be seen as a mirror of these efforts. The following international productions and collaborations should be mentioned specifically:
‘Mahabharata’ together with Peter Brook (1994), ‘Lear’ together with Ong Ken Sen (1995) and ‘La Galigo’a (2004) together with Robert Wilson.


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

Spaces and Shadows

Contemporary Art from South East Asia

(30 September 05 - 20 November 05)

rahayu supanggah

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