Tue, 05 Aug 2003

Blend of Asian and Western music

Sri Wahyuni, The Jakarta Post, Yogyakarta

Little may be known in Indonesia about American composer Vincent McDermott, currently a visiting senior Fulbright scholar teaching at Yogyakarta's Indonesian Institute of the Arts (ISI). In his homeland, he is well known for his multicultural compositions and his interest in Asian music, particularly gamelan.

His name has been mentioned in at least two dictionaries, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Music and Grove's Dictionary of American Music and Musicians.

A number of his works are for gamelan. The King of Bali Chandrakirana, a medium-scale opera mixing chamber orchestra and slendro/pelog gamelan, was performed during the 2003 Yogyakarta Arts Festival in June.

Other opera works of his that also beautifully blend gamelan and chamber orchestras include Mata Hari (1997) and mono-opera A Perpetual Dream (1978). He is currently finishing a colossal opera titled The Death of Karna, whose libretto is being prepared by himself in collaboration with colleague Kathy Foley, another senior Fulbright scholar to Indonesia specializing in theater.

His gamelan compositions include The Spirit Takes Wings and Soars (2002), Divine Songs (2001), Sweet-Breathed Minstrel II (1997), The Bells of Tajilor (1984), Sweet-Breathed Minstrel I, a Mystic Poem of Rumi (1982), Kagoklaras (1981) and A Stately Salute (1980), in honor of Lou Harrison.

All in all he has composed some 40 works for opera, symphony, chamber, solo, chorus and electric performances in various major cities in North America, Europe and Asia.

Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on Sept. 5, 1933, and growing up in Philadelphia, Vincent McDermott began to develop an interest in gamelan music in 1965, when he heard the music for the first time while in Holland.

"I was very, very happy. It was good. It was beautiful. It went directly into my heart. Then I decided I must come to Indonesia so that I could experience the music myself," McDermott recalls.

However, it was only in 1971 that he was able to travel to Surakarta, Central Java, at the suggestion of a friend, and learn more about the music during two months at the Indonesian College of the Arts (STSI).

"I used my summer vacation and my own money then," he said, adding that the only reason for his visit to Indonesia then was gamelan, but later he also had the chance to learn about wayang puppets, Javanese dance and all the other aspects of Central Javan's traditional arts.

"I would listen to some popular music like keroncong and dangdut. They were interesting but my heart went directly toward the old traditions," said McDermott who has written numerous articles, including New music for gamelan in Europe, Indonesia, and the U.S., and Central Javanese music: The patet of laras slendro and the gender barung.

McDermott returned to Indonesia to continue his study of gamelan in 1978 on a Fulbright Research Fellowship, then in 1984, and again in 1988. It was during his 1984 stay that STSI invited him to write The Bells of Tajilor, which the school immediately premiered.

"In all, I've been here five times, in two of which I brought my family. My youngest son was born in Solo," he said.

His current stay in Indonesia has been his longest. He came in September last year and will go home this month. However, he plans to stay here six months a year to teach at ISI, at the request of Rector I Made Bandem.

"I will also return in October this year to have The King of Bali Chandrakirana performed in Jakarta," said McDermott, who has also developed a gamelan program at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, which brings in guest artists and teachers from Java and Bali and offers regular concerts.

McDermott's ideas on how Indonesian composers can develop traditional music are of great interest.

"I want to see Indonesian music grow .... This means that sometimes it could take the form of symphony orchestra, borrowing from the West, bringing ideas from the West, but at the same time also bringing together all the Indonesian classical traditions. I'd like to see Indonesian composers develop a world kind of music, but using deep traditions from Indonesia, not simply borrowing from Europe or from America," he said.

He wants to see Indonesian classical composers working with kampoeng musicians, traditional karawitan musicians, finding a way to take the ideas unique to each type of music and finding ways to blend them so as to give new life to all of the music.

In this way, according to McDermott, they could create new music while at the same time also respecting the old music. In other words, the new music would find new life and at the same time give life to the old music, and thus both the traditional and the new music would develop.

McDermott says that this would not just contribute to the musicians, but also to society.

"Music is a kind of glue for society to think in similar ways. It brings people together. With music I can bring people from different islands together. Because they hear the music, which is in combination with, say, Javanese, then they will probably say. 'It's possible we can be together,'" said McDermott.

"I do believe music can play its part," said the retired professor of Lewis and Clark College who also holds a Ph.D and B.F.A. in music esthetics, history and composition from the University of Pennsylvania, and an MA in music history and esthetics from the University of California at Berkeley.

Hadi Susanto, one of his postgraduate students, who is also a lecturer at ISI Yogyakarta, said McDermott helped students broaden their insight into multicultural compositions.

"He encourages us to develop the rich traditional music around us as a source of creation," Susanto said.