I Nyoman Astita, widely known as Komang, is perhaps one of the most underrated key figures in Bali’s performing arts scene. Brought up in Balinese rich culture, Komang has managed to explore traditional performing arts while standing on his Balinese roots. His teachings stretch from remote villages in Bali to major universities in the US, while his attempts in creating new possibilities have not stopped since the late 70s and have stimulated as well as enriched the contemporary music in Indonesia.
Komang was born in Denpasar, Bali on 24 September 1952. Being a Balinese whose father was a Gandrung dancer, Komang was exposed to most traditional and ritual arts that Bali has to offer. In his early teen, Komang had an encounter with the Gamelan Gong Kebyar – a “new” approach to the temple orchestra created in 1915 in northern Bali. The music awed and inspired him, and it led to his decision in becoming an artist.
In 1968, Komang enrolled at the Karawitan (traditional music) Conservatory, and then studied at the Akademi Seni Tari Indonesia (ASTI) or Indonesia Dance Academy, in Denpasar, Bali, and received a Bachelor degree in 1976. In later years, the academy became Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia (STSI) or Indonesia School of Arts, and recently was renamed as Institut Seni Indonesia (ISI) or Indonesia Institute of Arts. A year after Komang graduated, he was appointed as a lecturer at the same school.
In 1981, Komang took the opportunity to study Ethnomusicology at the San Diego State University, California, USA where he then received a Master degree. While studying there, Komang also taught gamelan for the students. In 1983, Komang founded Gamelan Giri Blooms in West Hurly-Hudson, New York, USA, and taught there for a little while. In 1987, Komang was a guest professor for a year at the Montreal University of Canada, and in 2006, Komang received a Fulbright Grant to teach gamelan at Union College, Schenectady, New York, USA. Recently, on October 10, 2012, I Nyoman Astita received a doctoral degree from the University of Udayana, Bali, by presenting his dissertation entitled “Transformasi Epos Ramayana Ke Dalam Sendratari Ramayana Bali” (Transformation of the Ramayana Epoch into Balinese Ramayana Dance Theater). As most expected, he graduated with summa cum laude.
In addition to his activities as a composer, musician, and teacher, Komang has been one of the main forces behind the success of many major and important events. Pesta Kesenian Bali (Bali Arts Festival), and Sacred Rhythm: the Millennial Percussion Festival are among the events that he had assisted.
Listen to the World: Bali and its culture are acknowledged in the international world, and as a part of Indonesia, it is even more famous than Indonesia itself. After the performance at Paris Expo at the end of the 19th century, Gamelan Bali had influenced the development of Classical music in the Western world. How about in Bali itself, were there some developments or changes during that period?
I Nyoman Astita: Gamelan Bali is the expression of Balinese culture with its own unique characteristics. Balinese people are very lucky to inherit the beautiful and the richness of the gamelan tradition that has many varieties of expression. The development of Science & Technology in the 20th Century also influences the growth of Balinese Karawitan. Modernization or renewal came in contact with Gamelan Balinese culture in early 1900s with its new musical ideas that led to the creation of Gamelan Kong Kebyar. The new musical form of Gamelan Gong Kebyar then became the “modern” icon of Gamelan Bali by incorporating the entertaining aspect. Shortly after, such new form was facilitated by Mebarung, a festival that also serves as a competition intended for stimulating new creations. As for outside of Bali, the expansion of Gamelan music takes place all over the world and I think it still keeps up with the contemporary music.
We just passed a decade of the 21st century; what has happened in Bali’s world of arts so far? Is there any new trend that is emerging?
As I mentioned, Gamelan Bali with its variety of expression, “exotic” color, and the complexity of its structure has became one of the unique musical traditions among other great cultures. As one of the world cultures, Gamelan Bali with all of its forms, functions and meanings, appears unique and yet parallel with music from other countries.
However, Balinese still perceives and practices the Gamelan as a ritual dedicated to the deity within their social and traditional life. Gamelan is an expression of brotherhood that is sacred, as well as cultural expressions having a potential as the source of income as already happens in the tourism sector.
You have done various explorations with Balinese performing arts within a long period of time. The most recent one is the Kecak Putri (all women Kecak Dance) in Batu Karu village, Ubud. Would you describe some of your works, and what are the reactions shown so far by the society towards your efforts?
Before joining Sacred Bridge Foundation (SBF) in 1998, I have already worked in the world of contemporary Gamelan since 1979. One of my early works was “Gema Eka Dasa Rudra”, an attempt to highlight the simplicity of Gamelan Bali with the ambiance of an agrarian society that displays umasadina (daily routines in the field). This piece was performed at Pekan Komponis Muda at the Taman Ismail Marzuki (Young Composer Week at the Ismail Marzuki Art Center), Jakarta in 1979. I must tell you that the performance at the event had such a joyful and yet “chaotic” atmosphere; just like how the concept of festivity in Bali. My other works were “Pencon”, and “Ombak Buluh”, both was composed in 1985.
Most of the time I try to get a hold of the concept of festival in Bali and implement it in a different way. This so-called new music must have this kind of character since it represents Bali after all. I also try to use many different Balinese traditional music instruments and avoid sticking with only one category of instrument ensemble. I combine a few instruments and turn some non-musical tools into musical instruments such as broomstick and Kethungan (rice pestle) including the pestle pad. Then, I also incorporate various sizes of flutes, Gamelan Semar Pegulingan, Gambuh and Kenthongan (wooden bell).
I arrange these instruments in a totally different proportion. The Gamelan Gong for example, I once used ropes instead of the standard support, and hang them at the roof of a theater so that they also served as an artistic configuration. I also placed several Kenthongan at different corners where spectators can hit and play them anyway they like. This way, the performance became participative, and contained many elements: installation, theater, music, and acting. This was the real concept behind the changes I intended to have at the time. So, I think that was the period when I became a “reformer”. How the society reacts to what I do? Well, as far as I know, people have accepted just fine. The same acceptance is shown toward the all-women Kecak Dance that I recently initiated in Ubud.
If you had to explain about your work/music, how would you describe it? What is the background, what inspires you the most, and what are the differences with the existing Balinese traditional music?
Up to the present, I still work on the basis of two foundations: traditional and new music. Traditional pieces that I created are fortunately well-received by the society; some of them had even become repertoires played by Seka-seka Gamelan (Gamelan communities) in Bali. As for the creative efforts and struggle, I’m quite fortunate that I still have the chance to work with a few of the world-renowned composers like Stomu Yamash’ta, Phillip Conner and others. It is a learning process to understand many characteristics of music from different parts of the world, particularly contemporary music.
You studied ethnomusicology at the San Diego State University; how much do the education and your life experience there influence your thoughts and your work?
Studying under the direction of Prof. Bob Brown, and being exposed to the works of Harry Partch certainly gave me new perspectives and insights. As you might have known, Harry Partch created musical instruments according to his imaginations. Besides its unconventionality, the instruments also function as art installation. So it’s very exciting to experience how “objects in art installation” are played as musical instruments. Thus, from that different idea then there were these new sounds, and that was new to me…
You have tons of experiences with different kind of music genre; what are the important things that should be gained from these music?
To me, music is an expression. Any kind of music will or can “move” our feelings, the only difference is the emotional touch.
Digitalization has impacted various fields including music. How do you see this, and does it affect your work?
Digitalization derived from Science and Technology. Within the realm of music, it has a major impact on how we perceive music today. In my opinion, digitalization is a good thing as long as we can understand the concept of it. We can benefit from technological advancements, and make the best of it for the development of music.
Bali has also become an icon in world tourism; what are your comments on this issue?
Bali as an icon in world tourism? Why not? It’s been proclaimed as a national program, hasn’t it? Ha ha ha… Don’t forget, however, that tourism icon is a part of tourism commodities. So it is important to practice a responsible tourism. It’s good that we are able to generate income from promoting culture, but it is essential to keep strengthening our roots.
How do the young perceive the traditional/ritual Balinese arts recently? And how do they position the Western Pop music within their daily activities?
It is the same everywhere if we talk about pop music. Even though the roots of the Western pop music are not well understood, in reality, people are “proud” of having it right? Most people actually hear only a glimpse of pop music; they can get a hold of the music easily, but hardly discover the values attached to it. As for the musicians, doing pop music is seen and practiced as a profession to make a living.
In Bali, there are the mainstream pop music from the Western culture, and the local pop music. The local pop music has really developed in Bali; in fact, it helped boosting the traditional values. Every year there is a local pop music festival that is part of the Bali Art Week. In this festival, pop music is not the only music that is performed; new musical creations are also presented. Traditional music that incorporates pop music formats is also staged, and such approach actually gives the traditional music a new color that in this case is local dialect.
This type of activity makes the culture “alive”. Although the rearrangements of local songs transform them into interesting entertainment, they still reflect the traditional point of views. At the same time, this local pop music also preserves the language, culture in general as well as expresses something new.
What are your expectations for the future of music, in Bali, Indonesia, and the world?
Indonesians must always keep music in accordance with its cultural diversity. In culture itself music works as ritual, social bond, and entertainment. Thus, we have to be able to sort through. It is everyone’s obligation to be able to maintain and empower music from each area. Diversity and uniqueness of music in Indonesia are extraordinary potentials; potentials that wait to be cultivated, explored and appreciated.
If we talk about new music, there should be a music that can be accepted by everyone. You may call it new music, cutting edge, contemporary or even urban music or whatever. To me, it is no longer relevant what type of music and what terms you use, as long as they are music that can give enlightenment.
It is a great honor to us to have an interview with you. It is very important for all of us, and more so for the young generation, to know and learn about you. So thank you very much for your helpfulness in taking this interview, and most of all, your contribution to music.