The music of Tony Prabowo

Having studied Western composition in Jakarta in the 70s, Tony Prabowo has always composed in a diversity of idioms. Freedom is the key word. As he once said, “…my compositional process is very spontaneous. I hear the music in my head, and write it down directly…I follow my intuition for the melody, harmony, dynamics and for the structure itself.”

Prabowo’s works to date, can be said to fall roughly into four categories: music with an ‘Eastern’ inflection, Western-style contemporary compositions, works for live solo performer with prerecorded multiple tracks, and opera.

The third category is in fact a by-product of Prabowo’s endless experimentation with traditional music such as gamelan. Never merely satisfied with creating new sounds through extended techniques (ie. turning bonangs or small pot gongs upside down, bowing gongs and genders in gamelan, controlling pitch through the tuning of the zheng to modes of his own invention), he attempted to circumvent tradition altogether through the creation of prerecorded soundscapes of multiple instruments that culminated in a new genre altogether.

And throughout Prabowo’s over 20-year career it is the verse of leading Indonesian poet and writer Goenawan Mohamad that has proved the longest-lasting inspiration. He has this pain “not just any old pain, but a deep, dark, devastating pain that suits my mindscape” – said Prabowo. That Mohamad is widely held as his country’s icon of freedom of expression, following the banning of his influential newsmagazine Tempo in 1994 by the Suharto government is a telling poetic detail.

In Prabowo’s insistence on freedom, however, his music bears a few marked characteristics. Melody is one striking aspect. Derived, perhaps, from his passion for the human voice, his trials with a modern kind of ‘cengkok’ (ornamentation) can be heard in many of his vocal works made famous by the singer Nyak Ina Raseuki.

Harmony also plays a significant role in Prabowo’s signature sound. Debussy was an early influence, so were Olivier Messiaen, Toru Takemitsu, and the Second Viennese School. Of Schoenberg’s ‘twelve-tone’ method, however, Prabowo is only interested in its sound, its expressiveness, its possibilities of tension, rather than its theory or its technique. In fact, German expressionist art of the same period holds the same appeal to him: “To me, expression comes from comparing the short and long intervals.”

Another prominent trait of Prabowo’s music is polyphony, courtesy of J.S. Bach and the Renaissance composers, particularly Thomas Tallis and Palestrina. But none of his earlier works comes close to his recent choral work, Doa Persembunyian (A Prayer for Refuge), in maturity and inspiration, which may have something to do with the haunting, liturgical quality of Goenawan Mohamad’s eponymous poem. Prabowo’s own brand of polyphony has also proven a useful receptacle for some of his tonal writing, usually in ‘Eastern’-sounding modes.

In the past two years, Prabowo has found a new love in piano and recovered an old flame in dance. In his first composition for the piano, 2004, harmony shifts between the modes and dodecaphony, between calm and the storm, near and far hope and hopelessness. Meanwhile, the new year has started with a few collaborations with Korean choreographer Sen Hea Ha, who has won accolades for her own potent blurring of ‘East’ and ‘West’.

Also figuring prominently in Prabowo’s horizon is Pastoral, written for 2 sopranos and a string quartet. It is based on a stylistic volte-face of the same name, written by Goenawan Mohamad at the end of 2002. The poem, written in a twelve-part cycle, is about happiness as found in a sensual experience, both tangible and ephemeral, such as morning in a hamlet in Bali.

Since 1996, Tony Prabowo has had an important connection to the Juilliard School in New York, when his Dongeng Sebelum Tidur for Soprano and Mixed Ensemble (1992) was performed as part of the Focus! Festival at Alice Tully Hall by the New Juilliard Ensemble, under conductor Joel Sachs. Later that year, he was invited to write another piece for the New Juilliard Ensemble. Following its premiere in Alice Tully Hall, the resulting Autumnal Steps was later performed by the Seattle Creative Orchestra and by the ISI Yogyakarta Orchestra at Art Summit 1998 in Jakarta.

His opera The King’s Witch, on a libretto by Goenawan Mohamad premiered at the New York’s Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, by the New Juilliard Ensemble, under Joel Sachs (2000).

Other performances of his music in the USA include the premiere of his Requiem for Strings by the Mannes Orchestra under Vietnamese conductor Co Nguyen, and another performance of this piece at the Tanglewood Festival in 1998, conducted by Tan Dun.

His latest piece, Psalms, for piano and chamber orchestra (2005), was performed by the New Juilliard Ensemble in Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York.

His music has been performed with composers such as Isang Yun, Lou Harrison, Bun Ching Lam, Paul Dresher, Betsy Jolas, Walter Zimmerman, Valentine Bibik, Toru Takemitsu, Ornette Coleman, Mario Davidovsky, Somei Satoh, and Qi Gang Chen.