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Dion Nataraja

Ancestral Knowledge, Indigenous Culture, Memories, Post-Humanism, Cultural Translation, Javanese Culture, Music Composition


Kafka, Postmortem

Kafka, Postmortem, Dion Nataraja, 2021. Musical Composition for Gamelan Sandikala. 11’50”.

"Kafka, Postmortem" is based on Kafka's story titled "The Judgment." At the end of the story, the protagonist committed suicide after his father condemned him to death by drowning ("And therefore take note: I sentence you now to death by drowning!"). The absurdity! Who would drown themselves right after hearing such a literal condemnation? The story is strange even without adding elements of magical realism or surrealism; Kafka simply creates the story in a realistic manner, with characters acting strangely, distant from how humans usually act. In the spirit of this strangeness, I asked Redian Pragina Jali to create a Javanese translation of the story's ending. By working with a Javanese translation of this unusual text, I intend to turn the language into something strange unto itself. I sang this text with a style in between sulukan, Debussy's Pelleas & Melisande, and kargyraa: recitative after recitative, and at several moments, accompanied by a syntactical breakdown into harsh noise (kargyraa, rebab overpressure, electronic distortion). While writing the vocal part, I was inspired by the idea of asemic writing — a kind of writing that represents grammatical breakdown — and by Kristeva’s notion of the semiotic/the symbolic, where the semiotic refers to rhythm and tone, and the symbolic refers to grammar and syntax. Noise would function as the breaking point from the symbolic to the semiotic. I attempt to push forward the experiments that we did with our previous piece; here, we utilized four new gendèrs, which in total would form a 36-tone tuning system (two of the gendèr do not have octave repetition). The electronic materials are sourced from field recordings as well as from Denis Smalley’s Base Metals, I intend this to be an homage to the first piece that gave me a deep understanding of the power behind bell timbre.


Hyperkembangan X, Dion Nataraja, 2022. Musical Composition for Gamelan Sandikala. 10’36”.

The attempt to stretch the concept of irama by exploring the liminality between pulse and noise is at the heart of this piece. This idea, coming from Central Javanese gamelan, organizes the temporal density within a piece, starting from irama lancar with one saron panerus beat per balungan note, to irama rangkep with sixteen saron panerus beats per balungan note. "Hyperkembangan" is based on a central question: what would the sound of an extremely high level of irama be, where the balungan notes are imperceptibly sparse while the elaboration is extremely dense?

This hypothetical situation led to the conceptualization of a piece based on a progression from pulse to complex sound (represented by spectral harmonies) to noise—noise here functions as a representation of an overload in the elaborative part. The piece is played with two gendèrs with pair tuning consisting of a customized 14-note system that can accommodate spectral harmonies (based on the spectra of note 1 in gendèr struck with a hard mallet) and its various manipulations. The "X" in the title—as well as a reference to Boulez's "Polyphonie X"—suggests a kind of cultural defacing, where new content is imposed on the cultural memory of the music, yet still maintains parts of those memories; a form of a musical palimpsest.

Herutjokro as Posthuman

Herutjokro as Posthuman, Dion Nataraja, 2021. Musical Composition for Gamelan Sandikala. 8’4”.

"Herutjokro as Posthuman" is a piece that explores the ideas of Romo Herutjokro Semono (1900 - 1981) in relation with the discourse of posthumanism. Conceptually, it is an attempt to deconstruct and build new ideas based on the Javanese idea of rasa. At the technical level, it is an attempt to explore ideas such as orchestration of gamelan extended techniques, creation of new instrument (this piece uses new gendèr), spectral harmony, and algorithmic processes.

Artist Interview

Q: In this new edition of the UAAD online magazine, we're exploring the theme of "[Matrix] of the [Not-Yet]." How would you interpret these two words, and how do you see your work aligning with the concepts of [Matrix] and [Not-Yet]?

The word redemption comes to my mind as I read these two words. I do not wish to speculate about the future; I do not even know if there is a future for us. Regarding this matter, there is a quote by Kafka, which he articulated during a conversation with Max Brod: “Oh, there is hope, an infinite amount of hope, just not for us.” I read this sentence not simply as an expression of pessimism, but rather, as a purified optimism: we have to believe in the possibility that things could be better, even though all empirical evidence conspires against us.

We may draw a distinction between futurity and redemption. Futurity denotes a certainty of what is to come. Meanwhile, redemption is a maintenance of faith in the face of total uncertainty. This idea of redemption and uncertainty is echoed in the theme. In this sense too, my work aligns with the theme, as it is an attempt to encompass minor histories, recollect them in a single musical instance, to maintain faith in the possibility of an exit from the current world. A famous quote from Marx fully captures this effect: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the mind of the living.”

Q: We are very interested in the trajectory of your creative practices and their connection to the theme. Could you provide us with a little more information about your background?

I grew up in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. I think my life properly started in middle school: I started playing classical piano, practicing painting, as well as reading philosophy and literature. I remember, my uncle gave me this big book by Bertrand Russell, "A History of Western Philosophy," which was an important starting point in my interest in philosophy. I also spent a lot of time reading Indonesian literature, by writers such as WS Rendra, Chairil Anwar, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Ayu Utami, and Seno Gumira Ajidarma. During the middle of high school, I got a scholarship to continue my studies in the Netherlands. I then moved to the US for undergraduate study. I started to take gamelan seriously during those years.

I think that my adventures, both intellectually and geographically, deeply influenced my work: I try, not necessarily to synthesize, but to hold together all these disparate elements into a condensed artistic moment.

Q: The creators participating in this magazine work across various mediums, including moving images, interactive installations, music composition, etc. What factors influence your choice of medium for your works?

I am highly interested in mediums that unfold in time. My thinking, both in a pragmatic and conceptual manner, is closely tied to time: relationship with forgotten history, with the victims of past tragedies, with a hope for redemption. I find that music, as it foregrounds time, enables me to artistically explore these ideas.

Aside from this, there is something highly appealing to me about working with performers. In my gamelan group, Sandikala Ensemble, the crux of my approach is to work with the knowledge that the musicians have, but at the same time, challenging them. It is a dual act: respecting the history of the musical tradition, but also trying to push them towards something else.

Q: How does your work reflect or actively engage with the cultural and social dynamics of your community or the communities you interact with? Are there elements in your art that seek to bridge, disrupt, or transform these dynamics?

My work enacts a double move: it bridges and disrupts at the same time. It reflects my contradictory attitude towards tradition: respect and resentment. There is a passage in Adorno’s lecture on philosophy of history, inspired by Hegel’s "Philosophy of Right," where he argues that we ought to both honor and despise universal history. My artistic attitude is located in the same arena. The gamelan tradition carries with it historical sediments that I would like to confront. It carries the aura of the Javanese court (which I despise) and alignment with the Indonesian national project (which I equally despise). But at the same time, it carries memories of resistance.

Take, for example, the often forgotten story about Pontjopangrawit, a Javanese gamelan maestro who was taken by the Dutch colonial authorities to Boven-Digul prison in West Papua. There, he made his set of gamelan instruments with found objects to be performed with other inmates. This is such a fascinating history, and it becomes even more complex considering the present occupation of West Papua by Indonesia. These multiple sites of histories are the things that are in the back of my mind while I write my music.

Q: What real-world strategies or methodologies do you employ in your art practice to manifest your visions of the future? How do these tactics serve as forms of resistance or intervention within the current socio-political landscape?

There are two primary strategies that underlie my artistic practice. The first one is person-specific musical work. This comes, primarily, from my reaction towards composers who write for gamelan instruments but simply delegate the performance to percussionists who have no experience whatsoever in performing gamelan music. I thought that this was absurd; nobody would think to delegate a performance of a Beethoven piece to gamelan musicians untrained in Western music. It is crucial for me to work with musicians who are trained in the gamelan tradition and use their musical knowledge as the starting point. I’d like to also mention the names of these amazing musicians, the members of Sandikala Ensemble: Yusti, Roni, Kuncung, and Seno.

The second strategy is concerned with distorting traditional gamelan forms, traditional gamelan musical devices. I intend to create a negative image of the gamelan tradition. For example, in Sandikala, we have a set of cengkok—melodic fragments to be played in the Javanese gendèr instrument—that somewhat resembles the traditional cengkok, but at the same time, is alien from its original form. This aesthetic of alienation is further heightened by our customized instruments. In Sandikala, the instruments have a distinct tuning system, which takes its cue from the Javanese system, but at the same time, to use the word I have used previously, they are distorted. With this, I hope to metaphorically heighten strange elements that are already there in the tradition, but are not yet fully explicated.

Q: How do you hope your work impacts its viewers or participants, particularly in terms of rethinking potential futures or alternate realities? Who do you perceive as your audience?

I hope for my work to express the unspeakable alienation we experience every day under the global colonialist-capitalist structure. I wish to give form to the things that we silently experience but are censored in this polite and repressed society.

I think of the future generations as my audience. My work is akin to the act of creating and reorganizing archives, to enable us to live better. There is a quote from Gramsci which summarizes this approach: The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date . . . therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.”

Q: As a creator, what do you see as the threats or uncertainties we will face in the coming decade?

A word would be a succinct expression: annihilation.

Q: What motivates you to continue creating as an artist?

A response to the threat of the future: resisting annihilation.

Q: Are there any theories, books, or artists you would like to recommend in your current areas of interest?

Yes! I have been reading a couple of books: CLR James’ "The Black Jacobins," which is an amazing account of the Haitian revolution; Filep Karma’s "Seakan Kitorang Setengah Binatang" (English: "It is as if we are half-animal"), recounting the stories of Indonesia’s brutality towards West Papua; and Franz Kafka’s "Zurau Aphorisms." I have also been rereading Frantz Fanon’s "The Wretched of the Earth" and Hegel’s "Phenomenology of Spirit;" I find so many interesting links between German idealism and anti-colonial theories. I would recommend all of these books!

Q: If you could create an art piece with unlimited resources and no constraints, how would it look like, and why?

I would create a work that runs in the opposite direction of the resources offered to me: I would impose an extreme constraint on myself. The logic of colonialism and late capitalism is to expand itself boundlessly, turning all regions of the world into markets, and submitting the globe under the rule of the metropole. I would like to counter this by creating a hyper-constrained work of art. I think there is something to be said, something radical regarding the aesthetic of renunciation: a refusal to perpetuate the logic of a false world.

About the Artist

Dion Nataraja is a composer, experimental vocalist, and scholar from Indonesia, currently pursuing a PhD in music composition at UC Berkeley. His musical and scholarly works focus on the intersection of areas such as process music, Javanese gamelan, spectral techniques, improvisation, instrument building, and decolonial theories. Dion has attended masterclasses and studied with musicians of various genres, including Ken Ueno, Edmund Campion, Carmine-Emanuele Cella, Nick Brooke, Allen Shawn, Steve Lehman, Darsono Hadiraharjo, and Midiyanto. In 2020, he was awarded as a finalist in Talea Ensemble’s emerging composer competition, and in 2022, he was selected as a OneBeat fellow. His music has been featured in concerts such as PGVIS Symposium (Traditions in Transition), Jogja Noise Bombing, Salihara Jazz Buzz, MATA Festival, Soundbridge Festival, and many more. As a scholar, he has published his writing in the Jurnal Kajian Seni of Gadjah Mada University and has given lectures at venues such as the California Institute of the Arts, Salihara Arts Center, Perpromi, and October Meeting. Currently, he is focusing his work on Sandikala Ensemble, a Yogyakarta-based ensemble that develops experimental techniques and new gamelan instruments with the aim of expanding contemporary gamelan music’s horizon.

©2024 Underground Art And Design LLC | ISSN 2835-284X

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