Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Singing Up Ghosts in Lawang Sewu 

Jan Cornall

You meet me at the airport and take me to my hotel, tell me later we will go in search of wingko babat, lumpia and my favorite soto ayam in a roadside warung. I like your town. It’s big and breezy, close to the sea, pleasant and open, it has curbs painted with zebra stripes, roundabouts and a big hill with views to the port. It could win a tidy town prize, reminds me of Newcastle with its sweep of beach, factory and ships waiting patiently to dock.

I'm told that “Semarang lies in the northern part of Central Java.The city's name derives from the Javanese words "asem" and "arang" which literary translate to "scarce tamarind." It is a bustling mid-sized city with a population of 1.5 million. More a business than tourism destination, it nevertheless has its own charm with contrasting modern mid-rises, Dutch colonial architecture, Chinatown, and small "kampong" jutting against each other.Wingko babat, a coconut sweet and lumpia,  egg roll, are Semarang specialities.The city's weather is hot and humid, so wear light-colored cotton clothes..  You do not need a long-sleeved shirt, instead a T-shirt and knee-long trousers are comfortable. However, some places like mosques (masjid) and temples require polite dress such as long trousers/skirts. Hot pants/mini skirts will attract people's attention in ways you might not like and might be considered impolite. “

You have a wife I haven’t met, somewhere in this salty town. I’m sure she’s lovely and knows about me, the writer friend who writes to you, who flies in on a whim to teach your students creative writing in a small, carpeted, airless room with tiered box seating. I can’t tell if I’m in a theatre or a padded cell. Everyone has their shoes off, left outside the door. I leap about barefoot on the carpet, feeling liberated, free, acting slightly mad, a bit gila in the nicest way (I hope). Later students tell me I am lucu (funny) and one asks me to join their group - Hysteria. I feel right at home.

KOLEKTIF HYSTERIA, adalah sayap organisasi hysteria yang bersifat komunitas. KOLEKTIF HYSTERIA concern pada penciptaan dan kreativitas tiap orang yang terlibat di dalamnya. keanggotaan bersifat cair dan ikatan hanya pada saat menjalankan art project bersama. KOLEKTIF HYSTERIA diciptakan untuk menampung kreativitas dan keliaran teman-teman dalam hal berkarya. COLLECTIVE Hysteria, hysteria is a wing organization that is community. COLLECTIVE Hysteria is concerned with the creation and creativity of everyone involved in it. Membership is fluid and bonds only when running art project together. COLLECTIVE Hysteria is created to accommodate creativity and wildness of friends in terms of work. (Thanks Google Translate)

Your daughter turns up, she is lovely, in her 20’s, she wears the jilbab, it only makes women look more beautiful I think. I am happy to meet her. You introduce me as your best friend. I am flattered and yes, it’s true. You feel like my best friend from kindergarten. That could be because we don’t speak each other’s languages so well, and like to make funny noises as we drive along in your little black car. ‘Waaaakk, waak, woaaaakkkaaa,’ you call out.’ Wieeeeik, wieeikka, wwaaaaoooooohhhh,’ I reply.

The African American  poet Tracie Morris likes to play around with sound. She is said to have made up her first sound poem while walking along a street, feeling the rhythms of her body, her breath, her heart.  

"Sounds pace through the body; the body paces through landscape. Walking makes a single chord of mind-body-world out of which Morris makes oral poetry in tour-de-force performances that send language-as-we-know-it out for a hike." ( Hume 415).

“I do something similar on my morning walks” Jan Cornall said in her tutorial on the 25th of September 2012 at the Sydney Consortium.  “I may think about bringing it to a wider audience than dog walkers and joggers’ she added later, in an imaginary interview for Realtime Arts. “I’m spurred on by being exposed to artists like Tracie Morris, Pamela Z, Kurt Elling. My earliest influences from the age of four were Gilbert & Sullivan  Dave Brubeck, Peter, Paul and Mary, The Incredible String Band, Nico, Milva, Nina Hagen, Edith Piaf, Meredith Monk and how could I forget Lamberts, Hendricks and Ross!”

In your car you play a tape of songs I wrote a long time ago. They have titles like Spilt Guilt, Limping For Sympathy, The Song Of A Single Cynic. You tell me you play them all the time. I’m not so comfortable listening to myself. I ask if you have any traditional music of Semarang. I scrabble around in your cassette bag. All I can find is Neil Young.

You have to go to your kantor. It’s the newspaper office where you work, you are the cultural editor for Suara Merdeka, the voice of Central Java. You are always going to the kantor, whenever I sms from Oz and ask, ‘What are you doing?’ you reply “saya akan ke kantor’. And when you are not going to the kantor you are driving off to Jogja or flying to Jakarta to report on cultural events. You even reported on visiting me in Melbourne. The headline you wrote had my name in it, splashed across Java.

We arranged to meet under the clocks at Flinders St. When you didn’t turn up I called your phone, worried you were lost. “But I am under a clock” you said, “and I am in Flinders St”. I didn’t know there was another clock further down. Ya benar, you were correct, you taught me something new about my city that night.

                Centre: Flinders St clocks. Far right: clock tower where you were waiting.

You were so proud to have travelled all the way from Brunswick by yourself on a tram. I equate it to taking the local bus from Jakarta airport to Gambir Station. I wouldn’t do it without you. I remember the time we did. We were on the way back from a festival where we both read our work. I was falling in love with Indonesians at every turn, men, women, children. I wrote a poem called Indonesian Handbag, the title a take on, fag hag, gay handbag – a straight woman who loves gay men, men she falls in love with but can never have. It even got published in the Jakarta Post. I was a wee bit embarrassed and now I realize why. It was a song not a poem. Written for the voice not the page.

"consciously locates itself "between acts;'' as the po:~hifts her focus toward newer and riskier "page work:' which Morris says provid~s-!:er with "a forum for another voice." In page-oriented poems like "Overview" and "Writer's Delight:' Morris turns toward a more visual sensibility, emphasizin"g 'the page as an attempt to "score with words" the "[a]ctivist verbiage rounds" ancl'''primordial sounds."  In this newer work, Morris surrenders the univocal lyric I ana-~eplaces the narrative-driven poem with multiple, public, and disjunctive voices. Here is. . '" a representatIve quatram: 

~'\, ',,<,
Fade black smack dab
in history.
Mysterious backdraft
liquid consistencys "   (Crown)

"Page work, and the phrase written for the page were expressions I first heard discussed at the Asia Pacific Writers Conference in Hong Kong 2010." Cornall continues. "It is interesting to note that even within the experimental fields in which Morris works, tensions exist between the written word and the voice". "In combatting mainstream poetry's emphasis on voice, the avant garde has tended to value language over lyricism and written experimentation over vocal expression." (Crown). 

"Morris takes her audience way out there with her sonic explorations of single lines of known songs like Sam Cooke's Chain Gang. Repeating the line: 'that's the sound of the man working on the chain gang' she breaks the words into a pure utterance of sound and rhythm,  reflecting the trauma and suffering of black American prison gangs.The discomfort and violence (she often hits her throat to get the sound) of her sound poems are confronting for an audience." Morris has become" less concerned with pleasing the listener" says Crown, and the challenge remains - how can you represent such a poem on the page? "People have said stuff to me in connection to sound poems that they have never said when I was doing page stuff" says Morris. (Crown 225)

"Being in a room with a voice that has opened itself up to the risk of contingency"(Crown) is exactly what I love to do says Cornall. But somehow I have de-legitimised this art form in favour of attempting to achieve literary excellence on the page. I have to thank Tracie Morris for leading me back to my roots."

Your other best friend Sitok, yes that famous poet, Sitok Srengenge, calls what I write ‘something like poetry’. I like this expression, it offers a way out, leaves the door open - an apt way to describe a lot of what I do: something-like-poetry,  something-like-prose, but not something-like-song. Song is where I began, I know I can claim it as mine. When Sitok and I collaborated together, the only way I could respond to his poems was to sing them. Now I marvel at the stages of translation his poems traversed - from image/feeling, to thought, to written word, to a poem in Indonesian, to a poem in English, to a song - sung back into the air it came from.

“Translation is the removal from one language into another through a continuum of transformations, so says Walter Benjamin", wrote Jan Cornall in her note book in the last Sydney Consortium tutorial of her MA in Cultural and Creative Practice, led by Hazel Smith on Oct 2, 2012."Great" she thought, "I know exactly where I can put that quote!"

“Sometimes we may not even be aware of the different languages we speak,” Jan continues telling Realtime Arts interviewer Keith Gallasch in her imaginary interview for his cutting edge, hybrid arts magazine.”While my mother and grandmother were both pianists, by the time I was born neither of them owned or played a piano. Although I never saw or heard them play,  and never had music lessons, somehow they still passed the language of music on to me. “

“All my attempts to respond to Sitok’s poetry in words simply failed” Jan Cornall explained to the audience in Bandung, Java, at the launch of her CD Jan Cornall, Singing Srengenge. in 2006. When speaking of the collaborative relationship between Sitok, herself and jazz pianist Imel Rosalin, she added, “Creating art together is like creating a new language that doesn't require translation and interpretation. In this way we transcend the limitations of perceived difference to create a place of being together that is not only exhilarating and satisfying, but has relevance to the communities we represent.”

“Music is at once the most direct and esoteric of the arts,” says Stephen Benson. “We listen without thinking, and yet asked to explain the sounds themselves - to describe what we hear - many of us flounder.”Why is it so difficult to articulate/translate what we hear? Is it because the body experiences music as vibration, feels the emotion, rather than thinks it?

Meditation practitioners in Tibet have long been aware of the impact of sound on the body.  The ten energy points of the Dzogchen Longde, a meditation method  used in the Dzogchen teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, are governed by certain syllables which link with important energy centres in the body.  The Song Of The Vajra consists of syllables sung slowly in the language of an ancient pre- buddhist civilisation called Oddiyana.  Integrating totally with the sound of each syllable while singing the song, brings the meditator into an experience of non duality - the state of contemplation. 

Meredith Monk, composer, experimental vocalist and multidisciplinary artist, takes her audience into a meditative state with her vocalisations of pure sound. When speaking of using text in the process of theatre making, in a documentary by Peter Greenaway she says, ” I don’t really have contempt for the word. I have contempt when the word is used as the glue of something, which has happened in theater and a lot in film. I really don’t like it that one has to sit and listen to words all the time when really all the other faculties are not being used."

There’s something very comforting about sitting in a warung on a worn wooden bench under a blue flapping tarp, listening to the gas flame sizzling away. Reminds me of camping when I was little, but here we sit on the sidewalk, jutting out into the street, motorbikes and cars whizzing by, and yet I feel safe and cosy as I order my usual - air panas. The first meal we shared this way was in Jogja on famous Malioboro St, lesehan style in another of those makeshift restaurants that pop up after dark - we feasted on pece lele, sitting on grass mats at a low table. After dinner you took me for my first becak ride. We rode through the back streets of Jogjakarta soundlessly, gliding on air, you couldn’t even hear the rasp of the old becak drivers breath. I wanted to keep gliding all night.

This night you are taking me somewhere special but first you have to ask if I am scared of ghosts. ‘Don’t worry about me,’ I reply as we drive in the gate of a grand old colonial building that has seen better days. You get out of your little black car and go looking for the caretaker. The man you bring back is holding a very long torch. We go up to the front door, he knocks - no answer, then opens the door and we venture into the dark. ‘Where are we? I whisper. You take my hand, squeeze it tight and blow the words into my ear. “Lawang Sewu - The House of A Thousand Doors”.

"Roll up, roll up, to the house of a thousand doors. Step right up, step right up, to the house of a thousand doors. Walk this way, slide along, glide along, but don't knock on any old door, and don't go down the left corridor, I repeat, don't go down the left corridor, keep to the kanan, then tirus, tirus tirus tirus, don't go to the left, I repeat, don't go down the left…

Some doors you can open some doors you cannot, lie down on cool flagstones when the weather is hot, walk right up, walk right through, come after dark, come on the full moon, come when the shadows are bright and gloom is washing the colours out…

Follow your guide beneath torch-light, ascend the landing, gaze in awe, at the big stained glass window, say a prayer for those who happened to die right there, hear their screams as they plunged the blade, listen to the air rushing past, the last gasp of a ventricle sliced in half, hear their moans, skulls split and slide, blood spurts across the marble white..."

The Dutch began building Lawang Sewu in1904 and finished it 1919 for the Nederland Indische Spoorweg Maatschaappi, the national railway of the Dutch East Indies. When the Japanese invaded in 1942, they interred the Dutch in camps and used it as a prison carrying out interrogations, torture and executions.  In the battle of Semarang in 1945 the Dutch retook the building and many Indonesian fighters were killed. After the war and Indonesia's
independence, The Indonesian Army occupied the building but later returned it to the Dutch East India Railway Company.

We follow the caretaker up another flight to the junction of two long wide corridors. I want to go left but the caretaker stops us. So right we go, opening doors and stepping into empty high ceilinged rooms with chequerboard tile floors and French doors that open out onto the wide common balcony. 

Outside the full moon climbs into the night sky and I lag behind a little. I want to do the thing I do when I find myself in empty spaces like this; I want to test the air,  I want to sing. I lift my voice and send it to the ceiling. The acoustics are perfect. I lift it again and again trilling out snatches of classical improv, sliding out bits of jazz, a few coo-ees, a scale or two. I run my voice around the cornices, across each little crack on the flaking ceiling, I glaze the walls, bump it across the tiled floors like a finger or a fine paint brush dipped in moonlight, setting it in memory, making part of me, painting it onto my body so I won’t forget.

--> “The beauty of songfulness rests in the positive quality of singing-in-itself  --> 
: just singing.” says Kramer.
My best singing is always done alone, just me and the air, no audience, no witness, no words to describe it. For twenty years I didn't sing at all. Is it really something I want to go back to - standing on a stage with a microphone in front of me? Or do I want to save it for myself?

You rush back into the room, a look of concern on your face, the caretaker not far behind.  ” Please no singing,” you tell me, “the caretaker is nervous, he thinks you will wake up the ghosts.”  

Roll up, roll up, warm up, sidle up, sing a tune as you go, a sad song, patriotic song, a love song, a warrior song, a song of shame, a song of defeat, a song that has everyone tapping their feet, fill the halls with arias, rooms with concertos, the ceilings so high, the acoustics are perfect, raise your voice, lift it up to the roof, and call up the ghosts if you need any proof and watch as they float tall through the French doors, and click, click, clop, clop across stone chequerboard floors, and if you are scared open adjoining doors to the next room the next, and open them all to the balcony so wide and grand, lean yourself out to the court yard below and imagine it all in times long ago..

The house of a thousand doors.

The caretaker explains to you and you explain to me, about the ghost he sometimes meets down the left corridor.

Walk up, roll up to the house of a thousand doors, but don't, I say don't, proceed down the left corridor, instead watch the caretaker shine his torch on the floor, walls catch a glimmer of a figure tall with blond hair so long it becomes her dress and covers, not covers, her nakedness, the Belanda who visits late every night when his shift is done and shoulders are tight, she appears to him when he goes for a shower and his wife wonders why he always takes hours..

In the house of a thousand doors.

 He doesn’t mention other ghosts but I get the feeling he knows where they are. When we ask about the cellars he says they are flooded, we cannot go down. He taps his torch on the wall, looks tired, ready for bed. As we retrace our steps, descending the stairs to the lower level, the ghostly shape of an old man passes us in the hall. You tell me he has lived here since he was a boy.

And the shuffle below of one who survived, the hunched old frame who saw it all, who knew what went on behind each closed door, saw the Dutch, saw the Japs, all the snivelling traitors, collaborators, torturers, interrogators, but the Javanese spirit would not be cowed though many died in cellars dark, and local warriors played their part, he a lowly houseboy saw it all, now a bent old man, he shuffles around, dosses down, in a room out the back on a mattress of grass, now he is the master of the house…

 The house of a thousand doors.

The stained glass window that watches over the marble landing where a bloody battle took place.

I’m back in Sydney when I start writing this something like-story-like-song-like-poem called The House of A Thousand Doors, only it’s coming out more like a song or a spruiker’s chant. I don’t finish it, only just get going really, before I am distracted by other things. But the germ is there, the seed is planted in that first verse - “Roll up, roll up to the house of a thousand doors.” It’s the cry of the spruiker from an agricultural show in 1950’s country Victoria, calling us down sideshow alley to the haunted house, drumming up an audience for Jim Sharman’s boxers, luring us in to watch the beautiful lady with the ostrich feather fans in the burlesque tent. The rhythm is set, the template established as the first words roll onto the page. Three years later I revisit it and wonder, can it be included in the anthology of short stories we are planning - yours set in Australia, mine in Indonesia? Can it slip in via the category prose poem, or is there a term better suited like: prose song, prose chant, song poem, song story, song narrative?

Kurt Elling is a jazz artist who crosses such borders regularly. While his vocalese ‘lyrics’ may never be published alone as stories, it is clear they follow a narrative form.  A scat artist with a love of beat poetry, Elling began writing words to jazz standards, playing them over and over, even as he slept, until the words/narrative began to emerge. A story born from music. 

“Kurt Elling chooses to sing songs and tell stories. The art of vocalese, by its non-repetitive lyrical nature, lends itself beautifully to narrative. It's a breathtaking thing to behold the arrival of a journeyman who we can sense works always mindful of balancing craft (technique) and character (message, story),” says Greg @ Melbourne Jazz, while blogging about the 2008 Melbourne Jazz Festival.

When you read his lyrics not all of them stand up on the page. Resolution is an exception. It's beat poetry syntax can be felt between the lines. An inspired poetic rave on the nature of God, you can hear the song, the rhythm, the back beat, even when the music is absent.

I wonder if my prose/poem/song, The House Of A Thousand Doors will work alone on the page and how much its meaning is dependent on performativity. Would I sing it or voice it? Would I use jazz backing, traditional Semarangese gamelan or fusion, perhaps add a dash of early twentieth century chamber music or a Dutch folk genre called Levenslied (song about life) with accordion and barrel organ?

Can we really convey musical meaning through words without music, or do the efforts of writers like Vikram Seth in his novel, an Equal Music, never quite match up? While we may marvel at a gifted Indian author’s ability to so successfully capture the atmosphere of the classical music world of 1990’s London, what does it add to the experience of listening to the music he loves and writes about?  Is his novel, like his main character, more of an accompaniment to the music - like a second violin, rather than the first.

On the way back to the hotel you start singing our song, the one we made up in the Botanical Gardens in Sydney when I took you to see Lady Macquarie’s Chair and you asked, "where is the chair?" I am always forgetting the Javanese words. I have written them down in one of the small note books I always carry with me and always seem to misplace.

We will sing again after we visit Lapindo, the mud disaster site near Sidoarjo where six villages have been buried under a volcano of liquid mud that keeps oozing from a blowout in a natural gas mining well. In the evening you will recite your poem Moon over Mud for the local arts community and I will provide a vocal accompaniment. We will perform again in Canberra for the Indonesian Ambassador and at Borobodur at the Ubud Writers Festival where dukuns will be employed to keep away the rain.

I wonder if a term such as sono-poetic-musical-miscegenation could be applied to us. We are always mixing your culture and mine, giving birth to music, words and sound. Like the time we were driving around Sydney and you began intoning a deep gutteral chant which at first made me think you were in terrible pain. EEEEErrrrrrrrnnnnnnnssss n Yooooooonnnnnnnnnnnggggggg EEEEEErrrrrrrrrnnnnnnnssssssss n Yooooooooohoooonggggg. When I asked you what it meant, you pointed to the neon sign atop a city skyscraper that displayed the name of an accounting firm, Ernst & Young. I can’t look at it now without smiling and hearing your song.


                                   You: Tritanto Triwikromo, short story writer, poet, cultural editor Suara Merdeka.

(C) Jan Cornall 2012

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http ://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_Xj3ID-ybw 

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Keith Gallasch http://www.realtimearts.net/info

Kolektif Hysteria http://www.facebook.com/kolektif.hysteria?ref=ts&fref=ts

, L, Chapin, K (ed)(2009) Pour Out Forgiveness Like Wine. Musical Meaning and Human Values. Fordham University. P 182.

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Norbu, N. (1992) Song Of The Vajra, Dzogchen Community of America. 

Seth Vikram, (1999) An Equal Music. Phoenix House. 

Smith, H (2011) Glocal Imaginaries and Musical Displacements in the Work of Richards Powers, Post Colonial Text, Vol 6, No 2.
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Striking Gold in Bandung (2006) Saritaksu interview.  http://www.saritaksu.com/takeme-release2.htm