Indonesian and Western music intermingle in a haunting accompaniment to Garin Nugroho’s horror film Satan Jawa.

Australian composer Iain Grandage is no stranger to horror. His 2016 percussion concerto Dances with Devils – which Claire Edwardes premiered last July with the Melbourne and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras – was inspired by the 19th century Australian Gothic literary tradition, Grandage bringing to life short stories of terror and isolation in the Australian bush.

His latest project sees him delving once more into the supernatural, teaming up with Indonesian composer Rahayu Supanggah to create a live score for a new film, Satan Jawa. The specially commissioned film will be screened in Melbourne as part of Asia TOPA, accompanied by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and an ensemble of Indonesian Gamelan players.

Garin Nugroho’s Satan Jawa

Inspired by Javanese mythology and the 1922 expressionist horror film Nosferatu, Satan Jawa is directed by revered Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho. “He’s an extraordinary, multi-faceted artist,” Grandage tells me over the phone from Indonesia, where he has been working on the score with the gamelan ensemble. “He’s a writer, choreographer, director, film director, and immensely loved and well known in Indonesia.”

Nugroho makes both commercial and arthouse films, but is perhaps best-known for his 2006 musical film Opera Jawa. But while Opera Jawa is saturated in colour, Satan Jawa is in stark black and white, channeling darker stories from Javanese mythology. “He’s found a way of fusing some of the expressionist silent film styles as exemplified by Nosferatu and other black and white silent movie classics from Europe with Javanese stories that pre-date Islam arriving in Java,” says Grandage.

“They’re ancient myths that he’s dealing with here, and this one specifically – the myth of the Pesugihan – is not dissimilar to the western Faust myth. It’s a poor man who sells his soul to the devil in order to gain wealth, and his duty is to care for his house in order to appease Satan.”

But as in deal-with-the-devil scenarios from stories the world over, the challenge proves impossible – he can never tend the house enough. “It’s a lesson about materialism as much as spiritual cleanliness,” says Grandage. “It’s an immensely beautiful film involving traditional Javanese dance, complete with clowns and high and low status characters – very stylised movement, but a very easy to follow narrative for all audiences.”

The film was created before the score, Garin shooting the entire thing in six days. “It’s an extraordinary work of art,” says Grandage. “He is such a polymath, and he’s working with a group of actors and dancers and creative artists who do things incredibly quickly because they have a shorthand together.”

Garin Nugroho’s Satan Jawa

Next, Supanggah created a gamelan score. “I’m always aware in these kinds of cultural collaborations of the history of the colonial experience in Indonesia, of not dominating,” says Grandage. “This is an Indonesian story being told by the combined forces of Indonesian and western music. And because the story is Javanese and there are many traditional Javanese elements within the score, I wanted to leave the pre-eminent and first response to the gamelan itself.”

But there’s a dialogue between gamelan and orchestra, and already having the gamelan ensemble’s response gave Grandage a unique framework upon which to base his own contributions. “Indonesian music has its own pitch collections, which are different to the western twelve tone system,” he says. “They have the pelog that has seven pitches, and the slendro scale which has five. And those two scales have a single common note, which is our western B Flat. Having had the first response of the gamelan, it gave me the key around which I could then work the orchestral score.”

Grandage traveled to Indonesia to work with the gamelan ensemble, introducing his own elements to the music, which then influenced how the gamelan played. “That’s where the great joy for all of us has been,” he says. “The Indonesians have suggested something to the orchestra to do and I have suggested something for the Indonesians to do. And it’s in that conversation and the ebb and flow that helps us all tell the story better and feel like we’re having a proper cross-cultural communication – rather than being two independent responses to the same work of visual art. It feels like it’s very much a simpatico telling of this story.”

Iain Grandage conducting the live accompaniment for Satan Jawa with soloist Peni Candarini. Photo by Mark Gambino

The process of combining elements from two quite different musical traditions isn’t without challenges, however. “Pitch is a big thing,” Grandage says, “because there are only two or maybe three common tones which we would call, in inverted commas, ‘in tune’ – so it’s finding a language which works and doesn’t clash for our western ears or the Indonesians’ ears. And it’s got to be complex enough to allow the drama to emerge.”

Another challenge was thrown up by the large improvisatory element that forms part of any gamelan performance. “The film will always be the arbiter of time of course,” says Grandage, “but trying to ascertain the things which are immovable in terms of their structure and the things that are improvised – and therefore movable – is quite a challenge. There’s been some enjoyable and funny things as we got to know each other a lot better.”

“It’s one of those openings of doors,” he says. “The more you know the more you realise you don’t know anything.” That said, Grandage and Supanggah have found a number of ways to bridge the divides. “Supanggah is writing contemporary gamelan music with a deep knowledge of the tradition that he’s mining,” says Grandage. “But the music itself is far more accessible – not in a demeaning sense – for us, a western audience, than purely classical gamelan music. He’s a contemporary composer of immense skill and he’s utilising the gamelan in inventive ways. And the fact that they’re new and inventive gives a western audience, untrained in that music, a way in.”

Despite taking the first compositional turn in the process, Supanggah was composing with collaboration in mind from the beginning. “He might be using rhythmic aspects which don’t come from Javanese culture but come from more popular culture,” says Grandage. “Or he might be specifically sitting on pitches that help me. He’s very much writing with an awareness of the gaps that I might be able to fill – he’s been incredibly generous like that. He’s left wonderful gaps for the orchestra to fill and have a conversation with.”

But how do music and film interact? “Because it’s a silent film, the weight of storytelling falls more on the score in terms of dramatic ebb and flow,” says Grandage. “It also makes it far more fun to write for.”

Garin Nugroho’s Satan Jawa

“You can take the idea of leitmotifs to its logical end point,” he explains. “There are a lot of turtles throughout the film, so there are various themes relating to the mysticism attached to the turtle, or the turtle being representative of the destroyer of the world. There’s a three-headed beast and two main protagonists.”

Supanggah and Grandage also harnass the instrumentation of the ensemble to enhance their story-telling. “The 20 players of the gamelan include five vocalists, and each of those vocalists are attached to various themes,” Grandage explains. “There’s one woman who voices the emotional state of the female character, there’s another who voices the Satan, another who voices the idea of magic.”

It’s not just the two composers who have been working on the score, the director Nugroho has taken an active role. “He’s been fantastic in pushing Supanggah and myself out of our comfort zones and playing the role of a musical editor,” Grandage says. “He really is helping tell the dramatic arc by using our raw material.”

“What makes our jobs more enjoyable is that there’s this third wheel who’s consistently urging us to think outside the box,” he explains. “He’s been very much the linchpin and he’s an extraordinary artist.”

Satan Jawa screens at Hamer Hall, Melbourne as part of Asia TOPA on February 24