In this piece, I attempt to capture the dynamic energy of Ratoh Jaroe, a traditional dance (for women) originating from Aceh, Indonesia. A typical performance of Ratoh Jaroe begins with an elaborate extemporisation of religious or poetic texts in the Acehnese language by the syahi (or ‘poet’), followed by a faster section in which the dancers, paired and seated in a row, execute a flurry of hand gestures and body movements. The fast sequences are divided by pauses cued by the syahi, which allow the dancers much-needed breathers.
I have recently witnessed a performance of Ratoh Jaroe by students in the Imperial College (London) Indonesian Society, and was truly impressed by the sheer psychomotor and psychoacoustic coordination demanded by the ‘high octane’ choreography. The dancers had to clap/tap, bend forward and back, all while singing (and sometimes screaming!) along with the syahi and an accompanying drummer (playing the Rapa’i). I was also struck by how the dancers have managed to memorise and convincingly execute their moves containing many irregular rhythmic patterns and changes—no mean feat.
This quartet, then, may be thought of as a ‘re-presentation’ of Ratoh Jaroe, in which the four saxophonists collectively embody the energy within the sounds and gestures of the syahi, Rapa’i, as well as the dancers. I allow the dance sequences to inform my compositional structure, but also assume artistic liberty in elaborating certain gestures I consider to be characteristic of the dance form, especially the ‘squeaks’ and ‘screams’. In a similar vein, I encourage the saxophonists to ‘go all out’ for these percussive gestures (particularly in the fast sections) in giving a stunning performance.
A quick final thought: this is one of my initial attempts to write pieces drawing directly upon cultural forms existing in Southeast Asia— which (as a Singaporean) I feel sufficiently connected to, and ‘responsible’ towards. I aim to pursue this direction further and deeper in future pieces; hopefully my endeavour would create new contexts for these cultural forms to be seen in different lights.