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Luo Zaho


For choir, prepared piano and percussion
Duration: 18:15  |  1988
Première Performance March 10/11, 1989
Vancouver Cantata Singers; Arlie Thompson, piano; Robin Reid, percussion
Vancouver East Cultural Centre

I. Prologue

II. From the Creation Story: Nias Island

And the great god arose
And the great Luo Zaho arose.
He went to the bath, to rise again
Up there in the source, the splintered glass.
And he gathered earth, a handful,
He gathered earth, the size of an egg.
He took it to his village, to the assembly house,
He took it to his village, to the dwelling house,
His lump of earth, a handful,
His lump earth, the size of an egg.
And he formed an ancestor, he formed a child.
He opened the lips of his mouth,
He opened his breath,
To let him speak in the manner of men,
To let him speak like a child,
Up there before the highest god,
Up there before Luo Zaho.
He made him, he let him live,
He named him when he was there: “Sihai up there, who has no heir,
Sihai up there, who is still childless.” And the high god arose, the great Luo Zaho arose
And assigned a place to his creation…

From the Creation Story

III. Nisan/Grave

Nisan [Gravestone]: Chairil Anwar
It is not really death that stabs at my heart
But your willingness to take whatever may come:
I do not know how high above dust
And sorrow you have been enthroned.
Grave: Toto Sudarto Bachtiar
What you can hear, friend,
Besides the moon slowly skipping,
Is the sound of our last tears.
Where the dawn of death is for him,
And the world
Rises dark and is silently swallowed


IV. Sacred Fire: Sutan Takdie Alisjahbana

While my breath swells
And my heart beats
Oh fire, grill my soul
Till it screams, till it sighs.
Like glowing steel
Kindled in bright flames
Let my soul melt
In the Supreme One’s blaze.

Sacred Fire

Luo Zaho, a three-movement work for choir, prepared piano and percussion begins with a prologue. The sounds created by the waterphone and those produced within the piano are intended to evoke the beginnings of creation, the gradual awakening of life. The prologue leads directly into the first movement, which is based on poetry from Nias Island. From the Creation Story, the legend of man created from a lump of earth, employs the marimba to imitate the ostinato-like counterpoint typical of the gamelan, while the four African drums replicate actual traditional gamelan drumming.

The second movements draws on two poems: Nisan (Gravestone), written in 1942 by Chairil Anwar, and Grave, written by Totot Sudarto Bachtiar. Grave/Nisan begins with a short piano introduction which adheres to the quasi-mythological Indonesian theory that music is always present in the cosmos, but inaudibly, until the gamelan brings it to life, becoming one with the infinite. The opening bars of the second movement, and the germinating motive following, are shared between marimba and piano. The contrapuntal interplay is taken from an actual shadowplay accompaniment, as played by the ‘gender wayang’ of the Kuta village.

The men begin a loosely transcribed song, which was originally performed by a male chorus (gerong) upon the entrance of Prince Paku Alam of Java. A very stylized and highly ornamented chantlike melody, it recurs throughout the movement, intertwining with the musical setting of the hauntingly lyrical text of Grave to evoke the mystic, perfumed atmosphere typically surrounding the Javanese gamelan.

In the final movement, modern vocal techniques, such as speaking and chord clusters, are combined with traditional Indonesian instruments and timbres. On a yet deeper level, Sacred Fire attempts to musically integrate the magico-religious significance of the gamelan stemming from the pre-Islamic Hindu period, the Christian faith introduced by the Dutch, Portuguese and English colonizers, as well as Islamic beliefs, all of which co-exist in the richly diversified spiritual life of the Indonesian people. The unifying musical thread is the rhythmically vigorous Ketjak Dance, or monkey chant, from Bali.

The abstract nature and symbolism of Indonesian music and dance, and their inseparable relationship to the expression of religious faith, have served as an inspiration for Luo Zaho.


For their first-ever concert in the very intimate setting of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, the Vancouver Cantata Singers celebrated the music of the Pacific Rim…including two world premieres by local composers. The most impressive of the premieres was Ramona Luengen’s Luo Zaho. Luengen, a work based on the music and culture of Indonesia. And in order to achieve as authentic an Indonesian sound as possible, the composer scored her work for a prepared piano and percussion…and was thus able to create a sound which is quite close to that of the Indonesian gamelan. Although Luengen’s work has a very clear Western sound to it, the Indonesian roots of the work are always apparent and they create a most unique musical blend of Eastern and Western traditions.
— March 17, 1989 – Georgia Straight