The Jakarta Post
Mercy by Iskandar Widjaja (Iskandar Widjaja/File)
Iskandar Widjaja is one of Indonesia’s most successful musical exports and on his new album Mercy, the 32-year-old violinist continues on a path that will certainly introduce even more listeners to his music.
Though he was born and lives in Berlin, Iskandar has deep roots in Indonesian music. His grandfather is Udin Widjaja, a highly respected musician who made a name for himself during the reign of first Indonesian president Sukarno. Udin passed away in 2004.
Iskandar has won multiple awards for his violin playing, including taking home a gold medal at the first International Hindemith Violin Competition. He has also toured the world, with performances in countries such as Germany, naturally — but also Austria, Australia, Hong Kong and Indonesia.
Mercy showcases Iskandar’s blend of classical and modern music. It features his interpretation of some of his favorite compositions, improvising moments and adding textural elements such as sounds from a pregnant woman’s belly as well as sounds taken by NASA. It’s a cover album, but also, not really.
The musician himself refers to the blending of genres as combining “transcendence with minimalism”. A personal album that Iskandar has called his “baby” and a “love letter”, the album title was inspired by the concept of mercy — something that the violinist says has inspired iconic composers such as Bach and Max Richter in their creation.
The album features these unique takes on works by, among others, South Korean pianist Yiruma, Max Richter, and segments of pieces by Arvo Pärt and Johann Sebastian Bach.
“This project gave me the chance to give my imagination free rein and translate earlier experiments on the concert platform into the environment of the recording studio,” Iskandar says.
Thematically, the album breathes empathy, which was not by accident. There is a romanticism in life that Iskandar evokes through his tasteful renderings.
“It’s about gratefulness, gratitude, the still moments of life and celebrating each note, as if the last and only one to play,” he says.
Mercy involves the musicianship of long-time collaborators and Iskandar’s personal friends. They include Italian electronic music artist Giordano Franchetti, who was responsible for the ambient sounds in the songs; as well as pianist Friedrich Wengler.
One piece titled “Eneril” (which was inspired by Bach’s plea for mercy ‘Erbarme Dich’), features the voice of Mongolian singer Urna Chahar-Tugchi, who grew up in a shepherd family in the grasslands of Ordos.
“No bigger contrast is possible to my Western conservative training. Her voice has this unique rawness, its archaic, like an existential outcry, and brings us back to the very beginnings of music making in ancient times, where the first impulse of a human being to express its emotions, would be to sing, if only one note,” Iskandar says.
He hopes the emotion he felt while creating these songs translates deeply with listeners. He speaks frankly of the turbulence of his more youthful days and how it has led to a spiritual plane he is most comfortable on these days.
“I spent great amounts of my teenage and young adult life meditating and searching for answers to the big questions of life. A big part played my involvement in a religious cult that I was sort of born into,” he says matter-of-factly.
The cult, he said, taught them how to focus, visualize your wishes and control your mind and thoughts for astonishing effects on health and psyche. It also had very dogmatic rules — a lot of “no”s and “don’t”s.
The experience, he says, left him with a “special sensitivity and focus-ness on the essence and the essential”. He is able to “de-clutter my mind and canalize energies in a very condensed manner”.
Iskandar has arrived in Indonesia for his scheduled show at the Annual Meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group in Bali, where he will collaborate with songstress Anggun.
For him, the show is also a way to give back to his home country and, more specifically, the people of Palu, Central Sulawesi, which was recently devastated by a massive earthquake and tsunami.
He wishes to dedicate his performance in Bali to the victims and has donated a portion of his IMF fee to savethechildren.org and its Indonesian partner, the Sayangi Tunas Cilik Foundation, which are working to provide humanitarian assistance to some 46,000 affected children.
His performance there has Iskandar reflecting on when his mother took him to his first concert at the age of 3, the occasion of which he says was a crucial moment in his musical upbringing.
“I only have a blurred memory of that concert, but it somehow made an impression on me, not really an emotional one, but rather it triggered a child’s natural curiosity,” he recalls.
“Also, I feel fortunate that I was given the opportunity to broaden my interests and not narrow it down to only music. A great artist has to reflect upon life from many different perspectives, than only from the practice studio. Real life experiences are as important and crucial.”