She is a modest young lady endowed with a beautiful voice. In 2008 she was established as a contemporary composer in a concert entitled Bramara, which at the same time celebrated the conclusion of her post-graduate program in the Indonesian Arts Institute (ISI), Surakarta, Central Java.
Peni Candra Rini, the woman possessing the melodious tone, has thus filled the vacancy for female contemporary music composer in the country. Born in Tulungagung, East Java, on Aug. 22, 1983, she is indeed relatively young for this position.
Long before her concert debut, however, she had made musical explorations with a number of leading musicians at home and abroad. Rahayu Supanggah, (the late) I Wayan Sadra, Dewa Bujana, Dwiki Darmawan, Albert Chimedza (Zimbabwe), Charles T. Griffes, Lou Harrison and Mantle Hood (US) were some of Peni’s collaborating partners. She had also appeared with top dalang shadow puppet masters like Ki Manteb Soedharsono, Ki Anom Suroto, Ki Purbo Asmoro, Sudjiwo Tedjo, and Ki Enthus Susmono.
“I’ve been familiar with slendro-pelog [five-tone and seven-tone] gamelan scales, cengkok [traditional singing style], gregel and wiledan [Javanese vocal techniques] since my childhood. My father and mother are my first teachers,” said the woman of slim build in her residence in Kentingan, Surakarta.
Her father, Wagiman Gondo Carito, a dalang in his village, has made his children — Siswono, Sukesi and Peni — accustomed to the sounds of gamelan instruments and suluk (sung narration) since their early age. Her mother, Sukinem, though not a pesinden or gamelan orchestra singer, patiently taught her how to sing Javanese poetry. “We had to go to the district office 30 kilometers away to practice gamelan,” recalled Peni.
Peni’s great-grandfather and grandfather were gender (Javanese xylophone) players in Tulungagung.
Her inherited capability, personal talent and perseverance made her a frequent champion of tembang (poetry singing) contests and led her to the Indonesian Classical Music High School (SMKI), followed by the Indonesian Arts College (now ISI), Surakarta.
“I come from a poor family. Only my father works as a dalang and when there are no invitations to perform, he turns to fishing for a living. Our neighbors are mostly wholesalers of fish,” said the additional singer of Krakatau Band.
Her SMKI years were the most important period of her life. As she began to live independently with her income as a pesinden in wayang (shadow puppet) shows, she was even more determined to become a professional artist.
“For seven years, I joined puppet masters in various wayang performances. Though exhausting, I could afford to pay tuition, board and lodging fees,” said Peni, now a lecturer in her alma mater, ISI.
While in SMKI, she got acquainted with contemporary music frequently presented in her school or on the campus of ISI. Peni was intrigued to try the music then still alien to her.
“I did it out of curiosity at first, but gradually I was absorbed in the contemporary school, perhaps due to its modern and traditional blend,” said the pesinden who stunned the audience of the Jakarta Art Festival in 2007.
Therefore, amid her busy performance schedules, Peni took every available opportunity to learn a great deal from senior musicians. After years of ardent explorations and collaborations, she decided to become a composer by profession — through her five works: Bramara, An Nahl, Sekar, Madusari, Entup, and Tilar.
“As a pesinden alone, I’d definitely be out of job at the age of 30. But a composer knows no age limit as long as fine compositions are produced,” indicated the recipient of a silver medal for the best vocal performance at the Spring Friendship Art Festival in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2009.
Her learning process included her participation in the Sono Seni Ensemble set up by the late I Wayan Sadra. In this group, Peni became familiar with and delved into musical creation. She attended several workshops and performed in different domestic and overseas festivals.
An artist who had a major role in her musical exploration was Rahayu Supanggah. Peni has been a regular pesinden for the works of the world-class gamelan musician. Along with Garasi Seni Benowo Group under Supanggah, Peni joined international festivals in five continents:
Asia, America, Australia, Europe and Africa.
Apart from her partnership with the Sono Seni Ensemble and Garasi Seni Benowo, Peni was personally invited to various world musical festivals such as the International Gamelan Festival of Amsterdam (2007), Solo International Ethnic Music (2010) and the Malay Gamelan Festival, Malaysia (2011).
“I’m very fortunate to have been supported by great musicians like Pak Panggah and the late Pak Sadra. They encouraged me to work as a composer,” said Peni, who in June created Kembang Kapas (cotton flowers) as inspired by the poetry of Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho.
But her journey to achieve her present profession as a contemporary pesinden wasn’t without challenge. Her father as a traditional artist was taken by surprise when he witnessed Peni performing in a “peculiar” (contemporary) style.
“My father is conservative. I was admonished for going beyond poetry singing standards. I told him I would adhere to traditional music as the root of the art. Contemporary music is an improvisation of compositions. It took quite some time before he finally accepted it,” said Peni, who still sings for her father’s wayang shows.
Her exceptional vocal endowment also got her involved in two musical dramas, Opera Jawa by Garin Nugroho and Matah Ati by B.R.A. Atilah Suryajaya. In the latter, besides playing the main role, Rubiyah, the 28-year-old also handled its musical composition with Rahayu Supanggah.
In mid-September, Peni is slated to leave for the US to study composition and stage her shows in several cities in California, New York, and Forkland. She will also participate in the World Festival of Sacred Music in Los Angeles in October.
“I’ll be there [US] for 6 months. Three months are for my composition study and the other three months for building cultural networks between America and Asia,” added the pesinden skilled in playing rebab, a Javanese musical instrument resembling a mini-cello.