A Note on Music from Runcuk

By Irfan R. Darajat


In the past, music was often positioned within a part of a ritual. The society living in Tanah Runcuk was no exception.  Even more, this society put music along with the natural moves of the environment in which they lived. By Stern Jr.’s record, we may find the proofs and explanations on how the people of Tanah Runcuk presented and located music among their daily life.

“… At the very first time I set my foot on this Land, a soft music played as the wind blew, making the leaves of the trees lining along in Tanah Runcuk whisper. I saw the women of Tanah Runcuk standing dispersedly in between trees, they were all whispering one another. Each word whispered by those women was different one another. Some words were said slowly and stutteringly, some others were spoken quickly and ceaselessly.”(1)

“This whisper flowed from the mouth of the women of Tanah Runcuk. I looked still at the sky, and once in a while turned my face to Wallach. He shed a tear, streaming half down the cheek, and the tip of his tear seemed to be flown by the wind.  Not a drop of his tear was allowed to touch the tip of his lips.”

“The night after the event, I talked to Wallach. He said, ‘You know, the whisper at that noon, the whisper had made me cry, I was reminded of my mother, I miss her.” I did not understand what was happening, but the feeling he had inside also occurred within me. I felt like being a child once more, on a cold night, I missed her, I wanted to go home to her embrace.(2)


The Musical Body 

The investigation done by the researcher team towards the document recorded by Stern Jr. always failed to find any valid evidence regarding the musical activities of the people of Tanah Runcuk. Within letters, sketches, and other records, neither typical musical tool was found, nor any specific arrangement of tones created by the people of Tanah Runcuk. There was no animal hide or specific stuff devoted in musical activities in Tanah Runcuk.

However, the evidence of Tanah Runcuk’s musical activities was written on some sheets of Stern’s diary which was more like a poem. Just like Wallach’s personal notes, there were some poems that had never been known to public, a kind of note he wrote for private matter. The writings led the research team into confusion as in the beginning they debated on the truth regarding the presence of the musical activities of the people of Tanah Runcuk.

The first strong speculation emerged from the following verse of poem written by Wallach:

Then on a cold morning Sun broke through the gap in between the ceaseless mountains Piercing through my chest

The light radiated on the east horizon

Then on a cold morning Grew the desire of all desires The mother of all mothers

Each other whispering the words of love Into a smooth song Smearing wounds

inside my memories

Like the men’s hair tinkling because of the wind

Like the grief of mine Flying either(3)


Those poems only gives a little explanation on the chronology of the event aforementioned. On the whispering women. The motives of the musical activities of the people of Tanah Runcuk, regarding the whispering women, was never clearly comprehended. Is it related to a welcoming for foreigner or guess? Or is it a ceremony of a completely different thing coinciding with Stern and Wallach’s arrival at that time?

Regarding the “hair tinkling because of the wind”, researchers conducted a deeper study on the poetry texts written by Stern and Wallach. The following poem shows how he described such thing.

I saw the men growing hair long over their backs

They let the hair loose Blown by the wind

Exposed to the sun Showered by waterfall Bashed by dust

and dry leaves

I saw a gloomy night

inside the men’s hair curves and contours

They fostered sins and wounds

from the inner side of their heads

Then on a new morning They formed an adamantine circle


each other’s hair Cleansing up their sins

and wounds

They wiped their hair by long reed And right when their sins and wounds were tumbling down to the ground

Resounded a heart-tearing tone

At the time the reed touched

their hair A deep anguish played

I saw them gathering, their hair gleaming Resembling my tear

Dropping into your heart(4)


His second note regarding the men’s hair which was suspected to be one of the musical instruments played by the people of Tanah Runcuk reaped an ambiguous interpretation. In Stern’s poem, it is written that the hair was tinkling; while in Wallach’s note the hair was treated as it was a string instrument just like contemporary violin, with the reed stem as the bow(5).

These two notes did not cause the investigation of the researchers to be stuck only on the debate over how the men’s hair was treated as musical instrument. Moreover, it raised their curiosity about the structure of the hair used by the people of Tanah Runcuk. Was the thickness of their hair equal to violin or guitar strings that they could produce such sound? As written in the poem by Wallach, the men of Tanah Runcuk tended to take care of their hair. They grew the hair as long as their knees; some men’s hair even touched the ground. In the photographs presented by Wallach and Stern, those men did not show their long hair. Instead, they curled it up with headbands, and thus the long hair was concealed. Such behaviour of taking care of hair was immediately eroded by colonialization that instantly cut the men’s hair off for being made into jewelery or hairpiece for the royal princesses.  It indicated the excellent quality of the hair.

Music is an expression of art originating in the body. Music consists of a circulation and or a backflow of hiding, listening, and hiding again. Making music is equal to making a dialogue with the body(6). The music from Tanah Runcuk could not necessarily interpreted as being generated and present miraculously as it was. It did not come out of the thin air. Several occurences that indicated the origin of music in that land were the ones showing how they were able to unite with nature. A very strong connection between music and body was obvious. They used their bodies as the channel of their musical activities. Their source of creation originated from the sounds produced by nature or surrounding environment. To understand this matter further, first we need to comprehend the concept of soundscape and identify the soundscape found within the environment of Tanah Runcuk’s settlement.


The Soundscape of Tanah Runcuk

At the time Wallach set his foot in Tanah Runcuk, he did not simply write everything he saw, but also every single thing he heard. In his note, Wallach mentioned that birds chirped cheerfully; he also heard the rattling sound of animals which commonly lived in the heart of a jungle mostly in the territory of the Dutch East Indies. The sound of footsteps was clearly heard, so was the sound of breaths, alternately sounded with the breezes from the mountains. Leaves sounded like whispering the arrival of Wallach and Stern, and spread the news to the reeds. All seemed to talk about it. This scenery described through sounds was what this century called as soundscape(7)

. The entire sounds were visual objects located in the sky that were audible everywhere. It means that those sounds or noises created the sound of environment within a space: such as trees, buildings and other materials placed in a urban or rural space (Nakagawa, p.105).


In the previous section, it has been described how the musical activities in Tanah Runcuk were strongly related to the body. In this case, body is not merely a corporeal entity, but also includes the mental entity. Our body is directly interacted with the world or environment. We can consider that the world is a part of our body. It means that body is not merely a visible body, instead, it has a much broader meaning (Nakagawa; p. 41).

Tropika Selekta | Drawing on Paper | Collections of CTRS
Remember what you’ve been told by your ancestor.

The geographical condition consituting Tanah Runcuk was surely playing a great role in influencing the musics being lately produced within the society. Musical instruments which nowadays were considered as the extension of human body were hardly found in Tanah Runcuk. It indicates that they worked on their music in the most natural way, by using their bodies and what they had in their surroundings. Even though it has been recorded that reeds were one of their instruments, there were different treatments in playing the instrument. Such instrument was used according to the value of its function as hair cleanser and they never kept the reeds. This is the very thing that was later more likely to deceive the researchers at the beginning.

From the aforementioned descripstion, we would have guessed that their musical elements were limited to string instrument, with hair as its string. However, Wallach’s note suggested another different evidence. It indicated the presence of percussive instruments within the music produced by Tanah Runcuk. As what has been commonly known, on the surface of Tanah Runcuk stood volcanoes. If the volcanoes were volatile, the people would directly adapt and placed the rumbling sound of the volcanoes as a percussive instrument. It can be read within the following poem written by Wallach.

What is happening to you, Karasdendam?

Inside your chest

that beats hard All men and women laid down the ground

Like all anxieties

and fatigue of mine Were laid and turned into songs Prayers whistled by

all men And the one standing was calling from afar with its loud voice

Trying to reach the sun What is happening to you, dear Karasdendam

I heard your heartbeat within mine

Inside my chest I wanted to be a child once more Dear mother

Please embrace me(8)

In this case, Stern wrote in a clear and lucid manner.

In the afternoon, Karasdendam flared up. Thuds heard from its bowels. It was predictable that I would encounter this. Women and men of Tanaruncuk laid down on the ground, whistling mellifluously. Their dulcet whistle played along with the thuds of Karasdendam. A man called out the sun to postpone it from setting. No one knew how these entire occurrences were composed into a kind of melody, featuring the mountain thuds, human whistles, and shouts loaded of hope. It was marvelous. Like a prayer recited together, by the people feeling threatened, but imposing on the elements of the thing they predicted as a threat. It was astounding(9).

Another legible evidence related to their musical activities which concurrently showed that their power united with nature, as well as suggested the soundscape existing in the people of Tanah Runcuk, is the following writing of Wallach.

I am frequently lonely

I am always alone

But never have I been in a place as silent as this

I heard the night skulked into my room In which I am living now is an overlay of silence

A field of extreme silence The night before

I heard my own breath The breath of a mother who lulled her child The breath of children sleeping

in their mother’s embrace The breath rumbling from a father The breath of a bird The breath of a tree Turning into sounds inside my mind

Lulling me deep But now,

I hear nothing I only hear


Although I am frequently lonely, although I am always alone, But not tonight

I hear nothing But a cry

very long cry A cry

coming from far, far away

I seek around


I seek into the depth of the forest

Nothing Still I hear A cry from afar A deep cry

Very deep From the bottom of my heart(10)

It describes that the night situation in Tanah Runcuk could be very quite that the sound of breath was audible. The sounds produced by the atmosphere of Tanah Runcuk could not certainly be categorized as transmittible music since the way people recorded it was just that simple.   Nevertheless, it can still be comprehended as oral transmission of music, as occured with fairy tale. Studies on fairy tale are surely common. This is the reason that urged us to conduct this oral music research towards a notation-less society.


Notation-less Society

The music being present among the people of Tanah Runcuk was hardly replicable in a way that resembles how it was present and played at that time. But it is not impossible to see it from a different perspective and generate a kind of music departing from it.

Elements such as musical instrument strongly depending on human body and nature can surely be uncomplicated to adapt and play. Unfortunately, neither Stern nor Wallach could ever describe the tones produced, or the melody. They described them    by directly translating them into the feelings they encountered after listening to the music.

Of course, it is a certain obstacle in transcreating them into a specific form of music. In Western society, musical record-keeping and notation are crucial things to do. They play the music by reading the written notation. Their bodies move according to what has been written. In this case, the body is restrained to play the music only as written, it is not allowed to do different thing.

A society that transmits the music orally or the notation-less society typically play their music by using the entire capabilities of their bodies. No rules or restrainments are written. What restrains them is the limitation of human body in relation to its being treated as a basic musical instrument.

However, it can still be a good thing, since the body works optimally and maximumly in playing its role as a musical instrument. No songs were exactly the same. All musics in Tanah Runcuk were incidental. The people responded lithely to occurences and natural phenomena. The aforementioned explanation definitely gives us an insight on how the body can be used at the greatest extent possible according to our need. How people could arrange a harmony, how hair could be producing sound, how whistle could reach the same frequency as the sound of mountain thud, and how the people of Tanah Runcuk could arrange a tempo that made their voices and the sounds of nature play along mellifluously.

The long description attempts to show the relationship of music and cosmos, with human being in between. The concept of this trinity has been commonly found in the analyses on performances and traditional arts. The dualities that flank are night-day, sky-earth, ocean-mountain, and so on. In such condition, human is always in between those things.


Related references:

Plato. The Republic Leeuw, Ton De. Music of the Twentieth Century, A Study of Its Elements and Structure, Amsterdam University Press. 2005. Jones, George Thaddeus. Music Theory. Barnes and Noble Books. 1974.


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