Songs of a Wayfarer - Adeline Wong's 'Longing'

The stage is dark and an alien hum fills the air, like that of a spaceship coming in for landing. A lady drags her seemingly leaden suitcase across the stage, and a monolithic image resembling some sort of great gate, appears on the backdrop screen. Slowly a row of music stands is revealed, like runway lights. Five musicians wander through the darkness, searching for their places. And when they are finally seated, we arrive at the beginnings of one of the most remarkable compositions of this year.  

This is Adeline Wong’s latest opus, 'Longing', a Malaysian premiere after it was incarnated as Lengt in Norway in 2010. This nearly fifty minute work for string quartet, solo cello, electronics, in collaboration with photographic art, film and dance, is what Wong referred to as a kind of “live film”. It is also one of Malaysia’s most large-scale, extended compositions to date next to Johan Othman’s opera Conference of the Birds from 2009.  

Performing the work in KLPAC this February was Singapore’s flamboyant T’ang Quartet with former MPO cellist Ornulf Lillebjerka, and the creative team from Norway who worked on the original collaboration. Heading the team is the heart of Longing, the Norwegian artist- photographer Are Andreassen who had chanced upon Wong’s music through Lillebjerka and found in her music a resonance with his own artistic impulses.  

“She and her music are real treasures of Malaysia! When I first heard her music, I understood that I wanted to collaborate with her. Her music is timeless and very visual. It is both modern and classic, and a nice point of tangency to my digital images,” said Andreassen. 

For the artist, the performing of Longing in KL is not just a project, but a sort of homecoming. His links to our land go beyond Wong’s score to his very childhood. No accident, Andreassen came to Malaysia to fill an artistic longing of his own.  

“When I came to Malaysia and KL for the first time in 2008, I was being inspired by a Norwegian author called Knut Hamsun (1859-1952). In his trilogy ‘Wayfarers’, one of his main characters called August was an optimistic, dreamer kind of person, always longing for an easier, better life for himself and the people around him.  

“He was always talking about his treasures in ‘the land beyond India’. The king of ‘Back India’, or Malaysia, was looking after August’s treasures. August was also a sailor, who had travelled the world for a period of time.  

“This was one of the reasons for me  to go to Malaysia, to seek August’s hidden treasures ‘in the land behind India’.   

“Another reason was my father, a sailor, who had told me stories from his life travelling at sea, about Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. For me as a kid in the early 1960s these were fantastic fairytales.   

“I also felt a longing, I felt the longing between my father and mother, and my own longing for life and adventure,” said Andreassen in an email from an island in Norway where he is working on his latest project.  

Images of longing

Andreassen’s images for the piece are derived from various sources, from landscapes and objects from his home country, as well as a collection of images he took when he was in Malaysia that includes the iconic Twin Towers. From these he dissected and reassembled fragments to form brand new images that convey completely new feelings and messages.   

“I made the digital images and film in my studio, that is beyond the polar circle on an island far north in Norway. These images are based on photos made over a period of two years from both Malaysia and the northern part of Norway. They are put together as a collage or animation.   

“These images describe the feeling of longing, both spiritual and material. I have used images from both modern architecture and the lovely old rainforest and scenes of nature in Malaysia, put together with images from the arctic part of the world I am living in, to create the idea of ‘longing’ and the question: what are we actually longing for?” he said.  

The resultant artwork has stark, sometimes comical, sometimes poignant, resonances that form the basis of Wong’s composition. “Longing is a universal feeling. I think we as human beings should start talking about what we are actual longing for in our lives and for our world,” said Andreassen.  

According to Andreassen, the work is shaped in three parts - travelling, arrival, and departure. Over a period of five months, the artist emailed the respective parts to Wong so she could respond and “sense the feeling of longing to create her version of the theme”.  

Over teh halia and ice kacang, The B Side then spoke to Wong about how she responded to the visuals to compose one of the most stunning, heartfelt Malaysian scores of recent years.  

B Side: How did you start to conceive the music for Longing, what were your starting materials?  

The work began through the solo cellist Ornulf Lillebjerka, who used to play with the MPO and he had played in a few of my works, so he knows what I do. And it was very casual and over coffee that he asked if I was interested to do anything with visuals (in collaboration of his close friend Are Andreassen). And since Are was coming to Malaysia there was a chance we could meet up. After Are listened to my music, he liked it, and we met up, very briefly.  

And then we met again, more formally with filmmaker Knut Skoglund, when they came to Singapore (where I was working at the time) and Knut showed me his film, which I liked very much. There is a rhythm to how they did it, and we all immediately got along with our aesthetics and views.  

It took some time to finally get the project together. We exchanged a lot on email: Are would send me a lot of his artwork and showed me his style, and finally when he had a compilation of which works he wanted to feature, he would then send it to me, and I would get an understanding of the texture and the motif.  

B Side: So basically you made a musical response to the images that Are sent you in batches?  

Yes, because the images are all very different. The first part he sent me was with the Petronas Twin Towers and structures and landscapes. Then the second part was more landscapes and motifs, playing with ideas of water - you know Norway and the sea are strongly connected... Are likes water a lot.  

Then in the later parts, his images are composed more of mountains, harder images; it’s not easy to imagine what you would want to write (based on these images), but it gives a clear guidance. In the end my music reflects how he plays around with the images.  

B Side: How were the first notes of the piece penned?  

Part of it was writing for Ornulf, the solo cellist. But it’s not meant to be a cello concerto, the solo cello is meant to be a voice, the ‘longing’ quality of the piece. I wanted that the cellist be featured prominently, and Ornulf too wanted a kind of soloistic quality within the ensemble. Are told me I could write for any combination of instruments, but I just wanted to keep it with a string quartet… but then there’s the live electronics as well.   

B Side: It is obvious the cello is special to you and this work particularly?  

It’s just coincidental that I had written a cello concerto for the MPO, and after that I befriended Ornulf as well, and I love the cello, so I was really happy to be again writing for the instrument. For me, its like a human voice - I hear it as a way to express myself because the range of the instrument is so enormous, and it can go through so many temperaments.   

I particularly like the higher range, it is melancholic at the top, painful and yet has an emotional quality to it that really draws me to the instrument. For me that is what appeals, the higher range of the cello.  

B Side: How much did piece grow between the premiere in Norway in 2010 and the performance at KLPAC this year?  

The work is not just about the music but there is a theatrical element to it. We had a theatre director, who was part of the work, and he changed some of the dance choreography and I felt there was a section of the music we had to change as well.   

Also the placement of the section with the Twin Towers… in Norway we started the piece with that, where the music emulates the kompang. After we came back, we felt it worked better in the middle, so now the music builds up to the faster section and then comes back down again. We had to readjust that with some electronics. The extra written music was just a bit of lengthening at the end. And Are added a few images to this new performance.  

B Side: How much of the book that inspired the project, Wayfarers, made it into the music and in what way?  

It’s more of the feeling of longing from the original book. The character in it is a very free spirited person and he travels alone, and he goes through many adventures and meets many people. It’s what Are tries to portray for himself. Are’s father was a sailor as well, and the book draws out a childhood aspect for him. Longing is not really about the book itself, it’s more about a book that Are had read that touched him.   

B Side: How did it touch you?  

As musicians and composers we are always travelling. And for composers and artists like Are and myself, we work alone most of the time when we are writing. For him its working with his pictures, for me my music, and we are always in our own little room. Well, Are has this huge room that overlooks the ocean - I have a normal sized room without an ocean, but the thing is we are always alone when we work.  

That is a kind of loneliness as well, cooped up in a room and doing our own work. It’s very different from a performer who has to relate to the audience. So the music of Longing is also about relating to how we feel as artists, and I can understand the book and how it reflects on us; that longing quality, the loneliness.  

I mean, if I get a commission to deliver a piece in six months, for at least three months I wouldn’t want to be disturbed too much when I am thinking about the work. So the book relates to us as artists and how we work.   

B Side: Tracing your compositional approach in Longing from when you started around 2000, how has your style changed, evolved?  

At this point, especially with Longing, the music has somewhat toned down slightly, its more personal now if you compare with five years ago, when I was very interested in exploring the colours of instruments.  

With Longing I wanted it to be more personal, emotional. And not to say my style has gone simpler; it may have become more simple, but in the heart it has become more deep. Sometimes simpler is good, the music is more about what I feel in my heart rather than thinking of the technicalities. And even in the more technical sections there is still a kind of deep feeling.  

The thing that I am quite sure of is that I will get out of this sound world and move to another one in a few years, but when I was writing Longing I just wanted to do something more personal. Not that the other works are not personal. It’s ironic.  

B Side: And how do you envision your style will evolve in the future?  

I don’t know, I am sure it will not be the same, but I wouldn’t know what will happen in a few years. I may turn to a different direction, I don’t know. Because with this project, I suppose Are’s images also guided me in what I wanted to do. Maybe that also influenced my sound.  

B Side: What are the things that influence your work now?  

I will be writing for the Mivos Quartet, a very young quartet from America, and they’ll be touring Southeast Asia next year. I want to do something different, possibly involving a little bit of electronics. This is because I worked really well with the sound designer for Longing, and I am on email with him getting some ideas on what I can do with electronics and a string quartet.  

It will be quite different, probably a fast work, but I think some of the harmonies I really like from Longing will be used. But I am imagining a very fast paced work. Just an instinctive response I think (for the new work).   

And Are and I have been talking about how recording conversations, how people talk, and transferring that idea to writing for string quartet… based on rhythms of everyday life. That’s just one of the thoughts.   

I am not sure yet (if this is what I will eventually do). I am just experimenting with the idea. It will be one of the inspirations for the new quartet. After all, we learn from nature - for example rain, it has its own rhythms. I like anything that’s natural.   

That was what I really discovered doing Longing, that both Are and I like natural sounds. Everything (in the electroacoustic sounds) we did for Longing was natural, all live sounds, and we recorded those live sounds and made changes to them electronically. So I am very interested in natural sounds at this point.  

B Side: What about the musical trends of today, the influence of the ‘schools’ of composition?  

I think it is more interesting what we do outside the schools. We can’t always just move with the times. I think my approach to composition will always change, but as composers we should always stay true to what we believe in.  

Longing Glances - a quick tour of Wong’s fantastic musical journey

Wong, who graduated from the prestigious Eastman School of Music in the US, first made waves in the local new music scene with the jagged, urgent rhythms and lush textures of her chamber piece Synclastic Illuminations in 2003. Since then, the city has heard her full orchestral tour de force Steel Sky (2004) and the rivetting cello concerto Snapshots (2005), and finally her soulful work for small orchestra and wayang kulit Empunya Yang Beroleh Sita Dewi (2007).

Having taken a full time position at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in Singapore had slowed Wong’s output somewhat, and Longing marks her return to composition with a vengeance. The music has her trademark harmonic and textural energy and kaleidoscopic colours, with an added boldness in lyricism embodied in the solo cello’s long, singing lines.  

In Longing, the solo cello leads the work with the string quartet providing the canvass that moves from harmonic and rhythmic backdrops to question and answer responses to the soloist. The live music is channelled through a mixer where Wong and Andreassen add electronic processing and prerecorded sounds to broaden the palette of colours.  

Images projected on the screen interplay with the musicians and a solo dancer, who provides a commentary of her own, giving the work multifaceted dimensions.  

Wong’s musical language has always been accessible, and Longing takes this to a new level that is at once modern, borderless, and yet recognisably Malaysian. The solo cello moves between furious, bristling gestures of Snapshots and Bachian aria phrases of her early theatre score Five Letters For An Eastern Empire, with a strong flavour of Malaysian modal harmonies.  

The performance begins with an extended electroacoustic soundscape lasting about 8 minutes as various images emerge on the screen, opening with a monumental arch, perhaps the 'doorway' to the piece.  

In the Norway premiere, Lengt, the section drawing on the kompang rhythms starts the journey once the musicians are seated, as various percussive effects weave complex patterns that play with images drawn from the Twin Towers and various architectural structures. 

What follows is a remarkable section drawing inspiration from the azan, as sorrowful downward slides on the quartet usher in the solo cello’s meditative solo, the music blooming into a shimmer of oscillating figures on the quartet. The cellist sings an extended soliloquy that shifts between contemplation and sharp interjections, as the protagonist's thoughts ebb and soar.  

The next section introduces a sort of chorale for the strings that has a luminous beauty, reflecting the cooler images on screen composed of stone landscape and water and providing balm for the wringing introspection before this.   

Like wisps of wind the quartet singing oscillating figures whips the soloist into flight in the next section, and the movement gathers momentum culminating into an intense flurry of repeated figures, before crashing down into the second extended solo for cello, who pauses to ruminate on deep song-like lines climbing slowly up to an unearthly explosion of harmonics.  

In the final section of the piece the dancer’s foot stomps provide a counterpoint to mysterious sounds from the quartet and electronics and bursts of notes, in a generally alien soundscape. The final climax begins to unfold as the strings gather momentum and the textures thicken, sending the music spiralling into ecstatic heights.  

As the music explodes into the stratosphere, the solo cellist pulls everyone back down to earth with his moody, introspective lines, while the quartet sobers up and echoes him with its mellismatic textures. There is an aching, plaintive quality to the music now, a hint of regret at the glorious moment having passed.   

With its spiritual, meditative quality like a prayer, the reverent atmosphere slowly dissolves, leaving the solo cello to end the work once again reaching from below to climb higher and higher, but this time cautiously and contemplatively, ending the work in an unresolved statement - perhaps there will be more journeys to take, more roads to explore, and more tales to tell.  

- The B Side, Dec 2012

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