Nature, nurture and mixed marriages

Ng Chong Lim talks about mixing western music with gamelan and the joy of writing for children.

Gamelan has long captivated the imagination of modern composers both abroad and local, and a number of great masters such as Benjamin Britten and Francois Poulenc and countless Americans, have fallen in love with its mesmerising sounds and created works with the hypnotic gong rhythms in mind.

But bringing actual gamelan players into an essentially Western music composition style has always posed problems for composers and performers alike. Both speak highly different musical languages, and many attempts at marrying the two have produced uninspiring, and sometimes contrived results.

At the Chopin Competition last November however one composer did manage to make magic with the unlikely pairing of piano and gamelan trio - Seremban born pianist-composer Ng Chong Lim’s Shadows for piano and gongs, bonang and gendang.

Admitting that his composition raised some eyebrows over the mixed marriage, Ng said he was particularly pleased with how the work turned out. “New music is still not easy for listeners. But for Shadows, I heard positive comments from musicians who attended the concert. For example a director from Germany told my friend he never liked the idea of fusion, but he was very impressed with the combination of sounds (for Shadows).

Some musicians in the audience told me they never expected that (the piano and gamelan) could mix like this; one pianist told me he was so impressed - it didn’t sound like Western music or traditional music. He said that it really worked well, especially the last part of the piece with the dalang (puppeteer) speaking,” said Ng when we met for coffee last month to talk about Shadow’s upcoming tour and listen to the recordings.

 The 5 - 8 minute piece traverses a number of imaginary scenes with the piano and gamelan telling the collective tale, where at its climax the dalang begins relating his tale with the help of shadow puppets, just as one would see in a traditional wayang kulit performance out in a kampung, or in this case the KLCC concert hall.

How we managed to fit everything together...I was very pleased. Super pleased!” said Ng, beaming. And I had to agree.

Ng’s piece succeeds because it uses the rich sounds of both the piano and the gamelan to create a new collective canvass, a symphony of various colours that weave his beautiful tapestry. It also works because the composer’s innate style mirrors the aesthetics of gamelan musicians in their traditional disciplines, by providing a broad roadmap for the musicians, who then ‘compose’ their parts both individually and as a group, an approach Western classical musicians and composers find hard to adopt.
The score is thus very freely notated and leaves much for the group to collectively decide upon in any final performance. “I just wrote it cincai (anyhow),” laughed Ng when I first leafed through his score during the one-night rehearsal of the piece before performing it at the Chopin Society Malaysia’s weekend concerts at the end of last November.

Despite his typical extreme modesty, Shadows is undeniably a mini masterpiece and a major milestone in composing for gamelan in Western-based music. The written score is as fascinating to look at as it is to listen to. It would even look beautiful framed up on the wall, but when the musicians turn the notes into music, that is when magic happens.

Soaking in the sounds of the two performances two months later, Ng finally allows himself to admit it was quite a success. “My piano part is organised to fit the gamelan musicians’ improvisation, so before we started I talked to them about the rhythms and characters I had in mind, and I let them have a lot of freedom in the piece,

I had to explain the structure during the rehearsal - there are only a few written notes, so I talked about the atmosphere, the space... And they did a great job. Each time we play the piece it’s different.”

Taking a huge part of the credit is the marvellously talented trio who worked with Ng, comprising Kelantan-born drummer and dalang (puppeteer) Mohd.Kamrulbahri Hussin, his brother Mohd Shafic Aminuddin Hussin on gongs, and accomplished bonang player Susan Sarah John, who all said they were thrilled to be part of this new Malaysian creation.

With their individual personalities - Kamrul theatrical and extrovert like his drums, Susan dignified and graceful like her rows of bonang and Mohd Shafic deep and serious like his gongs - the three weave their parts perfectly with Ng’s audacious piano sounds, a wild assortment of clusters of notes, shimmers of repeated figures, gong tones and strange new sounds from inside the piano’s strings.

Chong Lim is so talented,” says Sarah when asked after the rehearsal while Ng blushed saying she needn’t flatter. The Rhythm in Bronze member may be no stranger to cross-cultural music, but said Shadows is the most interesting modern piece of its type that she has played.

It is important how the composer arranges his piece. I think most of the collaborative pieces or experimental or contemporary pieces I have worked on don’t really showcase the instruments involved. But that is what is quite brilliant about this piece, is that it individually portrays how the instruments sound, so although it is combined you can still hear the individual characteristics of the instruments,” she said. [See video clip ‘Behind the Puppet’s Screen’]

Kamrul also spoke excitedly about the piece and how he found it scary at first to perform, but finding a way to work through it made it easy in the end. “The music gives me goosebumps,” he said in his animated manner. While his brother quietly said he enjoyed the music’s many moods, and that it was “syiok” to play.

Ng said working with the musicians was a wonderful experience, and he gave them plenty of encouragement to try new things and to be adventurous and bold, resulting in a riot of colour that includes a part for the dalang, who is free to choose any tale he likes, which in the case of the Chopin Society concerts, concerned a dialogue between a king and his subjects who air their grievances.

I really enjoyed working with them. They are very good, and very nice people as well - and they improvised so well. In the second night’s performance, I was! I was really happy with that performance,” said Ng.

Ng’s experience as a judge and a commissioned composer at the Chopin Competition has also sparked his interest in writing music for children. His work Dragonfly and The Distant Sound of the Rainforest - for children below 15 and the other for those from 15 to early 20s respectively - were used as test pieces during the compulsory phases of the massive piano competition.

Dragonfly, specially composed for the younger segment, was a particular delight for the composer whose love for nature and for nurturing the young came together in the set of four short panels comprising the piece. (See From Chopin To Chong Lim, The B-Side January)

He added that much of his music is inspired by nature, as often evident in their titles. On how the dragonfly came to be his subject matter, Ng said, “From young I used to go to my uncle’s farm, so I have always been close to nature. And my friends’ Facebook alway have lots of photos of nature, such as butterflies, a lot of them, and so on.”

He decided to write a piece on the dragonfly after receiving the Chopin Society Malaysia’s commission. “The dragonfly brings out an artist’s imagination, about the movement, the colours. I fell that children should cultivate more imagination with sound and with nature. And you know I write a lot about nature.”

The work gives young pianists their first plunge into the world of contemporary music, and does not compromise on the composer’s usual style. Amazingly, playing new music at such a young age, something that has hardly happened in the history of piano teaching, yielded some wonderful performances from the underlings.

I was very impressed with their playing. There are a few short sections; in some you can imagine the movement of the insect, the beating of the wings, the surroundings like the pond, and when the dragonflies fight one another - so it depends on how they see it. I don’t tell them which section represents is up to them to discover,” he said.

They can use their imagination on how to play it. There is a lot of silence in the music. There are a lot of pauses, and they can feel how long the space should be. There is a lot of freedom in the piece,” he said, emphasising how such freedom to input one’s creative impulses into music should be trained from young.

The piece, he said, included not only technical aspects of piano playing but tested their imagination, their spontaneity, a sense of adventure, values that would eventually matter most when they become adult pianists who aim to leave a mark on their listeners.
Some performances delighted him, even surprised him with unexpected interpretations, which he always enjoys when it works. The way each competitor played, he said, reflected how they were taught.

It reflects their training, their way of studying, whether they are adventurous or whether they are encouraged to explore new things, to have that sense of daring. You need to take risks in music, especially in modern music, to create your personal view of the music you play.”

As a teacher, Ng has discovered a new way to impart his knowledge to the young, through his music. “I have decided to write more pieces for children. It’s also because I teach piano so I want to give my students some ideas, I can see what their shortcomings are, whether in imagination or feelings. And I want to share my thoughts on nature as I think nature can help everyone.”

He has an idea of his next work, the mimosa. “I would like to write on an Asian plant, the touch me not. I think it’s very interesting for students to imagine the feeling of playfulness, youthfulness and innocence of the plant. I feel that for kids today, everything is about computers (and not about nature), so that’s why I want to write these pieces,” he said.

He joked that it would also require a Westerner who plays his piece to find out more about our local plants and animals.

With a number of works in his bag, and a trio for oboe, cello and piano to be premiered this year in Europe, Ng seems to have settled comfortably on his musical language and approach, which he describes as “anything but tonal”. “I don’t like anything with a melody,” he says, although his music is anything but atonal in the traditional sense. There are fragments of chords, tonal patterns sometimes sounding like gamelan figures, and sensuous harmonic ripples, but the way they combine does not follow any traditional key or harmonic layout.

The unifying factor amongst his works is the immense freedom he gives musicians to perform it, or in the Asian sense, to compose his piece with him. He says he loves the sense of surprise that freedom brings, especially when it brings him something unexpected.

I asked if he was opposed to anything that was controlled and organised, just like the traditional classical scores that are meticulous to the tiniest detail.

Yes, and I believe that the old composers like Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven were all good improvisers and all pianist composers as well. But these days people play their pieces as if they were all well thought out and constructed, but they miss out the special element of improvisation in the music. For example, Mozart improvised his variations, and so did Bach. Of course I don’t let the musicians who play my pieces change the notes, but I give them the freedom to organise their thoughts about the music,” he said, but felt hard pressed to delve any further into its influences.

I don’t think too much about my music. It’s very personal but I don’t think too much, I just write my own voice. Different people see my music differently; you always get two sides from either audience.

One group of my friends they told me they never liked new music at all, but now they do. After listening to Shadows they were taken in by the sound and they are now beginning to appreciate new music. Of course there are those who say my music is crap, but I don’t mind,” he says with a laugh.

It makes sense that listeners who do not know music appear more open towards new music, as they do not have the huge classical baggage behind them, just as it has been with the young pianists in the competition, who have not yet had a decade training in the hardcore classics to influence their taste.

But I wondered if age was also a factor - were the young likely to appreciate modern music more than the old, I asked. Ng said it was true to some extent, but not necessarily. “Some in the older generation, like the parents (of the piano students) do not like my music, but I really don’t mind. Some who know me personally ask, how does your mother feel about your music?” he said laughing.

Honestly, my mum went to my MPO concerts, when I wrote my orchestral work Xiang, and she could understand it better than some of the conventional music that I play. She comes to my concerts and supports me. My mum doesn’t know music at all, she has no background (in classical music) and she doesn’t even know what I am doing. But when she listens to my concerts, she always gives me some opinion of the music.

"She can understand, or have a feeling, about the music, and can make simple statements like, ‘Why is your music so full of sadness?’ She was talking about Xiang... she didn’t even know it was about my late father. And when she listened to Shadows, even though she doesn’t have the background, she said the second performance was better, and that was also the one that I liked. So I think she is very musical, she could understand how I feel in the music. She’s 73 this year. So it’s not whether you have background or not.

I do remember some of my non-musician friends say, when they hear conventional music they find it not as appealing as new music. I was quite surprised. They have no background or training. So it doesn’t matter. In fact I think it is harder for people who have a certain kind of prior judgement about music that they have learnt, to accept something new.

They are so used to conventional music like Chopin or Bach, so when they come to something different with no tune, they just feel they hate it. But they have to keep an open mind. At least go and try it and see if you like it,” he said.

The B Side February 2013

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