Hardesh Singh turns film music on its head

Who is this "composer and sometime jazz guitarist" whose film music has struck a new chord with movie-makers? Off The Edge in 2006 interviewed Hardesh Singh, composer, musician and record producer, and one of the co founders of the Malaysian Composers Collective.

One quiet evening, a CD landed in my mailbox that changed my life. Opening it, I found a strangely fruity soundtrack called 'Eating Pomeloes from Tokyo to Tamil Nadu Makes My Heart Go Gubra'. Very funny, I thought. The cover parodied Yasmin Ahmad's Gubra, and when I put it on, I was quickly obsessed with its series of quirky songs. Odd little tunes like IC popped into my head at random, and I was humming Malaria as I went about my daily affairs. I had to find a way to stop this - I had to find Hardesh Singh. But who was he?

The Internet wasn't very helpful - according to his blog, he was a 'composer, sound designer and sometimes a jazz musician'. Of course, we know that Hardesh is acknowledged as a talented composer involved in a number of notable Malaysian films like Gubra, Chemman Chaalai and Lelaki Komunis Terakhir (LKT), but little else.

Curiosity aroused, I tracked him down at Singapore's The Substation, where he was attending a screening of his short film Under The Bridge at the Asian Film Symposium.

You're quite the man about the film circuit nowadays, how did it all start?

It started with The Big Durian in 2003. Amir Muhammad was doing pre-production for the film. At that time, I was kind of doing my own thing with my small setup - live music with my jazz band - and thought maybe I should see if they were looking for people to do the score.

It so happened that the producer [of The Big Durian] was a friend of mine and I called her to see if I could speak to Amir to see if he would give me a shot. I didn't know this at the time, but Amir is very easy to talk to and very open. We had a chat and I gave him a sample of [my] live jazz stuff, none of which had anything to do with film. But maybe at that point Amir was also up and coming - I'm sure budget was a big thing, so he probably thought, 'If somebody wants to do it, just let him do it.'

But who is Hardesh Singh?

I was born in Kuching, spent my early childhood in Port Dickson and then went to Kuala Lumpur from school onwards. I studied telecommunications engineering at Multimedia University, Cyberjaya, but my passion is really music.

I really love Indian classical music - it has a very good balance of spiritual and technical brilliance, and at that time I was very into Ali Akhbar Khan. Interestingly, it was his fusion stuff [that] blew me away. I got to know he had a college in San Francisco, so straight after my degree I packed my bags and went there. His college is not accredited; [it's] done the real classical way, where you sit down with him and he will teach you, you know, kung-fu style. There is no paperwork, no exams.

But all along I had my jazz band, the 50 Cents Jazz Club - we were around even before 50 Cent the rapper came out! [We played] very progressive jazz, lots of changing time signatures, like Mahavishnu Orchestra, and all that tied into my influences with Indian classical.

After The Big Durian, Amir asked me to do his next film. Then, for Chemman Chaalai, [director] Deepak Kumaran had a big problem finding someone to do the music that he wanted - apparently he even went to India - and finally he said to me, 'Can you just try.' I gave it a shot, and he was very happy with it. Then I got to work with more and more filmmakers.

So it was by stroke of luck that you happened to work on some of the more controversial films in recent years?

In a way! Amir just kept asking me to do the next one, and so on... Of course, Amir and I have become much closer friends. I've come to understand where he's coming from as a filmmaker, and I share some of his ideas as well.

Were the LKT songs, you know, the ones that I can't get out of my head, your idea or Amir's?

It was his to begin with. They refer back to the early documentaries of those times where the best way to spread propaganda was through songs. That's why even today we have all those RTM songs, right? Don't they all sound the same? ... The music was meant to sound like it really existed at the time, and some people really thought that the songs were from that era! I had to figure how to sound like that... cheap and cheesy. It wasn't easy, you know!

You once said that Gubra didn't need that much music. How do you make such decisions?

Gubra has a very strong story, and Yasmin has a good sense of the direction for the music, like she uses Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, etc. She had an idea of the music even before the shoot. So we already have Beethoven in there, I thought, let's not try to outdo him!

But even as a composer, in general, I don't think films should have too much music. You should ask yourself, 'Why does this scene require music?' If you can get away without music you should just do that.

You get paid for doing nothing?

I get paid for giving them my advice lah, like, 'You don't need any music!'

That would be the ultimate score! Now, apart from film, what other directions are you going musically?

I'm planning to get back into 'live' music because I've been out of touch, and I am trying to get the band back together again, and hopefully we will start touring. I also have a musical in the works, but I can't say much about that yet!

I have some things I am trying to firm up overseas, because locally the market is still very limited. To survive here, you have to think too much about marketability and all that, and I just do not want to waste time thinking about stuff like that.

I'd prefer to worry about doing what I'd rather do than to limit my music just so it will 'market' here. I'm looking mainly at Germany, doing something towards electronica, but with jazz, and a bit of politics, because I am interested in music just not on an entertainment level but socially. It's a form of communication. It will be a digital project about sampling and remixing art-driven or issue-driven music.

What sort of issues are you passionate about, then?

One thing that I am passionate about is freedom to access information and freedom to share opinions. That's why I was very passionate about LKT and the follow-up, because that's exactly what it's all about: marginalising people who are not on your side. It's a piece of history that the powers [that be] felt people did not need to know about, because it creates problems for them, so you just shut them up.

But now we have all this access to alternative forms of expression, like the Internet, even though it's not mainstream yet. We have to look forward to the day when it will become mainstream and the powers of today have to look at how they're going to cope with it.

Even now, as NGOs use the internet as a form of communication, they are still preaching to the converted. But eventually that will be the mainstream media, and we have to be ready for this form of communication. So how do we start embracing it?

Malaysian musicians in general seem reluctant to push issues, political or social. What do you think?

I really think so. I think our local composers are just too full of themselves. Take our filmmakers; they have this really strong network, and one of the main reasons why our films have made it so far overseas is because of this network, they really help one another out. Everyone is looking out for everyone else, because they have this shared interest; they want Malaysian films in general to go overseas, they don't just want 'my' film to go overseas. They really want to see Malaysian films make it, that's their shared passion. That's the main difference.

In music, I don't see that. Sure, musicians collaborate, but on a broader scale they're confined to their own projects. Many of them are going far, are really good, but on a whole we don't take up issue-driven stuff. We just want to be 'best composer', 'best musician', for our own sakes.

- Off The Edge Nov 2006

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