Setting the bar for art song studies

This year sees the National Academy of Arts Culture and Heritage (Aswara) setting the bar for Malaysians art song studies by commissioning and publishing a collection of new songs for the voice, based on texts by Malaysians writers. The collection is meant to serve as the syllabus for the academy's vocal studies and will undoubtedly be a reference point and catalyst for similar initiatives elsewhere as the community receives increasing exposure to Malaysia's fast growing new music scene.

The collection 'I Nostri Canti', published earlier this year, assembled a diverse collection of art songs suitable for diploma and degree students. It is intended to be set as standard repertoire for Aswara's academic syllabus and its Young Singers Competition. The book comprises eleven compositions based on texts by poets Usman Awang, Anwar Ridhwan, A. Samad Said, Mazami Maz, Chantelle Tiong, Bernice Chauly and Casey Koh.

Among them are new pieces by Jessica Cho (The Dead Crow, text by A Samad Said) and  Adeline Wong (Wasps, text by Bernice Chauly) as well as works by Casey Koh, Jamie Tan, Ramlan Imam, Ruslan Imam and Wong Chee Wei.

Wong in her introduction to Wasps wrote, “'The wasps so ancient, so old' - This [line from the poem] provided the overall sound of my work, looking back into the use of ancient  modes, parallel harmony in 4ths and 5ths, organum, melismatic melody reminds us of how ancient this creature is.

Jessica Cho exchanges scores with Aswara's Jamie Tan
"The opening simple harmonies slowly transform, becoming thicker and  more complex and pushing through to the climax of the work where the voice line ascends to an almost plea of the soul. The materials heard in the beginning are always repeated and changed referring to the poem’s cyclical nature. A season of growth and a season of departing. Where have all the winged creatures gone? It is a joy to build, a time to gather.

"But like flowers that fade, do memories of those who have moved on linger on? Life’s a cycle."

Cho's The Dead Crow is meanwhile a scathing commentary on environmental ravage at the hands of corrupt politicians. In the text, national laureat A Samad Said's poem comments on pollution, the need for preservation of nature, the dangers of modernisation and awareness for the need for balanced development.

"We can feel the anger and the disappointment of the persona through the poem. People are suffering because of the polluted environment, and the persona hopes for a better and cleaner environment for the people and future generations," wrote Cho in her preface.

Our Songs

As the collection's editor and soprano Yeoh Ker Ker describes the book's preface, “As part of the requirement in the syllabus, vocal students in Aswara ought to study and perform art songs written by Malaysian composers. This book aims to provide the right choice for them to appreciate and study.

“'I Nostri Canti' in Italian means 'Our Songs'. As suggested by the title,this is a collection of music composed by Malaysians, both composers and writers of motherland.”

Aswara rector Professor Sahar Sa'di Hashim adds, “The collection represents a variety of musical styles including piano and voice; one composer blends in gu zheng and another enriches the harmony with the clarinet. Inherent in all of these art songs is evidence of the harmony of collaboration and sharing of experiences among the Malaysian people.”

The publication of 'I Nostri Canti' was planned to culminate in a concert on March 19 in Kuala Lumpur, but the event has been postponed due to the ongoing pandemic and will be rescheduled at a later date.

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