Brand New Beat - feature on the first MPO Forum for composers

Brand New Beat

One man braved the riot police and tear gas to witness the birth of Malaysian art music repertoire. L6ok out for the next MPO Forum in March.

It was a CNN moment. Iraqi flags flew and crowds chanted anti-war slogans. I emerged from Dewar Filharmonik Petronas, which moments earlier echoed not with the familiar strains of Bach or Beethoven, but with brand new music by six young composers given the rare privilege of kicking off a Malaysian art music repertoire right into the demonstrations that had made the news worldwide on Saturday. March 29, 2003.

Running smack into the melee, dodging the riot police cordon and fire trucks and just missing the unleashing of water cannons and tear gas by minutes, my mind thought not of war, but of "piece". Two pieces, actually the obsessive hammering of Adeline Wong's Synclastic Illuminations and the sensual stirrings of Johan Othman's Ittar.

My only disappointment at the workshops of the first Forum of Malaysian Composers held in March [2003] was that more people were not there to witness the creation of these works. Where were all our many music enthusiasts and music students and teachers? I was proud to be there, to watch, like the fashioning of a sculpture from a block of stone, the chipping away at the scores to produce this brand new music.

The forum was a rare chance to experience a myriad of styles, from the unabashedly post-Romantic sounds of Vivian Chua and Ahmed Muriz, through to Tay Poh Gek's assimilation of Malaysian roots into her Bartokian nationalism right across the spectrum, all eager to call Malaysia home. One wonders where they all were when the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra first launched. Wong, one of a number of composers who in 1997 tried fruitlessly to submit a work to the MPO for its premiere, was visibly excited. "It's wonderful to discover that there are so many Malaysian composers! It's the first time that the MPO has done this and I think it's a very good step in letting the public know that there is talent here at home."

It was more than just about music-making. Malaysian composers were coming out of the closet in numbers, engaging one another, and the orchestra, in a healthy exchange of ideas, lighting the way for the future of Malaysian music. "I learnt a lot from all of them," says Tay. "You cannot get such [opportunity] anywhere else. For two years I was studying at Berkeley, and when I came here for this forum I thought, 'Wow, what was I doing in Berkeley!'"

Vivian Chua adds, "I learnt more about where my own style of writing stands right now, more about what can and cannot be done physically, but more importantly, I learnt more about myself as a composer." Playing the role of midwife to the birth of a Malaysian repertoire was forum director Kevin Meld, no stranger to the world of new music with his involvement in the Australian Composers Forum, and his enthusiastic band of 16 dedicated MPO musicians, who gave their heart and soul to the six hopefuls, sight-reading their new scores for the first time on Thursday and, after six hours a day of gruelling ensemble rehearsals, produced music of such amazing beauty and feeling by Saturday that it was beyond belief.

"This is heaven," says Johan, having listened with obvious satisfaction to a thrilling execution of his score. "We are highly lucky... the MPO musicians are very committed, and they have been very understanding... It's a difficult job being a composer, we need support. They gave us encouragement to go on." Ahmed Muriz has nothing but glowing praise for the 16 musicians who gave their time. "We had the luxury of practice hours that even as serious composers we wouldn't get in any other part of the world."

The atmosphere was magical. In the revered quietude of the rehearsals, the MPO musicians worked hard at the music. It was all coming together wonderfully. Kiyomi Kikuchi fussed over her array of bonang barong gongs (a key melodic instrument of the gamelan), while Joost Flach the oboist tried out different ways of scraping the Thai Gong assigned to him. The candidates, with scores in hand, listened attentively or came forward to give suggestions. Those whose works were not being rehearsed leafed through their colleague's scores, pointing out an interesting instrumental effect here and there. The enthusiasm for one another's creations was palpable.

''Vivian Chua's [Water] is one of the most mesmerising pieces I have heard, I am absolutely into what she did and I learnt a lot by just listening to it," says Ahmad Muriz with a glow. "So goes for Poh Gek; her technique of orchestration, the way she used the bonang, fits whatever she intended to do. Her orchestration is phenomenally good, and there, a lot of potential for other composers to pick up from what she, and hopefully what I, started with the bonang."

I knew which my personal favourites were, "Adeline's piece, also Johan's. these two are very interesting," says Chong contemplatively, mirroring my thoughts. "I feel a musical power inside their music that is very strong, others are also good, but personally, in these two pieces the composers' musical thoughts really came through. They have their individual voice, an originality. It's a good thing for a Malaysian composer to be able to discover their own voice."

Individual voices are undoubtedly beginning to emerge. The six new works written specially for this Forum, all of a high standard and craftsmanship, were premiered on Sunday to a full house, each receiving rapturous applause. The audience was asked to indicate their choices, and Kevin Field and the panel comprising composers Sunetra Fernando, Fraser Trainer and Gerard Brophy deliberated for nearly two weeks on who would go into Phase 2. The results were finally announced in April: Wong, Ahmed Muriz, Chong and Johan will proceed to the next round and write a 15-minute work for a full orchestra, to be performed in March next year. While that is certainly something to look forward to, we can only hope that this is just the beginning. Composers like Chua and Tay, who were not selected, ought to be given a chance to have their works performed in future as well, not to mention the many composers who did not make the Phase I selections.

"The forum is a good thing, culturally. I mean, Formula 1 [which Petronas sponsors] is not the only thing that Malaysia has to offer, a lot of people lack culture today. This [music] can also sell our country," says Johan thoughtfully. "Not everything should be about making money." Wong too hopes the forum will lead to more performances of local music. "I hope that musicians will play new works, not just the old ones. It's very important that they do this - sure we need the classics, but we need new works as well, so that the public will know that we have Malaysian composers, and will hopefully want to listen to what we create."

That is the whole point of having our own professional orchestra and a world-class concert hall, isn't it? It is heartening that people like Kevin Field, the MPO's Education and Outreach Department and the 16 wonderful musicians, too many to be named here but certainly each one deserving credit, agree. "This is a whole new genre that is going to take off," says Wong. This should be an ongoing process where we would eventually have more composers, more music and more people who appreciate it. Hopefully, we will then have, and I think that is the whole point of this Forum, a real Malaysian repertoire that will globalise Malaysian music. We have the tools, we have potential, and we just have to excel from what we started here." The bigger question on everyone's minds was what lay ahead.

In this respect the MPO can do a lot more to help local musicians by looking beyond their commitment of season concerts for the balance sheet, and organise workshops and seminars for local musicians that eventually lead to concert opportunities for local musicians and composers. "It's a good way for [our musicians] to not just study at home, but gain exposure to professional musicians and concert playing," Chong adds as an afterthought, "so that our musicians have something to dream about."

A Malaysian orchestra performing Malaysian music. That has long been a dream for many of us. For these six, its the start of something we once thought would never happen.

- C H Loh is a populist who listens to Madonna in his spare time

Murder They Wrote

The six Forum of Malaysian Composers candidates wrote some pretty diabolical music, much to the delight of performers and audience alike. We go behind the barlines.

A famous composer once likened the work of describing a piece of music to writing about the taste of eggs. It was much better, he said, to eat the egg for oneself than to read about it. Naturally, eggs were a tasty commodity in frostbitten Soviet Union, and to hear the six new works at the Malaysian composers forum is ultimately better than to read about it. Nonetheless, I shall attempt to describe the works in as familiar terms as I can. And I promise, for the sake of Tay Poh Gek, not to mention a certain movie staring Michelle Yeoh.

Tay adopts a folk-based style in 'An Evening in the Myth' that pays tribute to Bartok in many ways, especially in its piquant, angular melodies and the earthy final romp. In this rhapsodic tone poem she explores the connections that a simple motif C-A-B-A-C has between the Chinese and the Malay characteristics through a simple shift of a semitone. An idyllic opening on the flute, magnificently scored, sets forth an adventure that outgrows its 16-instrument score into something potentially bigger. Full of memorable melodic fragments and pounding rhythmic vitality connected throughout by the bonang, it's a work that demands to be on a larger canvas. I sympathise with Tay, who had urged the musicians to play louder, that the brass could have given her mythical adventure more rugged oomph.

In Ahmad Muriz's 'Bertabuh Kala Senja', his gift for melody is its strongest element. Cast in an A-B-A format, it's a highly attractive work based on a simple, very Malaysian motif Bb-Ab-F- Ab-Bb-C set in a feet-tapping 2+2 +2+ 3 rhythm that takes you on a breathless journey. Like a gamelan composition, fragments spins endlessly around the main motif and several submotifs to create a kaleidoscope of melody, and in the style of an American overture. Excitement and affection builds steadily to reach a rousing finish. Ahmad Muriz uses two different types of bonang to create interesting textures in this wonderful miniature.

Vivian Chua's reflections on 'Water moods and reflections' is immediately appealing with her unapologetically diatonic language that recalls a Resphigi or Debussy tone poem. The sensuous opening sets the tone for her very American Jeux Deux with more than a whiff of Afternoon of a Faun setting the stage for a series of variations on her dreamy oscillating theme CDBbFC. There is plenty of foot-tapping entertainment and some intimate moments of tranquility. I enjoyed the latter immensely and felt that 'Water' would have benefited from a little more performing time for each segment to fully develop.

Standing out from the lot was Adeline Wong's Synclastic Illuminations, a quasi-minimalist study in the motivic possibilities of minimal musical resources yielding an exciting score, simply but effectively orchestrated. "I like to use very little material and see how this material develops through emotional and colour changes. I always like to think about the audience and what they look for in my music," says a confident Wong.

A nervous set of falling scales in parallel seconds on woodwinds, lined by the brittle xylophone and piano, immediately grabs your attention and never lets up. An obsessive jazzy rhythm on the key idea, a descending scale on a minor seventh chord, takes over. "Unpleasant sounds" is what Wong calls it, breaking down into a curious hocketting interplay amongst the woodwinds and percussion, diabolically difficult to perform (perfect during the rehearsals but sadly tripping up the ensemble just for a fraction during the actual concert).

The timpani heralds in a "trembling and shaking" brass section, where various muted trills and glissandi lead to a burst of "cascades" for the full ensemble in a very Malaysian glow, achieved very simply by the use of the rising semitone III-IV. This glorious shimmering climax. pushed on with an ingenious use of the drumkit, dissipates into a deeply touching calm built around the idea on thirds, its sparse, pristine beauty reminiscent of the closing moments of Copland's Appalachian Spring.

'Ittar', an outstanding work of startling maturity from the youngest of the six, finds 24-year-old Johan Othman unearthing the most primeval elements from the depths of our cultural heritage. It harks back the Hindu connection of our Sri Vijayan roots so often forgotten in these politically correct days, and the scent of it permeates the entire work. Scent, after all, is what Ittar is about: "the scent of sound", says Johan after the rehearsal.

The soft-spoken composer confirms my hunch about the Hindu associations. "I have always been into philosophy. Here I am exploring the Hindu philosophy of Shiva, the Lord of Dance. Although I am not Hindu, I don't see anything wrong here. I am taking the universality of Hindu philosophy and applying it to music. Shiva belongs to everyone, not just Hindus, in the way that Shakespeare belongs to all of us, to mankind," he explains.

It begins with a mysterious ritual meditation for oboe and clarinet around the Pelog mode (A-Bb-[B}-C-E), the two instruments curiously mirroring then contradicting each other to interjections by a woodblock, harp and delicious muted string chords. The music explodes into a furiously duelling violin duet, the theme compressed into semitones, building into a ferocious whirlwind of demi-semiquavers.

It's a brilliant orchestral stroke here by Johan, culminating in an amazing alto sax solo that heralds in the final processional. Led by the bassoon against the harp playing an ostinato on a whole tone fourth and a bluesy cello pizzicato, the work closes as abruptly as it begins on a solo viola, a sort of infinite twinkle of the eye.

It's a sensual, brutal, totally compelling, and amazingly rich composition for such a sparse orchestration. "Ittar means perfume, and perfume is a scent normally perceived through the nose, while this is like the scent of sound. I didn't want to make it so straightforward, like, here's the dance of Shiva and everybody gets this picture, 'Oh. we're going to hear Indian music. It's not one of those cultural displays'," says Johan with a laugh. Who can resist poking fun at our cultural mainstay, which for decades consisted solely of a compulsory quartet of Malay, Indian, Chinese and orang asli dances?

Thankfully, we now have an alternative, for despite its abstract theme and highly original musical material, Ittar sounds perfectly Malaysian without trying to. With time, more original voices will make their own mark on our music. If you didn't catch these six pioneers then you still have a chance to hear four of them in action in March. Witness the moulding of their new creations during the clinics on March 9 to 10, and experience the finished product at the premiere concert on March 11, after which one of the lucky four will be selected to represent Malaysia at the MPO International Composers Award. Mark your diaries!

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