Making History: Behind the scenes of Faith, hope and chaos

Making history: how Malaysia's first ever new music anthology began

Over the past decade I have been writing about music composed by Malaysians. It was never an easy task - in the mid 90s information about Malaysian composers was practically non-existent. We did not have a visible contemporary music scene, and at the time any composer who was active was either being performed abroad, as in the case of Valerie Ross, or working in the quiet seclusion of their own inner circles, for example Razak Abdul Aziz.

My first encounter with a Malaysian work happened quite by accident, when i was invited to attend a rehearsal of the amateur chamber group the Camerata, led by oboist Joost Flach. Amidst the standard baroque repertory the band suddenly played a work recognisably non-Western, I later learnt it was an original composition by one of the Camerata members. That was, for me, the highlight of the evening.

In Search Of

As usual with local compositions even today, their existence in concert programmes usually take a back seat to their canonised Western counterparts, and in the case of that first encounter the name of the piece and the composer never came to my attention. This, sadly, still happens today.

Obviously something had to be done. My only other encounter with a Malaysian composition in the 90s was a work briefly covered in the press by Valerie Ross, her Cycles for piano and tabla. Again, in those pre-internet days information was scarce, and memories were (and still are) short. Even in our highly advanced www age googling Ross's name yields scarce information.

The Forum for Malaysian Composers will be recognised as a a milestone for our music scene, if because of the jumpstart it has given our composers into believing that their music could find a place in their home country. However, it soon became evident that much more needed to be done, and it was increasingly clear that no one was going to do it for us. As a friend of mine once said, if you wanted something done you had to do it yourself.

So over a glass of teh tarik, under the starless suffocating KL sky with my collaborator Hardesh Singh contemplating his banana leaf rice, it dawned on us that we had a shared vision. We both wanted to make recordings of Malaysian music. A few sips of tea and a cleaned out banana leaf later, the Malaysian Contemporary Music series was born. That was May 07. A month later I had secured the commitment of Off The Edge to go ahead with the project, and by June I had a draft of the programme.

It was hard work putting together an anthology that would reflect the vast diversity of our contemporary music. To quote the ever eloquent Antares, that we suddenly have so many contemporary composers in our midst is a "happy fluke". Foremost at the frontlines of the avant garde we have composers like Tazul Tajuddin, closer to the American minimalist school we have the kaleidoscopic sonic colours of Adeline Wong and Johan Othman’s music. 

Far From Rojak

I received scepticism for attempting to put them all on the same piece of plastic, but I was confident that in the high quality of our composer's work, such a venture could succeed. The sheer artistry of our composers and the commitment of their performers meant that what could be rojak, a typically Malaysian multi-ethnic offering so tiresomely paraded at every official function, could actually present a well-rounded programme of great distinction.

Far from being rojak, the pieces in the programme fell into a sort of inner logic that became only apparent after they fell into place next to one another. And when Hardesh Singh came up with his quirky Nation Building I knew it was a perfect opening statement.

In a happy coincidence, Nation Building's key fit neatly with the first set of pieces. In fact, little has been moved around since my early draft. The mood moves from poetic juxtapositions of avant garde and traditional, eastern and western, contemplative and bold. Adeline Wong's cello pieces from 5 Letter For An Eastern Empire make a strong statement in anchoring the music to a classical foundation, namely Bach.

Hardesh Singh's indian classical composition for the Chemman Chaalai soundtrack brings about a turning point midway in the programme, a sort of modulation to an Eastern classical mode that would be picked up by Saidah Rastam's gamelan orchestra powerhouse from M! The Opera. Ng Chong Lim's 3 Sketches is heavily influenced by gamelan, in its own way transforming the traditional to the avant garde.

Johan Othman's jazzy piano miniature Composition For Piano Nr 8 acts as a bridge, or in symphonic terms, a Scherzo to the Finale that is Adeline Wong's lush symphonic statement Synclastic Illuminations, a touching grand gesture that I felt brought the programme to a satisfying close, the big finish. In a sense, it is a sweet reward for the listener for having travelled so far through the challenging programme. The ravishing final bars seem to sigh of satisfaction at a hard won battle.

As I have always felt my own Toccata to be a sort of Encore piece, here it makes a closing statement and provides a lighthearted afterthought. Again the logic magically fell into place, Hardesh's piece as a prologue, mine as an epilogue.

What's in a name?

The packaging of the CD was itself an adventure. I finally found a name for the CD when I read Nick Choo's Off The Edge review of my Toccata's premiere in Wellington. Faith, Hope and Chaos somehow describes our journey and our aspirations and the many challenges that we have to overcome. And magically, Hardesh Singh's opening piece seems to have predicted the title.

The final piece in the jigsaw fell neatly into place when, as we fretted over the cover designs, photographer Pang Khee Teik provided me with three randomly selected photos that turned out to be exactly what I had in mind. Call it premonition, but their poweful imagery spelt the title in turns - faith, in the glassy-eyed front cover mannequin is hilarious irony, hope that is destined to never arrive is bizarrely captured in the roadworks of the back cover, and chaos in the Factory Installation so poetically articulated. Is this the invisible hand of fate? Was our project predestined? Or was it simply that our limitations became our ultimate artistic salvation?

- CH Loh, Jan 08 

Selected Track Details

1. Nation Building (2007)
for guitar and electroacoustics
Hardesh Singh

Hardesh Singh (guitar, electroacoustics)
Eddie Wen (trumpet & horn),
Farazila Abdul Jabar (voice)
Recorded at SoundWorks East, Bukit Damansara on 7 & 25 August 2007

Hardesh Singh specially composed Nation Building for this CD, as he felt that my original choice of his music for the film Chemmam Chaalai did not express the things that he wanted to express for the anthology, which was meant to come out in 2007 as part of Malaysia's 50th year of Independence. Hence the present piece, which is a sort of music concrete meets jazz meets ethnic music that exemplifies the composer's contemporary outlook.

The piece represents the cry of the individual artist caught in the crossfire of cultural forces set against a backdrop of incessant and indiscriminate urbanisation. "'Nation-building' is our government's favourite mantra. I'm always worried that too much emphasis is placed on the physical rather than the intellectual, emotional and spiritual aspects of development. We put our children thru 11 years of public schooling, and still have to force them to share rooms among different races when they go to university. We are building a generation of yes-bots, mechanical minds that pulse along to a steady rhythm... and I dread to think what will happen when the conductor falls asleep," says the composer.

The music features a solo classical guitar pitched against a collage of sounds, gamelan and a female voice intoning an azan-like vocalise, all constructed around the incessant rhythm of a pile driver that finally dissolves into white noise. The work is typical of the composer's ironic wit and keenly sensitive social commentary.

Hardesh Singh is a multi-talented musician and composer who studied Indian classical music on the acoustic guitar with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan in San Francisco. He has composed music for many critically acclaimed Malaysian films like Amir Muhammad's The Last Communist and Tokyo Magic Hour, Deepak K Menon's Chemmam Chaalai and Yasmin Ahmad's Gubra, and also produced a number of records for unique Malaysian artists. He composes and performs with his critically acclaimed ensemble the 50cents Jazz Club. He is currently developing a new style for his project the Purple Magic Sample Ensemble, based on samples of found broadcasts combined with Malaysian ethnic and jazz music.

Corak - Arabesque V (2000)
for cello and harp
Tazul Izan Tajuddin

Duo G Selmi: Anna Maria Manicone (harp), John McCrae (cello) World premiere performance and recording at Vico IV Cappeluti No.6, Matera, Italy in 2002

Corak - Arabesque V is an exquisite conversation between sinuous cello phrases and sparkling harp gong tones that is instantly recognisable as Malaysian in its essence. It is a fine example of Tazul Tajuddin's compositional aesthetics, which brings the approach of gamelan to a western medium in refreshing new ways through his continuing cycles Gamelbati, Tenunan and Corak.

The composer explains, "'Corak' is a Malay word meaning pattern. The piece is influenced by Jackson Pollock's painting 'Number 13 Arabesque (1948)'. The work is a study for 'Corakan', a work written for large orchestra. 'Corak - Arabesque V' is one of a cycle of pieces in 'The Study of Arabesque' exploring the concept of patterns in the Islamic arts. It is formed using 9 series of notes which are distributed throughout 10 small sections (or patterns). These patterns are like fragmented tiles connected to each other. There are varieties of techniques, dynamics and tempi (without repetition), with the first and the final sections are as mirror image. The cello sounds are transformed using false harmonics, glissandi and pizzicato. The piece is dedicated to John McCrae and Anna Maria Manicone (Duo G.Selmi)."

Tazul Izan Tajuddin is an award-winning composer residing in London. He studied with composers like Leonardo Balada and Jonathan Harvey and received his PhD from the University of Sussex. His unique approach to incorporating his Malay heritage into a Western musical language has won him many prizes, including the Toru Takemitsu prize for Tenunan II, a work that was recently performed at the ISCM World Music Days 07 in Hong Kong.

His Piano Concerto "Warna Yang Bernada " (Sound Colour) was premiered in London on 14 Nov 07 at the Cadogan Hall with the London Sinfonietta as part of Malaysia's 50th Anniversary celebration. Writes Andrew Clement in the Guardian (UK, 16 Nov 2007), "Warna Yang Bernada is an arch-form single movement whose trajectory is intended to reflect the development over the past century. With its Messiaen-like piano flourishes...over hazy static orchestral textures, it is attractive... .'

French composer Henri Dutilleux once described Tazul as "a very finely gifted composer," who "reveals a daring personality, both rigorous and innovative in spirit."

The Perfomers

Duo G.Selmi was formed in 1988 and has a large repertoire which spans from the 17th century to the contemporary. The Scotsman wrote "…the duo performed with great skill and one hopes that more works will emerge to match their talent." Anna Maria Manicone studied in Rome at the "St Cecilia" Conservatorio di Musica under the guidance of Maria Selmi Dongellini. She is currently Professor of harp at the "Tito Schipa" Conservatorio di Musica in Lecce, Italy. John McCrae studied in London at the Royal College of Music with Christopher Bunting. Presently he is co-principal cellist with the Bari Symphony Orchestra.

Excerpts from 5 Letters From An Eastern Empire (2004)
i Pierced
ii Epitaph
for solo cello
Adeline Wong

Ryan Arsenal (cello)
Recorded at Imaginex Studios, Kuala Lumpur in October 2004

"5 Letters From An Eastern Empire" was a play produced by SUMUNDA and staged at The Actors Studio, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur in 2004. The synopsis of the production provided by goes as follows: "Edwin Sumun is Bohu, the Imperial Tragic Poet. Separated from his corpse-handling parents at a young age, Bohu has been trained his entire life in order to produce one Tragic Poem for the Emperor. Now finally in the palace, he shall be expected to write soon. Meanwhile, he is allowed to write letters to his parents in the city, through which we hear his memory and feelings. But are his parents receiving his letters? And if he knows what is going to happen to them, will he still write the poem he is destined to write? The richly allegorical story, though set in an apparently ancient time and unspecified oriental locale, has deep contemporary and local pertinence. This play was first staged by Rep 21, with Edwin also playing Bohu, in 2000." The 2004 staging was directed by Zahim Al-Bakri, Reza Zainal Abidin, Rohaizad Suaidi & Edwin Sumun.

"This work is my first attempt at writing music for theatre," says Wong. The incidental music for the theatre production is scored for a boy soprano, cello and electronics. The two solo cello pieces in the score represent two extremes of moods in the music: one violent and modernistic, full of dissonance, glissandi and extended bowing techniques, the other quiet, pristine and hallowed, its aria form seemingly a tribute to Bach in his Cello Suites. "The cellist was asked to fulfill wide emotions varying from child-likeness, pain, hysteria and anger. Pierced is written to portray the madness of Bohu when he discovers his parents were murdered, and Epitaph - a lament for Bohu - where he says his final words before dying."

Adeline Wong received her Bachelor of Music at the Eastman School of Music in New York and her Master of Music at the Royal College of Music, London, where she was awarded the Cobbett and Hurlstone Composition Prize. She was one of the four finalists in the Forum For Malaysian Composers in 2004 and has premiered a number of works in Kuala Lumpur including her stunning cello concerto Snapshots and the score for the film Chermin. Wong has also written works for the Bang on a Can summer festival 2006 in New York and the TACTUS Young Composers' Forum in Brussels. She was commissioned in 2007 to produce Empunya Yang Beroleh Sita Dewi, a work for orchestra and wayang kulit ensemble with live shadow puppet to celebrate Malaysia's 50th Anniversary of Independence.

At The Funeral Pyre (2004)
music from the film Chemman Chaalai
(The Gravel Road)
Hardesh Singh

Hardesh Singh (modified 12-stringed guitar)
From the album Eating Pomeloes From Tokyo To Tamil Nadu Makes My Heart Go Gubra, SoundWorks Productions 2006

When considering a piece from Hardesh Singh's output for the anthology my first impulse was his evocative soundtrack to the film Chemman Chaalai, which Hardesh had just released on CD the year before. The intense feelings contained within the simple guitar solo backed in places by tabla and claypot (though not on this particular track) was profoundly moving, and it made the perfect bridge between Adeline Wong's Epitaph and Saidah Rastam's ceremonial wedding music.

It became such an integral, indeed critical foundation of the flow of the programme that when Hardesh supplied me with the work that he had intended to submit, I persuaded him to let me retain this track where I felt it belonged. Without it, the programme would fall apart, at least in my view of it. Besides, it shows the two facets of the composer, one the contemporary jazz and world music sensibility, the other his Indian classical training and a good example of Malaysian film music.

Director Deepak Kumaran Menon commissioned Hardesh Singh to compose music for his beautifully understated film about life in a Malaysian rubber estate. The film tells of how the protagonist Shanta learns the futility of attempting to escape from the clutches of fate. This final track to the score is quiet and wistful, and perfectly captures the simplicity of rural life that can both reward and oppress at the same time. The composer performs on a 12-string guitar modified with chikari drone strings that transforms it into an Indian classical instrument.

Three Sketches for Two Pianos (2004)
Ng Chong Lim
Ng Chong Lim & Chou Mei-chun (piano)
World premiere performance and recording at the Taipei National Recital Hall on 1 April 2004, engineer Jui-shun Jao

Like many Malaysian composers, Ng's music cannot escape the magical allure of the gamelan. In his seductive Three Sketches they hide in the inner layers that exudes hints of gongs and local scales, like the scent of distant blooms afloat in the breeze.

Says Ng, "These sketches are mixture of South-East Asian (gamelan) and western influence. They are tiny little pieces to express my love of nature, my country and simply the exploration of natural sound world of the piano that I adore." The second sketch was originally from Khatulistiwa for 2 pianos and 2 percussionists while the third is from his solo work Daun.

Although it is not easily recognisable, and this is part of the work's magic, the material is based on a series of gamelan scales mapped in a complex structure throughout the piece. It was written specially for the pianist Chou as her examination piece, and she later premiered it in Taiwan in a concert of Ng's music together with the composer, in the recording which you hear in this CD.

As a pianist, Ng won 1st prize at the Malaysian National Piano Competition in 1993 and was selected by one of the judges for a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music in London, after which he proceeded to study composition with Professor Beat Furrer at Graz, Austria.

Chong has written a number of piano works that combines a bold, experimental approach to composition with a warmth and freedom more associated with Asian music aesthetics. He was one fo the four finalists in the Forum For Malaysian Composers II in 2007 where he unveiled his sublime orchestral masterpiece Xiang.

Apart from musical activities, Chong is also the chairman of the HEART Foundation which operates in South East Asia. The Foundation offers assistance to children in poorly developed communities, offering aid in terms of food, shelter and educational facilities. Some of its activities include organising concerts to raise funds, and offers local musicians a chance to be involved in community work.

The Performer

Taiwanese pianist Chou Mei-chun obtained her Masters degree in piano performance from the University Of Music And Art, Graz, Austria under Prof Walter Kamper. She has performed in Taiwan, Austria and Japan, and has collaborated with Ng Chong Lim in concert tours of his compositions in Taipei, Hualien & Taitung. She currently teaches at Taitung University in Taiwan.

Composition For Piano No. 8 (2005)
Johan Othman

Loo Bang Hean (piano)
World premiere performance and recording at Segi College, Subang Jaya, 3 July 2007, engineer Hardesh Singh

Johan Othman wrote a series of 8 pieces for piano between 2004 and 2005 as a series of exploratory exercises in search of new forms of expression. The last in the series, this miniature offers a fascinating insight into the young composer's developing musical thought process. The music is brittle and obsessive, with nervously bluesy undertones that propel the piano breathlessly forward until it collapses in a sudden conclusion.

Johan Othman graduated from Yale University majoring in Music Composition, studying with composers like Professor Richard Hoffmann, Param Vir, Ned Rorem and many others. His style is organically Malaysian within his medium of quasi-minimalist, sometimes jazzy, modern yet accessible language.

As one of the four finalists in the Forum For Malaysian Composers in 2004, he presented his dazzling orchestral works Ittar and Topeng 1. Both works resonate with the sounds of Malaysia's deep heritage translated to the Western medium, setting the foundations of an authentically and recognisably Malaysian repertoire. Both works explore Hindu mythology and philosophy, a subject that particularly fascinates the composer when it comes to music. He takes the idea further in his follow up Topeng II, ever distilling his musical thought process. Topeng II was premiered in KL in 2007.

The Performer

Ipoh-born pianist Loo Bang Hean studied at the Royal College of Music, London where he won numerous prizes, including grants for postgraduate studies in Milan, Italy. He appears regularly in solo recitals, chamber concerts and concerto performances around the country as well as abroad in England, Italy, Brunei, Singapore and Korea.

Synclastic Illuminations (2003)
Adeline Wong

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Li Xincao
Recorded on 16 February 2007 at the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, by Radio New Zealand Concert,
as part of the Asia Pacific Festival and Composers' Conference, engineer Graham Kennedy, producer Roger Smith.
This recording was supplied by Radio New Zealand Concert

This work was originally written for a chamber ensemble for the Forum For Malaysian Composers in 2003. This full orchestral performance was made in New Zealand as part of Asian Voices, a concert of Asian orchestral music that was presented as part of the Asia Pacific Festival 07 in Wellington, organised by the Asian Composers League.

Translating the score to a full orchestra brings new facets to Wong's spectacular score built primarily around a series of descending thirds. "The piece begins with high, piercing dissonant sounds, slowly working their way to a wider scope of sound colours … finally drawing on a sequence of falling thirds in its purest and simplest form," says Wong.

In particular, the full orchestral forces lifts the work in its climax to new heights, as affirmative calls on the trumpets announce a new dawn to the thunderous beats of the percussion, heralding the closing bars of the score that is achingly beautiful with a full string section.

The Performers

Founded in 1946, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is New Zealand's leading professional orchestra that performs over 100 concerts annually. As part of their firm commitment to music by local composers, the orchestra participates in regular readings of new compositions and records at least one CD of New Zealand music annually.

Li Xincao, the Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the China National Symphony Orchestra, guest-conducted the NZSO at the Asia Pacific Festival Wellington 2007.

Toccata from 3 KL Miniatures (1995, rev 2006)
for String Quartet
CH Loh

Aroha Quartet:
Liu Haihong (violin I), Xue Beiyi (violin II), Jin Zhongxian (viola), Cheng Jiaxin (cello)
Premiere performance recorded on 9 February 2007 in St Andrews Church, Wellington, by Roy Carr as part of the Asia Pacific Festival and Composers' Conference. This recording was supplied by Radio New Zealand Concert

Originally composed in 1995, the Toccata was the first of a series of satiric miniatures based on Malaysian life. At the time, it was difficult to find a piece of contemporary music written from a Malaysian perspective, and the KL Miniatures aimed to fill that niche. A new copy was prepared when Prof Jack Body, New Zealand composer and the Artistic Director of the Asia Pacific Festival 07 secured a performance of the work in Wellington in February 2007, where it finally received its world premiere.

Writes Nick Choo in a review in Off The Edge June 07 entitled Faith, Hope & Chaos, "At its most sinister, it conjures darkly comic images of spiders, the accompaniment reminiscent of scurrying legs, at once both deadly and beautiful...At its most effervescent, it is a paean to commotion, to madness - and to city living: planned and methodical, messy and unpredictable."

The 3 KL Miniatures will be left unfinished as a monument to the many composers of the past decade who had given up the life of art for one of practical survival.

CH Loh studied music under his mentor Hong Kong-born conductor Luk Hoi Yui, former principal horn player of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and leading band instructor in Singapore, who encouraged him to pursue composition, and commissioned several band transcriptions including the Yellow River Concerto and Hong Wu Capriccio for Violin and Band. Loh is also a music columnist who has written extensively on Malaysian music over the past 15 years. This anthology is a culmination of a decade of writing about Malaysian composers, and is dedicated to the memory of his father Loh Kum Wah, who passed away on 3 August 2007 before he had the chance to see this CD in print.

The Performers

Aroha Quartet performing the ToccataThe Aroha Quartet are four great friends, all originally from China and now members of New Zealand's two main orchestras, who get together to present string quartet music. "Aroha" is the Maori word for "love" and these four passionate musicians aim to propagate the love for music in their beautiful country of adoption. 


Kakiseni, 13 mar 08: Leading the Way into Chaos
Zalina Lee

Faith Hope Chaos is an anthology of contemporary Malaysian music, featuring composers such as Chong Kee Yong, Saidah Rastam, Adeline Wong, Hardesh Singh and Johan Othman. Its the first of its kind, and Zalina Lee tells us why the collection is unsuitable as background music and unlikely to win an AIM award, much to its credit. >more

The Star. 9 Mar 08: Local Gems
Martin Vengadesan

UNLESS you’re a dedicated follower of contemporary classical music or an avid reader of a rival publication, you are very likely to have missed one of the most interesting local releases to come out in recent times. >more

The Sun, 14 Feb 08: Anthology Of Local Contemporary Music

MALAYSIA’S first anthology of contemporary music featuring some of the country’s best composers has finally arrived. It is now being distributed exclusively with the February issue of Off the Edge, a local monthly arts and culture magazine. >view (gif file - 50kb)

Options, 4 Feb 08: Defining Malaysian Music
Anandhi Gopinath

When you think about Malaysian music, no particular genre comes to mind. Is it deeply classical stuff like Asyik or the gamelan? Or the more cheerful folk music variety of the Boria and dikir barat?

Yet these musical forms, alongside ethnic music from the Chinese, Indian and Serani communities as well as Western classical music, have germinated and grown over the years. The result is a rich tapestry of music that is a combination of traditional and contemporary experimentation that both celebrates heritage and respects change. >view (pdf file - 193kb)

New Straits Times, 14 Nov 07: Money On The Arts
Radin Sri Ghazali

From a film on flats scheduled for demolition to a music album of contemporary [music] by Malaysians living abroad, the Krishen Jit-Astro Fund supports a diverse range of works this year.

FOUR artistes in the Malaysian arts scene recently received funds from the Krishen Jit-Astro Fund to complete their original works. Amir Muhammad, Hardesh Singh/CH Loh, Lim Kok Yoong and Shahili Adban received a portion of RM38,000. 

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