A kaleidoscopic evening of Malaysian stories at Jalur Kita, Cerita Kita concert

The Jalur Kita, Cerita Kita concert by MCC at KLPac on 26 November was a huge success on many levels. Not only was the concert well attended although several competing concerts were taking place around Kuala Lumpur that night, but it also brought together 14 composers from varied backgrounds to present an evening of colourful, truly made-in-Malaysia music.

Funded by Cendana Arts Fund, the concert was a culmination on months of research by the selected composers on their subject of choice, based on an aspect of their respective Malaysian states that they chose to write about.

The musical result of the 14 diverse pieces were fascinating, engaging, here lyrical, there highly experimental, all painting a collective canvass of diversity that is Malaysia in a truly enjoyable concert performed by a combined ensemble of Ensemble Virama and Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Singapore's players, conducted by local wind ensemble maestro Cheryl Mah.

The evening opened with Tengku Irfan's Laksamana Bentan for wind quintet and timpani, a sonic retelling of the gruesome tale in dramatic atonal sections illustrating both the mood and the essence of the story in colourful detail. Particularly memorable is the piccolo throughout the piece, which emulates the seruling, lending a truly southern Malaysian flavour to the overall soundscape.

Next, Jessica Cho offered a Conversation of Birds drawn from the calls of several Taman Negara birds, a delightful duet for flute and bass clarinet that has a wonderful touch of humour in the way Cho weaves the calls into a Kurtaqesque piece of music.

Mohd Fairuz took us on a melodic journey through Sarawak's indigenous folk tunes with a beautifully crafted Kenyalang Rhapsody for oboe, clarinet and string quartet, with its gorgeously rendered lyricism, which draws from the traditions of the different ethnic groups of the East Malaysian state.

From there, Anolnaim Azizol took the concert in the opposite direction exploring the natural soundscapes of Perak's Gua Tempurung in his Bayu Nokturnal for string quartet and electronics. The quartet played largely extended techniques to paint the soundscape over a canvass of natural recordings of the cave, and if we closed our eyes we could imagine ourselves in the cave, taking in the echoes and noises created by nature.

The centrepiece of the first half has to be Adeline Wong's Sembilan for oboe and two percussion, full of rhythmic vitality and naturalistic oboe playing reminiscent of traditional Malay theatrical performances, and ample use of tuned gongs. At once modern yet strangely familiar, this work sees the composer adopting a new language that takes her art to another level.

Wong says she modelled the instrumentation after the traditional Negri Sembilan caklempong ensemble, hence its unique flavour. The buffalo horn design of Mingangkabau houses also plays a significant part in the composition, here they influence the "curved shaped melodies of the oboe, and at the end of the piece where the ensemble gently rises to reach the peak of Sembilan," says Wong.

Also memorable was Ooi Wei Chern's Remembering Candi 11 for a large ensemble of winds, strings and percussion. Opening quietly on a ritualistic chant built on the name "Candi 11 of 17 Candi", Ooi used notes symbolising the name, forming an 11 note “color” and the 17 beat rhythm of the Khanda Dhruva.

The chant is eventually engulfed by a chaos of sound created by aleatoric figures in the ensemble representing car horns and other noises. The literal scheme of the piece however translates wonderfully into an interesting piece of music that contrasts monophony with cacophany.

The first half ended with Hardesh Singh's Mud, Tin, Rubber, Concrete for viola, cello and tape. The industrial sounds create a rhythmic base over which the two strings play minimalist repetitive cycles that reflect the headlong rush of city life in Malaysia's capital, and ends abruptly in a brief soulful cantilena that seemingly breaks off, as if saying, "city life goes on unending".

Traditional and abstract

The second half opened with a pair of works based on traditional performance art forms. Wan Azlan drew inspiration from Kelantanese Dikir Barat in his work for full ensemble Dikir Melawati, with its minimalistic pulse against lyrical passages reminiscent of traditional Malay forms.

Tan Zhiyong had a more modernistic approach to the subject of Peranakan Dondang Sayang, with his Fight f[or] love for wind quintet in which fragments of Baba melodies were torn apart and brought together in a swirl of conflicting material.

Tan plays with the ideas of love and conflict in this wry look at life through the lens of Baba Nonya culture that is highly interesting and entertaining, with its somewhat Ivesian clashes of melody.

Veteran Tazul Tajuddin offered the centrepiece of the second half with his highly abstract soundscape based on the architecture of the Blue Mosque, where snippets of prayer-like incantations interspersed with swirls of echoes and other musical reflections.

The piece, for flute, strings and percussion, evokes the wonder and spirituality of obersving the mosque and seeping in its reverberations.

Adam Masumi's Awang Batil Bertabik for string quartet was a quasi minimalist work of considerable delight, with angular lyricism chugging along this musical retelling of a traditional storyteller's experience.

In contrast, Lee Chie Tsang's Long Calling from The Gardeners of the Forests recreated the cacophany of jungle animals with a variety of interesting extended techniques for the wind quintet, weaving together a wonderful soundscape that is at times mysterious, animated or serene.

Tan Yun Ming used a large ensemble of winds, strings and percussion to tell an old Terengganu tale of the Seventh Sea Princess, using old Ulik Mayang melodies to paint a rich and colourful canvass.

As the penultimate work on the programme, Tan's piece was both exciting and reflective and full of Malaysian flavour, and would have benefitted from a longer composition that it yearns for instead of the four minute duration limited by the concert time.

Closing the programme was Jellal Koay's Mujin, an exciting work for oboe, percussionist and string quintet inspired by Teochew puppet opera. The clang of operatic-styled percussion and atonal fragments worked wonderfully to convey the excitement of Chinese opera in a modern language, bringing the concert to a triumphant close.

In all, a wonderful evening of contrasts, wonderful sounds from the entire spectrum of music making, from the more traditional to the ultra modern, encompassing the wide variety of musical styles that make up Malaysian modern music.

If I had one regret, it was that the number of pieces covered by this single concert meant each composer was limited by practicality to write only very short works, and many of them showed plenty of potential to be larger pieces.  Let's hope in the near future these composers would extend their wonderful pieces and give the audience more of their beautiful new compositions.

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