First Malaysian Composer for the Pipe Organ

On the 27th May, we were given the world premiere of Journeys, a local composition for the pipe organ at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas (DFP). The pipe organ is an instrument the DFP is very proud of though it is most remote from most Malaysian musical heritage. Composed by 27-year-old Vivian Chua, it was performed by Robert Munns, a foreign organ player who teaches occasionally in Malaysia, who commissioned the work. For 12 whole minutes, a rowdy storm of chords defiantly blasted at us like an orchestra of electric guitars. It was as if the composer had thrown in everything as well as a big kitchen sink into the pipes. And the result was one of grand bewilderment. Still, this marks an exciting beginning for Malaysian Pipe Organ Music as we know it.

Kakiseni speaks to the composer, who one week ago had arranged a medley of popular Malay folk songs for the BBC Symphony Orchestra during the KL BBC Proms.

Kakiseni: I suppose the entire clan was there at the premier of Journeys.

Vivian Chua: Mainly my immediate family. Friends from the school I teach, Ann Perreau Music Studio. Some other church friends and things like that.

And what did they think of it?

Well, they enjoyed it a lot. Of course, they all joked and said, did somebody make you really mad, because the opening chords sounded angry. But that was not what I had in mind. I just wanted these huge boulders of chords. And there was also this subdued middle section.

You threw in so many chords, it even sounded discordant at some points. I mean deliberately discordant.

Organ writing uses a lot of harmonic colours. Of course, traditionally, they are like what you expect to hear. You always have your church hymns. And Phantom of The Opera. But I thought let’s not stick to that all the time.

One person I like to hear is Olivier Messiaen. He was an organist and he wrote a lot of church music. Well, not church music per se, organ music but with religious influences. I like how he harmonised what we know with all sorts of other seemingly discordant sounds. You can hear familiarity with something new.

How did Journeys come about?

I was first asked about writing a piece by Robert. He was going to have a CD coming out called Flying Visits, and he had this idea, he says, hey, I’m going to have something from France, Germany, Russia, all over the place; it would be nice to have something from Malaysia.

But the piece has no discernible Malaysian influence, or has it?

There is actually, but very little. It’s a little bit of Chinese flute towards the end. Plus, the gamelan, which is a little bit hard to hear on this particular organ. Although I tried to write something Malaysian, it’s hard.

Of course, there is not much tradition in Malaysian pipe organ music. So, this is one of your earlier works, kinda like your Opus 3.

In terms of actually coming out with a world premiere and that sort of thing, this is my first.

How did you know Robert?

He’s a friend of the school. When I first joined Ann Perreau Music School I was a student, that was in 93. He was already giving master classes whenever he came down.

Actually, I did not think of going into composition. Not seriously. It was only because of this musical I helped out in, The Reluctant Saint, which was performed in 97.

By Five Arts Centre.

Oh, you heard of it. So, Robert came for the concert. And that’s what gave him the idea that I can compose. Actually, I only wrote the melody to some of the songs. The words were by Charlene Rajendran. But the melodies were mostly composed by my friend Gerald Toh. I just arranged the whole thing, set the songs to the mood. I was actually studying at UK, Royal College of Music, when they did most of the production.

You are lucky you are a few thousand kilometres removed from the nightmare that comes with staging a musical theatre. After this show, what else?

More arrangements. Last year I did the MPO Education & Outreach programme. But before that, I was doing more for my school. We started this thing for kids. Saidah Rastam wrote about one of our programmes for Kakiseni, in fact.

Oh, that one. My god, it was a gushy review! She made me wish I could enrol in the programme.

Arranging for that kinda lead to the MPO education outreach programme. Ann (Perreau) knows Siew Chin from the MPO- she’s the outreach manager. I had to arrange three local pieces, one Malay, one Chinese, one Indian, for five instruments each. I chose Tanah Pusaka, Shanghai Beach and Kuch Kuch Hota Hei. And that led to the KL BBC Proms this year when they were looking for an arranger.

What were the challenges in the arrangement for the BBC Symphony Orchestra?

How to make Jong Jong lnai not sound too simple for the BBC to play. After writing for kids, I had to keep in mind that this is an international orchestra.

I do want to question you about that bongo beat that ran through the whole piece.

Actually, it was not supposed to be there the whole way. It was meant to be there for Jong Jong lnai. But in Chan Mali Chan, it was just a little answer-reply thing. I found out that it was actually a little tricky for them. Oh, I don’t know whether you should be putting that in…

It’s okay. They are big enough not to be worried. Did they change anything else?

They also took the tempo down by about 30 percent. But you see, they were probably concentrating more on the other pieces. To be fair, they probably weren’t expecting much – oh well, just some local pieces and folk songs. But I decided to give it a twist, change the tempo, give a Mambo beat to Rasa Sayang and stuff like that. I asked myself, as a musician, what would I find challenging to play. I wanted to make Malaysia proud.

How did you get into music?

I thought everyone would have known the story by now. It came out in the MPO programme. I thought, oh my gosh, they wrote that down, how embarrassing!

You see, where I was living at that time in Kuantan – I was two or three years old – there were no musical influences whatsoever. I remember playing my parents’ Beatles tape to death. Also, a bit of ABBA, Boney M and Bee Gees. And then when this milk commercial came out – I think it’s Dumex – and this girl was playing [hums Beethoven’s Fur Elise], I thought, hey, that is a nice tune.

Oh my god, I think I remember that ad. How very scary.

[Laughs] And it made me look at my toy piano in a different light. I had thought, ew, this clinky thing, you know? After the commercial, I thought there’s something about this and so I tried it. But, uh, no, it’s not the same sound! Argh, hate it!

One day, shortly after moving to KL, my dad said, okay, after dinner we are going out, we are gonna see pianos. Really? We’re gonna see pianos? Wait, what kind of pianos? He said, real pianos, not the small ones. At the showroom, I went ting tong ting on the pianos and I said, yeah, this sounds like the one in the commercial.

Are you working on any new compositions?

Trying. Not much yet. Just kind of a theme. I’m trying to put something local inside. But it’s tough. I am sort of between Western and local Eastern type influences. You don’t want to sound too Western, which is very easy to do.

I have been asked to do some more arrangements for the MPO’s tour this August to Kuching.

Robert also asked for another organ piece. I want something else from you now, he said, what about incorporating something more local, something from the world cultural heritage.

Do you prefer composing or arranging?

I find composing quite intimidating sometimes. It requires a lot more. I am only formally trained as a pianist. Composition was something I learnt a long time ago. And it was a different style which I have outgrown. They taught us about structure, language, and a bit about style. They let us have our own style, which was good. But the danger is that sometimes you end up with all the pop and commercial elements, those kinds of trite sounding things.

It would be good for composers and musicians to get a little bit more respect. There are still a lot of people who go, but music cannot earn a lot of money – as a side-line thing can lah, but better think of something else. They make it sound like a past time.

A bit more openness as well. A lot of composers, partly because of the dilemma they face about Western influences, Eastern influences, find it hard to actually discover a different voice, a new direction. It would be good to have a little openness, from critics. We have to start somewhere.

I still find it strange being called a composer. I did not consciously decide to be one. I like arranging; teaching is good as well. I never thought of composing. It’s like, wow, it is something almost magical actually. Here you are creating something that’s never been heard before.

Do you teach composition?

Yes, I have three groups of students now, about 15 or 16 kids. I’m teaching them composition, some arrangement, orchestration. Also, how to use this computer music software. We started this about a year ago. They are all like 14 to 17 years old. We are going for sounds and rhythms, not so much pretty melodies yet.

I always help with a motif first. The first group, early morning Saturday, nine o’clock, I asked them, what do you all want to write about? Don’t know. Anything you all like? Err, err, I don’t know. Anything that you can find it easy to write about? I don’t know.

I got fed up. I just typed the title there: Don’t Know. There is this girl who plays the cello. I said, now you, put something in. What do you think the cello can do? She was like, maybe I’ll play a pizzicato. I said, okay, fine, what notes? She went, err… err… err… So, I played it and she said, maybe these two notes. And so, we added that in and built on it. Now we have a four or five bars opening and I said, right, go home, do the rest of the composition. Never mind if you all sound different. In fact, better still. We will come back and work on it together.

The next group, I asked them, what do you want to write about? They thought about it and said, morning school. Okay, how are we going to start? And they said, alarm goes off, then – tak! -we shut off the alarm, then we drag ourselves out of bed. Okay, how are we going to do it musically? They were like, err… err… I said, hint- maybe the strings can do something that sounds like the alarm. And they kinda caught on, and they said, okay, tremolo. So, we put in this high pitch thing ting-a-ting-a-ting-a-ting. And then this cluster of notes on the piano – prang! – shut the alarm. And then pom… pom… pom… pom…

Like the elephants in Saint-Saens Carnival of Animals.

Yeah. That sort of idea. I don’t expect anything brilliant, cause they’ve never done it before. But it’s something they can relate to. So, some of them came up with very cute stories. Like, after the guy shut off his alarm, he drags himself off the bed. And then he falls asleep again. There’s a bar of silence. And suddenly, ting-a-ting-a­ ting-a-ting again…

Ha ha. Very clever. Is there an avenue for them after this?

For starters, we let them write for our schools first. We have lots of players they can write for. There is this Melvin Lau. He was in the Don’t Know group. The stuff he came up with, you won’t believe it’s from a 16-year-old. I was thinking, if I can, I would like to show something of his to the MPO and see if they might be interested in training young talents. It encourages the kids when they see that their works can go somewhere.


First Published: 13.06.2002 on Kakiseni

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