Fanfare for the Common Man

‘Serious’ Malaysian orchestral music composition has been limited. Until now. Maybe there has been an increase in educated composers, trained in orchestral arranging. Maybe it’s the results of ventures by institutions such as Akademi Seni Kebangsaan and the International College of Music and by noble musicians who have been passing down their craft to apprentices. So, after a long period of neglect, wonderful Malaysian works for orchestra and ‘western’ musical ensembles are finally springing up. As an instance, lstana Budaya’s recent Putera Puteri concerts, showcasing classic songs by Jimmy Boyle, Pak Lomak and others, had exquisite, transparent, shimmering arrangements which could make you weep.

At the MPO Forum for Malaysian composers in March 2003, six compositions by Malaysian composers were performed by the MPO. All the compositions were impressive technically, but three of them stood out, to this writer at least, for their warmth and musicality. The composers, Ahmad Muriz Che Rose, Adeline Wong and Chong Kee Yong were among the four subsequently shortlisted to compose works for full orchestra. Their works will be premiered by the MPO this March 11th.

Ahmad Muriz Che Rose came back to Malaysia this New Year’s Eve after two years at the Berklee School of Music and two years at the Boston Conservatory. His Forum piece, ‘Bertabuh Kala Senja’ was sprinkled with bonangs and Malay percussive rhythms, but those were not what made the piece startling in its Malay-ness. Apart from its inventive compositional aspects, ‘Bertabuh’ evoked Malay feelings and rusticity with subtlety and sophistication. In the old days of Alfonso Soliano and Johari Salleh, and even before that – the Dutch-influenced swing bands which accompanied the likes of Anneke Gronloh – it was possible to think of ‘western’ instrumentation effectively making ‘local’ music. But the subsequent divergence between ‘pop’ and ‘serious’ music has affected the way we view instrumentation. So, Muriz’s composition was all the more shocking given that visually, one had a largely non-Malaysian orchestra performing in the grandeur that is the DFP.

I spoke to Ahmad Muriz, 35, at the lstana Budaya, before Konsert Putera-Puteri.

Saidah Rastam: ‘Bertabuh Kala Senja’ felt intensely personal; Malay, though not gimmickily so. Was that your intention?

Muriz: ‘Bertabuh’ is my first serious ‘Malaysian’ composition. I started off thinking of those little melodies that I heard as a Malaysian, bertabuh songs that I heard in wayang kulit. The geduk percussive style – I have it in my timpani writing. Being at the starting point of my serious musical career, I feel like it’s a kind of overture, opening music. After studying Copland and his patriotic sense, I felt I should be one of the composers in Malaysia who brings out the Malaysian element in his music. During my Masters’ programme, I was taught to just do the things I feel. We did do Dvorak, Schoenberg etc. But after that, my teacher, Andy Vores, and I started to work on my own sounds.

What do you mean when you say ‘serious’ compositions, ‘serious’ musical career?

I suppose I mean Western classical or orchestral music. Before this I did big band writing and also composition and arranging for a (Malay) traditional music group.

It seems curious that you could cross those genres so easily, given that they are all so rule-based.

It’s what they say – once you know the rules, you can violate them. When you write a serious composition, you really have to think about the sounds you want, because it’s all about the sounds, not technique or parallel fifths. Say it out, without the tricks.

Musical journey, in brief?

At the Penang Free School I was a clarinet player in a military band. I also played in a rock band. My family weren’t encouraging at the time. You know lah – muzik tak boleh cari makan. Then I played in bands for kenduri kahwin, that sort of thing. My friends and I formed Taming Sari, an ensemble which played traditional music. My real music education started at ITM (lnstitut Teknologi Mara). After ITM we revolutionised Taming Sari when we made rearrangements of traditional tunes in jazz. After ITM I got a job in Petronas’ Perfoming Arts’ Department. I did big band writing for the orchestra when needed for certain functions.

Then I went to Berklee School of Music. I had wanted to focus on composition all this while, but not coming from a strong classical background, I thought I could do it better at Berklee, instead of a ‘classical’ school. I did more big band writing, but my major was film-scoring. I concentrated on reharmonisation, orchestration, that sort of thing, and that really helped me in my postgraduate years.

After 2 years at Berklee I took a Master of Arts (MA) course at the Boston Conservatory, majoring in composition.

Was it a bit of a culture adjustment, either way?

At Boston, we were a close community, no need to talk about muhibbah. When I went, I thought it would be hard to assimilate into the culture, but it wasn’t difficult. But when I came back, I found I had to adjust – the work ethic, or lack of, or just being polite. For example in driving – there pedestrians have the right of way. Here everybody wants to go somewhere. We talk about us (in the East) having family values. But when we go too fast, we don’t see that we sometimes contribute to the problem, that we’re part of the equation. But I can’t think about all this, I’ll get stressed. I want to focus on my kids. I don’t have enough quality time with them. When I see my family happy, that’s my main morale boost.

I take it you’re not a pain-improves-your-art advocate?

Well, before Berklee, I worked like a dog. My son grew up without me knowing when he started to speak and walk. When my wife and I went abroad we lived student lives again. My daughter was born there. My wife and I talked about all the precious things we had been missing, and realised these things were and are important to us, which we will make time for, now we’re back home. As for my career, I believe that if you’re meant to get there, you’ll get there.

What projects are looming?

Yazid Zakaria and I are putting together Satu Rentak, to be performed in April at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas. It will feature traditional, Mek Mulung music, and also suites of all 8 of the dance dramas we’ve done. The music will be played by traditional, ethnic instruments, but will also use western orchestral instruments to fill out the sounds. I’m really looking forward to that.

Are you industrious? Do you compose all the time or is it commission-based?

It’s been commission-based. I’m not yet known as a ‘serious’ composer. From now on, I guess I’ll doodle. Now I have the tools; Petronas’ MPO is the best possible platform anyone could have.

Have you finished your submission for the Composer’s Forum? What’s it about?

Yes, we submitted our works by February 1st. My work, ‘Benih Harapan’ is inspired and based on A Samad Said’s poem. I asked his permission to use his poem. He said, “Nobody’s ever done that to me!” One day he emailed me some poetry. I wanted to use it in my piece. But my teacher Andy Vores said, sometimes when you put speech in music, it detracts from the music. People start focusing on the vocals. Say what you want to say musically. So this is the result.

Do you have any aspirations to be the MPO’s resident composer? Are there any plans for the MPO to appoint one?

That was the intention of the Forum, to find a resident composer. After the second stage, they’ll pick one to represent Malaysia in an international Composition competition, the M.P.O.I.C.A. This competition will be held in Malaysia, and will include submissions from around the world.

That’s good, isn’t it, that it’s open internationally.

Yes, it’s not a case of jaguh kampung.

Compositionally, where would you see yourself moving?

Being in Petronas, having the MPO in the neighbourhood, I’m constantly trying to incorporate new things. I might do more Malaysian works which the MPO could play when they tour or when we go global. This would be an alternative to playing 200 year old composers. All the time we talk about reaching outside Malaysia, but we don’t reach enough inside. Okay, there are things yet to be done. If we make the orchestra play Malay style, but people still look at orchestral instruments as Western instruments, how do we tackle that? The education system, the qualifications of music teachers, appreciation courses, looking at our music exam syllabi… it’s not in the near future. Again, (in music) there are people who want to preserve what we have. But what is so wrong if, by assimilating, we can go beyond what we already have?

In making the orchestra play Malay style, we’re not talking about using a few sarons in an orchestral work, or setting ‘Can Mali Can’ to a rhumba rhythm, although that’s been done before in the name of making  ‘Malaysian’ orchestral music. Dr Dinu Ghezzo, one of my teachers, once told me that it was about finding the ‘impulse’ to the music. After that, whether you express it in shengs or in saxophones is a secondary thing. Do you feel that way?

Well, yes, but it’s in the ornaments too. I have a long way to go in studying the intricacies of traditional music, but you would need to understand it to go deeper compositionally. ‘Bertabuh Kala Senja’, with its interlocking rhythms, is my starting point. Also, unless you stand in front of the orchestra and conduct, it won’t be so expressive

That’s it. In the context of Malay music-making, and also beyond that to the Indonesian gamelan and Indian musicians, this concept of a “third party” conductor doesn’t apply. The musicians learn the music from the composer, who may also be the leader. Then in performance the leader, maybe the gendang player, is himself playing. In contrast, the western orchestral concept of a conductor, who is a stranger to the compositional process, introduces a further interpretative layer between the composer’s intention and the performers’ execution. So if you conduct your own music you can communicate more directly with the orchestra your ‘impulse’ or semangat or whatever you want to call it. This is preferable to, say, a Hungarian conductor interpreting your music. I would anticipate all sorts of objections to this – on the grounds that conducting requires ‘expertise’, etc. Still, all things considered, it seems the obvious course to take, if one has the luxury of having the composer available.

Um, yes.

So would you consider conducting your own music for orchestra, in the future?

(Laughing) Copland did!

First Published: 04.03.2004 on Kakiseni

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