I’ve Got Polyrhythm

Cassandra Chong is a very enthusiastic student at the International College of Music (ICOM). Last week she attended a three-day workshop by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, facilitated by the charming composer Fraser Trainer, who is the Creative Director of the London Sinfonietta, and has done composition workshops for schools in Norway, Finland, Greece, Japan, and now Malaysia. Read on as Cassandra tells us just how charmed she was…

Day 1: Keyboard Overdose

Carrying a keyboard all the way from the KLCC car park to the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas sure attracted a lot of attention. But it felt good, because then everyone would know I’m a musician. It was a bit of shameful though when all the ICOM students arrived with their keyboards as well, while the Akademi Seni Kebangsaan students arrived with trumpets, gu zheng, flutes, gambus, and other instruments. Looks like ICOM is a school of pianists!

We first heard Fraser’s music last week at the Contemporary Music Concert conducted by Kevin Field. Fraser’s piece, ‘The Colour of Scars’, uses lot classical composition techniques. But then he adapted some breathtaking harmony lines that can only be found in today’s music. It is more or less a cross between classical and modern. His music is unpredictable. I couldn’t wait to learn from him.

It didn’t take us long to start. First, we were welcomed by Kevin Field. After ice-breaking, the real stuff began. Fraser started a simple rhythmic pattern by clapping, and the next person was supposed to add in something, and so on. At the end we got a special combination of all the different rhythmic patterns from different individuals.

It got even better when each of us was assigned different instruments. Needless to say, all the keyboardists couldn’t play at the same time, as none of us wanted an overdose of keyboards. I volunteered to play another instrument, and guess what I got? It was a marimba! And man was I delighted playing a marimba. I got so carried away!

We did the same thing as earlier, but with a melody line. It was simply amazing, that to make music, you don’t really have to be on your own! You gather people, give them a role and ask them to play anything, and more and more ideas eventually evolve.

Our ensemble had Western, electronic, oriental and Malay instruments together! The kind of sound produced was so authentic and real! I felt so high listening to it. There was the Western music with a Chinese flavor, an electronic sound with a light breeze of Malay sound in it – it was so classical and yet so modern.

After lunch, Fraser started a new concept. You could choose a rhythmic pattern, have it going, and put the same rhythmic pattern back, but two beats later. It gave a delayed effect, and it sounded marvelous. The rhythm he chose was a “clave” (Latin for “key”}, and so it’s a Latin rhythm. We were divided into 2 groups. The first group did the 3-2 clave, and the second group was doing a 2-3 clave at the same time. We had to clap for 5 claves, and everyone had to stop at the same time. I was a little bit blur, and Fraser actually conducted a stop signal in my face! I was shocked. Well I guess he picked on me because I talk a lot. But I mean yeah, why was I the only one talking so much at the workshop? Maybe most Malaysians have been brought up not to be too critical and opinionated?

We split into three groups to make our own music. In the end, all three groups were supposed to play together, and all of a sudden, the music sounded so uncountable! It was very hard to locate the first beat. And then the clock strikes 4.30pm: time to go home. On the way out, everyone was singing that clave rhythm; yes that’s what you call a ‘brain washing’!

Day 2: Fascinating Rhythm

Fraser demonstrated a really tricky rhythmic pattern by clapping, and he asked if we could recognise the formula. Little did we know, it was formed simply by having all the people stand in a circle. First, Fraser clapped two beats. Then the next person will clap two while Fraser then clapped three. And then two again, and three again. It goes on until the cycle ends on him. We thought it took a genius to create that rhythm when in fact the formula was that simple!

Then we were divided into 2 groups – the melody group, and the rhythm group. We didn’t have to play in any key or any specific time signature. It was freestyle. We ended up with a very unpredictable melody line. Which was great! Things heated up further when the rhythm section joined in. We sounded like a totally international standard ensemble that you would hear at the DFP.

People around have really started getting close to each other, having chats, learning each other’s instruments, and having mini jam sessions during breaks. And I felt sad when I realised that tomorrow would be the last day of the workshop. The workshop made you feel so good you don’t even feel like going back to college anymore! The people are nice, especially Fraser!

After the lunch break, we revised a little of what we had done yesterday. Man I don’t know why I can’t get the rhythm right! I felt the pressure, and I practiced hard after I came back. Real hard!

What we’re doing will be recorded, and I bet this is going to be very exciting! To hear different sounds in an ensemble that is made up of over thirty equally talented individuals. Well, let’s see what our end product will be like tomorrow! Oh, but I don’t want it to end…

Day 3: Song For Fraser

Dragging my body out of the bed seemed such a difficult task to do… I didn’t want the workshop to end, and I wished I could delay it.

We didn’t do much talking. We moved pretty quickly because we had to complete everything. Before getting our instruments, we did something called polyrhythmic, suggested by Azri from ASK. Everybody was divided into 4 groups, and each of them was given different time signatures. There’s 3/4, 4/4, 5/4 and 6/8 and once again, we all clapped together. It was pretty hard to really enjoy what was going on when you’re concentrating hard on getting your own rhythm right! So I didn’t really understand when Fraser said it sounded so lovely.

To make things easier for the recording, Fraser asked all of us to figure out a name for our tunes. There’s the ‘Paradise’ sounding tune and the ‘Samba’ tune from my group. Then there is ‘Yoscht in D minor’ named after the MPO oboist. It was something different. They started with the Chinese harp (Gu Zheng), followed by gambus, and then the rest of the other instruments (i.e saxophone, oboe, piano, etc.). The music sounded pretty ‘dangdut’ because of the Malay hand percussion. Another group composed a ‘Song for Fraser’. Man, wasn’t that sweet! It was one of the most beautiful tunes ever heard. After all the weird rhythms and tunes, this was something refreshing.

During the recording, the sound was wonderful, but what went on behind the music was kind of funny. Some of the musicians belonged to more than one group and were moving around. But they could not make any sound in case they jeopardised the recording. So they had to tip toe across, and some had to mute their instruments as much as possible. I swear the moving musicians looked like thieves! Well as for me, I didn’t have to move, because I was sharing a marimba with my friend who’s not in the same group with me. I just had to concentrate extra hard on my part, because both of us were playing different things but using the same instrument.

By the 5th take, we were done. And it was a success! Fraser seemed pretty happy with the results. Even though we were not perfect, it was great.

After the recording, we gathered in a circle, and we had a chat of how we felt about the workshop, what we had learnt, etc. Well, you know me, I mentioned that I wished it would never end. Most of us had a great time because we don’t always get to work with so many musicians from all kinds of genre. The most important thing is to make something new together. Also, on the first day, you could see ICOM people sitting together at one end, and ASK people sitting together at another end. Now, ICOM, ASK and MPO musicians sat really close to each other, and I thought it was great!

The parting was warm, because everyone was exchanging numbers and taking pictures. Just as we were going to say good-bye to Fraser, he asked us to join him for a drink at Chinoz. How can that request not make me happy? There was only a small group of us who joined Fraser. But we had a nice chat, and we talked about something that we wouldn’t have talked about during the workshop:  he’s getting married in 3 weeks time. And the wedding will be held in Malaysia! Isn’t that exciting? We could tell he’s a romantic person. Well in fact, I think he’s very nice, very down to earth, with great patience, and is an excellent leader. He’s also someone with a   great imagination. He will be going to New York City soon to conduct a workshop, and this time he’ll be gathering musicians from Julliard and a high school.

We finally said goodbye to Fraser. I asked him to take lots of rests, because he sure looked very tired. We also said goodbye to the ASK people, and we went back with a sad but happy emotion.

I will remember this workshop well. And I will remember everyone that I’ve met at this workshop, especially Fraser Trainer.

First Published: 04.03.2004 on Kakiseni

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