By Sunetra Fernando
Petronas Performing Arts Group’s latest offering, Satu Rentak, was performed on April 28 and 29, 2004, at the Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS, directed by Mohd. Yazid Zakaria, winner of the best composition award at the Cameronian Arts Award 2002. Satu Rentak represents a first for PPAG in its concert-hall style staging of musical excerpts from the dance-dramas it has produced over the last six years since the group’s debut as the DFP’s resident cultural body. It also appears that with the emerging presence of Ahmad Muriz Che Rose, finalist in the MPO Forum for Malaysian Composers and the programming of the concert to highlight compositions by PPAG’s composers, this musical team is actively taking stock of its musical output.
The first half of the concert featured music from the makyong, mekmulung, and joget gamelan traditional Malay theatre forms. PPAG’s strategy was essentially that of a cultural show with an emphasis on display. Their well trained and highly accomplished dancers maintained the traditional link between music and the more theatrical aspects of Malay performing arts.
It was good to see younger musicians play some of the traditional and sophisticated repertoire, for example Mohd Yusni Mohd Yusof on serunai and Mohd. lsyam Swardi on Kelantanese drums. ‘Ayak-Ayak’ from the joget gamelan repertoire was beautifully played, judiciously amplified by instrumental duplications on the gamelan. For the concert, PPAG used their relatively new chromatic gamelan set with some additional instruments from their older Malay-style set. ‘Asyik’, from the Kelantanese court dance also displayed some innovative re-crafting with the addition of voice and a more developed melodic use of the gamelan to amplify its distinctive melody.
Yet, some of PPAG’s choices are questionable. The makyong’s great opening piece, ‘Lagu Menghadap Rebab’ with the re-positioning of its lead performers and musical cut-and-paste, only served to reinforce the notion that the current national-level cultural trajectory, particularly when bringing ancient forms to the contemporary stage, is only concerned with visual glamourisation. Does PPAG really intend to privilege dance and theatrical visuals over music? Is this the only existing dialogue in the traditional/modern artistic dialectic?
The aura of politeness amongst the audience gave way to a palpable sense of relaxation as they gave the biggest claps in the first half to ‘Kendara’, a piece by Shamsul Kamal Abdul Rahman. This featured the male PPAG musicians clowning around “Stomp”-like with kualis, chopsticks, plastic tubs, tikar and lidi brooms, complete with carrots and kangkong. There weren’t any sizzling rhythmic virtuosics. Yet, audiences love to see performers enjoy themselves, and this was clearly the case.
In the second half, lstana Budaya’s orchestral musicians joined the traditional ensemble. This instrumental combi or combination performed arrangements of excerpts from the musical scores of previous and up-coming dance-dramas. PPAG’s line-up of composers included Mohd. Yazid, Ahmad Muriz, Faizal Uzir, Mohd Husin Osman, Muhammad Rajab Md. Dali, Syed Sharir Faisal Syed Hussain, Shamsul Kamal and Yuzaifullah Mohd Yusof.
The highlight of the evening for me was undoubtably ‘Resah’, by Faizal Uzir, with lyrics by Zahari Hamzah. His delicately scored song brought out the passionate yet contained outpouring of the heart’s restlessness so true of the asli vocal style, powerfully conveyed by one of KL’s most unsung divas, Juanita Ismail. Its compositional structure was based on song, which is one of the most powerful forms of old and new Malay music. Another lovely musical moment was again a song with text written and performed by Juanita Ismail in the ‘Nasibku’ portion of ‘Puteriku/Nasibku’ by Yuzaifullah with its quasi Sundanese scale and very dramatic vocal rendering.
Of note also were the ensemble musicianship of young gamelan-player Shamsul and some beautiful singing by soloists Zuliana Zainal Abidin, Kahiraniwati Rosli, Farazila Abd. Jabar, including the expressive and talented Md. Eyzendy Md Aziz, last seen (at least by me) in Namron’s Gedebe (theatre and film).
In general, the other pieces felt less compositionally cohesive and secure. The evening’s music was the weakest where the compositions were not grounded in the strengths of great Malay/Malaysian music. By contrast, musical moments that stood out for me had the distinctive flavour of our idiosyncratic, multi-facetted and off-beat Malaysian musical style, eg. in the expressive structure of the Malay song as previously mentioned, or in the beautiful asli violin playing in ‘Resah’.
The ‘Satu Rentak’ instrumental combi in the second half also evoked the sound of early Orkes RTM which had as its precedence the hybrid musical ensembles of bangsawan, popular urban opera of the 1920s and 1930s. Bangsawan combined an essentially core group of western instruments with local instruments and styles, complete with the langourous and slightly out-of-tune violins, and with it the prominence of melody. Shades of this were apparent in ‘lstana Menanti’ by Muhammad Rajab and ‘Uda dan Dara’ by Syed Sharir Faisal. Also, Ahmad Muriz must be noted for attempting to bring a more filmic reach to the orchestra/gamelan combi in his ‘Payung Mahkota Overture’.
In general, I was somewhat disappointed with what I felt was the unimaginative use of the big traditional percussive force in these compositions. That is largely because I was so impressed with Mohd. Yazid’s impressive musical score and ensemble-making for the dance drama ‘Malim Deman’ performed at lstana Budaya some time ago. For that, he brought together a huge Malay traditional percussion section in combination with chorus and western percussion. Apart from this, the triumphant endings of ‘Payung Mahkota Overture’, ‘Uda & Dara’ and ‘Finale’ by Mohd Yazid also did not quite reach the intended grandeur and optimism.
The use of traditional instrumentation in the introduction of ‘Uda & Dara’ tended to be atmospheric and exotifying rather than substantial to the composition’s structure. And in general, the gamelan’s role in combination with the orchestra was more supportive than integral and incidently, did not really explore the tonal possibilities provided by having a chromatic gamelan.
Yet, what I see as the evening’s hits and misses, or, to put it more directly, musical mediocrity – simply describes the challenging and highly necessary business of the PPAG’s musical team. Apart from developing their own musical sensibilities, they must actively engage with the on-going process of establishing effective and successful modern musical ensembles within the traditional/modern trajectory, and write for a community of musicians from diverse musical backgrounds, traditional and modern. Artistic unfolding, particularly on such a visible platform as the DFP’s can be daunting. PPAG’s Satu Rentak is a positive and important step in bringing to the forefront musical composition, alongside artistic self-declaration and accountability.
First Published: 19.05.2004 on Kakiseni