The Sound of New Music

Congratulations Chong Kee Yong – here’s to even greater compositional heights and more Starry Nights!

One of the most compelling experiences of attending an event such as the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, International Composers Award (Nov 27, 2004, at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas), must be the privilege of hearing first-hand the actual voices of the five talented composers as they came on stage for a brief interview.

Each of them had, in their music, conveyed a sense of ‘belonging’ to the society and place in which they live, capturing the beauty of nature, art, impressions, or emotions, each with a tale to tell. This alone makes it worthwhile for performers and audiences to participate in this celebration of diversity, experiencing the abstract thoughts and concrete sonorities which thrive in the world of living composers.

All highly qualified composers and award winners in various international competitions, the five under-40 finalists, namely, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez (40, Mexico – he was presumably under 40 when he applied), Paul Frehner (34, Montreal, Canada), Dai Fujikura (27, Osaka, Japan), Moritz Eggert (39, Heidelberg, Germany) and Chong Kee-Yong (33, Kluang, Malaysia) posed a challenge for Brett Dean who bore the sole responsibility for selecting the finalists from 96 applications right through to the winner of the USD$30,000 prize money.

The Audience Choice Award (USD$3,000) of the night was, unsurprisingly, Eggert’s heart warming work, Scapa Flow, inspired by a schoolboy’s account of watching hundreds of battleships sinking around his little boat, which was carrying a party of school children at the end of World-War I. A trifle too programmatic for my taste, but nevertheless skilfully portrayed with the powerful military-style brass section physically transported to the back of our famed hall.

The programming of the evening appeared deliberate – the first half exuding works that were primarily concerned with vestiges of nature, painting and emotions whilst the latter half comprised heavier doses of Germanic neo-classical/romantic overtures. It was carefully engineered to ensure palatability. Some sceptics’ notions of modern art-music being ‘inaccessible’ or ‘formless’ did not seem to alienate the many Malaysians who sat in awe. In the words of MPO’s general manager, Stephen Smith, “I am surprised by your attentiveness.” One of the secrets of MPO’s success seems to be its flair for selecting the finest one can gather from around the world – a practice fast becoming a hallmark of all its ventures. The International Composer’s Award was no exception.

The competition opened with pizzicato strings heralding Sanchez-Gutierrez’s Afterlight, a work depicting a world of busy fireflies, personified by a cacophony of tiny molecules of sonic structures, interspersed by beams of lightning strings and percussions, slicing the sound mass held impeccably together under the baton of Kevin Field, the director of the MPO International Composers Award (MPOICA) and Associate Conductor of the MPO.

Chong’s Van Gogh-inspired piece, Starry Night’s Ripples, which won the grand prize, was characterised by gasps of tonal descends with powerful heights and depths of orchestral tutti, reminiscent of lavish cascading strokes of paint dripping onto a concrete floor. At times, musical anecdotes resemble private conversations between the cellos and violas, happening under the watchful eye of the percussions with their asides and commentary. All very subtle and deliberate.

Subliminal Media by Frehner comprised six short ‘movements’ with musical segments redolent of enlarged chamber-ensemble portfolios. The opening segment echoed deep-plunging sonorities contrasted by more pointillistic moments, interjected by the flute, oboe and muted brass. Droplets of tiny melodic units were introduced in the next two movements. Intimate conversations by the strings blossomed into romantic interludes, followed by jagged rhythms building towards an explosive conclusion.

By the end of the third contestant, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of similarity in aesthetic approach amongst all three compositions. However, the next two pieces proved a refreshing change.

Fujikura’s piece, Calling Timbuktu sounded as down-to-earth as the man himself, who claimed his piece was inspired by a Paul Auster book, which is written from “a dog’s point of view.” This was certainly a bold and challenging work, not just because of the (dis)placement of orchestral positions but the skillful manipulation of multiphonics and a clever juxtaposition of diverse sound groups. It must have been a conductor’s nightmare to co-ordinate everyone, front, back and sides! It is one of those pieces for which composers keep their finger’s tightly crossed – the ones that a conductor can make or break, and true to form, Field and his team sailed effortlessly through it. This is impressive, given that the orchestra had only five days to rehearse the entire programme!

Now for the audience’s favourite piece, Eggert’s Number Nine IV: Scapa Flow. Part of an orchestral cycle, the piece was accompanied by a programme note of 726 words! Largely romantic in nature, the creation exuded influences of Rihm with deliberate Sousa-style military band quotes scattered throughout the work. Nonetheless, cogently dramatised.

Such were the vivid imaginative powers of the five finalists realised through the crafted skills of composition and performance. Here’s to:-

  • Sanchez-Gutierrez, a self-declared ‘citizen of the world’,
  • Chong who was inspired by his folk musician grandfather and van Gogh,
  • Frehner and his ‘subliminal messages’ drawn from philosophical writings,
  • Fujikura’s projection of a ‘heated performance’ and
  • Eggert’s portrayal of innocence in the face of disaster.

After three years of immaculate planning commencing with the MPO Forum for Malaysian Composer, the MPOICA represented a superb endeavour which culminated in a fine evening of contemporary classical music. Touche MPO! Encore.


Dr Valerie Ross is an established composer and her works have premiered in numerous cities in Europe and the Asia Pacific. She is also the vice president of academic affairs at the International College of Music.

First Published: 08.12.2004 on Kakiseni

Related items

For Translation

The 8th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…

The 7th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…