How to Make a Malaysian Quilt

A famous English conductor once said to a lady cellist: “Madam, you have, between your legs, an instrument capable of giving pleasure to thousands, and all you can do is scratch it!” I admit that after watching the concert Rapsodi Malaysia by the Petronas Performing Arts Group on Friday April 29 at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas, I share the same frustration Sir Thomas Beecham must have felt.

The very next evening, a distraught friend phoned and asked me if the same performance I watched the night before would be worth staying back for. He sounded like he was badly used. I sadistically, no, nicely persuaded him to remain and endure as much as he could, and wait for composition No. 6 to be performed (No. 7, being the last piece of the concert). This was our conversation:

Me: Why are you using your mobile to talk to me during a concert at the DFP?

Friend: We are having an intermission.

Me: Intermission? How come I didn’t get one yesterday?

Friend: You had no intermission?

Me: No, absolutely none! We resolutely sat through the whole performance. It wasn’t too painful and it ended early.

Friend: (loud groans) I suppose this intermission is due to the fact that something’s wrong with the sound system and someone’s fixing it now. There was this buzzing noise with the music that was driving me crazy. I couldn’t hear the second and third pieces at all. Is it really worth staying back? [At this stage, I detected an icy splintering of fragile nerves…]

I hope, for the sake of Saturday’s audiences that whatever problems the DFP had with its sound system were quickly sorted out. I was luckier on Friday, I suppose. There were no buzzing sounds. The only irritation I encountered was the extra background music someone in a box seat was making. He was snoring and when he wasn’t somnolent, he sucked air through his teeth and made gecko-like sounds to accompany the music (It’s a musical style known as bruxism – ed.).

Rapsodi Malaysia was a potpourri of seven original compositions by seven Malay composers who have fused Western music (of the classical vein) with traditional Malay music and combined Malay, Indian and Chinese ethnic instruments in an attempt to push the boundaries of muzik asli further into the nebulous, blurred landscape of world music. Think rojak or pasembor.

The seven compositions were all well composed and well scored for Western classical orchestra, gong, gamelan, gendang asli, accordion, sitar, tabla, rebab, angklung, rebana, serunai, er hu, yang qing, pipa, biola asli and bonang kromatik. From a structural point of view, there was definitely sophistication in the presentation of musical ideas. There was also a secure cohesiveness in the successful attempt of binding disparate forces of the idiosyncratic and highly individual voices of ethnic instruments with the overall melodic and harmonic elements of the pieces.

The clever use of traditional pulse rhythms from wayang kulit and mak yong in composition No. 1 ‘Cak Pak Ting Doh’ by Mohd. Yazid Zakaria (winner of the Cameronian Awards for Best Composition 2002) was beautifully juxtaposed and delicately balanced with orang asli singing. It was almost like Rainforest music. There was much calm and peace in this composition. And thus, the man in the box seat snored. ‘Runtun’ by Muhammad Rajab Md. Dali combined the voices of the cello and sitar with elan and made the melancholic feel of the music all the more pervasive – this composition was borne out of the tragic loss keenly felt around the world in the aftermath of the tsunami.

Composition No. 3 ‘Iradah’ by Syed Sharir Faisal Syed Hussain had a vague Star Wars feel to it (“To go where no man has gone… ” / I think I’m in the wrong movie.) The piece opens with an urgent, driving melody sung credibly by the Koir Undangan of the concert, Kumpulan Gemersik Chorus, which again had the vague feel of the opening from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. As ‘Iradah’ means ‘need’ or ‘desire’, this composition depicts the need and desire to transcend and push against conventionalism, and to venture forth into territories where no man has gone. (I think I’m still stuck in the wrong movie. Where is my Battlestar Galactica?). The sense of sweeping, broad spaces in this piece was broken with aplomb by joget beats from the gendang, underscoring a sort of interlude for piano, accordion and timpani.

And then, there was NO intermission. But more snoring from the box seat.

The trinity of ‘T’ compositions followed, comprising ‘Tunjang’, ‘Teras’ and ‘Tuaian’ by three different composers. ‘Tunjang’ by Faizal Uzir was more in the muzik asli vein than the earlier compositions, with some excellent playing from the muzik asli ensemble, particularly by the saudara on the accordion (presumably from the Akademi Seni Kebangsaan – part of my frustration from this concert stemmed from the fact that they don’t even tell you properly in the programme booklet who’s playing what and who the artis-artis jemputan are).

‘Teras’ by Mohd Husin Osman combines Malay, Indian and Chinese music instruments in a superhuman effort to present a concept of national culture through ethnic music. Structurally beautiful, and perhaps almost perfect, but I have problems with the philosophy behind it. Listening to the piece being performed, I thought how strange it was that the scoring for the Indian and Chinese ethnic instruments seemed to play second fiddle to a very dominant Malay musical theme. I thought it would have been better if these diverse ethnic strains had been woven into a single tapestry of a balanced musical theme without one ethnic music heritage trying to subjugate the others while claiming to have discovered what Malaysia’s singular national culture should be.

The last ‘T’ composition was ‘Tuaian’ by Ahmad Muriz Che Rose, who was also the music director and conductor for the concert. This was also the No. 6 piece my friend stayed back for. (I hope it did not represent ‘Torture’ for him). Seemingly disembodied voices from the choir with angklung, together with the pipa, yang qing, er hu, gamelan, sitar and tabla set the tableaux for an ethereal and cosmic musical tension that subsequently developed into perfect harmony for the grand finale. The craft of this composition was finer and Ahmad Muriz showed a superior grasp of instrumentation and musical scoring.

The last piece of the concert was ‘Belum Selesai’ by Yuzaifullah Mohd Yusof and it represented a never-ending quest for perfection and nirvana. The programme notes said: “the idea behind this composition is the preservation of arts, culture and harmony is a continuous, challenging process.” There was much rhythmic stomping of feet by the orchestra, orang asli group, choir and gamelan boys. The combination of sitar and serunai in a jaded sort of New Age way with strings backing was terribly well done, I thought. But the man from the box seat just clicked away like a cicak.

The entire performance of the PPAG was laudable and the compositions per se showed a lot of talent and great potential. But my frustrations are that of Sir Thomas Beecham’s. There was only scratch-the-surface skin-deep beauty. Rapsodi Malaysia was intended to showcase the diverse elements of the different traditional musical cultures in a grand fusion of glorious sounds, symbolising a unified national identity. And yes, the PPAG was not lacking in ideas or talent but something else deeper has been left unexplored and unsaid.

Rapsodi Malaysia could have a powerful representation of a national culture made out of a rich, diversely woven fabric of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and indigenous cultures without one culture being more dominant than the rest. Malaysia could be making an emphatic statement to the world at large. Instead, I felt that this was a salad attempt at making a musical patchwork quilt, groping towards an opaque statement on our cultural identity. True, the audience on Friday night was politely enthusiastic. (I saw many Mat Sallehs and non-Malays). But the house could have come down and Malaysia made all the more an affirmative statement on its arrival at an absolute sense of integration amongst the races and the cultures through its musical heritage. And by the way, where were all the Malay women composers? And why were there no Indians, orang asli or Chinese individuals who may have composed in similar vein to an equally high standard?

One last paragraph on other grouses and nice touches that have little impact whatsoever to a rather enjoyable evening (I did not yawn even once!): I didn’t like the lighting. My eyes had to constantly adjust to very dark moments in the softer parts of the pieces and to blinding red lights during the music’s crescendo to the finale. I also thought that the orang asli singing group could have done more than just wave their palm fronds in mechanical synchronicity. I liked it every time the conductor took a quick, shy bow as he made his way to the wings at the end of every piece. I found Ahmad Muzir Che Rose and his music equally endearing.


Lisa Ho is NOT the famous Australian fashion designer and does not make enough money to be able to afford the cheapest opera tickets at La Scala. She leads a motley crew of singers called Cantus Musicus who channel Renaissance music and drink far too much wine.

First Published: 06.05.2005 on Kakiseni

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