Farewell My Contemporary

Saidah Rastam is not one of Malaysia’s best kept secrets. Her cutting-edge music has a reputation beyond our borders. She has been invited for the second time by Goh Boon Teck, director of Singapore’s Toy Factory Theatre Company, to compose with his company. This time, it is for a contemporary theatre piece based on the Chinese Opera, with five opera masters from China. Titled Spirits, it is commissioned by the Singapore Arts Festival and runs at Victoria Theatre from Fri 3 – Sun 5, Jun 2005. The story revolves around the lives of five beauties whose tragic stories are tied to 5000 years of China’s history.

The following interview, done through the good ol’ fax machine, reveals the tension between Saidah’s contemporary impulse and the opera masters’ traditional training.

Pang: I understand that prior to this you didn’t have much knowledge of the Chinese Opera form. Why were you chosen to compose for this work?

Saidah: Boon Teck’s idea in creating Spirits was to make Chinese opera attractive to today’s audience. He wanted someone who wouldn’t be scared to break the rules. He must have chosen me because in my ignorance I was a safe bet as a rule-breaker…

How did you transform the music?

Each form of opera has a certain number of tunes. So when the singers came for discussion they brought a “Real Book” of the repertoire. According to Dr Chua (of the Chinese Opera Institute), when one ‘writes’ a new Chinese opera, one in fact writes a new story, then writes the lyrics to fit an existing tune. The melodies in the Peking and Huangmei opera segments were determined by experts in China, and the melodies in the Cantonese opera segment were chosen by Bing Wen, the singer, who is a pupil of the doyenne of Cantonese opera, Hong Xiannu. So I wasn’t about to depart from those.

I did depart from the Li Yuen expert’s chosen melodies. After workshopping with the singer, Shao Ling, he and I decided to go with his version, as it was more “true” to his character.

Having been immersed in heavy ethnomusicological discussions for some time, when I was walking down Chinatown it suddenly seemed obvious that what all these genres had in common was what a trad jazz ensemble also had – a strong rhythm section, vocal improvisers, and great melodic instrumentalists. The difference was the lack of harmonic movement.

[I’m not a fan of the huge Chinese symphonic orchestras, which to me just seek to replicate Western orchestras, and which play things like the Yellow River Concerto, which to me is as Chinese in its orchestrations as Rhapsody in Blue. As a side-rant, I find it surprising that it’s taken so long for concert-goers’ tastes to move from Yellow River to Tan Dun. I was keen to have an idea of the “flavours” of each form, generalised as that had to be, then try to evoke that with whatever musical ensemble we could put together. These “flavours” were different, but they were all quite linear, not vertical, and they were beautiful in their melismatic subtleties. Trying to transcribe these lines was a nightmare – like transcribing a rebab riff – and it only occurred to me several scores later that I should do it without barlines and use swirly drawings as in Western contemporary music scores.]

So at a time when I was being confused by so many ways to approach this, including composing a digital soundscape, and using a gamelan-and-electronica setup, that was a pretty exciting link. A soprano sax where a suona would be, a cymbal-heavy drum set. But these players would bend notes differently, their ornaments would be in different places. I asked Boon Teck how he felt about a jazz ensemble for his singers and typically, without missing a beat he said, “Of course.” The rest I leave to your imagination.

What were the challenges and tensions in communication between you and the opera masters?

Gritty. In lyrics, notation, artistic discussions, rehearsals, Mandarin-ruled, with occasional Hokkien and Cantonese. Apart from Tim O’Dwyer, our wild saxophonist, I was the only non-Mandarin speaker.

The bigger challenge: we all, musicians, singers, martial artists, liked Boon Teck’s “collaborative creativity” concept. But what did that mean? To the master is meant maybe being frisky with the tempo. To me that meant the possibility of free jazz and atonality. The first 2 weeks were an absolute collision course. Usually collaborations work because you dig the others’ skills, and want to mix them with yours. Here the musicians were complaining about the singers’ lack of rhythm and funky pitching, the singers thought we were hideously ignorant, and all the martial artists really wanted was a progressive house track, on CD.

Not a sexy mix.

But we had breakthroughs. These became more frequent. A recent example was with the most demanding singer. He had been driving us musicians nuts with his finicketiness, and he and I were on barely civil terms. One day the translator didn’t turn up. Just him, me and the piano. Gulp. But with no talking, just singing and playing music, we understood each other rapidly. Amazing, and food for thought.

I know you are working on a personal project called M! the Opera. Has what you learned in Spirits contributed to M? How is that coming along, by the way?

A typical day here consists of rehearsals 2-6 or 2-10. Then after dinner I sit down to write or update scores, work until 6am, sleep until noon, then trundle off to rehearsal again. Which is a roundabout way of saying I haven’t had time to think of other things.

Probably the screechy frequencies of Spirits will be more helpful to me in the soundtrack for the horror movie Susuk later this year, than in the mellow score of M!. Certainly Chinese opera has fascinating differences in approach. I’m told that, as a general rule, when you want to highlight a critical part, there should be silence, eg. by a sudden cut. So the idea of setting up silence by walls of noise, which seemed new enough to have Walter Murch (sound designer for Apocalypse Now and the Godfather) all excited, is old hat in this context. All these cross-referential links are thrilling to me.

M! the Opera is coming along nicely, thanks, due to the producer Chacko Vadaketh’s effervescence and wide scope of influence. The cast will be bussing to Magick River in June to spend a weekend together. We may sing campfire songs or the director Nam Ron may put our heads under water, I’m not sure which. The possibility of combing dikir barat, Indian polyrhythms and Western orchestrations is a lovely one, and with Jit, Judimar, Nam Ron, and Paul Loosely in the creative team, there will be good energy. We artists are so blessed to be doing what we do!

Increasingly Asian theatre companies are attempting musical theatre, but not in the West End sense. What is your take on the changing role of music theatre?

Changing role of music theatre – I think it’s great. As with most forms, there are some dodgy experiments, but anything is better than exclusively performing old stuff created in another time and phase. Weill-Brecht in Berlin, Opera Kecoa in Jakarta, Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, Julie Taymor’s The Lion King – I think music theatre expresses the electricity of the times, the love of living and its despair. If that’s not art, what is?

First Published: 03.06.2005 on Kakiseni

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