Listening to Pomeloes

What do the films Lelaki Komunis Terakhir and Gubra have in common? Obvious answer: they were both Malaysian films that stirred local controversy in recent times. Less obvious answer: they both contained music by composer Hardesh Singh.

When one talks about film, composers rarely get mentioned. “Film is not a medium for composers who want to be noticed,” says Hardesh modestly. But notice is what one has to expect when one makes music such as that in Amir Muhammad’s Lelaki Komunis Terakhir — which consists of a series of highly pungent, satirical songs.

The release of a CD compilation of Hardesh’s film work, the unwieldy Eating Pomeloes From Tokyo To Tamil Nadu Makes My Heart Go Gubra, gives Malaysians a chance to hear the films they did not get to see, thanks to shoot-­from-the-hip attacks by certain local newspapers, and so on — but, more significantly, brings the often anonymous art of scoring film music to the forefront.

Eating Pomeloes could not be timelier. It is an important testimony to our growing music scene: a scene that is increasingly sophisticated and deserving of attention. Further, Malaysian film is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, and Malaysian composers are asserting themselves in this genre as never before — for example, December sees  the music of another of our exciting young composers, Adeline Wong, in Zarina Abdullah’s new film Chermin.

Communist Hymns

The first of its kind in recent years, Eating Pomeloes is a compilation of four of Hardesh’s most intriguing soundtracks. It kicks off with Lelaki Komunis Terakhir, traverses mercurially over Gubra, pauses for thought with Chemman Chaalai, before settling in on its most substantial offering: the dark and hypnotic sounds of Tokyo Magic Hour.

Why these four films? Hardesh explains: “After Lelaki Komunis Terakhir, Amir and I both thought it would be nice to release the film’s soundtrack. But the songs only totalled 12 minutes — and I also had all this other music, from films I had scored, that didn’t have a life of their own outside of the film screenings. So I thought I should compile my soundtracks.”

The five songs from Amir’s road musical, with lyrics by Jerome Kugan and cast in a retro P Ramlee mode with modern twists, is brought alive by the Saloma-type vocals of the delicious Zalila Lee. They satirise the artless slogans and patriotic songs that dominated our airwaves from the 1950s through to the 1970s. If you’re old enough to remember the ‘Undi Lah’ jingle, then you will enjoy the irony of songs like the mock-utilitarian ‘I.C.’ or the breezy ‘Senjata’. Hardesh really strikes a chord with the hilarious ‘Malaria’: it features the Merdeka-day pomp of marching bands, replete with a raspy tuba to underline its sing-along — albeit offbeat — tune.

And, of course, because we can’t say ‘komunis’ in Malaysia, it dutifully gets beeped out in the cheery refrains of Internationale-inspired ‘Gemilang’. So who says we are irresponsible?

After this riotous opener, Hardesh, a self confessed ‘composer and some-time jazz musician’, dishes up two brief pieces that adorn Yasmin Ahmad’s Gubra. Together they last no more than 3 minutes, but manage to express a wealth of nostalgic feeling. Cellist Jonathan Oh provides the lyrical soul of these beautiful acoustic vignettes, while Hardesh makes up for Gubra‘s brevity by including a beautiful demo version of one of its tracks.

Such ravishing music, but why so little of it in Gubra, itself? “Because there is no way I can outdo Beethoven?” Hardesh jokes. “Seriously, though, the movie didn’t really require much music. I have always believed that the job of a film composer is to aid the visuals. The less people notice the music, the better — unless, of course, it is a Hollywood blockbuster with music that might rattle your bones for added punch.”

“I have to add,” Hardesh continues, “That watching local movies makes me cringe: the music takes up too much space — most of the time it is too loud, and always draws too much attention to itself for the wrong reasons.” It’s a point well taken. Somehow, I am reminded of the catfight scene from the black-and-white classic Bawang Merah, Bawang Putih, which was played out to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony Nr 6 and, as a consequence, entirely obscured.

How to Evoke a Rubber Estate

Hardesh’s favourite film score from the collection happens to coincide with mine: the quietly understated music for Deepak Kumaran Menon’s Chemman Chaalai. “I never imagined that I’d get to score an entire film using my Indian classical music background,” Hardesh says. “I was very excited to work on it, and the entire score was improvised. I’d start the scene and play along freely to it, and record whatever I played. Nothing was edited, except the rhythmic parts, which I had already laid down before hand. The film is very open: wide shots, minimal edits. My music reflects the simplicity of an estate life.”

Using minimal resources, Hardesh crafted beautifully crisp atmospheric sketches for the Tamil feature. Applying Indian classical techniques to the guitar, he produced a sound that sounds remarkably like a veena or a sarod.

“We wanted to keep the music as minimal and pure as possible,” Hardesh explains. “There are only three instruments throughout: a modified guitar, a tabla and a claypot. I used a 12-string guitar, and replaced all the additional pegs with chikaris: special drone strings. That’s what gives it the unmistakable drone. The claypot was something I took from my mum’s kitchen, as I didn’t have a ghatam with me.”

Having studied at Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s college of music in San Rafael, California, Hardesh was provided with the basics of Indian classical music, which he learnt on the guitar. “Unlike most other schools,” Hardesh says, “Ustad Ali did not require us to take up an Indian instrument, like the sitar or sarod. Students were encouraged to study under the instrument of their choice. I learned to play the ragas on my guitar.”

Experimental Love in Tokyo

Thus far, Eating Pomeloes has transported us from the wry to the wistful. Taking up nearly 50 minutes of the rest of the disc is Hardesh’s sonic backdrop for another Amir Muhammad feature, the hyper-experimental Tokyo Magic Hour, an hour of digitally processed images to which narrated pantuns and gritty urban sound canvasses collide and collude to unveil the life cycle of the protagonist’s experience of love in Tokyo.

“I was left rather free to explore the soundscape,” Hardesh says. “Amir gave me a free hand in doing what I felt was right for the film. In a way, the entire process of composing was very iterative. I’d start with one sound, process it in various ways so that it would sound totally different from the original, add more elements, and process it over all again. There is actually lots of live music in there, but it is all processed so much that it sounds more electronic than analogue — very much like the visuals, which were treated and re-treated many times.”

Tokyo Magic Hour‘s music is sometimes alienating, sometimes comforting — very often dark and pensive. Over the sound collages, narrators recite a series of pantuns, filling in the emotions where the visuals cannot. I suspect Amir’s choice of presentation was in part driven by the fact that the film, a love story between two men, would not have made it to screen in any literal form, anyway. An alternative approach had to be taken; as such, Hardesh’s soundtrack plays an important role in the storytelling. The result is music that has life of its own, outside the film.

The poetic aspect of the Tokyo Magic Hour soundtrack — a stunning interplay of sounds, music and pantuns — is perhaps its most alluring quality. One of the most poignant of its moments comes towards the end of a track called ‘Lusting’, where the couplet:

Bukan cempedak kami katakan

Buah delima dalam pasu …

Pandang pertama cinta palsu

cuts into a nostalgic piano solo that is heartbreaking in its simplicity.

“For ‘Lusting’, I was very conscious about the music and the poetry working together,” says Hardesh. “That section is quiet, but also dissonant in its own way. It felt, to me, like two lovers really could be sitting on a beach somewhere, listening to this music and reciting those poems to each other.”

There are similar lyrical gems hidden within the shifting dunes of Tokyo Magic Hour‘s sound layers: the jazzy sequence with Zalila Lee vocals that bursts forth in ‘Remembrance’ like a sudden afternoon shower; the Ryuichi Sakamoto-like piano sequence in ‘Loving’ that echoes with unspoken tenderness. Patient listeners are rewarded in ‘Parting’ with an extensive Indian violin solo, played here by Kolkata native Manoj Baruah, that recalls the pyrotechnics of the great Carnatic maestro L Subramaniam: a slowly unfolding mournful raga that erupts into violin arpeggios reminiscent of those in Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa.

“We knowingly allowed the images, sound and text to go off on their own tangents,” Hardesh tells me. “You may observe that, even though the text starts off happy and ends bitterly, the music actually gradually becomes more relaxed as it progresses.”

I ask what it was like, working with Amir on this project. “It was extremely fun; working with Amir is something I always look forward to,” Hardesh answers. “Also frustrating, in a way — once I got into the rhythm, I’d spend days holed up, just working and reworking things. We never quite knew when to stop.”


Malaysian CH Loh is a freelance writer who now lives in Singapore.

First Published: 11.10.2006 on Kakiseni

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