By Yasmin Zetti Martin
A few months ago, there was a call for submissions for anyone under the age of 28 to compose a five minute-long original piece of work for an ensemble comprising of piano, flute and/or oboe. The result was five pieces by five young composers — Chow Jun Yan, Chow Jun Yi, Neo Nai Wen, Ng Shyh Poh, and Tan Zi Hua. CH Loh of the Malaysian Composers Collective chatted with us about the workshop and its goals, as well as sharing a few music anecdotes, and telling us just what exactly is wrong with the music scene today.
Tell us about yourself.
I am a regular Bangsa Malaysia with a bit too much free time on his hands. So I thought I’d make myself useful while I’m still breathing.
Tell us a really bad musician joke.
What does the Malaysian contemporary music scene need the most?
Funds. And a proper conservatory. Everything else we have in abundance – talent, enthusiasm, creativity…
So what exactly is the Young Composers Workshop?
Think of it as the American Idol for Malaysian contemporary classical music. We are flushing out our future Takemitsus and Tan Duns, and giving them the chance of a lifetime to be heard. No one really wants to give their time of day to unknown, young composers. It’s when you win some awards and become famous that they start knocking on your doors. If ever.
So, I felt we really needed to give budding composers that boost, and to give them committed musicians who would bring their works to the best light, just to see what they are capable of. I approached HSBC with this idea as a compliment to their annual music extravaganza, and I am grateful that they have supported the idea all the way.
Can you tell us a bit about the five young composers whose work we’ll get to hear?
They’re all very young, between 21 and 25, and they are all pretty brilliant. I was humbled after hearing the pieces that they wrote for the workshop. I am also thrilled that we have people from all over Malaysia, from as far as Lahad Datu, participating. They come from different educational backgrounds as well, and some of them are just embarking on their further music studies, so this is a very good platform for them.
On the whole, it is just encouraging to see the quality of new composers that are emerging. These guys are the second generation of composers, after the first generation who gradually came into public view over the past decade; composers like Chong, Saidah and Muriz, members of our workshop selection panel. Two generations in such a short span of time! And to think just ten years ago some silly bloke said there were no composers in Malaysia capable of writing for a quality orchestra. Tsk tsk, talk about major myopia.
Tell us about the workshop process. What happens?
We put together a small committed group of musicians who agreed to tackle this task of performing brand new compositions, consisting of piano, flute and oboe, and we called for scores to be submitted for a piece lasting about five minutes. A Selection Panel consisting of Chong Kee Yong (Chair), Saidah Rastam and Ahmad Muriz had the unenviable task of picking the best five submissions — not an easy task considering the quality we received! — which we then rehearsed with the ensemble.
The first workshop was held on 23 June at KLPac with the composers and the musicians to work through the compositions, iron out rough spots, and generally allow the composers the rare chance to interact with their performers and senior composers from the Selection Panel as well as the organising committee. This is far better education than just going to a music school. A second rehearsal-workshop will be held at KLPac Indicine on 11 July at 8.30pm, and this is open to the public free of charge.
After the rehearsals, the composers have a chance to review their work, and the works will finally be performed during the concert on 13 July at 11am at Pentas 2. To make the concert more interesting we are also premiering new works by our veterans Ng Chong Lim (a new piano work titled Footprints), and Johan Othman (two pieces for soprano with piano and harp: the dancing mouse and Dying In Order To Live — an excerpt from an opera in progress). The titles alone are intriguing enough!
You will also get the chance to hear Chong Kee Yong’s piano work Splattered Landscape performed by one of this year’s Piano Festival’s semi-finalists from the Piano Competition Section held earlier in the week. Plus a surprise item.
If you had never heard of music, what would you be doing with your life?
I’d have been an accountant or a lawyer, perhaps. Or an organic farmer, which is my preferred profession. I once aspired to be a politician, but someone talked sense into me.
What should we prepare ourselves for when we go for the Young Composers Workshop Concert?
Be prepared for a good time! We want the concert to be casual and enjoyable, a discovery of sorts, and hopefully a pleasant surprise for everyone. Please don’t come in coat and tie, or batik in lieu of. Unless you really, really want to, that is.
What are your greatest hopes for Malaysian contemporary classical music?
That Malaysian contemporary music becomes a permanent part of our classical music landscape, so that our classical music becomes something that is living, and that truly belongs to Malaysians, rather than as something that is seen as imported and historical. And that our composers can look forward to an environment where they can realise their artistic impulses to the fullest.
What do you fear?
The return of the haze. Or that we will spend millions to send another astronaut to space.
If all the contemporary music in the world had to be wiped from all memory, save for one song, which song would you vote for?
The sound of silence. Not the Simon and Garfunkle one, mind you.
What’s next for the Malaysian Composers Collective?
Possibly some CD projects, maybe more small concerts at alternative venues.
What are you dying to say to the Malaysian population?
Get up and make things happen!
What’s the most productive thing you can do in 60 seconds?
What’s next for you?
Working on making this workshop an annual affair. And possibly some CD projects, maybe more small concerts and workshops at alternate venues. Other than that, it’ll be clean air and blue skies for me…
First Published: 02.07.2008 on Kakiseni