Fresh phi­los­o­phy

Two ta­lented China-based home­grown mu­si­cians take a new path through the Chi­nese clas­si­cal land­scape.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - MUSIC - By SHEELA CHAN­DRAN star2@thes­tar.com.my

BACK in 2012, Ger­man-born Bri­tish com­poser Max Richter tore apart the script and put a com­pletely re­fresh­ingly avant garde twist to baroque com­poser An­to­nio Vi­valdi’s ev­er­green work The Four Sea­sons. If any­thing, Richter’s al­bum Re­com­posed By Max Richter: Vi­valdi, The Four Sea­sons proved that through sheer imag­i­na­tion and in­no­va­tion, the world’s over­fa­mil­iar clas­si­cal con­certo could now be seen in a vastly dif­fer­ent light. As a thought-pro­vok­ing project, Richter’s Vi­valdi re­com­po­si­tion won over purists as well as made clas­si­cal fans fall in love with the piece again. In a sim­i­lar – yet overtly pop-cen­tred – fash­ion, Sin­ga­porean-Bri­tish vi­olin­ist Vanessa-Mae did spark a buzz in 1995 when her de­but al­bum The Vi­olin Player, which fea­tured a techno pop/clas­si­cal tran­scrip­tion of Bach’s Toc­cata & Fugue In D Mi­nor, brought the “clas­si­cal pop” main­stream crossover bug to th­ese parts.

Th­ese days, the clas­si­cal pop phe­nom­e­non – es­pe­cially in Malaysia – has left many mu­sic fans wary of a project’s artis­tic vi­sion and mu­si­cal sin­cer­ity. Ar­guably, it’s hard not to be cyn­i­cal about such “crossovers”. How­ever, there is a school of young mu­si­cians work­ing to blur the bound­aries (be­tween tra­di­tional and mod­ern) while mak­ing thought­ful mu­sic to talk about.

Home­grown mu­si­cians Neil Chua and Heng Xi Ying have also taken a sim­i­lar ap­proach, giv­ing a mod­ern twist on an­cient Chi­nese com­po­si­tions in their up­com­ing per­for­mance, Les Melodies 4+21, at the newly set-up The­atre Lounge Cafe (TLC) in Kuala Lumpur. For the show, they are adding per­sonal touches to fa­mous clas­si­cal pieces such as Morn­ing Mist, Moun­tain Stream and Wa­ter Lily for the guzheng (Chi­nese harp) and ruan (Chi­nese banjo/gui­tar).

Chua, who plays the ruan, said the pieces would strike a chord with Chi­nese clas­si­cal mu­sic lovers. But if you are un­fa­mil­iar with the genre, don’t fret as the reper­toire could serve as a good in­tro­duc­tion to the world of Chi­nese clas­si­cal mu­sic.

“As mu­sic evolves with time, the style of play­ing and rhythm evolve too. To give a con­tem­po­rary feel, we have rein­ter­preted some tunes by vary­ing the tempo and adding in mod­ern el­e­ments. We hope the re­ar­range- ment will fur­ther en­hance the au­di­ence’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion to­wards this mu­sic genre,” said Chua, 32, in a re­cent e-mail in­ter­view from Shang­hai, China, where he is based.

Tra­di­tion­ally, the guzheng is a solo in­stru­ment whereas the ruan of­ten graced the palaces of roy­alty in the olden days. Heng said the idea to fuse the in­stru­ments came about af­ter a suc­cess­ful ex­per­i­men­tal per­for­mance in Miri, Sarawak last year. This served as a cat­a­lyst to fur­ther pop­u­larise fu­sion sounds be­tween tra­di­tional Chi­nese in­stru­ments.

“We dis­cov­ered that the com­bi­na­tion of the mel­low sweet sounds of the ruan with rip­pling sounds of the guzheng were beau­ti­ful and en­chant­ing. When played to­gether, it pro­duces a mu­si­cal chem­istry. As both in­stru­ments are given equal foot­ing, we have been prac­tis­ing tire­lessly to en­sure the au­di­ence will en­joy the sound from th­ese clas­si­cal in­stru­ments,” said Heng, 24, who is pur­su­ing her Mas­ters De­gree in Guzheng at the Cen­tral Con­ser­va­tory of Mu­sic in Bei­jing.

Al­though the mu­si­cians are sta­tioned in dif­fer­ent cities, they con­tinue to ex­change ideas and share prac­tice ses­sions thanks to the won­ders of chan­nels such as Skype, Facetime and YouTube. “The world is now a much smaller place. For this per­for­mance, we re­hearse, ar­range and prac­tise our pieces through th­ese chan­nels to strive for the sound and ef­fect we want,” said Heng, who is also a guzheng per­former and teacher.

Re­gard­ing the show’s French sound­ing ti­tle, Chua said it was in­spired by the four strings of ruan and 21 strings of guzheng.

“We are rel­a­tively young and want to show that Chi­nese clas­si­cal in­stru­ments are suited for ev­ery­one, re­gard­less of age and cul­ture. Some of the works have a con­tem­po­rary touch to suit lis­ten­ers who pre­fer songs with a mod­ern touch,” said Chua, who is the only home­grown mu­si­cian to be con­ferred a Mas­ter’s De­gree from the pres­ti­gious Shang­hai Con­ser­va­tory of Mu­sic.

Heng chipped in: “An in­ter­est­ing com­po­nent of Chi­nese clas­si­cal mu­sic is it tends to in­spire peo­ple to think, imag­ine and en­vi­sion, es­pe­cially the mes­sage be­hind a par­tic­u­lar piece. Yet on the other hand, it also helps to de-stress and re­lax.”

While Chi­nese clas­si­cal in­stru­ments have had a rel­a­tively low pro­file com­pared to main­stream favourites like gui­tar, key­boards and drums, Heng notices that peo­ple are be­gin­ning to ap­pre­ci­ate tra­di­tional in­stru­ments too.

“To fur­ther pro­mote th­ese in­stru­ments, we need more en­cour­age­ment and sup­port from pol­icy mak­ers and the pub­lic to en­able mu­si­cians like us to grow, de­velop and per­form. The ap­pre­ci­a­tion and aware­ness of tra­di­tional Chi­nese in­stru­ments can be fur­ther fos­tered through per­for­mances,” ex­plained Heng, who also plays the li­uqin (Chi­nese man­dolin), pipa (Chi­nese harp) and ukulele.

Plat­form for artistes

TLC is the lat­est ven­ture by Pun Kai Loon and Khor Seng Chew, whose names are syn­ony­mous with mul­ti­ple award-win­ning the­atre com­pany Dama Orches­tra.

The setup is aimed at pro­vid­ing an ad­di­tional av­enue for artistes and tech­ni­cians to sup­ple­ment their in­come in be­tween the­atre projects.

The cafe, which opened its doors to the­atre en­thu­si­asts on Jan 10, has com­fort­able seat­ing space for 60, which en­ables guests to en­joy per­for­mances in a cosy am­bi­ence.

“The shows – open to all artistes – pre­sented are mostly es­tab­lished works, though there would be some ex­per­i­men­tal works. Our pro­gramme in­cludes Chi­nese & Western Oldies Se­ries, Chi­nese & Western Play Se­ries, Chi­nese and Western in­stru­men­tal se­ries, Mu­sic The­atre Se­ries, Western Opera Se­ries as well as Chi­nese Opera Se­ries. We have in the pipe­line highly en­ter­tain­ing shows by both in­ter­na­tional and lo­cal artistes,” said Pun, who serves as TLC’s co-cu­ra­tor and pro­gramme di­rec­tor.

For Pun, TLC serves as a per­fect plat­form for young Malaysian tal­ents such as Heng and Chua to show­case their craft. He said the Les

Melodies 4+21 per­for­mance pro­vides the au­di­ence with an op­por­tu­nity to have a fore­taste of a new gen­er­a­tion of Malaysian in­stru­men­tal­ists spe­cial­is­ing in Chi­nese mu­si­cal in­stru­ments.

“It is im­por­tant to give young Malaysian tal­ents the op­por­tu­nity to show­case their artistry.

“We have known Heng for a num­ber of years and had wanted her to per­form guzheng with us. But the tim­ing is al­ways an is­sue as she has been study­ing in Bei­jing. With The­atre Lounge Café, it is now so much eas­ier to fit the mu­si­cian’s hec­tic sched­ule’s and pro­vide a plat­form to show­case their skills,” ex­plained Pun.

When asked what the au­di­ence could ex­pect from the show, Pun re­vealed: “The au­di­ence, in­clud­ing Kai Loon and I, are look­ing for­ward to this very ex­cit­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Un­like my time, when I started play­ing pipa (Chi­nese lute) in the 1970s and 1980s, most of us mu­si­cians were self-taught, but now we are see­ing the emer­gence of a new batch of mu­si­cians, schooled in lead­ing Chi­nese mu­sic con­ser­va­to­ries and taught by great mas­ters in China.”

With TLC serv­ing as a per­fect plat­form, ta­lented mu­si­cians such as Heng and Chua now have an av­enue to show­case more clas­si­cal Chi­nese in­stru­ments with a mod­ern twist.

Les Melodies 4+21 takes cen­tre stage from Feb 7-9 at In­ti­mate En­coun­ters @ The­atre Lounge Café, Plaza Damas, Kuala Lumpur. Show­time is 9pm. Cover charge is RM65. For more de­tails, call 012-2369100 or browse the­atrelounge­cafe.com.

‘An in­ter­est­ing com­po­nent of chi­nese clas­si­cal mu­sic is it tends to in­spire peo­ple to think, imag­ine and en­vi­sion, es­pe­cially the mes­sage be­hind a par­tic­u­lar piece,’ says Heng Xi Ying, who plays the guzheng (chi­nese harp).

A melodic won­der:

neil Chua, who plays the ruan (Chi­nese banjo), ex­plained the folkderived in­stru­ment would strike a chord with Chi­nese clas­si­cal mu­sic lovers.

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