Malaysian composer paints music from visual images


Malaysian composer Adeline Wong


Norwegian visual artist Are Andreassen
The big picture
The Twin Towers are key features in Longing
A soul-filled experience of music and art combined

Most music lovers would be familiar with the classical string quartet, but next week exciting Malaysian composer Adeline Wong presents a new work for the combination in a way that Malaysians would not have heard before.

The piece ‘Longing’ that Singapore’s famous T’ang Quartet will be performing at KLPac at 8.30pm next Saturday February 18, is a work not just for the pair of violins, viola and cello, but a “collage” of artistic impressions that encompass visual art and movement.

Wong, known for her exuberant, colourful and scintillating orchestral colours, spent 10 days with Norwegian visual artist Are Andreassen in 2009 to work on this collaborative project, and during that time absorbed the sights, sounds and soaked in the cool luminescent arctic atmosphere to craft her uniquely Malaysian string quartet.

It is one where visual projections, electronic sounds and an occasional dancer counterpoint with the quartet and a guest solo cellist.

“The roots of this project are from the novel ‘Wayfarers’ written by Norwegian writer, Knut Hamsun,” explains Wong.

“The story is based on the fascination of the main character, August as he travels to Bakindien – stretching from Java, Malaysia, to Sri Lanka. The colour and spectrum of his travel form the conceptual foundation of this project.

“Andreassen’s visual images are equally inspiring and I could immediately relate to his drawings; and that formed a canvas for my musical composition,” said the composer, who also teachers at Singapore’s Yong Siew Toh conservatory of music.

That canvass, says Wong, includes Malaysian art forms and architectural images like the Sultan Abdul Samad building and KL’s iconic Twin Towers.

“The Twin Towers are key features in Longing,” she says, and audiences will get to see and hear the prominent landmark in delightfully new ways during the performance.

Wong’s great Arctic adventure

Instead of traditionally composing at the desk writing on manuscript paper, or as it is these days, on a computer, Wong’s quartet was constructed partly in Norway with her Norwegian collaboraters.

“The 10-day creative process in the production of Longing was an interesting and memorable one … I also spent quite some time with the sound designer, Are Simonsen to work on the electronics and sound design of Longing.

“For the electronics, I recorded some live sounds (string popping, string glissandi, hitting of the strings with wood of the bow, tapping sounds on the string body, string pizzicato) played by Ørnulf in the recording studio and together with the sound designer, we created a library of electronic sounds that we integrate together with the music performed by the traditional string quartet.

“The dance element came in towards the end of the production adding a somewhat humorous aspect to the project. The dancer (representing the traveller in the novel) usually relates her movements with and against the solo cellist and electronics.”

Her Arctic adventure included a night ride on a speedboat for a rehearsal at around 10.30pm.

“During that time of the year, it was midnight sun in Norway and you can see the sunlight reflected in the sea at midnight – truly breathtaking.  And, after all the email exchanges and seeing Are Andreassen’s visuals in jpeg files, I could now see it live with rocks, mountains  staring at me while we channel through the fiords.

“I even saw a baby whale! Being in Norway, taking in its culture and beautiful picturesque landscape, I begin to understand more about the Wayfarers, which was the inspiration behind this project,” said Wong.

Coming home to Malaysia

While Longing (called Lengt in its original premiere in Norway in 2009) is based on a European novel, its Malaysian soul is clearly audible from the music and Wong’s way with innately Malaysian sounds and harmonies is one of her trademarks.

In Longing, you will hear echoes of the kompang and hints of the Azan, a source of inspiration also used in her earlier piece Waktu at the Bang On A Can festival several years ago.

“From a musical point of view, the prayer is beautiful and I am drawn to the phrases and form of the prayer. (Its) characteristics are heard in a section of Longing where the string quartet is written resembling the voice qualities of the prayer,” said Wong.

“You will not hear a direct reference to a familiar tune that is Malaysian or in the case of (the Twin Towers section), you will not hear the exact sounds of the ‘kompang’.  That is not how I compose.

“I pick out some of the characteristics that I am drawn to and make it my own – blending it with my own harmonies, melodies, colour and textures,” she added.

You can watch an excerpt of the original production and find out more about the concert at the Malaysian Composers Collective website.