New Music Concerts “MALAYSIAN VOICES” reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, May 8, 2011. The Music Gallery, Toronto.

Composer Chong Kee Yong, seen here rehearsing with David Hetherington, was invited by New Music Concert’s artistic director Bob Aitken, to curate a concert of ‘new music’ from Malaysia.  What do we mean by ‘new’?

The music was ‘new’ in the chronological sense. Mr. Chong included his own compositions and works by T.I. Tajuddin, and Yii Kah Hoe, contemporaries of his, also born in the early 1970’s. There was work by two really ‘new’ composers born in the mid 1980’s. All the pieces were composed during the last 10 years.

Some of the music was also ‘new’ topically. Three compositions make direct reference to current events: the earthquake and tsunami in japan; the 2002 bombing of a resort in Bali; and the ‘murder’ of ancient Banyan trees in Malaysia—Chong Kee Yong’s own reflection on the “They take paradise and put up a parking lot” theme. These topical pieces all exploit the ‘anything goes’ ability of new music  to create sonic images of chaos that dramatize disaster and express protest. But this music is not itself destructive or purely angry, and all the pieces exhaust their anger and arrive at endings full of “charms to soothe a savage breast.” The beastliness of things is there, but also the beauty.

Those of us in the audience who regularly enjoy the challenge of meeting the ‘new’ in music were delightfully re-‘newed’ by the blending of Chinese, Gamelan, and native Malaysian timbres and modes into the European-based  new classical music mix. Many of the pieces, particularly two by Chong Kee Yong were elaborately orchestrated for from 7-12 players, distributed through the hall in surround-sound mode, but not all were good to hear.  Mourning the murder of an old Banyan tree (2002) opened with really ugly sounds: piano pounding, clarinet and flute shrieking migranely, cello and violin groaning like overweighted floorboards and creaking like rusty hinges, while Rick Sacks on percussion cacophonated rush-hour traffic. It was  Yeats’ “blood-dimmed tide…loosed upon the world.”  Towards the end the mood changed and you could imagine the melody of birds and breezes in the Old Banyan arising and fading like the soft bong of a gong.

The three pieces that followed were hot and hotter. Adam Sherkin, emerging in Toronto as a pianist who relishes really difficult scores, astonished with his playing of Tazul Izan Tajuddin’s Torrent of Images—A Memorial (2002). This dramatic work contrasts rapid, repeated, dissonant, high register arpeggiated scales permutated with abrupt, jagged, erratic, random note-clusters in the low register. The work trills like an overexcited nerve and pounds like the pulse of a doomed victim. The drama is worth it, as is Sherkin’s display of hand and ear virtuosity.

Chow Junyi’s A Night without Voices (2009) for piano, percussion, winds and strings was based on an ostinato melody threading a gentle cacophony of  instrumental voices that speak the language of chimes, soft winds and round, muffled drumskins. His theme is the persistence of nostalgia as a hedge against the march of time. Robert Aitken’s conducting held the floating atmospheric feeling of the music within the bounds of palpable rhythm and precise ensemble work.

The outstanding piece of the evening was Aiyun Huang’s solo percussion performance of Chong Kee Yong’s Bell Stone (2011). The composition was inspired by Mr. Chong’s visit to a thousand year old ‘bell stone’ in Denmark which he says “makes amazing sounds when you hit it, like hearing voices from the past….” Aiyun Huang danced in her sonic apparatus jungle, chanting, wailing, humming, as she tapped, stroked, shook, rattled, scraped and beat on metal and wood with her bare hands, with sticks and mallets and bowstrings. The sheer variety and combination of timbres, rhythms, meters, tempi and cultural signals enchanted and mesmerized.

It is also interesting that this ‘new’ music integrates ‘Nanyin’, one of the oldest music genres of China. Like many of the works in this concert, Bell Stone combines old and new genres to express the common drama of our life—how the past follows us as we journey forward in time.

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