Ahad, 2 Februari 2014

The Star Online: Entertainment: Music

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The Star Online: Entertainment: Music

Fresh philosophy

Posted: 01 Feb 2014 08:00 AM PST

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

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).

Neil Chua, who plays the ruan (Chinese banjo), explained the folk-derived instrument would strike a chord with Chinese classical music lovers.

Neil Chua, who plays the ruan (Chinese banjo), explained the folk-derived instrument would strike a chord with Chinese classical music lovers.

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 rearrangement 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 theircraft. 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.

Spirit of protest

Posted: 01 Feb 2014 08:00 AM PST

From mainstream pop and rock to hip hop, electro and even country music, hot-button issues have evolved.

Pete Seeger. Folk music legend. Born in New York on May 3, 1919. Died Monday in the same city at the age of 94. Survived by protest songs of all kinds, in all genres.

From mainstream pop and rock to hip hop, electro and even country music, songwriters and performers are as engaged as they were in Seeger's heyday, even if the hot-button issues have evolved.

"It's a myth that protest music has disappeared," said Alexander Shashko, who teaches the relationship between race, politics and popular culture at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

"Run through the list of the biggest stars in the world, from Beyonce to Bruce Springsteen to Lorde, and articulating social change is a significant part of their music," he told AFP.

Dubbed "America's tuning fork" by poet Carl Sandburg, the banjo-player left behind folk classics like If I Had a Hammer and We Shall Overcome.

Many will associate him with the 1960s, a decade of profound social and political change, when young Americans took to the streets to condemn the Vietnam war and demand civil rights for all races.

Today's songwriters and performers have other issues on their minds, as demonstrated at the Grammy awards in Los Angeles last Sunday where 33 couples – both gay and straight – exchanged wedding vows.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, winners of four Grammys, performed their anthem Same Love, which served as the theme song of the gay marriage campaign in the rap duo's home state of Washington.

Sara Bareilles, 34, and Hunter Hayes, 22, separately addressed bullying with piano renditions of Brave and Invisible respectively.

New Zealand's Lorde, 17, mocked gratuitous celebrity bling with Royals, the Grammy-winner for best song.

And there was Kacey Musgraves, who bested the likes of Taylor Swift to win the best country album Grammy for Same Trailer Different Park, which depicts gritty rural America in a way Seeger would have instantly recognised.

"A protest song asks the questions that some might think shouldn't be asked," said Val Haller, whose ValsList.com blog "helps busy adults keep up with new music".

"It does not have to be harsh, angry or pushy. Rather, it can be an instrument to create a sense of community around a thought."

Case in point: Ed Sheeran, 22, a ginger-haired British singer-songwriter with a sweet demeanour who toured North America with Swift last year. Teenage girls make up his global fan base, but his ballads cast an uncomfortable harsh light on homelessness, drugs and prostitution.

At National Public Radio (NPR), music critic Ann Powers cited Bruce Springsteen as a prime example of a big-name rock star who can sell out stadium gigs while tackling political themes.

The 64-year-old paid tribute to Seeger in a 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, but he embraced protest years before, not least with his 1984 hit Born In The USA, an ode to the working man in dark spiritual crisis.

His latest studio album High Hopes, released earlier this month, includes American Skin (41 Shots), about the police killing of a young African immigrant in 1999 that won Springsteen no friends among New York's Finest.

Among younger performers, Powers is excited by Hurray for the Riff Raff, a country-folk band out of New Orleans, Louisiana fronted by Alynda Lee Segarra, 27, a one-time street busker and train-hopping hobo whose song topics include sexual assault.

"I definitely think that political music is not as visible or as centralised as it used to be – and I think that has to do with how music in general is no longer visible or centralised as it used to be – and that's because of the Internet," she said.

Hip hop has been politically engaged since its inception and the days of The Message, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's 1982 rap tour of run-down New York public housing projects.

At last year's MTV Video Music Awards, Kanye West, 36, invoked the legacy of slavery with Blood On The Leaves against a backdrop of dark images provided by Steve McQueen, director of the Oscar-nominated 12 Years A Slave.

As for the old school folk scene, the spirit of protest thrives with such artists as Andy Cohen and Joe Jencks, said Stephen Winick of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington.

The centre is an important repository of America's folk music heritage – and Seeger was active in its work since the 1930s.

"Protest music really does continue to be strong, and you can say there hasn't been any lull at all," Winick told AFP.

"Just because it's not a single person with a guitar or banjo doesn't mean it's not protest music." – AFP

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