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TALES FROM MALAYSIA: BETWEEN TWO WORLDS • Nathan Fischer (gt) • SOUNDSET SR114 (48:03)

 

DUARTE Getaran Jiwa, variations on a Malaysian Song, op. 125; Gubhanku, Variations on an Indonesian Song, op. 124. ALI Salji. SONG Exile is Injury. SAMAD Three Malaysian Popular Songs. ZOHN On a Malaysian Song. FAIZAH SYED MOHAMMED Incantation of Ulek Mayang. LINSDEY-CLARK Malaysian Sunrise; Malaysian Landscape. TERBRACK Sia-Sia

 

 

            A delightful one of a kind disc, “the result of six years of research and collaboration to produce the first Malaysian themed album featuring works for solo classical guitar.” Nathan Fisher has lived and taught in Malaysia and has a great affection for the  diverse mixture of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and European cultures that defines Malaysian society. The fertile confluence of these mingled ethnicities led me to expect more of an exotic sound to the music, and so I was surprised that Getaran Jiwa, Variations on a Malaysian Song—the first of John Duarte’s two beautifully wrought variation sets bookending the program—initially struck me as rather Latin American. The variations include a sprightly jig; an interestingly harmonized minor-key adagio; a fast-paced sequence of inventive figurations; a variation tracing the theme in delicate harmonics; and a lovely concluding waltz. Fischer’s flowing arrangement of Amirah Ali’s “graceful and light” piano composition, Salji (Snow, written in response to her first experience of it while studying at Northern Illinois University), supports the soothing melody with an intricate web of continuous counterpoint in both the slower and faster sections: it’s a virtuoso performance in every way. Paul Cesarczyk’s Jong Jong Inai is a brief (1:03) but effective arrangement of a traditional Malaysian song, and several other tracks have equivalently short timings: Vincent Lindsey-Clark’s Malaysian Sunrise (1:06), Malaysian Landscape (1:17), and Patrick Terbrack’s Sia-Sia (1:24): but less can sometimes be more, with each of the four stylistically distinctive and memorably evocative. 

            Perhaps because of its ancient origins, the Incantation of Ulek Mayang, Sharifah Faizah Syed Mohammed’s composition inspired by a Malaysian legend, did fulfill some of my naïve expectations about Malaysian music, veering more to the East than the West, an impression enhanced by its spare, single note recitative occasionally filled in with a second voice and chordal flurries. (Sharifah Faizah is the first Malaysian woman to compose a concert work for the classical guitar.) Guitarist Wann-Dar Tan’s arrangement of Tan Hooi Song’s Exile is Injury prompted a number of far-reaching associations. Its wistfully melancholic song reminded me of the indigenous Indian melodies beloved of Villa-Lobos, while other, more vigorous sections seem to hark back to the Renaissance. I also hear hints of antique Chinese pipa music in the delightful tremolo section. Questions of form and influence aside, it is, in Fischer’s words, “hauntingly beautiful.” Penyair, the first of Az Samad’s Three Malaysian Popular Songs, could be mistaken for a soft-rock ballad, while Salam Rindu sounds like a county lament of Celtic/English origin. Fischer begins Senja Mula Menangis with rapid strumming, a vigorous contrast to the essentially peaceful character of the first two songs, but the music soon relaxes into a leisurely, lyrical exploration of the pleasing central melody. Fischer’s tastefully ornamented and cleverly constructed arrangements transform the songs into absorbing miniatures. Andrew Zohn’s On a Malaysian Song contrasts periodic iterations of film composer P. Ramlee’s cheerful wedding tune, Kenek-Kenek Udang, with imaginative extrapolations that Fischer aptly describes as “serious departures that add a fresh perspective on color, texture, rhythm, and ornaments.” It’s an invigorating mélange of traditional and modern styles by a creative composer. Duarte’s second variation set, Gubahanku, mirrors Getaran Jiwa’s design, with a theme based on a popular Indonesian song (“my poem,” by Gatot Soenjoto) followed by four variations and a finale: the first, swift and accented by a quirky figure that lends a piquant touch; a charming Valse Triste; a misterioso third variation combining pizzicato, guitar-body taps, and extroverted strumming; a variation in harmonics; and a finale that to Fischer, “evokes colors of the virtuoso gamelan famous throughout the Malay archipelago,” before concluding with a reprise of the song.

            Tales from Malaysia: Between Two Worlds is an excellent introduction to a little-known corner of the guitar literature and through it to “the gentle and pacific nature of the Malaysian people and their way of art.” Everything about this production is first rate, from artist Leanne Koonce’s (water color?) cover illustration of a female Malaysian dancer, to Fischer’s informative program notes and the tonally accurate, warmly satisfying recording that faithfully preserves his loving, nuanced performances. Recommended. Robert Schulslaper

 

Five stars: A delightful selection of Malaysian music for classical guitar

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TALES FROM MALAYSIA: Between Two Worlds ● Nathan Fischer (gtr) ● SOUNDSET SR1114 (48:01)
DUARTE Getaran Jiwa (Variations on a Malaysian Song). Gubahanku (Variations on an Indonesian Song). ALI (arr. Fischer) Salji. CESARCZYK Jong Jong Ihai (Malaysian Traditional Song). TAN HOOI SONG (arr. Tan/Fischer) Exile Is Injury. SAMAD (arr. Fischer) Three Malaysian Popular Songs. ZOHN On A Malaysian Song. FAIZAH Incantation of Ulek Mayang. LINDSEY-CLARK Malaysian Sunrise. Malaysian Landscape. TERBRACK Sia-Sia


    I think it is safe to say that most listeners are unfamiliar with the Malaysian guitar scene. I certainly was naive to it before this CD arrived in my mailbox.
    We owe this worthy project to Nathan Fischer, an American guitarist who at present teaches at the Universiti Teknologi MARA in Kuala Lumpur. According to his bio, his primary area of research is the performance of Malaysian music and the development of a Malaysian national repertory for classical guitar. This is an interest he indirectly came to through his studies, while based in Cairo, of the Egyptian oud. Thus, one might say that, in addition to teaching and playing the guitar, he is an ethnomusicologist. He earned his D.M.A. from Eastman, studied with Oscar Ghiglia, and was a Fulbright Scholar.
    There are a couple of different categories of music on this CD. First, there are those works written by Western composers who experienced Malaysian culture first-hand. John Duarte, for example, was an artist-in-residence at the Classical Guitar Society in Malaysia in 1996. Geteran Jiwa and Gubahanku both were popular songs from an earlier generation. Both works are lovely—the first in particular—and they would be welcome on any recital program. Andrew Zohn and Paul Cesarczyk also visited Malaysia at different points in their career, and composed works that both honored its popular culture and added to its guitar repertory. Also, there are works by Malaysian composers now living abroad (Amirah Ali's Salji, which is a recollection of her first experience with snow, while studying in Illinois) or still active in Malaysia (Sharifah Faizah's Incantation of Ulek Mayang). Another representative of this category is Az Samad's Three Malaysian Popular Songs, which include some of this disc's most attractive moments. A third category includes Tan Hooi Song's Exile Is Injury. The composer, who passed away in 2008, wrote Exile Is Injury for chorus. Here, it is performed in an arrangement by Wann-Dar Tan, revised by Fischer.
    Malaysia is an extremely diverse country, and that diversity is reflected in the music on this CD. I think most listeners, listening blind, would be surprised to learn where it came from. Nevertheless, the emphasis, throughout this CD, is on melody, and the music's moods are gentle and pacific—in both senses of that word! In fact, the word “paradisal” seems not too extreme to describe the impression left by this music.
    Fischer weaves a spell in this intimate recital, and it is not difficult to imagine oneself being caressed by warm island breezes. On the other hand, it would be a shame to be so lulled by the music that one missed the excellence of Fischer's technique and the strength of his musicianship. Young Malaysian guitarists are lucky to have him as a teacher, and I hope that he will continue to bless us with unfamiliar works like these. Raymond Tuttle


 

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TALES FROM MALAYSIA: BETWEEN TWO WORLDS    Nathan Fischer (gtr)    SOUNDSET 1114 (48:01)

DUARTE Getaran Jura, Variations on a Malaysian Song, op. 125. Gubahanku, Variations on an Indonesian Song, op. 124 CESARCZYK Jong Jong Inai ZOHN On a Malaysian Song FAIZAH SYED MOHAMMED Incantation of Ulek Mayang LINDSEY-CLARK Malaysian Sunrise. Malaysian Landscape TERBRACK Sia-Sia T. H. SONG Exile is Injury (arr. W-D. Tan/Fischer) A. ALI Salji SAMAD Three Malaysian Popular Songs (both arr. Fischer)

 

A celebration of different worlds. Not just Malaysia (itself between many worlds geographically), but a meeting of Orient and Occident. John Duarte offers two sets of variations, composed for the 1996 guitar camp of the Classical Guitar Society of Malaysia. The first, on a popular song from 1960, Getaran Jura (Vibrations of the Soul) which was featured in a film whose subject focused on what happens between castes. A sort of Malaysian Romeo and Juliet, the haunting song is subject to imaginative variations; the work is beautifully written and superbly performed here by Nathan Fischer. The other set draws on an Indonesian popular song. Like Suarte’s other set, this one has theme, four variations and finale; in this latter case, the finale is infused with gamelan-inspired sonorities.

The beautifully interior On a Malaysian Song by Andrew Zohn was written for the same reason, but for the 2015 camp; Fischer’s controlled “fade” at the end is a thing of wonder.

The use of Malaysian and, later in the recital, Indonesian melodies works superbly well. Paul Cesarczyk’s one-minute take on a traditional Malaysian song, Jong Jong Inai (Let’s go, let’s go, Henna) is delightful.

The lovely story of Salji (Snow) concerns the composer Amirah Ali and how her first experience of the white stuff was as a graduate student at Northern Illinois University. It is a tranquil, restive piece; Ali captures well the sense of comfort and security snow can bring, and its otherworldliness.

Originally for choir and arranged here by Wann-Dar Tan, the elusive Exile is Injury includes tasteful, rhythmic knockings on the instrument. Three haunting popular songs by Az Samad, a well-known name in Kuala Lumpur; Fischer’s rhythmic sense is impeccable, giving the music a sort of restrained buoyancy until the final number, where the music seems to take wing like a freed bird.

The first Malaysian woman to compose a concert work for the classical guitar, Sharifah Faizah Syed Mohammed’s Incantation of Ulek Mayang tells of a fairy tale in which ritual song and dance is used to celebrate local spirits.  A short piece, it weaves its tale concisely, using the sparest of textures to conjure up a time of magic. It is one of the glories of this disc.

Two pieces inspired by natural Malaysian phenomena, a sunrise and a landscape, inspire the British guitar composer Vincent Lindsey-Clark, both skillfully drawn. The Kuala Lumpur jazz scene brings Sia-Sia (Wasted Love) by Patrick Ternrack, mellow and laid back.

There are several references to songs from films of this region; one wonders if there is a sort of Malaysian/Indonesian Bollywood thing going on? A kind of Miollywood, perhaps?

Recommended; beautifully recorded tranquil music for troubled times, superbly performed.

 Colin Clarke

 

Five stars: Recommended: beautifully recorded tranquil music for troubled times, superbly performed

CD HOTLIST

Nathan Fischer

Tales from Malaysia: Between Two Worlds

Soundset

SR1114

Classical guitarist Nathan Fischer lived in Malaysia for six year, and during that time found himself fascinated by the cultural melting-pot it represented, thanks to its location at the crossroads of multiple Asian countries. He began investigating guitar music based on or inspired by Malaysian melodies, and his research led to this, the first ever Malaysian-themed album of classical guitar music.  It features works by such regional composers as Sharifah Fiath (the first Malaysian woman to compose a concert piece for classical guitar) and Tan Hooi Song, alongside others by Western composers like Paul Cesercyk and the great John Duarte.  The pieces range widely in style, from classical to folk-inflected to jazzy, and Fischer handles all of the shifts with grace, emotional insight, and deceptive ease.  This is a brilliant album of unique repertoire.

SOUNDBOARD

Fischer, Nathan. Tales from Malaysia [:] Between Two Worlds. Works by Duarte, Ali, Cesarczyk, Zohn, et al. Soundset Recordings SR1114, 2019.

 

The vibrant guitar scenes of China, Japan, and a number of other Asian nations are well known. Their composers and performers are increasingly flourishing in the musical world. But the guitar in Malaysia is an unknown for most of us. Nathan Fischer’s fine new recording will help dispel this relative ignorance. John Duarte was an early cultural ambassador to the area, and two of his later works begin and end this program. Both Getaran Jiwa, Variations on a Malaysian Song, Op. 125, and Gubahanku, Variations on an Indonesian Song, Op. 124, are fruits of that cultural collaboration. Each begins with a beautiful song and gets the inventive figural variation treatment of which the composer was such a master. 

 

And a few other familiar names appear among the composers, including Andrew Zohn and Vincent Lindsey-Clark, but still other names evoke the unfamiliar and exotic. Amirah Ali, for example, is a Malaysian composer and singer. Her beautiful work Salji (Snow) was her reaction to seeing snow for the first time as a graduate student in the United States. Many of the pieces have fascinating stories behind them. All told, Tales from Malaysia is a treasure trove of interesting and unfamiliar works. 

 

Fischer is a fine player who has strong identification with the material. His liner notes are exemplary. The recorded sound, while never impairing the enjoyment of the music, is peculiar. It often sounds like a pianist who keeps the sustain pedal down constantly. The recording and mastering were done by D. James Tagg, who is a published author on the subject of post-production sound manipulation. I would have preferred a more natural sound to begin with, but you get used to it.

–Al Kunze ​

© 2020 Nathan Fischer