Malaysian-born UK-based pianist explores new musical horizons in homecoming show

'At Far East Sounds, I hope the audience will be transported to a different realm, one that is wild and exciting, but at the same time comforting and familiar,' says pianist Foo Mei Yi, who be presenting 'Far East Sounds' in collaboration with soundscape project Gema Bumi at PJPAC on July 6. Photo: Peter FISCHLI

For one night only at the Nero Event Space at Petaling Jaya Performing Arts Centre (PJPAC) on July 6, audiences can immerse themselves in the sounds of South-East Asia, with a contemporary classical backdrop.

Far East Sounds, presented by Britain-based Malaysian pianist Foo Mei Yi in collaboration with Gema Bumi, offers a performance merging music soundscapes and multimedia elements.

“This concert, the first of its kind, features works that meld the distinctly different musical languages and cultures of East and West, especially the sound world of the gamelan. These works are written for both Western (piano, strings) and Eastern (suling, drums, rice bowls) instruments.

"There will be an interactive video installation onstage, projecting the richness and biodiverse sounds from the natural landscape of South-East Asia,” says Foo, who was born in Seremban.

The upcoming concert at PJPAC will present works by international classical musicians and composers such as Jack Body, Unsuk Chin, Dai Fujikura, Lou Harrison, Wayan Yudane and Evan Ziporyn.

Other performers/composers include Yii Kah Hoe and Tan Su Yin.

Expect some group improvisation as well, in response to the surrounding soundscape.

Gema Bumi is a project led by Yii, together with director William Kok, to record and document the sounds of nature.

“The video installation plays an equal role with the performers on stage prompting musical dialogues, and draws the audience into a realm filled with wild resonances,” adds Foo, who currently holds a teaching position at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, Wales.

The concept of Far East Sounds was constructed during the pandemic. Before the lockdown, Foo had been studying the gamelan and its complex interplay as a new challenge.

When performances came to a halt during the pandemic, she found time and space to delve into the sound world of the Balinese gamelan and the different rhythmic musical languages from this part of the world.

The 42-year-old pianist and music academic, who has been living in Britain since the mid-1990s, received her musical training at the Royal College and Royal Academy of Music in London.

She has performed with the major orchestras across Britain, Europe and Asia and at the big festivals (including the Ultraschall Festival Berlin to the Punkt Festival in Norway).

“This was quite a shift from my usual repertoire of Bach, Beethoven or Brahms. Around the same time, Yii Kah Hoe, the esteemed composer from Malaysia, started publishing on YouTube some wonderful soundscape he recorded, consisting of bird songs, macaques squeaking, sea waves splashing, rain falling, elephants trumpeting and so on.

"I found them so touching and knew immediately this was a calling. I saw the potential in combining the body of works I collated, all inspired by the Far East, with Kah Hoe’s recorded materials. So Far East Sounds is an amalgamation of our artistic creation, and the creation of the greatest artist of all – mother nature,” shares Foo.

In Malaysia, her last live performances were with the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra (pre-lockdown in early March 2020) and the Free Hand festival 2019 in KL. She has also performed with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra on numerous occasions through the years.

No doubt, Foo is looking forward to performing live on home ground once again.

“In the performing arts, audiences are as important as the art itself. Therefore, as much as I enjoyed developing new ideas and art forms during the lockdown, I am excited to welcome the energy and exchanges with live audiences again, not least on home ground where it will no doubt feel like a celebration!

"At Far East Sounds, I hope the audience will be transported to a different realm, one that is wild and exciting, but at the same time comforting and familiar. I hope that the music, whether from the East or West, from the rainforest or the Alps, will resonate with everyone who comes to join us on this unique journey,” she says.

In Britain, Foo's classical music career has seen her win numerous prizes, including the 2013 BBC Music Magazine’s Best Newcomer of the Year award for her debut album Musical Toys. In 2017, she released the well-received ConNotations album, with Britten Sinfonia, which contained the works of Shostakovich, Berg and Saint-Saens.

Far East Sounds is on at PJPAC on July 6 at 8pm. More info here.

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