Journey through Malaysian art songs in 'Merdu Puisi'

Khairunnisa Diyana Md Noor, a soprano and lecturer at UiTM's Conservatory of Music, is part of the 'Merdu Puisi' in Kuala Lumpur on March 2. Photo: See Li

The melodic beauty of Bahasa Malaysia poetry, accompanied by the resonating notes of the piano, will be in the spotlight in Merdu Puisi, the inaugural song recital from The Poetics Collective.

The group, which dedicates itself to the promotion and performance of art songs, is a newly formed off-shoot of VerSeS, a Petaling Jaya-based collective of musicians established in 2002.

Merdu Puisi is set to take place at the Malaysian Institute of Art in Kuala Lumpur on March 2.

So what, you may ask, are art songs?

“Art songs are solo vocal compositions that set poetry to music and are a tradition well established in many Romance and Germanic languages,” explains Scott Woo, the programme director.

“The art song of each language reflects the distinct style, character and cultural heritage of the language,” he adds, citing examples such as the German Lieder, the French Mélodie and the Mandarin Ge, among others.

Aimed at promoting the art song genre among Malaysians and fostering a deeper appreciation of Bahasa Malaysia, Merdu Puisi will feature the work of poets, such as the late National Laureate Usman Awang and other living Malaysian poets, set to music by composers, including Tazul Tajuddin, Marzelan Salleh, Yusran Yusuff, Alia Farahin and Alwagera.

The intimate show will be held for one night only at the Malaysian Institute of Art’s Dang Wangi campus, performed by soprano Khairunnisa Diyana Md Noor, a lecturer at the Conservatory of Music under Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), and pianist Tengku Mohamad Hadif, who is also a pianist for the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.

A selection of "lagu rakyat" (folk songs) arranged in the classical music style will be included, such as Ala Canggung, Anak Odeng and Lompat, Si Katak Lompat, offering a contrast – and some nostalgia – for the audience.

Tengku Mohamad Hadif, a pianist with the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. Photo: HandoutTengku Mohamad Hadif, a pianist with the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. Photo: Handout

“If you’ve never attended an art song recital before, there’s no better place to start than with Merdu Puisi – most of the composers will be in attendance at the show, so it will be a great opportunity to ask questions and gain insights directly from the composers themselves,” says Woo.

Bringing poems to life

According to Woo, a key part of the process in composing an art song is choosing a poem.

“For me, the first thing is to find a poem that speaks to you – be it of faith, of love, of conviction or of a personal experience, this sets up the narrative which then drives the melody to be composed. A composer may then take a literal approach in the music setting that aligns with the text to provide both emphasis and drama, like in Schubert’s setting of Göthe’s poem Erlkönig, where one can’t miss the motive of the galloping horse and urgency of the drama as it unfolds in the poem.

“Other times, it can be less literal, but more atmospheric, focusing on creating a vibe that suits the poem or adding in layers and undertones that goes beyond the text superficially,” he says.

The intimate relationship between the music and the poem, however, makes it so that both are just as important in the composition.

Scott Woo, Programme Director for The Poetics Collective, which is part of VerSeS, a Malaysian collective of musicians. Photo: HandoutScott Woo, Programme Director for The Poetics Collective, which is part of VerSeS, a Malaysian collective of musicians. Photo: Handout

“For this recital, the pianist is actually on similar footing and importance as the singer, in that they also deliver the composers’ intent and aid in adding a dimension of expression beyond just a supporting role for the singer, who carries the text,” he adds.

'Malaysian art songs'

Malaysian art songs, particularly those in Bahasa Malaysia, are a relatively new variant of art songs.

“That’s why the Poetics Collective was set up – to spearhead our very own Malay art songs, which is still in its infancy,” says Woo.

“It is expected of classical singers to learn and perform art songs in foreign languages as part of our training, as well as a requirement or a category of its own in competitions and festivals. So we think it is high time we put in more effort to popularise our own linguistic heritage in the form of Malay art songs – by Malaysians for Malaysians.”

Woo adds that as art songs are often in a foreign language, it tends to have its share of challenges, such as finding a reliable translation, studying the nuances of the language and social norms during the times of the poem and music composition, as well as learning proper diction of the languages.

“For Merdu Puisi, however, as the poems are in Bahasa Malaysia, it is a wonderful opportunity for Malaysian performers and audience alike to gain an even more personal take on the poems and music.”

The Poetics Collective, supported by VerSeS Friends, have two more art song recitals planned for this year: a selection of art songs in multiple languages in April and a full German Liederabend in August.

Merdu Puisi will take place at the Malaysian Institute of Art, Dang Wangi, Kuala Lumpur on March 2. Showtime: 8pm. More info here.

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