PLANTING THE SEEDS OF MUSIC TECHNOLOGY IN BORNEO

(Journal SEAMUS, Vol 13, #1, April '98, pp4-7)

by Priscilla McLean

When I began creating electronic music twenty five years ago, I never imagined that it would lead to one of the most fascinating experiences of my life -- that of being invited and financed by a Muslim country in Southeast Asia to journey into its vast interior, research and record music of its indigenous peoples, and involve the very latest in digital technology (which we would have to set up from scratch) while creating a world music- electronic hands-on audience experience which integrates the sounds of Borneo with our own compositional approaches. Think about it -- how often does an experience like this happen, and in one of the most remote corners of the world??!

How remote from Western music technology and compositonal awareness is Malaysia, a remoteness even harder to understand in a world (Southeast Asia) where two major international composition conferences had taken place within a few months of one another in 1996-7--that of the Hong Kong ICMC, and the Asian Composers League International Conference, "Tunugun" in Manila. Having performed in the latter a month later, and having met very sophisticated "western" trained Asian composers in abundance at Tunugun from Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, and the Philippines, we noted that the only listed Malaysian composer on the program (who never showed up) was in fact not a composer at all (we knew him).

In fact, as far as I could see, we were the first composers working in Malaysia who could be considered in the bona fide western classical tradition we all take for granted elsewhere, and also the first to set up a digital computer studio at a university there. In fact, before our arrival, awareness in Malaysia of music technology was only of the commercial kind, as it applies to television, radio and commercial production. This is true in general of the "classical" western music tradition, which is only now beginning to gain a small foothold in what otherwise amounts to a rich, firmly-established traditional and tribal musical culture, and the much more recent invasion of commercial music.

The opportunity for our 3-month visit came about because of Hasnul Jamal Saidon, our video artist friend with whom we had collaborated to produce our "Rainforest Images" video (with us providing the raw footage of the Peruvian Amazon and him creating an art video with all the techniques available at the Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute's IEAR Studios in Troy, New York back in 1993). Hasnul returned to Malaysia soon after, and was invited to join the Faculty of Applied and Creative Arts at the two-year-old only university in the state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo in 1995. This is truly a remote location, perched inside the jungle near Kuching, a burgeoning riverfront city with a population mainly of native tribes and emigrated Chinese, Kuching being like a cross between the gruff Alaskan towns of old and Saigon!

Borneo is about half the size of the U.S., and Sarawak about the size of New York State. Over 70% of Sarawak is still rainforest, with no roads running from one end to the other, and wild rivers where people travel basically by boat. Before the disastrous year of 1997, Malaysia had a booming economy, and the Prime Minister had promised to provide electricity, mass education, and good housing for everyone in the country, and as fast as possible. To accomplish this, the government was funding graduate education in the U.S. and around the world to scores of its college students, and hiring the world to come and educate the Malaysians. With Hasnul's and his musician colleague, Mohammad Fadzil Abdul Rahman's indefatigable efforts to secure funding for our joint project, the university hired us to research the music and to set up the new electronic music studio at the Universitii Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS), the first such university studio in Malaysia.

We were very happy to oblige, and Bart flew to Kuching in September 1996, with myself following three weeks later. Imagine entering a complex of dark brown wooden houses on stilts, surrounded by deep concrete ditches and thick grass, bordered by inpenetrable swamp jungle on all sides. Everywhere there are small dark young people, some in shirts and blue jeans, some in full Moslem robes and scarves, gaily gesticulating and talking in Bahasa, while an ancient Islamic "call to prayer" loudly wafts through the campus five times a day via loudspeakers (which happened to be approximately 50 feet from our guest house window). A short distance from this, you enter a one-story building, turn a corner and encounter four rooms bulging with the latest Silicon Graphics workstations (dozens of them), servers, thermal wax printers, Power Mac computers, and digital audio, all recently installed.

All over Southeast Asia, one is confronted with this dichotomy of high technology structures existing in parallel universes with the traditional culture. At UNIMAS, where a whole university technology curriculum and culture was being created in front of our eyes as we both observed and innovated, some truisims manifested themselves. For instance, the idea of cultural leapfrogging was extremely prevalent. This can be observed in its starkest form in the Music Department, which was organized (why, I can't understand, with the wonderfully rich traditional music so much more important to their culture) roughly along US western lines, with the classical theory-history core, orchestra core ensemble, studio major instrument/voice teaching, etc. Now, it can be stated that in western countries much of the cultural awareness necessary for classical music training can be taken for granted. But in Malaysia, as in many other Asian countries,the idea of "classical" music is practically nonexistent in the culture. Malaysian music is for religious, dance, festive, and other tribal functions. The closest thing to the classical tradition would be more abstract and purified (and hauntingly beautiful, I might add) forms of the above.

And so, the music program there, centered (unfortunately) around western classical music, was in an understandably primitive state, except for its innovative dance department which featured the fascinating native dances mixed with contemporary styles. On the other hand, right next door was this new digital music and video facility. The new digital music studio faculty member, who came fresh from studies at the University of York, England to take over as we were leaving, will soon be teaching his first course there in "C" programming. The same general comments may be made of the Graphic Arts Department, which, under Hasnul's direction, has students producing computer graphic images that are stunningly sophisticated. And so all through the culture, this concept of leapfrogging has manifest itself in unforeseen ways.

Much of the equipment for the new digital studio was designed around the criteria of a basic digital recording/production studio. The rest came c. one week later after Bart met with the financial officers who promptly and almost magically produced a resulting $100,000 plus budget for the studio! To understand how this can happen, remember that in Malaysia, the universities are in a very real sense an arm of the government, just as much of the press and other institutions are. These government institutions are all-powerful in the country, and all you need to do, in relating to any entity there, is to let them know that you are part of UNIMAS, and magic doors open, as for example when we announced that we would like to visit the Sarawak Cultural Village, a simulated "village" of authentic tribal habitats. Upon arrival, we were met by the director, who personally escorted us on a day-long tour, complete with meals in his private dining room.

The digital studio itself contained the latest Power MacIntosh computer, a Digidesign Pro Tools III System and Digidesign 1/0 888 Rack of sixteen channels of digital audio, a Yamaha 02R Digital Recording Console, Opcode Studio 5 interface, and a Roland digital synthesizer, along with some J.L Cooper and other peripherals, with standard JBL monitors. The software contained the Studio Vision Pro audio/sequencer system, and a new device that proved to be incredibly invaluable, the Digidesign DINR noise reduction system, to clean up our field work sounds. How were we able to get all of this together and up and running so quickly (one day, actually)? Because it was wisely decided by common agreement that the basis of the hardware and software core choices would be in its availability through the commercial music industry, already available through a supplier in Kuala Lumpur.

This wierd juxtaposition of modern technology -- we had state-of-the-art air-conditioners in our private guesthouse -- with ancient social practice and raw jungle is a condition of most of the remote areas of Asia today. Just when we were busy working in our new studio, all the lights would go out and the air-conditioning shut down, and this would happen several times a day, prompting the need for very heavy AC power conditioning devices. The veneer of the modern age is very fragile here!

The first order of business on our project was field recording. We brought our recording equipment with us, our Denon portable DAT recorder (a marvelous jungle device), a sampler, a Sony 8mm camcorder and an auto-focus Olympic 35 mm slide camera. We were joined in our several expeditions by Hasnul Saidon and Fadzil Rahman. I must add here that the university staff and administration were incredibly kind and helpful to us, and bent over backwards to help us out. The first obstacle I discovered was the reluctance of anyone to sing either an Islamic tune or a native melody for us, or to supply us with any native music that had been taped by the many researchers there. The one exception was a young male virtuoso invited to record for us by Fadzil. Minggu played native melodies on the sape, which is a Kenyah tribal lutelike three-stringed instrument of great beauty, sounding somewhat like a banjo.

We approached recording from several viewpoints. At dawn we could be found at the edge of the jungle recording birds before the staff motorbikes started up, which gave us usually about ten minutes, since everyone in the whole country arises at 5:30 AM for prayers. Our best experience for nature recording came at dusk in the lowland dipterocarp forest of Kubah National Park, on the side of a mountain. Here is an excerpt from my diary:

"We recorded a couple of duetting birds in the twilight, while I picked off another leech that fell on me from the trees, and waited for more birds. It was very hot and sultry tonight. We could hear something strangely eerie approaching us, a six-note melody, first note like a grace note, then a long tone, then four on the same pitch, all the (?) creatures singing in unison. It sounded like an ethereal choir of ghostly voices, steadily "marching" toward us! Soon we were surrounded in the total night blackness, and the (later identified) cicadas were on every tree, chorusing off of each other, now deafoningly loud and shrill, all still singing in unison! It was pure Xenakis! These were joined gradually by two other distinct melodies, until we were in the midst of a mountain cicada orchestra, experiencing an other-worldly non-human symphony never heard by anyone else, which went on for half an hour! Indeed, the next day the cicadas were not singing in unison, anymore or ever again. "

This was one of the most profound listening experiences of our lives, akin to hearing the Beethoven "Ninth Symphony", or perhaps Xenakis's "Orient-Occident." Yes, not all great music is by humans.... And I still marvel as I listen to those "recordings of a lifetime" now safely stored in our DAT collection, and integrated into our new "Jambori Rimba" installation.

Bart managed to videotape and record on the DAT a native ensemble from northern peninsular Malaysia (which lies just south of Thailand), several groups of which had come over to perform for a contest of Bergendang music at UNIMAS. This was held in front of the chancellory, on the grounds, the audience sitting on the grass. Two elderly Muslim women would sing in shrill high voices a microtonal melody in unison, while a man played on the violin a tune in a completely different harmony and style, with vibrato added as a decoration, a more western tune reminescent of Scottish bagpipe music. A male performer on conga-like drums kept up a steady rhythmic pattern, while a very strange dance between two Islamic men ensued, much like a cross between face-to-face Scottish Highland dancing and a boxing match in slow motion! Later I learned that this folk dance stems from ancient combat positions.

Our most adventurous journey was by longboat to a remote longhouse on the Ulu Ai (river), five hours by car from Kuching and then two hours by motorized longboat. Here the four of us plus one of the tribal women who worked at the university spent four days with the Iban former-headhunter tribe. Hasnul recorded video while Bart did sound recording, and I took slides of the jungle, the four hundred years old longhouse society (no one has ever moved away from this stretch of the river in 400 years!), and another fascinating dance, an ancient welcoming dance with three people performing on metal gamelan gongs and large wooden/skin warning drum.

This is a welcome ceremony for visitors in a large back room of the longhouse, performed by gaslight at night. Several people in one family, dressed in Bali-like glittering sequined costumes and bare feet gracefully dance in slow motion, one at a time, dancing an ancient story, slightly reminiscent of Hawaiian hula, but very solemnly, while the audience drinks their homemade raw sour wine, and the children sit all at one end, entranced, watching their farmer/fishermen parents and siblings dance in this highly sophisticated style. The Ibans originally migrated to Sarawak from Java and Cambodia, and are the "newcomers", compared with the ancient Malays who live in the cities. The music has no beginning or end, and has a sameness, timeless quality.

Meanwhile, back in the studio, Bart matched the underlying harmony of all the tapes, including the cicadas and birdsongs, discovering to our amazement that all overlayed and matched harmonically, with no alteration of pitch needed at all! It was as if the whole jungle is singing in symbiosis with itself, animals and people, or as if the people had absorbed the sounds for so long that their traditional music is naturally in tune with it (oh fast changing, though, with western "pollution" arriving....). When assembled, we were struck by how "electronic" the sounds were, and how totally unlike anything else we had ever heard.

So it was not difficult to produce an underlying base melodic/harmonic music drone on the Roland digital synthesizers to blend it all together, which Bart did in the two weeks during the semester break in November (they have four semesters a year). During the last week of quietude before the return of the students, I created two disks of samples of Borneo birdsong on our sampler and arranged four channels of native songs and dances (others were recorded besides the ones previously described), while Bart assembled, with my help, the music tape of nature and synthesizer. This normally would take months, but we just stayed up (almost) all night for a week until it was done! Hyper-life!! The actual installation, "Jambori Rimba," is described elsewhere in this issue.

You arrive in one of the strangest countries you have ever seen. You are granted a position with salaries for yourself and your spouse. You meet with the warm, helpful people, who are happy to escort you everywhere you wish to go to explore and work. You make requests and preparations and in a week, a complete digital music studio awaits you. You undertake a creative project, which is met with enthusiasm by the whole community, which offers you every support. You are escorted via university vans, trucks, longboats, motorboats, to far reaches of the interior. Your every need is provided for. Everywhere you go to undertake your recording and documentation you are expected and supported in every way that can be done. You return to the university and are given total use of the studio to finish creating your project. The project is then produced as a final day of celebration, with enthusiastic attendance. The next day, just before leaving, you are given a lunch in your honor, where the whole Faculty and staff of Applied and Creative Arts awaits you and bids farewell. You are asked to give a little speech. Your eyes water as you look among the rows of friends with whom you have worked so intensely for the past three months. You somehow manage to stumble a few words of thanks. Upon leaving the island of Borneo to the mainland, you are treated to a 10-day field trip including a visit with Hasnul's Muslim family, to complete your field trip requirements of the grant. During your stay with the family, you turn on the television and find your creative project, "Jambori RImba," featured in a Radiotelevision Malaysia 1 national broadcast. The many children in the house hardly notice their famous uncle (Hasnul) on television. They are more concerned with important matters, such as some new dresses the relatives have brought for them. You finally depart, in a car trip through the whole of peninsular Malaysia, through Singapore, to the airport. The long trip home, which only three months ago seemed like an eternity, now hardly seems like anything at all. In fact, during the 36 hour journey you have hardly had time to reflect back on the time-altering experience.

It is good to know that, somewhere, in a very special place far from anywhere we would deem important, a personal, artistic, and creative experience of a lifetime may await you, perhaps at a time when you least expect it. Whenever I need to reinforce the belief that this dream really happened, I gaze toward the cupboard in our diningroom, which contains a Dragon Dog bowl purchased in Kuching. Underneath is an intricately and beautifully woven cloth, woven by a woman from the interior Borneo Iban tribe. Beneath that, on a simple, unassuming embossed white card, is the inscription, "To Dr. and Mrs. Barton, from their friends at UNIMAS."

C 1998 Priscilla McLean


Permission for copying and use in normal university class work granted.

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