25 Jan 2014

Of superheroes, tempoyak and singing in the shower

Kelantan-born composer Ainolnaim Azizol finds a good long shower whets his imagination for contemporary classical music.

The exhilaration of water splashing on one’s face, the fragrance of soap rising with the steam, the utter freedom of being unclothed, the intimate privacy - there’s something about taking a shower that makes one just want to break out in song. In the case of young Kelantan born composer Ainolnaim Azizol, bathtime inspires not his big break on Akademi Fantasia, but something more sublime.

The 26-year-old took the express lane from gamelan to experimental western music in record time, and in May won a shared third prize in the Eight Bridges new music festival in Cologne, Germany. His work Badang!!!! for string quartet and electronics rubbed shoulders with his two co-winners Jesse Broekman (Holland) and Sophie Pope (UK), a decision arrived at because the jury wanted more from the electronics aspect of the compositions.

It is nevertheless an outstanding achievement for the Kuantan resident who shuttles to Shah Alam to teach music part time at UiTM. In an email interview, Ainolnaim lets in on the secrets of his craft.

“Most of my moments of inspiration come during taking my hot shower; I close my eyes, breathe slowly, hold myself, and I start to focus deeply and sharpen my hearing. Because of the good reverberations in the bathroom, I can hear sounds very well.

“And to feel the hot water running and dripping from my head all over my body, the details of my breath - the experience is almost meditative for me. I can spend 30 to 45 minutes in the shower and sometimes, I even get out in the middle of a shower just to notate and record down the ideas that pop into my mind,” he said.

Badang!!!! is the fourth in his series of works based on a superhero character from ancient Malay folklore that he used to watch as a kid, revealing the child in the composer. And playfully, his pieces are distinguished by the number of exclamation marks.
“Most of my inspiration derives from my childhood experiences. When I was a little boy, I was fascinated with superheroes, science fiction, legends, such as Ultraman, Spiderman, The Hulk, The Transformers, Star Trek, Star Wars and so on, from comics, films, books,” he said.

He draws on the imagination of youth to shape his musical sound world, that with modern music offers plenty of possibilities especially with the introduction of electronic processing to expand the instrumental sound palette. He also keenly observes how things work and move, and studies human behaviour and nature as sources of input.

For Badang!!!! his raw materials included the DNA helix and XY chromosome shapes, that in a number of different ways shaped his imaginative score, from their visual geometry to the aural translations of the various DNA proteins.

The character Badang, like The Hulk, mutates and grows in size and strength, and in the mind of this mad-scientist composer, is linked to the genes, hence the musical exploration of genetic science. Not exactly how Beethoven would have done it, yet it’s fascinating how molecular physics could inspire a piece for string quartet.

However, Ainolnaim admits the idea for the Badang series came from more casual beginnings, from watching a movie.

“The whole idea started when I was assigned by my lecturer to compose a piece that for a workshop by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG). I was inspired when watching the movie The Hulk on my laptop, and later the word Badang popped up in my head while having my hot shower.

“So I used the Badang story as my subject for the BCMG piece and titled it Badang! (which is Badang 1). My lecturer and tutor liked the sound of the title, so I decided to use some of the materials for my future work series Badang!!, Badang!!!, Badang!!!! and so on.”

Badang, he explained, is a “male protagonist with unusual strength, possessed from a demon or jinn, and who took it for granted”. This folk aspect of Ainolnaim’s string quartet work draws from Asian musical forms, that he said includes “a hidden Javanese gamelan scale, a Kelantan wayang kulit scale played by the serunai, a bit of Indian raga and a twist of Chinese opera sound gestures”.

You will probably not pick up these elements at first hearing, as Badang!!!! is no trip through the park and requires you to close your eyes and let your imagination run loose. Then you may hear the humour in the initially daunting score, the constant drama, the myriad of gestures, the movements, that are distinctly local in flavour. [Soundfile: Recording of Badang from the Cologne festival]

Growing up largely in the coastal city of Kuantan, Ainolnaim started in music like most others, playing on the piano. He studied piano performance at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, and also learned gamelan composition and performance. He even joined the USM Chinese orchestra and learned to play the pipa “just for fun” and out of curiosity, and dabbled in jazz and pop.

It was in this richly varied atmosphere that his musical instincts began to mutate, finding the rigidity of the well-tempered klavier a bit too manicured for his taste. “I don’t like to play the piano any more, because I feel that it’s too mundane - we are not allowed to interpret a composers’ works ‘wrongly’. So I decided to become a composer, to write music according to my own interpretation,” he said. This led him to obtain his Masters in music composition and music technology at the Birmingham Conservatoire in the UK.

“I started to explore more musical styles and my curiosity in music, especially with contemporary classical was intensified. I started to question, what is music? I was fascinated with contemporary classical concepts and ideas, especially in notation and sound colour. When I listen to contemporary classical music, I feel that it challenges both my imagination and thoughts.”

While admitting he likes pop music as well, as a source of “comfort and musical healing for my soul”, new music has opened up a world of adventure and expression for the young artist.

“I like to do something that is different from others, so I decided to challenge myself and go further into contemporary classical composition, as a way to express my own identity or roots, and I decided to use local traditional music element as a canvas for my music creation and to expand existing musical ideas,” he said.

With Badang!!!! he has arrived from more tonal beginnings, to an assured sense of freedom in using non-tonal aspects of music, such as texture, timbres, rhythms, space and gestures. Notes and harmonies are for him just starting blocks to build his piece.

I want the listeners to visually imagine the shape and texture of the sounds,” he said.

“I like to fuse musical and non‑musical aspects of traditional local elements with western elements - instrumentation, concepts, playing techniques, texts - which drive me to explore the possibilities of new musical voices.

“The starting point and ending of the sound gestures are very important for my music. I usually do a time frame sketch, and plan the sub-contents of the musical material so that I don’t lose the gravity of my soundworld,” he said. And while you would not find joget or masri rhythms in his work, they may have contributed to his finished piece, as he enjoys playing around with ideas derived from such traditions and “twisting the elements like a puzzle”.

Studying music in Birmingham probably influences his musical language today, the cutting edge style that you find in his music even though he clearly loves his roots dearly, such as in his earlier ‘Naga Seri Gumum for’ slenthem, gender and live electronics  or his ‘Wayang Kulit 7' for voices.

“The musical environment in UK really fascinated me, and made me more curious about contemporary classical music. It drove me to explore more and be open to the possibilities of new music,” he said, describing how a whole new world of sound was opened to him with the buffet of music scores, CDs, journals and research on contemporary music that was laid out before him.

“There, I found what I was looking for, and it changed my understanding about music and its definition; changed the way I notate, write, listen and perform music. Over there, they provided many platforms for the composer to present their pieces. I had the chance to work with ensembles openly, to communicate with musicians and promote my music. It is unlike in Malaysia, where there is not much resources and platforms for young composers to go into this kind of music, that are openly offered especially by professional music organisations.”

Coming home from this haven, Ainolnaim was faced with a culture and market that is resistant to his sonic adventures and which preferred music that one could “consume” rather than “challenge their thoughts and senses”. This, he said, could only be changed through the education system such as which he partook in UK, where composition was taught to young kids as part of the government’s curriculum.

“I think music composition is for everyone, regardless their age, gender, race or their knowledge of music theory. Music consumers can appreciate new music better if they know how the music is born,” he said.

He recalled how he once read a local critic on Youtube blasting the jazzing up of a gamelan piece by the RTM Combo Orchestra. “The critic said the result of listening to the music was like eating belacan with a burger, which idiomatically was trying to express that it tasted bad and was not suitable.

“To me, the piece sounds fine and interesting. It really depends on who is listening and what their musical culture is. Personally, I like to experiment with my food ingredients… for example I have wondered if Chicken McNuggets would taste good with sambal tempoyak (fermented durian) sauce. I’ve tried it before, but maybe it would not taste good for people who don’t like tempoyak.

The B Side October 2012
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