Kuala Lumpur: The Allure of Not Knowing

 photo by Mohd kamarulzaman taib 

photo by Mohd kamarulzaman taib 

by Andy Teirstein

If, as Carl Jung suggested, there is a collective unconscious shared among our species, then the yearning for travel to foreign countries leads us in the direction of self-revelation, a way of unveiling aspects of the collective landscape that are, deliciously, still unexplored. What is mysterious is also seductive. And since mystery involves the as-yet-unknown, it follows that a gap in knowledge is an essential ingredient in wanderlust. We carry our ignorance with us when we travel, because we wouldn't leave home without it. And how deep and variegated it can be, this essential not-knowing that we bring.

When I first arrived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I saw everything through a veil woven from the romantic sea tales of Melville and Conrad, the exotic jungle island paintings of Rousseau, and a noxious, scalding fog of phobias (xeno and Islamo). Seeing women in hijab head-coverings sitting at a restaurant table on the street, bringing food to their lips with their hands, I wanted to draw my phone from my pocket to take a picture. If we could map our own ignorance, with its endless teasing alleyways, where would we begin?

I had been invited to Malaysia by the new creative team “Asia Duo,” to teach a ten-day workshop on music composition at the Aswara Academy of Music and Dance. I arrived with a plan for each day, broken into morning and afternoon sessions, which I described to one of my hosts, Cekem, over a rice and vegetable dinner. With a kind and solicitous smile, he expressed his hope that the language barrier would not be a problem. On the first morning I discovered that the participants were mostly faculty at the school, including a music composition teacher, Isabella Pek, who offered to help translate. I went around the room by way of introduction, and to assess the musical caliber of the class. There were practitioners of different genres of the Malaysian performing arts spectrum, most of whom could not read music—experts in shadow puppetry, folk theater, and gamelan. A couple of them danced as well.  They also represented a variety of Malaysia’s many ethnic traditions.

I tried to orient myself in this landscape marked by cultural compass points. Even though my own music is informed by experience in traditional folk and popular realms, I found myself choosing to identify with European practice, and launched into an overview of the rudiments of Western music. It was like slipping into a comfortable shirt, my new role as the representative of the developed nations, emissary of the New World, as easy as pouring ketchup. I drew a music staff on the board; spoke of duple and triple, piano and forte, the power of tempo change, vertical and horizontal sound. I smiled and they smiled back.

At the break, Isabella pulled me aside. "I don't think you realize who these people are," she said in a helpful but challenging tone. "You have masters here. These are the great teachers of our musical arts." She urged me to go deeper, to talk about specific composers, about people like Stravinsky.

With this in mind, I broke out my laptop, found my New York class materials, and presented a Prezi lecture on modernism and music. I discussed the influence of the gamelan at the Paris World exhibition on Debussy's creative practice, and the breadth of Bartok's field work with what he called “peasant music.” But by the end of the day the reality was hitting me: I was losing them. They were there, watching politely, taking in the translation, but they were increasingly adrift. That evening, in my room, I was beginning to panic. How could I sustain a workshop of ten six-hour sessions in this environment? What, if anything, could I offer this group?

On the second afternoon, I was approached by an older gentleman, an ethnomusicologist named Mustapha Nik Mohd Salleh, who spoke softly and with such broken English that I could barely follow his thoughts. He was holding a wrinkled paper in his hand, and reading choice lines to me with a gleaming eye. I began to catch phrases; it was a reprint from my own CD insert. He was picking up on the influence of different cultures that can act as a creative catalyst. Professor Mustapha was indicating to me that this was an important concept that I had to bring to the students. Sometimes it takes a little old man to turn a table.

The next day we started again around the circle, but this time I asked each participant about his or her own work. I spent the day listening to them describe their musical practices, and enjoyed their proud demonstrations, in round robin, of their instruments. In this way, we moved from the posturing of words into a purely musical conversation. I was introduced to mayoun singing, to the ringing of caklempong (a set of gongs), the bowed rebab (a kind of fiddle), and the sape (plucked stringed instrument). In exchange, I showed them the old-time banjo clawhammer style, the Appalachian-tuned fiddle, and the jaw harp. I found that the Malaysian system of using a series of numbers to denote pentatonic tunes was easily transferable to the banjo. And little by little, we began to weave our music together toward a culminating performance.

Video by Andy Teirstein

Photo By Andy Teirstein

Our collaborative process began with musical association. Inside the particularity of one culture, musical techniques can be heard that might suggest similarities with another. For instance, the interlocking pentatonic gong patterns of the caklempong brought to mind pentatonic “frailing style” banjo patterns.  A plaintive American harmonica tune suggested, to the Sape player, a similar melody.  This process accomplished two goals: it gave us the enjoyable activity of teaching one another tunes and songs, and it engaged us in a narrative of assemblage: How long should the gongs play before the banjo enters, and how will this layered music evolve? 

As in any classroom, I began to notice that certain people in the group were adventurous, others shy. Among the women participants, all wearing the traditional hijab, was a dancer, Zamzuriah Zahari.  When I asked for volunteers to learn a basic Appalachian clog-dance, she stepped up. A while later, when someone was teaching a tune, she added her clear voice to the room in an improvised chant, then stood and began dancing. Soon others joined her. It was during this session that I realized a creative door had been opened. Zamzuriah was the key.


Photo By Andy teirstein

There was now a general willingness to participate in a way that was less constrained by existing forms. Rhythmic grooves evolved, initiated by each participant.  We improvised based on metrical patterns that were not intrinsic to either American or Malaysian traditions: sevens and elevens.  A few days later, I introduced them to my favorite trick: the conductor as spontaneous composer. Each participant was asked to conduct the group, building a piece by cueing musicians in and out, raising and lowering volumes and tempi.  The thrill of this exercise is that no one knows what he or she will play until that moment when he or she is cued to begin. One of these pieces, conducted by the master shadow-puppeteer Che Mohd Nasir Yusof, evolved into a dance choreographed by Zamzuriah, involving other dancers and singers in the community.  And I understood that these traditional musicians and dancers were also composers and choreographers. The last two days were spent choosing from our growing repertoire of pieces, and rehearsing them for performance. 


When I came to the theater for the sound check, I was led off to a room and dressed in a glittering traditional Malaysian costume, which was complicated to get into, with various belts and robes intertwined and folded in specific ways. Best of all was the spiraling headdress that resembled a golden-dipped ice cream cone. Maybe it was the effect of this costume, placing me amidst the other traditionally-garbed musicians and dancers on stage, but throughout the performance I was imbued with a sense of wonder.  I looked across the stage to find that one of the enormous traditional drums had been painted blue, with my name added in gold lettering. There was a generosity of spirit that we don’t often find in the West. The essence of the event felt more like ceremony than concert.  Our songs, tunes and rhythms, once a dialogue across disparate cultures, were now presented as integrated musical offerings.  For the finale, several of Zamzuriah’s dance students joined us onstage. Their improvisation was directed as much to the musicians as to the audience. Che Mohd Nasir Yusof, the shadow-puppeteer, raised his hands and the music rose to a crashing end. I had staged a bow, but this way of ending a concert, which I took for granted, was a Western imposition, and was interrupted by speeches from several school directors, an on-stage distribution of achievement plaques to the participants, and finally a tea ceremony in an adjoining room.    

On the long flight from Malaysia, I wondered, as I have after other trips, how I could make peace with the quotidian responsibilities looming in New York. At home, something percolates slowly inside the traveler, and meanings begin to surface over time. I reflected that there is a pervasive sensibility at Aswara that tradition and innovation are deeply intertwined. In that community, one learns traditional forms of dance and music drawn from the three primary Malaysian cultures—indigenous Malay, Chinese, and Indian. And there is also an emphasis on creative work in contemporary dance and music composition. The students are serious about the arts, which are fundamentally supported by the various governing principalities, lending them a dignity and place of national importance—something we in the United States have all but lost.  In retrospect, I wonder why it was surprising to me that these students of traditional music and dance arts should also be new composers and choreographers. My surprise was scripted by Western Art History, the sensibility of which has pervaded every capillary of our modern society: that the individual is the innovator; the masters of art like Leonardo represent an evolution from communal art, and they stand on a different plane, a separate world. This attitude is a mainstay of class and ethnic division. Little corners of this particular veil of not-knowing have been lifted before. When Hungarian composers Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály travelled through the rural villages of Wallachia, they understood the compositional value of the communal folk traditions they encountered. Bartók wrote, “We felt that this rural music . . .attained an unsurpassable degree of musical perfection and beauty, to be found nowhere else except in the works of the great classics.” 

As a primer in the process of cultural encounter, my ten days in Kuala Lumpur have given me some clues, more in the experience than in the telling.  The gist is so elementary that every child knows it:  We want to find the Other, and to play the game of show and tell in our shared language of music and movement.  When this happens, the art may change in ways we can’t predict. Something is lightly touched in the DNA of our cultural identities—a place, ever changing, we can never really know.