"Curse of the Dragon's Bones" by Sayyid Shafiee

Interview with Sayyid Shafiee, a Malaysian composer that has developed a musical piece about Casa Batllo.

Casa Batlló as musical inspiration

Sayyid Shafiee (b.1987) is a Malaysian composer currently based in Birmingham, United Kingdom. His music has been performed throughout the UK, Europe and Asia. His music has also featured in a number of festivals including Druskomanija, China-Asean Music Festival, Startford On Avon Music Festival, Malaysian Contemporary Festival, Frontiers Festival and Manchester Contemporary Festival. His recent work, Jinsei Kouro, will represent Malaysia for the young composers award in Asian Composers League 2015 in Philippines.

Sayyid received his MMus from University of Manchester, where he studied with Kevin Malone and Philip Grange. He is currently working on a PhD in composition at Birmingham Conservatoire, where he studied with Joe Cutler, Howard Skempton and Sean Clancy. He also studied with Tazul Tajuddin and had a chance to work with Dieter Mack when he was completing his BMus at the local university in Malaysia.

He has attended master classes from composers such as Peter Maxwell Davies, Michael Finnissy, Carl Bergstrom-Nielsen, Pauline Oliveros and Harrison Birtwistle. He has also worked with numerous artists such as Psappha, BCMG, KROCK, Quatour Danel, Solem Quartet and Malaysian Youth Symphony Orchestra. Involved with music since he was 13, as a saxophonist, he started his musical journey as a member of local marching band. Next he found himself competing all around the world including Canada, Holland, Italy and France for marching band competitions and was awarded with numbers of medals from 2000-2009. Later on he got involved with Malaysian music industry and performed all across the country including Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. Between 2006 and 2012 he performed with various local and international artists before he decided to pursue his music in contemporary composition in the UK.

How do you relate music with architecture?

As a composer, I search for any kind of inspiration to produce my music. I was always interested in visual arts as a form of art which displays underlying thoughts from its artist. I see architecture as a visual object that stays in time and freeze the moment, while music always travels with time.

This contrast characteristic from both arts triggers my inner thoughts to do research in this field. Music, in terms of time, could not simply freeze the moment, but it can give different kinds of artistic experiences when you combine it with architecture.

The British composer Simon Bainbridge serves as a good example when relating music with architecture. He explored the idea of three-dimensional perspective from an architectural surface to develop his music. He developed the idea of a ‘mental snap-shot’ taken from within a three-dimensional architectural environment and translated sonically into a continuous unfolding of musical fragments. This original way of working with architecture has provided huge possibilities in creating future art music.

Could you describe the process in which you visualized “Curse of the Dragon’s Bones”?

For my research purposes, I wanted to create musical composition that involved a technical perspective from the actual floor plan of Casa Batlló. That particular floor plan was treated with grid paper and assigned with pitches for each grid. From that, the whole pitches arrangement in the piece was controlled by the actual floor plan.

This phenomenological process, later on was combined with my own observation and inspiration from Gaudi’s design, mostly in his attic, to create the rhythmic structure. This musical piece also contains several parts of duets within the ensemble which symbolize the main structure of the building. The entire piece was composed by manipulating the process of phenomenological and intellectual processes based on his entire creation of Casa Batlló.

How long did it take you from the moment you wanted to compose this piece of music about Casa Batlló until you recorded it in Birmingham?

I started developing the idea in December 2014, and slowly the original concept constructed. Later on, the idea was reviewed with my supervision team and we proceeded to collect the material in January. It took me about two months to compose this musical piece.  The recording session was on March performed by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. All the processes took place in Birmingham, UK.

Sayyid Shafiee

What message do you want to send with your piece of music? 

Personally, as a composer I believe we are always looking for the opportunity to get inspired from our surroundings. This effort by working with architecture is another area in compositional research that needs more attention in musical art. I took this chance to work with one of the biggest architecture influence like Gaudi to demonstrate the idea of combining and accessing creative creations between both art forms.

In our modern society, arts have become one of the important elements in life where I think we should embrace it by combining with more arts, philosophy and thinking. I am really looking forward to experience something beyond than this where one day dance choreography might also get inspired by architecture and Gaudi especially.

What parts of Casa Batlló are portrayed in your composition « Curse of the Dragon’s Bones »? 

In my composition, I was really inspired with the concept of dragon’s bones and underwater world that Gaudi tried to portray. I get most of my inspiration from the attic floor of Casa Batlló where I find it really strong in terms of the characteristic and form. Gaudi breaks the norms of colors in this floor where he no longer uses colors to generate effect. The entire floor physically depends of the arch structure and lighting to expose his creative thinking and giving me the experience of being in a dragon’s body surrounded by dragon’s rib bones. The details on his roof and window pillars also give me some sort of unusual feelings responding to my creative thinking where those structures expose the main concept of the building design.

How many musical instruments take place in your composition and what are the reasons of this selection?

This project was initiated by BCMG and Birmingham Conservatoire for postgraduate workshop in Birmingham. The instrumentation setting was fixed and we as composers need to work with all the instruments that they have chosen. The piece was composed by 8 musicians including flute/piccolo, horn, trombone, harp, clarinet, violin, cello and percussions. This combination for an ensemble setting can be considered as unusual and as a composer we will see this as a challenge. This combination also plays a big role while setting up the idea of this piece where the textural effects in music need to carefully construct. Overall, this project is a big success for us as a student composer.

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