Not just background music

The subliminal music score is another noteworthy aspect of the historical drama 1957 Hati Malaya. Meet the person responsible for it.

1957 Hati Malaya is Sharon Paul’s first local movie project. She has previously worked with film composers in America.
THE current movie 1957 Hati Malaya should be appreciated not just for its historical values but its music that is subtle yet uplifting.

While the visual effects (shooting techniques, period costumes, and not to mention the odd pretty actress!) naturally draw the most attention, connoisseurs of soundtracks are certain to sit up and take note of the film’s impressive score.

Although the musical highlights appear to be Datuk Siti Nurhaliza’s stirring rendition of Hati, and Perlu Kamu, which is sung by Indonesian Kris Dayanti and Ajai, who also co-wrote the song, the orchestral score does warrant equal attention.

Just who is behind the music that’s so crucial to the first ever movie – helmed by the renowned director Shuhaimi Baba – that recounts the struggles that led to Malaysia’s independence 50 years ago?

The person is Sharon Paul and chances are, you may not have heard of her. My recent interview with the soundtrack composer is the first she’s ever granted.

Naturally, I start off with the insensitive comment that most orchestral soundtracks sound quite similar!

“I feel I do stand out,” states the graduate of the famed Berkelee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, who has also spent two years in Los Angeles working for film composers Daniel Licht (who did the score for Hellraiser IV) and Stephen Klong. “No one here does orchestral scoring quite like I do, because I write very complete parts for the orchestra.”

Despite her confidence, Paul did experience frustrations while working on the soundtrack of Hati Malaya, her first local feature-length project. “Don’t get me wrong. I would have liked to have more freedom to choose exactly what music I felt suited the movie and how my score blended with the footage and dialogue. But any artistic collaboration, especially one of this scale, means that everyone has to sacrifice a little of their original vision,” Paul explains.

So what was her original musical vision for the movie?

“My intention was to have a lot of traditional ethnic music, but Shuhaimi was very clear that she did not want the soundtrack to come across as too ethnic. She wanted a sweeping orchestral score, not something too folky and traditional. Still, we did take Western elements and offset them with Chinese and Malay sounds,” she reveals.

Paul also utilised a trick common in classical music by employing one melodic theme for (Umno founder) Datuk Onn Jaafar and another for (first Prime Minister) Tunku Abdul Rahman. “Actually towards the end of the creative process I was influenced by the Gladiator soundtrack.

“It’s a movie about struggle and sacrifice and I wanted the music to reflect that. In the end I would have to say that I’m happy on a purely musical level, but I would also have liked to mix the music more prominently.”

Indeed, one can see that there are a number of stages during which Paul would have had to compromise. For example, only 25% of the music one hears on the soundtrack is played by live musicians.

“The two violinists are Joanne Yeoh and Yap Yen and I also used a lot of samples from the online libraries East West and the Moto Symphonic.

Nothing captures an emotional scene better than music, such as this in 1957 Hati Malaya where the crowd at an Umno meeting donates money to fund Tunku’s pro-independence talks in London.
“String arrangements are my forte and Shuhaimi loves the sound of solo violins to emphasise the rousing of emotions. There are some critical scenes like the one where the crowd at an Umno meeting collects money for Tunku to go to London and at this point the emotion is best expressed by the music.”

Paul didn’t just write the orchestral score, however. She also composed the music for Siti’s Hati, with lyrics by Shuhaimi.

“I am very happy with Siti’s performance. No one else could have sung this song for this movie and given it a similar impact,” she enthuses.

I couldn’t help but notice that when the movie first switches out of the 1950s into current time, there is a piece of music that sounds as if it is inspired by Indonesian rock bands.

Paul laughs. “Yes, actually that’s a snippet from another song of mine and I did write it in the style of the Ratu, the Indonesian girl rockers. I really like the piece of music, but I haven’t finished it. I need to find a vocalist, in fact!”

For such a talented composer, Paul is rather low-key. Of mixed Indian, Chinese and Portuguese parentage, she is a former student of Ampang Road Girls’ School and Ocean Institute of Engineering, in Kuala Lumpur. The still-single 30-year-old describes her hobbies as “travelling, watching movies (sometimes just to listen to the effect the soundtrack has), going out with friends and occasionally scuba diving.”

Her eventual emergence as a soundtrack composer can be viewed as a fulfilment of her late father’s dream.

“My father was a tax inspector, but he had always wanted to learn music as a child and was too poor. When he got the chance to support my dream, he was only too glad to help,” says the KL-born lass, the elder of two siblings.

Her first inspiration was perhaps an unlikely source. “I was really inspired by (the Malaysian musician) Jenny Chin. She may not be known so well to the general public, but I remember watching her do work as a keyboardist and arranger for Sheila Majid and Zainal Abidin and thinking, ‘I want to be her.’ As I focused more on international movie soundtracks, I realised that my heroes are established soundtrack legends like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. I also like the work of Tim Burton’s preferred composer Danny Elfman.”

It was by chance that she ended up working on Hati Malaya. “Shuhaimi saw me on the Bob Azrai TV show, Oh Mu La La, during which he interviewed upcoming composers. She then called me up and after hearing that strings were my strength, asked for a sample of my work. When she heard it, she got me on board for the movie.”

Admitting that it isn’t always easy both artistically and financially to work as a soundtrack composer, Paul has no intentions of curtailing her ambitions, and is intent on making it not just inside Malaysia, but internationally.

“We are hoping to have the soundtrack released in the next few weeks. Sometimes I get scared that people might not be ready to accept it. But I believe that it’s only a matter of time before there is an audience for this sort of music. I intend this to be just the beginning of my career.”

‘1957 Hati Malaya’ is currently showing in cinemas nationwide.