Sunetra is a composer, musician and teacher, whose primary performance practice pioneered a form of contemporary Malay/Malaysian gamelan in concerts in Malaysia through her work with Rhythm in Bronze gamelan ensemble, Malaysia (1995-2005) as pioneer director, musician and artistic lead.
Sunetra was recently awarded the Arts Council England’s ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’ grant (2019) to support a CPD project in creative music leadership based on the Malaysian gamelan as a vehicle through which everyone can experience music & creativity.
An ethnomusicologist by training, Sunetra studied music at the University of York where she began her interest in Javanese and Malay gamelan followed by a period of Javanese gamelan study at the School of Performing Arts, Surakarta, Indonesia. She then pursued a Masters in ethnomusicology at the University of Malaya, Malaysia where she investigated ‘angin’ as an indigenous concept of energy in the music of the ancient shamanic Malay theatre form ‘Mak Yong’.
As a music lecturer at the University of Malaya (1994-2005) and as director of Rhythm in Bronze, Sunetra commissioned new works for the Malaysian gamelan, performing these works concert-style, drawing together a programme that negotiated musical identities and styles, the traditional and contemporary, and bringing a new multi-ethnic audience to what has tended to be viewed as a mono-cultural form.
Whilst raising children in the UK (2005 onwards) and working as a sighted support / music administration assistant, Sunetra directed Kayu Gangsa gamelan ensemble (Nottingham) in two residencies and was co-music director for the ensemble’s tours to the World Gamelan Festivals in Malaysia (2013-16). Sunetra was free-lance co-facilitator for Good Vibration’s music programme in communal-music making to support people in challenging circumstances with additional needs (2009-14).
Sunetra has a background in choral music and music education outreach.
‘Sembuh Sudah’ by Sunetra Fernando | Rhythm in Bronze, 2004
Rhythm in Bronze: New Music for the Malaysian Gamelan
Quote from the late renowned theatre director, Krishen Jit, Founder member, Five Arts Centre 2004, upon Rhythm in Bronze’s debut performance, Dewan Filharmonik Petronas, home of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, Kuala Lumpur Twin Towers, February 2004.
‘Just look at them, and you can know something is different about the Rhythm in Bronze musicians. Firstly, most of the musicians are women, and they are led by a woman. Anyone living in and/or familiar with Malaysia, can immediately tell that the ensemble is multi-ethnic in character, thereby breaking the ethnic barrier that prevails in the gamelan culture in the country. As you listen to the music reverberating from this uncommon group, you are also struck by the multi-cultural tone and range of the music. Indeed, the Rhythm in Bronze music springs from diverse creative collaborations: between the ensemble and Malay, Javanese and Balinese gamelan, Carnatic music, Malay and Sufi poetry. Over the last 5 years of concertising, what is increasingly stark about the ensemble is its facility to negotiate an interface between traditional and contemporary gamelan music.
What Sunetra has done over the years is to convene a composers’ forum of vigour and density: comprising of composers from Malaysia (Sunetra herself, Ariff Ahmad, Michael Veerapen, Mohd Nasir Hashim, Nisha Sujatha Arunasalam, Saidah Rastam, Suhaimi Mohd Zain, Susan Sarah John, Tan Sooi Beng), Bali (I Made Arnawa, I Wayan Rajeg) and England (Adrian Lee). What you are witnessing tonight is the emergence of a Malaysian gamelan with a global resonance. Rhythm in Bronze’s local and ‘global’ strategy, its traditional and contemporary trajectory, is testimony to the passion of Sunetra Fernando. We need to remember that Sunetra’s gamelan pedigree is plural. Therefore, we should not be startled by the dialogic vibrancy of Rhythm in Bronze. It is doing what the best and more advanced gamelans in the world are doing: the music genre, the gamelan has definition, but the musical sounds in it defy borders.’
Rhythm in Bronze: New Music for the Malaysian Gamelan. Compact Disc. Art. Dir., Album Prod., and Comp. Kuala Lumpur: Five Arts Centre and The Actors Studio (2001)
Migrations for Nottingham Malay gamelan ensemble, Kayu Gangsa, commissioned by Alan Humberstone and Maziah Omar, first performance Janogly Hall, Nottingham (2005)
Devised piece in ‘Monkey Business’, devised gamelan theatre with Krishen Jit, Jillian Ooi, Rhythm in Bronze and Five Arts Centre, Kuala Lumpur (2005)
Garis Lengkung for Australia’s The Song Company and Rhythm in Bronze, conducted by Roland Peelman (2003)
Biarkan, for gamelan and three voices, based on a poem by Latiff Mohidin, first performed by Rhythm in Bronze (2002)
Keramat Cinta, SSA and piano, based on Opera Uda dan Dara by S. Fernando & Adrian Lee, arrangement commissioned by Yap Cheng May (2002)
Lagu Gong, music for choir, piano, flute and violin, commissioned and performed by the National Choir of Malaysia (2002)
Uda dan Dara, co-composer Adrian Lee, a chamber rock opera based on Usman Awang’s play, commissioned by The Actors Studio & Five Arts Centre, first performed Kuala Lumpur (2002)
Wayang for gamelan, harp, clarinet, cello and voice. Commissioned by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, for the Contemporary Music Series on 27 Feb, 2002 and the KL-BBC-Proms, directed by Kevin Field, BBC3 broadcast.
Sketsa, composition workshop with The Song Company, artistic director Roland Peelman, Sydney (2001)
On Ayak Ayak, an arrangement of a gamelan piece from the Trengganu repertoire for the Malaysian gamelan ensemble (1999).
’10-Sen’, for the Malaysian gamelan ensemble, Malay drums, 2 female voices and Malay rebab (1999)
Theatre scores (Kuala Lumpur)
Big River (The Actors Studio Theatre 1999)
Trees – gamelan, bass guitar, viola, voice, chorus, percussion) by Imtiaz Ghulam-Sarwar (Actors StudioTheatre 1997)
Scorpion Orchid by Lloyd Fernando, produced by The Actors Studio and Five Arts Centre, Kuala Lumpur, for the Malaysian gamelan ensemble, two female voices, darbukar, rebab, soprano recorder and the Malay gendang (1995)
Skin Trilogy by K.S. Maniam, directed by Krishen Jit, produced by Five Arts Centre and Balai Seni Negara, Kuala Lumpur (1995)
Suara Rimba co-composed, arranged and devised with Rafique Rashid, Kit Leee and cast, for Malaysian gamelan, recorder, children’s voices, geduk and bamboo beaters, a young people’s theatre production of an adaptation of Kipling’s Jungle Book, directed by Janet Pillai, produced by Five Arts Centre, performed at MATIC Kuala Lumpur (1993)
Three Children, co-composed with Mark Chan, by Leow Puay Tin, produced by Theatreworks, Singapore, performed in Singapore, Tokyo, Yokohama and Kuala Lumpur (1994)
Maria Zaitun, a dance performance by Marion D’Cruz, for AlterArt, produced by Theatreworks Singapore (1992).
Artist in Residence: Music Direction, Composer and Musician for Nusantara Cultural Group, Nottingham, April 4 -2005, gamelan concert in Janogly Music Hall, Nottingham University, April 9, 2005.
Monkey Business: Composer, Artistic and Musical Direction with Jillian Ooi, director: Krishen Jit, for a gamelan music theatre performance, produced by Five Arts Centre and The Actors Studio, performed late March 2005.
Gamelan Community Project: A Gamelan Training Community Project involving underprivileged children from the low-cost flats in Selayang. Project Sponsor: HSBC. June-Aug 2004.
A Concert at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas, Kuala Lumpur, as part of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra’s International and Jazz Series (World Music), 2003-2004 season, 16-17 February 2004.
Collaborative Workshops with Adrian Lee. Composition workshops with Carnatic guest musicians and Rhythm in Bronze led by British composer Adrian Lee for his new composition for the ensemble entitled “Wujud Antara” premiered at Rhythm in Bronze’s concert at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas, 16-17 Feb., 2004.
Composition Workshops with Pak I Made Arnawa. Composition workshop with Balinese composer, Bapak I Made Arnawa from Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia, Denpasar, October 19-31 2003, with Rhythm in Bronze, at Five Arts Centre.
Composition Workshops with Kevin Field, associate conductor with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, Kuala Lumpur, for Rhythm in Bronze, for his new composition for the ensemble entitled “Commencement”, Sept. 1-20, 2003.
Composition Workshops and Performance between Rhythm in Bronze & The Song Company. Collaborative concert with Australia’s premiere vocal ensemble, The Song Company, led by Roland Peelman, featuring music by Sunetra Fernando, New Zealand’s Gareth Farr and Malaysia’s Saidah Rastam, produced by the Australian High Commission, Kuala Lumpur, Oct 1-2, 2003.
Laras Gong: Rhythm in Bronze Gamelan Music, Kuala Lumpur & Penang 2003 (comp./art.dir/mus.dir./mus), produced by Five Arts Centre & The Actors Studio, Kuala Lumpur.
The Island Princess, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford & Newcastle, 2002 (gln mus.);
Opera Uda dan Dara, a chamber rock opera, co-composed with Adrian Lee, (comp./mus.dir./mus.), libretto by Usman Awang, commissioned & produced by The Actors Studio & Five Arts Centre, Kuala Lumpur.
Wayang, (comp./mus.), commissioned by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, performed at the Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS in Feb and May 2002, as part of the KL-BBC proms, directed by Kevin Field.
Rhythm in Bronze: New Music for the Malaysian Gamelan CD (2001) (producer/ comp./art.dir/mus.dir/mus), produced by Five Arts Centre & The Actors Studio, Kuala Lumpur.
Rhythm in Bronze 2001: New Music for the Malaysian Gamelan – A Gamelan Concert (2001),(comp./art.dir./mus.dir/mus.), produced by Five Arts Centre & The Actors Studio, Kuala Lumpur.
Rhythm in Bronze 1999: A Gamelan Concert (1999) (comp./art.dir/mus.dir./mus.), produced by Five Arts Centre & The Actors Studio, Kuala Lumpur.
Other projects: Big River (1998), (composer/ mus.dir/mus.), The Actors Studio, Kuala Lumpur
Rhythm in Bronze: A Concert of Gamelan Music (1997) (art.dir/mus.dir/mus.); The Reluctant Saint, A Musical (1997) (mus.dir.); Dance Tonpu II, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, 1996 (composer/mus/performer); Scorpion Orchid (1995) (composer/mus.dir/mus); Skin Trilogy (1995) (composer/mus.dir/mus); Suara Rimba (1994) (co-composer/arr./mus.dir); Three Children, Singapore, Tokyo, Yokohama, Kuala Lumpur, (1993) (co-composer with Mark Chan,mus.dir/mus.); Maria Zaitun (1990, 1992) (composer/singer);
A Malaysian gamelan
Together with pioneer members Sharmini Ratnasingam, Yeong Wai Fun, Shahanum Shah, Terry Skilman-Kashyap and others, Sunetra formed the University of Malaya Friends of the Gamelan Club, shortened as Gamelan Club, with the late Dr Ariff Ahmad as honorary adviser and the guidance of Prof. Dr. Mohd Anis Md Nor in 1995 at the Cultural Centre, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. Gamelan Club’s 1997 production titled ‘Rhythm in Bronze’ showcased a programme of traditional Malay, Javanese, Balinese and contemporary compositions by Sunetra Fernando, Dr. Ariff Ahmad and Michael Veerapen. In 1998, Sunetra left Gamelan Club as director and her subsequent work with her cohort of peers, students and musicians continued with the Rhythm in Bronze gamelan ensemble, based at Five Arts Centre and sharing artistic direction roles with Jillian Ooi. Subsequent productions used The Actors Studio gamelan set produced by Five Arts Centre. Sunetra’s last production with Rhythm in Bronze was the gamelan theatre work ‘Monkey Business’, directed by Krishen Jit, Jillian Ooi and Sunetra produced by Five Arts Centre 2005. Sunetra worked closely with Five Arts Centre to secure HSBC funding for Rhythm in Bronze’s current gamelan set. Sunetra deeply acknowledges Marion D’Cruz, Krishen Jit, all at Five Arts Centre, Faridah Merican and Joe Hashim of The Actors Studio, Adrian Lee, Pak Supiat Mukri, sponsors, traditional Malay master drummer Mohd Kamrulbahri Hussin, Rhythm in Bronze composers and all Gamelan Club & Rhythm in Bronze musicians in the development of this expression of gamelan in Malaysia.
Encyclopaedia of Malaysia: Performing Arts, 2004 (Rhythm in Bronze Gamelan Ensemble)
Mandal, Sumit K. ‘Transethnic solidarities, racialisation and social equality’ in The State of Malaysia: Ethnicity, equity and reform, ed. Edmund Terence Gomez, London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004, p.50.
Matusky, Patricia and Tan, Sooi Beng. The Music of Malaysia: The Classical, Folk and Syncretic Traditions. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2004, pp. 397-400.