Composer Rendra Zawawi on the Music of M for Malaysia

On a cold December evening — I was sitting by a window and he was sitting at his keyboard — we met via Skype for an interview. Rendra Zawawi is an award-winning composer, musician, songwriter, and music producer with an extensive career writing music for television and film. He recently scored the documentary M for Malaysia.

At the premiere, Rendra is second from the left.

The film, selected as the official Malaysian entry for Best International Feature Film at the 2020 Oscars, tells the story of the historic 2018 Malaysian general election for Prime Minister.

The musical score of M for Malaysia, inspired by cinematic feature films, is filled with broad, sweeping melodies and thrilling climactic progressions. The film itself is heightened by dramatic events and techniques — with drone shots, montage, ominous suspense, impassioned speeches, and so on. Even the filming took place as if in secret. During the making of the film, directors Dian Lee and Ineza Roussille kept the project virtually under wraps to the public, telling only close family members of their project for fear of political persecution and the wrong sort of attention in a time of immense tension and uncertainty.

Recording the soundtrack for the film

“I’m always a big believer that great art comes from, you know, revolutions in the past, in the centuries before. Great music comes from revolution, from oppression and art; new, great artists are being born by oppression, restriction. There are so many expressions of artistry, and music is included.” — Rendra Zawawi

Andrew: So you wrote and were involved with the musical score for M For Malaysia. Could you describe your connection to the film and how you got started working on this project?

Rendra: So it was really interesting because I think this happened about exactly a year ago to be precise, and I was just coming up with a few projects and then a friend … I think the director and I had a mutual friend, and this mutual friend introduced me to the director, Ineza, and was saying something like, “Hey, Ineza is here. They’re in process for looking for a composer right now.” So we got in touch, and they’ve heard of me before from my songwriting gig back in Malaysia.

A Portrait of Rendra

So she approached me with this film and said it was about the Malaysian election. I was like, “Oh, that’s really interesting” because during the election, I was back in LA. I wasn’t able to, you know, to be involved much in the whole process.

So then she passed me a roll of the unedited footages. I was looking at it, like the whole cut, and as you watched the movie, you would see Ineza the director often narrating the whole sequence. I’m like, “Oh, wait. I wasn’t sure if this person was the director that I was talking to.”

Then when I got back to her and I was like, “Oh, it’s interesting that you have access to all of these footages behind the scenes. So what’s the story here?” She says “Oh, Thun Mahathir is my grandfather.” It thought to myself, “Oh, wow.” So I had no idea that I was talking to actually the granddaughter of the Prime Minister, which is a little bit of a shock.

Andrew: Certainly.

Rendra: This gave me a little bit more push to do this movie even further because I sort of wanted to avoid doing a propaganda film. After watching it, I realized it wasn’t propaganda. It was actually based on facts. It was very neutral. And the fact that the granddaughter was doing this, painting her grandfather in this good and bad light… She took a firm stand, and because of that, that’s how I was convinced that — you know what?, I like what she’s doing.

She’s presenting the truth, and I would like to be a part of it and I think a lot of that has to do with me compensating for me not being a part of the election directly, and I thought this would be a great time to contribute musically.

Andrew: Yeah, yeah. That makes sense. So you were working, I guess, more remotely. Were you working from LA when you were writing the music for the documentary?

Rendra: Yeah, I was working remotely from LA. It was almost all done remotely. We did a spotting session, once everything was put together or you know, this side of the way. We had a Skype call and we watched the whole thing down from top to bottom, and we had it was, I guess, a three hour spotting session remotely. This is sort of the fact that this is a lot to talk about and I think it was interesting seeing how they’ve temped music as well.

Rendra leading the recording of the music for M for Malaysia

Andrew: What were some of your inspirations for the sounds in the film?

Rendra: Well, a lot of the inspirations came from … It was partly the visuals and then there was also partly the temp. The editor, he temped the whole score using, you know, this mass feel. There was some stuff from Harry Gregson-Williams. There was some from John Powell. It was really all cinematic scores, and I thought it was really interesting using some cinematic scores for a documentary.

I think the direction that they wanted to go was exactly that. They wanted, because this whole piece, even though it was a documentary, there were some certain elements to it where the montage, the drones and everything, it seemed like a very cinematic sort of feature film. I think for that reason, they wanted to have that musical narrative underneath it.

So a big part was from the temp, and the other part was from the visuals as well. The visual spoke for a lot for itself because there are elements of … There’s a lot of this … You watch whole film, right, from the top of bottom. Then there are scenes where there’s this very intimate family portrait with the prime minister and his family to political adversaries with the ex-prime ministers to embezzlement of 1MDB funds to the people’s power to … You know, there are so many things going on. So I thought it’s like a feature film. Right?

Andrew: Yeah, yeah… That thought actually occurred to me when I was watching it about it being like a feature film, about it sounding more cinematic.

What were some of the changes or just impacts you noticed in Malaysia and elsewhere in the world as a result of the documentary?

Rendra: I think as far as Malaysia’s concerned, the impact is more often a reminder because the film was released a year after, almost a year after the new government took over.

Some would argue that, “Oh, it would’ve been great if the movie just came right after the election, when the sentiments for the new government is strong.” But obviously the government, this is the first time the opposition won after, what, 58 years or something like that.

Andrew: 61, I think.

Rendra: 61. I’m losing count. It’s going to take longer than a year for them to fix mistakes or improve certain things. I think a lot of people are forgetting that. Instantly they’re like, “Oh, wow, we did the wrong choice of electing him.” So there’s mixed feelings after a year, and so when this movie comes out, a lot of the negative feedback was all, “We wish we could have watched this movie like a month after the election, so those feelings are strong.”

But I think for me in my personal opinion, that’s not the point. I think the bigger picture is a sort of reminder that together as a people, you could actually make decisions and you can actually change people in power. Most importantly it’s a reminder to the government like, I would love everybody in the government body to watch this because they need to be reminded that hey, the people put you guys up there. You guys can be changed anytime. So as much as people have voted for it, you guys have to deliver your promises.

So things remind them of both sides in the people and the government. I think there’s been an impact in that conscious sense and for everybody watching this.

“I hope this film will act as a reminder to our new government that the change we have longed for, required fortitude and sacrifices from the people of Malaysia. They must not take this victory for granted and deliver a better Malaysia to its people.” — Dian Lee, director of M for Malaysia

In the studio, recording the documentary score

Outside, I think Hong Kong is… I think my understanding with the directors and producers, they’ve been getting a lot of invites for special screenings in Hong Kong, specifically to address whatever issues that they’re having there. I think it’s relevant over there.

Andrew: Yeah.

Rendra: So there are many ways one can look at it. I think it’s been very positive, a positive impact on a very conscious level.

Andrew: So, you have considerable experience composing for television shows and for films more recently, obviously with this documentary. How has this aspect of pairing music to visuals or to a storyline narrative shaped your approach to musical composition as a whole?

Rendra: It’s really interesting because my musical background, I was a songwriter first. That is what I do. My dad is a songwriter. He’s written a lot of songs for artists in Malaysia. I kind of grew up with that environment, so I was more of a songwriter first and then I started singing and I became a singer/songwriter. I start performing. Da da da.

Making music: Rendra and Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna

I mean, I’m singing and that’s sort of like my compass, and the music builds around when I’m singing. A lot of my songwriting compositions is very, it’s very melodic. It’s very cinematic. What’s the other word? Theatrical as well. So writing for visuals, obviously the music…. there’s this music in it, but the compass changes. Instead of me singing or writing a song for someone who is singing, I’m building the music around the new vocalist, and the new vocalist in the film is the dialogues.

The dialogues, the narrative, the visuals and everything. So I think if I were to think about it, back in the days where I was a singer/songwriter, I was upfront performing. I was the lead singer. Now I feel I’m taking a step back, and I’m supporting that role.

It’s been interesting because I’ve had experience being the frontman, and now I’m experiencing becoming the person behind the scenes in a supporting role. That experience becoming the lead and the supporting role has helped me tremendously to actually sync the two roles together and come up with something that’s coherent.

In terms of other inspirations, I’ve always liked watching TV shows. I grew up watching a lot of TV shows and films. I think on a subconscious level, I already have that understanding of how music should pair up with visuals.

Based on all of those experiences that I have, I think writing for visuals, picture narrative story becomes pretty natural to me and simply because of me being a lyricist and songwriter, too, I’m able to write. I’m so used to writing music that matches the lyrics. So writing music that matches the visuals, would probably, yeah, would be along the same lines.

Andrew: Is there a film genre you especially enjoy working in?

Rendra: I like contemporary, I like thrillers and stuff like that. I mean, obviously some horror stuff is always fun to do. But my approach to music writing, I’ve always been a very melodically imbued person. I propagate the music forward using melodic lines. That’s just what I’m really good at.

And even my harmonies have their own separate melody. I try to write any genre with some elements of melody. Dramas, thriller. I’m not particularly a big fan of comedy.

Andrew: Not as many sweeping melodies.

Rendra: Yeah, yeah. That, too. I could do it I guess, but it’s a little bit out of my wheelhouse, so that’s something I would try to probably charge four times extra if I were to do it!

Hook is one of those movies where I just fell in love with the score and discovered John Williams. So Hook was that first movie that got me hooked, pun intended. On a video game side, I played a lot of Japanese video games back in the day. Final Fantasy, you know. So composer Nobuo Uematsu, who I’ve had the pleasure of having dinner with, once upon a time. These two guys are main influences of my musical approach. They write sweeping amazing melodies that are just memorable. So that’s kind of my thing.

Andrew: Yeah. What about the future of music and creativity excites you?

Rendra: The future of music and creativity…

Andrew: That could be from a social, ideological standpoint, a technological view or just the progression in the industry. Whatever angle or idea you have, I guess, in terms of how to answer that.

Rendra: I think the progression is … I’m always a big believer that great art comes from, you know, revolutions in the past, in the centuries before. Great music comes from revolution, from oppression and art; new, great artists are being born by oppression, restriction. There are so many expressions of artistry, and music is included. So I think the future is where we’re facing with a lot of challenges in this world today, and a good platform to express ourselves can be the arts and music as one of them. I think the future of music and the encapsulation of these restrictions is you’re always going to come up with good stuff, meaningful art.

I think the energy translates. When you’re feeling a certain thing, it translates to the music, flows into the listener and there is a sort of energy transfer to hear something authentic.

So even with this film it’s similar. This film is about “being oppressed or being manipulated” in a regime that’s not exactly fair. I think what was born out of this was the people coming together and reelecting new government born out of this. For me, it was writing this music that’s sort of personal that would translate the narrative. I’m not sure if you know this, but the whole entire score is actually, some of the motifs that I entered, is actually based off the national anthem of Malaysia.

Andrew: I didn’t know that.

Rendra: Oh, yeah! When I was talking to director and producer, I was like, “Hey, you know, a lot of these scenes have a lot of people power in them. And I think it just hit me that regardless of the political affiliation between people, you know, you support this, I support that, what unites them, what they know is the same is the national anthem. Everybody’s going to sing the same tune no matter which side you’re on, and that tune is never going to change.” So when I thought about this, oh, you know what? How I’m going to unify this musically is using tidbits off the national anthem to sort of weave the music together.

So the national anthem, it’s main theme is [sings it]. So those notes, I sort of played around with them. There are other sections of the national anthem that go [hums the melody] — and that represents this lyric that says the people live. So at sections, when there are scenes where there are people coming together, I would use that specific motif rearranged in a way. So when I tell this to people, they go like, some parts are obvious, some parts are not. It’s like, “Oh, wow. Now that I hear about it, yes, you do have a specific section of the national anthem there if you really listen to it.”

So there is a clever insertion of these aspects behind the scenes. This whole idea was born out of the movie that was born out of oppression.

That’s art that I produced based on those correct parameters, socially. Technology-wise, very quickly, I am also invested in VR music. You know, I think that’s new. A new thing that’s dawning to everybody — how do you write music that has this interactive 360° quality? You know, you turn right. How does the music pan? So all this technological stuff, I’m kind of invested into that. I’m interested to see where the industry goes and the protocols that’ll be placed on it.

Andrew: Well, thinking of VR music, two different things actually come to mind. The first — Meyer Sound installations — consists of speakers that are placed all around in 360° encircling the hall. Then while you’re performing or playing, they can move the sound or have different speakers playing different aspects or different lines of the music. So you’re actually listening in 360° to what you’re … to the music that’s being played. They can either, you know, funnel all of the sounds to the front right. Or they can have the drums in the back and then cymbals and the lyrics coming from the front. It really changes a concert experience, definitely.

Rendra: I would imagine so. I think, yeah, I do go to a lot of those exhibitions that are just around LA. I’m just like the person in line to just go into it and experience everything. So it’s expanding, you know? I’m invested in being part of the pioneer music group that goes forward. But what you just said, that just sounds amazing.

Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. The interesting thing, too, about VR is that suddenly, you know, have you seen the visualizers for sound? So you’re playing music and then it has a little visualizer that’s based off of the sound waves? How cool would it be if you could have those sound waves influencing your VR environment, where suddenly the music becomes this visual mapping, in addition to being what you’re hearing. So they’re working in hand and it becomes this enhanced sensory experience.

Nothing against music in its pure form. Right? But just in terms of how it can expand, I think that’s very fascinating.

Rendra: I think, yeah, I think that it will involve every receptor that we have to make the experience as realistic as possible. Yeah. That’s really awesome.

Andrew: Well, maybe this is related, but is there a dream project you have your sights set on or that you’re working on currently?

Rendra: I do have something in the works. I’m actually back in Malaysia right now, too, for two weeks to record the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. For M For Malaysia, we did that theme song with Yuna.

Recording Bermula Kita

That was recorded in the Malaysian Philharmonic Hall, and I think it was a milestone for a lot of us because that hall is usually just meant for classical music, but now they’ve opened it up for film stuff.

So we recorded there and now we’re recording there again for this new song that I’m doing for … as a theme song that I’m doing for a certain something I can’t really say yet. We just did the 64-piece orchestra two days ago.

I do have a feature film coming up first quarter of the year next year. And a TV series in China that I’m working as well. Those are some of the upcoming projects that I have and yeah, that’s about it. Nothing’s VR-related yet.

Andrew: Maybe next year or something.

Rendra: Yeah. Hopefully. I’ll see where it goes. I would love to do something for VR video games. I’m also helping a composer back in LA with some video games actually, that’s coming out next year.

Andrew: Do you ever work with the sound effects, too, or mostly just the music itself?

Rendra: Just mainly with the music. I’ve done sound effects back in the past but it wasn’t….

Andrew: I guess you could bring in the sound effects to the music or something, you know?

Rendra: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. That will usually be an afterthought. Sound effects to go with music. It’s a really interesting process.

Andrew: Yeah! Well, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Yuna onstage recording Bermula Kita for M for Malaysia

Rendra: I think … let me think. As far as the score is concerned, it was kind of cool to be able to come up with a theme song for the Prime Minister of a country. It’s so interesting that I came up with, you know, a theme song for the Prime Minister, which was based on a theme song for his wife, because … I was joking about it like, “Oh, we have a theme song for the Prime Minister.” But actually if you watched Thun, you would notice that his wife, the first lady, is actually the hero or heroine for us, for the film.

She was the one who humanized this titan person in this film. And in my opinion, that’s the true power. Dealing with the whole country and errands and stuff like that is one thing… But coming back at home, you’re his wife, and she’s tamed him.

So I wrote a theme for her. So the prime minister’s theme is sort of a derivation from her theme. So you know how they say, “Behind every man is a successful woman.” So on the same thing, I say behind every successful theme is a very successful theme for his wife. Along those lines.

Andrew: Yeah! I love it.

Rendra: So yeah, that’s about it.

Andrew: Well, thank you very much.

Rendra: Thank you for having me.

*This interview was edited lightly for length and clarity

*All photos have been provided courtesy of the artist

For more from Rendra, visit his website to explore some of his musical projects.

Enjoy this interview and want to read more about musical composition? Check out my interview with It’s Always Sunny tv composer Cormac Bluestone here.

Writer, runner, music enthusiast. Exploring connections between creativity + art, lifestyle, and entrepreneurship through a series of interviews.