Dr Kamal Sabran on being an artist, teacher, researcher, and finding his ikigai

Dr Kamal Sabran on being an artist, teacher, researcher, and finding his ikigai

From punk rock to space sounds to music therapy, Dr Kamal Sabran walks us through his transformative journey from a stage musician to a musical researcher.

By Tan David

Dr Kamal Sabran is an award-winning new media experimental artist, researcher and academic. Known for his body of works combining traditional instruments with electronic music, Dr Kamal discovered his love of music incredibly early in life. He recounted that his father gifted him a guitar at the tender age of eight. He had a punk rock band going when he was 9 years old, and he wrote his first piece of music – only three simple chords in succession but one that he could claim as his own – when he was 10. However, his interest and subsequent pioneering of ‘new media’ only started when he questioned the efficacy of existing music forms, including punk rock, in expressing his identity as a Malaysian.

‘No matter how good I was as a punk musician in Malaysia, I would never be able to live up to the standards set by the scene in L.A. if I were to perform there, because that is their music. It would never be ours, as much as we want it to be,’ he rationalised his struggle with music composition at the time.

Leaving punk rock behind

Due to the Westernization of musical theories, rules, and standards, it was virtually impossible for him to compose material that sounded sufficiently ‘Malaysian’ or even ‘Asian’ to him. It was a soul-searching period for Dr Kamal, and it was then that he discovered Zulkifli Ramli, a fellow musician who had a career as a black metal guitarist before picking up a different stringed instrument: the gambus, a traditional Malay lute with Arabic origins. They formed a collective called Space Gambus Experiment (SGE), recording their first album within a day: a heady, eclectic fusion of electronically-generated soundscapes and the gambus.

From there, his passion and pursuit of new media took off almost quite literally; in 2005, he was granted an Artist in Residence Fellowship from Malaysia’s National Space Agency, affording him the opportunity to explore the connections between sounds and radio waves emitted from outer space. Since then too, a litany of albums was released under SGE and other collaborative works across multiple disciplines introducing experimental music to a largely uninformed audience.

However, it took another decade of foray into new media and exploration by experimentation before he fully realized the untapped potential of new media artforms. In 2015, Dr Kamal was invited to build the soundtrack for the internationally acclaimed Malaysian Tamil film, Jagat (now available on Netflix), which went on to screen at the New York Asian Film Festival.

‘It was the first time that I received so much international attention and curiosity,’ Dr Kamal recounted. According to him, Jagat’s soundtrack was produced to reflect the psyche of the Malaysian Indian community, which he noted was unique from that of Indians from India. Positive reviews from international commentators led him to focus on the potential of new media in portraying the sounds and music of Malaysia in a new way. 

Music for healing

In the same period, he became involved in researching the effects of music, particularly the sound of gambus, on Alzheimer patients as a part of his PhD thesis, which led him to further explore music as a healing tool. The idea of healing music is not novel particularly in Asia and in recent times has gained significant focus in the Western musical scenes as well. Here, Dr Kamal put on his artist, researcher, and teacher hats all at once to reinvent music healing as a Malaysian contemporaneous art form.

‘Do you know that Asian instruments such as the gambus, tabla, er hu and Chinese gongs are extremely well-suited for musical therapy as their tuning frequencies are based on the human sensory experiences as compared to Western instruments’ rote and rigid tuning?’ he pointed out.

Since learning of their qualities, Dr Kamal who lectures in new media art at Universiti Sains Malaysia has been continuously working on research and raising awareness about the healing effects of Asian musical instruments. He also began to experiment blending these sounds with those from electronic instruments. One of his experiments, The Healing Art Project, involved him playing pre-recorded soundscape during class as a way for his students to find respite and relief.

‘It was extremely well-received and even attracted the attention of students from other schools. More importantly, I devised the project as an experiment to test practicality of music as a healing tool, and I was very inspired with the outcome,’ he recalled, finally discovering his ikigai or purpose for his passion in music and the arts.

New media in a post-pandemic world

Dr Kamal is curiously positive about the state of new media, or media art as he put it, in light of worldwide changes in the arts and the music world. For him, media art is all about experimentation, innovation, a combination of technology and the arts, and the pandemic has moved artists a little closer in that direction. ‘If anything, media art is one of the few art forms that should thrive in this crisis,’ he reasoned, as the global lockdown has resulted in people seeking to connect and work using technology and the Internet.

‘By the increased reliance on technology for everything, we also learn to utilise it in ways we never foresaw before. This is what media art is about: connecting different people and bridging the gap between different fields of art and science via technology and innovation,’ he added.

There is indeed firm ground for his upbeat rationale. Artists across multiple disciplines around the world are adapting to and investing in new forms of presentation and technology they have never considered before. They are investing in better equipment for live streaming shows via social media and online live audio mixing software to continue pursuing and sharing their art despite physical restrictions.

The Healing Art Project live at Kuantum: A Visual Arts & Electronic Music Showcase, REXKL, 2020

As a new media educator, however, he is also keenly aware of the superfluous views held by practitioners in the arts and sciences toward media art. Often not regarded as ‘proper’ art by conservatives because of its experimental nature, new media is at the same time not recognised as a serious, mature scientific discipline by the academic crowd either. Dr Kamal wishes that eventually, his course will no longer be confined to its narrow scope within the arts school of the university, but ‘to be on its own, as a centre to cultivate collaboration between different disciplines from both arts and sciences, and serve as a ground-breaking research point.’

Ever the non-conformist scholar, he is hopeful that media art will continue to break rules and experiment. ‘In fact, new media art is gathering strength in current situations, as it always thrives in the current,’ he concluded. It is hard to avoid catching on to his jovial pun.

All photos by Danial Haiqal

Tan David is a Penang-based festival programmer and head of Teh Beng Club (TBC).