Paper scores, paper dreams

N.B. I originally wanted to write this essay as a Facebook post—a tribute to my old ways—but eventually decided against it due to the risk of being subjected to what I’ll call the “algorithm invisibility.” I think that this reflection deserves a space that actually respects its contents.

My physical copies of the following musical scores. Top left to right: “Parangal kay S. W.” (Ramon Pagayon Santos), “Koto” (Liza Lim), “Kubing” (Jose Maceda). Bottom left to right: “Wilujeng” (yours truly), “Pagsamba” (Jose Maceda).

Disclaimer: This essay is a personal, casual, and reflexive one, and therefore, not meant to be academic. However, I acknowledge that copies of Jose Maceda’s Pagsamba and Ramon Pagayon Santos’ Parangal kay S. W. (shown in the photo) were provided to me, courtesy of the UP Center for Ethnomusicology.

I was to end my day rummaging through piles of stuff that I haven’t sorted out since last year. You see, our family has moved into a new apartment (literally just a floor below) nine months ago, and I haven’t even pulled out every little belonging I have in this big grey compartment box since then. I’m now supposed to look for important records just to make sure that I haven’t lost them.

These big music scores unexpectedly came out of the pile. One of them is a photocopy, while others are printouts I did back when I had easy access to a large-size printer. Only one of them is a commercially published score. I pulled out each of them and, as if like a VHS tape rewinder, my mind started unravelling and rewinding the years past.

With today’s age of information where digital media pervades everything we do, physical media have conveniently become sources of nostalgia for many people. Rows of CD displays once filled the flea markets I used to pass by in Novaliches during my high school years—now they’re merely someone’s fancy or a niche icon against the dominance of streaming media. The Gameboys I used to dream of back in my childhood years are now abundant as emulators in droves. I remembered regret and deep remorse over a Chopin cassette tape I bought as a kid when the film got accidentally cut off with an electric fan’s rotating blades. And my access to classical music back then were numbered—who even patronizes classical music in a Philippine urban town replete with poverty, crime, garbage, pollution, and the workings of popular culture’s mass media? But nowadays, it’s unbelievable that a simple YouTube search of Chopin does the trick!

Suddenly, I understood the kind of nostalgia people experience with things even just from 20 or 30 years ago. As a matter of fact, I now belong to this Facebook group where the community continually raves about 80s-inspired retro, synth-driven music and the cultural aesthetic they bring: “synthwave.” I was there for a reason—my artist alter-ego Grumpy Kitty Boy needs to feed in that kind of aesthetic. But my attachment to these specific music scores isn’t something out of a utilitarian purpose. For me, they embody repositories not only of preserved musical knowledge, but also of memories surrounding their acquisition, the conditions and environments where they were once produced, the worlds of thought and imagination they once induced. Sometimes, even past historical moments, intertwining with personal, unrelated events at a later time.

Let me start with one of the most memorable for me. I became one of the performers of Jose Maceda’s Kubing (1966) not only once, but twice. I was one of the seven performers playing the tongatong (bamboo tubes), bungkaka (bamboo buzzers) and kubing (jaw harp) on my first venture with this work. On a second performance, I became one of the five vocalists (also playing the tongatong). Both performances—some years apart, I believe—were conducted by Ramon Pagayon Santos.

There’s so much discourse you could pull out with Maceda’s Kubing (scored for bamboo tubes, buzzers, jaw harps, slit drums, zithers, and five men’s voices), but I’ll focus on the nostalgia for now. My ears were already long brought under a rite of passage with Maceda’s modernism years before, but getting a chance to perform it brought another rite of passage towards its understanding. Despite the notation’s exactitude, the layers of polyrhythms are not meant to be mechanical. Playing “5 in 2 1/2 beats” or “8 in 3” or “11 in 1 1/2” has to feel organic—one must think about being part of the overall texture as much as one plays a part. “It’s the sounds of the rainforest,” as one of our mentors once said. (Can’t recall if it was Jonas Baes or Ramon Santos). No discourse of maximum theatricality even plays a role here, akin to Brian Ferneyhough’s work. The modernism lies elsewhere (hint: it’s in the sociology). Performing it gave a profound sense of how music can unfold and tie within one’s understanding of identity, of self. True enough, my first, messy understanding of Southeast Asia’s modernity probably started with this encounter.

The fact that I was able to take part in its performances not long after the composer’s death was a privilege in itself. I sometimes envy my teachers who had very meaningful exchanges with Maceda himself. Public access to a recording of this work is even almost non-existent outside the Philippines (if anyone came up with a YouTube link, let me know). My only connection to him is a photocopy of the full score, in his handwriting, that I “pilfered” at Room 207 of the University of the Philippines College of Music before leaving for Canada. If anyone’s missing a score, you now know who’s the culprit!

The same probably goes to the next one—Jose Maceda’s Pagsamba (1967). For this gargantuan work involving 241 performers (men’s voices, choirs, gongs, bamboo instruments), I requested a copy of the score from the UP Center for Ethnomusicology for my academic study at McGill University. Its circular spatial configuration bears instant similarities with Iannis Xenakis’ Terretektorh (1966) and Nomos Gamma (1968). Recognizing the fact that Jose Maceda and Iannis Xenakis—both composers located worlds apart—had meaningful correspondences is a scholarly topic I have meant to explore in the future. Paying a hundred dollars or so to gain access to the score is also another topic of conversation in itself, but I remember the excitement as I printed an 11 x 17 size copy of it at McGill. This printed score now contains a few scribbles and pencil marks of my own, tracing shapes as I try to imagine hearing the densities of sounds as they move in a circular area like the Church of the Holy Sacrifice (where Pagsamba‘s premiere happened in 1968).

I can’t remember when I first heard the music or seen the score, but the idea of articulating space and texture permeated into the spirit of creativity I get to share with a small group of Filipino composers (young composers, we are back then). Of all things notable, I mostly remember Dominic Quejada with Points of Distraction (2004), Feliz Anne Macahis with her ritual-esque sound mural The Madness of the Night and the Woven Stars (2009), Alexander John Villanueva with site-specific works such as Pagtahak sa Kalayunan (2010) and Daluhong (2012), and Marie-Luise Calvero with the quasi-piano concerto RainDreamDance (2012), as much as I remember my own music drama Visions of the Horizon (2010). I have been involved as a performer in premiering most of these. Our performance of Jonas Baes‘ work Banwa (1997) at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 2008 also spoke out in terms we later made as our own. It’s intriguing how one can easily trace artistic lineages as transparent and yet as diverse as ours.

Pagsamba also amplifies the notion of “ritual” as we define in the Southeast Asian context. It’s meant to be performed as a Catholic mass, bearing postcolonial positions of indigenous (and religious) modernism while remaining Western in its performative. Positions not without flaws, but strong enough to branch out and form offshoots. Baes’ work Basbasan (1983) was a direct offshoot of that, according to Baes himself. My own nostalgia though with this thought process seemed very dissonant with the reality of living in first-world, 21st century Canada. After all, cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism can’t replicate homeland environments—homelands that directly contest the colonialism and imperialism of the first-world global order.

Going back to the “sounds of the rainforest,” there’s nothing much else like living in cities among rainforests, and living like rainforests among cities.

Ramon Pagayon Santos’ Parangal kay S. W. (1977) is another score I requested for my academic studies. I have meant to contextualize the work with Southeast Asian modernism along with Maceda and Baes, but I might have to continue doing this in the future instead. Scored for a Javanese gamelan and orchestra as a tribute to an esteemed gamelan guru, the only time I heard the piece was during a composers forum in the late 2000s. I remember fellow composer Ria Villena-Osorio describing it to me as sounding very smooth and transparent in texture. Almost velvety, perhaps? Then again, we only heard a recording of it—who among us really knew how it sounded like in real physical space?

However, my memory of it stuck with me as I delved more into the Javanese gamelan later on. Some of us might still exoticize the gamelan and orientalize “Asia” as a learned and internalized (colonized) tendency, but I see the gamelan and its musical practices as further alternate articulations of our own values and cultural sensibilities. Addressing the issues of cultural appropriation, I remember telling someone during a coffee chat that in my view, Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined community” (1983) is the only option to circumvent “othering,” and consequently, “appropriating.” We first have to come to a point of sharing that imaginary in question, and if German composer Dieter Mack—who has done very significant work with Indonesian musical communities—has reached that point, then so would a fellow Southeast Asian composer like Santos. Or anyone else. I believe that to be a part of Jose Maceda’s overarching vision of “Asia” and its emerging modernity during the late 20th century. During one of the Asian Composers League conferences in 2015, Baes also made a whimsical remark (non-verbatim) that, “the whole world could even be ‘Asia’ if it wants to.” The 2nd Goethe Southeast Asian Young Composers Award (2011) in Bandung, Indonesia might have ventured somewhat parallel to that vision—Southeast Asian young composer finalists premiering works that mix gamelan players of the Ensemble Kyai Fatahillah with the German-based Ensemble Mosaik.

However, I would say that contemporary musical scenes tell a different story. North America and Europe continue their journeys toward diversity, inclusion, and equality among the arts sector. The only problem is that political bodies also continue their navel-gazing. Diversity works well when it serves the capitalist status quo, when diversity is consumed as a commodity. Global economies still regulate cultural flow—as long as hierarchies exist within the global distribution of wealth, we from the so-called “Global South” will remain peripheral to such places of radical change. Philippine passport holders being told to get visas to travel? To pull out funds from our own pockets? To pursue visibility and validation out of conformity to “First World” interests? That’s not considered “inclusion,” especially if “the world” still revolves around North America and Europe themselves.

Today’s global pandemic with COVID-19 might interrupt that delusion right now, but poverty and lack of resources still remain as factors affecting accessibility to technologies—privileges people here in Canada and elsewhere might think of as simply “normal.”

In any case, I turn to Wilujeng (2015), conceived for chamber ensemble as my Masters thesis, a culmination of probing one’s position in the midst of dominant Western thought in contemporary music. Being my own critic, it was also a childish attempt at addressing it. The work itself has fundamental flaws. “Translating musical languages” can only go as far as translating sounds, but not the modes of producing the languages. The cohesion of a chamber ensemble will always remain reliant on its repertoire of music-making, and therefore, the method of composition will also follow suit. (Melissa Hui and I had those difficult conversations throughout my lessons with her). It is still like speaking the colonizer’s language to decolonize, no matter how you want to put it. It is as Jose Rizal had done in Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, writing in Spanish along with other Filipino ilustrado writers of the late 19th century to expose colonial cruelty and demand equality. It is as I do now, writing in English for the world at large to understand.

As a side note, I asked Anna Patricia Rodriguez back in 2015 to compose Tagalog poetry for my work. Kalagitnaan ng Kailanman, she called it. I used the text to juxtapose it with the Javanese macapat poetry for “Ladrang Wilujeng,” and the result is interesting. One plays the Wilujeng for commemorative occasions, a symbol of well-wishing. The Javanese riddle plays around admonishing someone to keep one’s head when flirting with the opposite sex. The Tagalog texts convey timelessness, the blurring of boundaries. What to make of it? Does tradition and human nature transcends time, or does time eventually obliterate any notion of tradition and humanity? Maybe it’s not wise to flirt with time.

As expected with the passing of time, the score I currently have here is a copy I have completely forgotten about. I remember printing copies back at the music computer lab in McGill, so I can assume that this is the one I used during rehearsals with the McGill Contemporary Music Ensemble (under the direction of Guillaume Bourgogne), which gave its premiere in 2015. I recall a comment from one of the musicians, who insisted that they were not trained to use their voices to perform. Going back to my reflections on Kubing, I never got formal vocal training at all. And yet I sang, made noises, and used my voice to perform. Voilà, no training! We just “become,” like how rainforests just “be.” Is this the reason then why Brian Ferneyhough sought to reinterpret performativity and theatricality in his music?

This finally leaves me with Liza Lim’s score of Koto (1994). Admittedly, as a former student and performer of Japanese koto, I got intrigued when I saw the score as merchandise at the Darmstadt summer course in 2010. That time was my “coming out” years as a composer, a time when Goethe Institut Malaysia sponsored me and other young composers from Southeast Asia to attend Darmstadt. (Unfortunately, all of us were men). I bought a copy of the score—published by Ricordi—and it has traveled with me throughout these years all the way to Canada.

Lim invested in the idea of “meta-instruments” with Koto, where the ensemble articulates the percussive and calligraphic aspects of the Japanese koto (see James Saunders, “Interview with Liza Lim,” 1999) as much as an ensemble of bamboo instruments and men’s voices also meant to embody the aesthetic of the jaw harp (like in Jose Maceda’s Kubing). However, discovering this trajectory of mimicking and embodying a traditional instrument—of running towards spaces situated outside Western centres—runs opposite to the direction where we would potentially gain knowledge of that. “Darmstadt” is the European Mecca (or at least one of the Meccas) of contemporary music, whether back in 2010, back in post-WW II, or even today. I (and the rest of us from Southeast Asia) still had to travel to Darmstadt in order to obtain knowledge. I still had to go there to purchase a copy of this particular score (in euros, no less). I still had to move to Canada to get a Masters degree. I still had to get Canadian Permanent Residency to finally get arts funding. I still need to move towards centres of gravity to be visible. So on, and so forth. Very few actually do it the opposite way.

Finally going full circle to the photo above, what’s most intriguing to me is how different Lim’s score is compared to the rest of them. Lim’s score is the only commercially published one, and ironically, is the one that couldn’t be opened and spread out like the others. Back in my young(er) composer days in the Philippines, Feliz, Marie-Luise, Alexander, and I would be the main occupants of Room Annex 228 where we developed a proclivity of spreading out sheets of our works-in-progress on the table. Sometimes, we even do this on the carpeted floor if the table doesn’t have enough space. Just like with Maceda’s and Baes’ scores, we would get lost in the gestural shapes and textural forms that emerge in our handwritten sketches, and our creative thought processes would revolve exactly around that kind of posturing. We would literally get down on all fours to grasp the music hidden in the sheets. We make latag—we spread them all on the floor for everyone else to see.

The main difference with Liza Lim’s score is that the work is commissioned with the financial assistance of the Australia Council’s Performing Arts Board. A publishing deal exists with Ricordi. And so while it looks worn out, it still remains intact and bound. The rest of the scores were not remunerated at all, and only mine was completed under a residency with a McGill ensemble. No funders have supported the creation of the other works, mainly because there was no infrastructure in place. These works remain unpublished, and therefore, invisible to the eyes of the world at large. This is Southeast Asia. This is the Southeast Asia that I knew.

But allow me to finally open the score of Koto. I now turn the title page. Used as text for the piece, a deathly haiku awaits.

ware mo chi o haku
omoi kana

– Bokukei

Cuckoo, I too
sing, spitting blood
my welling thoughts