New music in Manila is a too-little-looked-at phenomenon. We’ve been missing something.
For a Monday Evening Concerts program, built around the U.S. premieres of works by two Philippine composers, Zipper Concert Hall became, in Jonas Baes’ “Patangis-Buwaya,” a rain forest. The sounds made by a quartet of low winds and whistles and stones handed out to the audience were so uncannily authentic that all that was said to be missing were the mosquitoes.
But the big piece of the night, José Maceda’s “Strata,” proved an even more peculiar sonic and spiritual wonder. On three sides of the stage were arranged quintets of flutes, cellos and guitars. Behind them were five Chinese gongs. Placed on the balconies above the stage were 20 percussionists, 10 with bamboo buzzers overhead the flutes, 10 with sticks clacking down on the guitars.
The first sound was otherworldly buzzing bamboo — trees rustling I thought at first but later concluded this was more the feeling of trees talking. Sticks answered trees in what seemed the language of the spirit world.
The instruments on stage conveyed somewhat the sense of the real world. Each quintet had a single identity, playing pretty much, but not exactly, the same music and not exactly in the same tuning. Everything was a tiny bit off, blurring individual and ensemble. I have never heard anything quite like it.
Who was Maceda and where did such music come from? He was a peculiarly peripatetic 20th century figure. Born in Manila in 1917, he began as a professional pianist who studied in Paris with the legendary French-Swiss Chopin specialist, Alfred Cortot. He spent time in San Francisco. He studied musicology at Columbia University in New York and anthropology at Northwestern University outside of Chicago.
In the late ‘50s, Maceda worked with leading members of the European avant-garde — Boulez, Stockhausen and Xenakis — in a Paris recording studio. He then got a degree in ethnomusicology at UCLA in 1963. He began composing in L.A., before returning to the Philippines.
Back in Manila, Maceda saw the extravagances of the Marcos regime as avant-garde opportunity. He wrote a work for 20 radio stations, another for 100 cassette players and, at his most extreme, a score intended for several thousand performers.
“Strata,” written in 1987, just after Marcos was deposed, is a kind of call from the wild, a rebalancing of nature. The traditional instruments seek, without entirely finding, their center. The percussion upstairs stirs the air. There are waves of climaxes; the temperature rises and falls. Only a composer who had himself functioned in multiple musical, Asian and Western, strata could produce such extraordinary music.
In the remaining 17 years of Maceda’s life, he returned to writing for more traditional forces in a more normalized Manila. We need to know him better.
The concert Monday, called “Archipelagos,” did an excellent job at least putting Maceda in cosmopolitan and world music contexts, along with connection with nature. It made news in another way as well. The guest ensemble was the first appearance at this venerable new music series of wild Up, and it was a significant step up for a feisty local new music collective, which was playing in little clubs in Echo Park a year ago.
Wild Up’s trademark is to mix it up, with all sorts of music (usually meaning a decent dose of pop). Virtuosity, in its performances, often feels a little raw. This time, wild Up appeared uncooked. There was still the in-your-faceness, but difficult new music was solidly convincing and, when needed, wild Up revealed a newfound finesse.
Three string players from wild Up provided a knockout performance of Greek composer Xenakis’ harshly expressive, hard sawing trio, “Ikhoor.” Richard Valitutto was the vivid soloist in Messiaen’s short piano concerto, “Oiseaux Exotiques,” musically conveying exotic birds in crazy song.
Baes is a younger generation Philippine composer, born in 1961, and his “Patangis-Buwaya” is part ritual. The darkened stage was lighted only with two table lamps and four candles in paper bags. The performance involved improvisation and had something to do with YouTube recordings from Tokyo, Budapest, Ho Chi Minh City and elsewhere. Partway through the audience participation began.
The other piece on the program was the U.S. premiere of English composer Frank Denyer’s 2001 “Faint Traces,” music on the edge of audibility. Its connection to Maceda’s world seemed to be the strange lightheadedness that can result from barely perceptible sounds.
Christopher Rountree, wild Up’s artistic director displayed his usual enthusiasm, but he also conducted performances that were more focused than wild, characterful, rhythmically tight and, when called for, surprisingly subtle.