Paul Fontelo '13

IMG_3433Tuesday night was the 50th anniversary celebration concert of the University of the Philippines College of Music.

The College of Music was built on a grant from the United States Agency for International Development.  Founded as a follow up to the Marshall Plan in 1961, this government agency is responsible for numerous development programs in economics, infrastructure, government, and education.  With the 1 million dollar grant in hand, then University of the Philippines President, Carlos P. Romulo authorized the construction of this music center, called Abelardo Hall, named for Nicanor Abelardo, one of the first national composers of the Philippines.  Abelardo Hall’s concert stage was one of the first air-conditioned public venues and its academic buildings boast a 1960’s modern minimalist structure previously unseen in the Philippines.  Today, the history of Abelardo Hall remains a key part of the US-Filipino relations in terms of bilateral cooperation toward education.

As a Fulbrighter partnering with the College I was allowed to attend and I was thoroughly impressed.  The performance offered a wide variety of music and ensembles from symphonic band to soloists to chamber works.  The works they played ranged from Bach to music so recent that the ink was drying off the page.

I can’t speak about all of the groups given the expansive program (3 hours + with no intermssion) but I would like to draw special attention to some aspects of the program.  Included in the concert were two performances of the University of the Philippines’ signature touring group, the Madrigal Singers.  An all acapella (unaccompanied vocals) 12 person group, the Madrigal Singers are capable of singing a wide variety of music, all acapella and always seated.  Their trademark style of singing in a calm, soothing nature, persistently decked out in Filipinana clothing (traditional Filipino clothing) gives audiences the best musical face of the Philippines.

Also featured were several Filipino composers, I can’t name them all but the ones that struck me the most were Nicanor Abelardo (1893-1934), Rosendo Santos (1922-1992), and Ramon Santos (1941-) (no relation).  These are composers who I believe tug away at the curtain to reveal the proverbial ‘Filipino soul’ (inner consciousness of Filipino national culture) through their music.  Abelardo was a prominent University of the Philippines composer and the namesake for the Abelardo Hall.  His music combined many of the new techniques found in serial composers and other early 20th century composers and combined them with modes (non western major and minor scalar formations) indigenous to the Philippines to create a brand new aesthetic.  Rosendo Santos was a prominent composer who trained at the University of the Philippines during the mid 20th century and came to the U.S.  His music is far more nostalgic and conventional by 20th century standards but nevertheless is very powerful.  One interesting note is that he lived and taught in the Washington D.C. area, which I call home, yet to my surprise I have not met a single Filipino American from the area who knows him.  Ramon Santos’ Awit provided a multi-layered chamber work.  Awit, tagalog for song, expresses a canvas of emotions and states through expressive melodies (primary musical lines) and highlights notions of the new Philippines of the post-colonial period. Studying with Ramon Santos and hearing his music live offers just that much more satisfaction.  Although all three composers from different generations and styles, all three continue this University’s tradition in trying to musically aestheticize the nation, the people, the history, and the environment of the Philippines.  Their works are as Filipino as the languages of the Philippines (I say language due to the prominent number of different languages not just the most common dialect of Tagalog).

Overall, this was a very special night for me.  Not only was I experiencing first hand the music of the ‘Filipino soul,’ but I was constantly reminded of the ongoing friendship between the United States and the Philippines.  The night in a way helped to sum up my whole experiences in the Philippines.  The Hall was built to preserve and foster new musical ideas.  Coming to the forefront of these ideas are the musical expressions of the ‘Filipino soul,’ the subject of my research.  Even Abelardo Hall’s minimalist structure aesthetically bares a resemblance to my own music, which I credit to a minimalist style.  Furthermore, Abelardo Hall was built in cooperation with the U.S. Government, specifically the United States Agency for International Development.  That individual snippet hits close to home because my mother works for USAID.  This bilateral aqueous solution, the two nations of the Philippines and the United States of America working together, all equate to my experiences in the Philippines as both an Embassy intern and now as a Fulbright scholar.  There’s a saying about the friendship and shared goals and ideas between the Philippines and the US: One Mission, One Team (Isang Misyon, Isang Pangkat in Tagalog).  Yesterday, when I saw the multitude of talent and innovation that has come from the College of Music and when I see the future talent forthcoming, I truly see a successful mission, a story of continued success of building Filipino culture for future generations.IMG_3438

Thursday night was a very special occasion.  The University of the Philippines College of Music was giving a free concert featuring environmental music (music that reflects man, nature, and how they interact).  Lo and behold, two of the composers I was studying had featured performances, including Prof. Ramon Santos and the late Prof. Jose Maceda.  It was truly inspiring.  This was my first live performance of their music.

The first composition was written as an entirely graphic score (notation through pictures and images rather than standard western notation) made of 4 squares strewn across the score sheet.  Quadrasyon, calls for 4 groups of performers aligned in the hall to ‘read’ the graphics of their squares.  While there is no music in the square, it is necessary for the performers to fill the hall.

“The notation is such that it can read from the four sides of the one-page score.  While the dynamic range is suggested by the size of each square, the pitches are represented by technical reading of the score, the music is what the performers create in synergy with one another in relation to the space that surrounds them as well as the way they interpret the dots.” -R. Santos

The second work was an avant-garde piece by Prof. Jonas Baes.  Patangis-Buwaya (2003), written for 4 wind instruments from any culture and audience has a rudimentary progression through different sounds and events.  Many of the sounds are moans of pain to simulate the deaths of innocent Iraya-Mangyan indigenous minorities caught in a crossfire during conflicts of the Southern Philippines.  The title roughly translates to “music that could even make the crocodiles weep.”  It is a mournful piece that weeps over the anguish of these people that culminates audience with audience participation in a somber ringing of bells and sounding wooden blocks handed out by the stage hands.

The final work was a semi-aleatoric work (performers’ decisions of what to play, how fast, how many times are left up to the performer but music is provided) by the late, great, Jose Maceda.  Ading (1978) was written for 100 instrumentalists, 100 singers, and audience.  Maceda wanted to simulate the changes of nature in this work.  Maceda’s work ethos was inspired largely by his personal observations of the Philippine jungles.  He noticed that nature progresses slowly and deliberately.  In order to truly encapsulate the natural world through music, one must write compositions in a process based style, forming an evolution toward a  destination.  One event leads to another.  The whole performance was led by one conductor and one powerpoint operator who posted slides with numbers and text that are then relayed to the performances and audience.  Performers carried scores that told them when to play certain melodies (primary musical lines).  Forming the basement for the piece is a continuous and free ostinato (repeated musical line that often lays a framework for a piece of music) of bamboo instruments including Philippine buzzers, woodblocks, and flutes serenading the hall, playing at different times to add timbral diversity.  The piece cycles through 26 different timed events that all seem to flow logically as if a river were flowing carrying the piece.  Maceda described his own work:

“In Ading, the musical machinery is composed of instrumentalists with the public providing a continuous sound, and a group of vocalists emitting a discontinuous melody.  The music is slow to change.  When the melody changes, it requires the cooperation of the entire machinery.  Ading‘s economy of musical techniques is like a frugal village economy which is conditioned by the forces of nature and which in turn are communicated to the people through ritual and ceremonies.”

The audience reaction was overwhelming.  The hall sounded with applause and many people, myself included, went to greet and thank Dr. Santos and Dr. Baes who were in attendance.  Throughout Ading, the whole hall vibrated with the sounds of the chant displayed on the screen.

Now, I know I gave a lot of information and many people probably right now are more than likely scared of this type of music, but this is what’s happening in the Philippines.  In a way, these types of pieces explain the Filipino experience.  You get a real sense of the literal environment in nature but also the social environment in how each work is performed.  My blog is totally ineffective in explaining to readers what the Philippines is like compared to their music.  The music transcends Filipino culture through combining concepts of community, ritual, and nature all through music.  More importantly, the audience got it.  It all made sense to them and they enjoyed it.  These are the Philippines’ Aaron Coplands, Philip Glasses, and Leonard Bernsteins.  To me it is something special and for anyone who thinks it is a bunch of hogwash (in the words of the great 20th century composer Milton Babbit):

-“I don’t care if you listen.”

This past week, I got to catch up with some old friends from both Holy Cross and the U.S. Embassy.  First, I grabbed lunch with my boys Sandro Silva ’13 and Brandon Ynayan ’14 (who was hanging out in the Philippines a day before class started, pretty cool!) at Rockwell Power Plant Mall.  We grabbed lunch at a local favorite here, Pancake House.

The next day, during a Fulbright welcome reception to the Public Affairs Section, I got to meet up with former colleagues from the U.S. Embassy.  It’s weird being on the Fulbrighter side of the equation but it’s still been fun.  After all, things are just more fun in the Philippines.

On Tuesday, during my normal routine of going to the University of the Philippines, College of Music, I decided to forego looking at scores for the day or talking to professors about their compositions.  Instead I tried the indigenous instruments that UP’s Ethnomusicology Center has to offer.

Many of the instruments were built by the late ethnomusicologist and composer, José Maceda whose private collection formed the foundation for the Center’s wide variety of instruments.  With nearly 200 instruments from all over Southeast Asia available for playing, it is one of the most diverse instrument collections I’ve seen.  I tried two instruments: the Filipino Jaw Harp (also known as the Jews’ Harp) and the Filipino Buzzer.  The Jaw Harp is played like a traditional American Jaw Harp only that it is made from bamboo.  You hold the small stick like bamboo instrument in your mouth with your lips and pluck away on a small attached stick on its end.  Many indigenous techniques, particularly from the Southern Philippines in Mindanao, exist in adjusting timbrel quality moving the embochure (shape of the lips) to form new portals of resonance for the player to play.  The buzzer is also an interesting instrument.  Made of bamboo, it has a resonant vibrating sound that is highly distinctive.  While it is monodynamic (only one dynamic can be played).   Buzzers sound louder due to a larger number of forces.  Buzzer players usually play different interlocking rhythms as well in most Filipino musics inducing a trance like feel.  I also tried to play the Filipino nose flute, but I had a lot of trouble with it not knowing how to figure it out on my own.

These instruments are relatively simple in design and come from the same material: bamboo.    Bamboo is a life giving blood to many people in this country.  In a way, bamboo defines Filipino daily life.   Furthermore, all of these instruments are relatively accessible to anyone.  To me, I feel as though the Filipino musical language is born out of the music of the environment and likewise the Filipinos fashion their instruments into products of their desire to transcend the environment.

Last week brought torrential rains in Typhoon Maring, launching states of calamity across the region and devastating hundreds of households.  (,000-evacuate-metro-manila)

Because I am staying in an elevated area, I was quite fortunate and spared a lot of the grief that these horrible storms offered.  I was forced played the indoors game and I did not leave the apartment for nearly 4 days.  That took a slight toll on my mental psyche.  For my mental recuperation, I decided to venture to one of my favorite quick destination spots outside Manila, a town in the neighboring province of Cavite called Tagaytay.

Tagaytay is home to a spectacular view of a dormant volcano, Taal Volcano, and its surrounding lake, Taal Lake.  In my past experiences, the best view of the volcano and its lake is from where else but a Starbucks.  However venturing to Tagaytay was not easy.  There was heavy traffic and heavy rain, nearing flood conditions all along the way.  When I finally got there, it was still raining heavily and the Starbucks was crowded.  To make things worse lightning was really close and the rain clouds covered the view of the volcano (Best place to be during a thunder storm is an elevated position holding a cell phone and camera).  However, I went with what I had and took a few snapshots of the best Starbucks with a view but on the worst possible day to do it.

If there is one thing that is a given in the Philippines it’s that August means rain.  Unlike most of the world, the Philippines has only 2 seasons: Wet and Dry.  The Wet, rainy season, historically lasted from June to August but due to recent developments, the rainy months have extended from August to November.  The rainy season is no joke.  If you recall from my posts last year, I was cut in the maelstrom of a tumultuous typhoon, which claimed the lives of nearly 60 people and displaced hundreds more.  It drastically alters the normal flow of daily life here.  Schools are closed, people telecommute, and appointments are postponed.  And yet, rain is commonplace in this country, a feature as distinctive as the language, cultural traditions, and food of the Filipino people.

In 1975, Jose Antonio Abreu started pulling off children from the streets of Caracas and enrolled them in music education programs, starting a ‘system’ of music education to invigorate the minds, hearts, and souls of the Venezuelan youth.  Thus, El Sistema was born.  Over 30 years later with nearly 500,000 children worldwide enrolled in affiliated programs, and the rest, as they say is history.

Creating each program is a matter of negotiating the needs of the local populace with the founding spirit of the original El Sistema.  And most programs are doing a fantastic job.  But what about the Philippines?  This program is in its infancy.  What must we do different here?  These are questions that Ang Misyon, the Philippines’ El Sistema orchestra must deal with in the coming months.  Founded in August of 2012, this Filipino affiliate is based in the heart of the National Capital Region in Mandaluyong City.  Every Wednesday and Saturday, children from all over the Philippines’ thousands of islands come to learn, listen, and play.

From what I’ve seen, in just a year, a lot of progress has been made.  These children are serious about learning their craft (more serious than I was at their ages), and they are doing it without all the luxuries I had.  I studied with members of the America’s finest military bands and ensembles but I often found myself getting lazy and apathetic.  These kids want to soak it all in.  Everyday they’re willing to learn something new.  Every Saturday, I go to an orchestra of eager beavers ready to commit some of the finest works in the classical repertoire to their memory.

Today was the end of grant presentations for two Fulbrighters who arrived last November.  Their presentations were on blogging in national identity and the use of bamboo as an alternative construction resource, respectively.  I enjoyed watching these presentations, both grantees presented an immense amount of detail from first hand experience and research with their host institutions and project commitments.

It was a little weird for me as well seeing that I only got here a month ago.  Seeing a completed presentation gives you a model for what is expected by the end of your grant.  I must acknowledge that my time in the country is in fact limited and that I must restrain myself from straying from the course of the grant and always keep a level headed approach of what I must do here.

I’ve been in the Philippines for a nearly a month and I can say that my research is firing on all cylinders.  I am pleased with what I’ve found at the University of the Philippines, an institution dedicated to preserving, performing, and creating new works of the Filipino musical literature.

The process has consisted of looking at scores of composers who share different opinions regarding how to write a culturally informed brand of  Filipino music.  In other words, I am in the search for what makes a  musical composition Filipino.  It harkens back to my senior thesis when I was faced with answering what makes certain composers’ compositions American.  Filipino music has tropes of non-western musics and sounds that sound foreign to the ear of a non-Filipino.  Particular composers reflect this in their music through a variety of 20th century compositional techniques including sound mass composition and graphic notation.  These are all subjects that I have explored explicitly in relation to a western, avant-garde environment.  I am now encountering in an Asian philosophical environment.  This is guaranteed to be a fascinating next series of months.

The first week in a new country is always hectic and eye opening, even after an extended stay there are things that are bound to make life a little more fun.  But this first week was as advertised busy but manageable.  I was able to handle the orientation process as a Fulbright scholar no sweat.  After 2 days I got settled in moving from the hotel to my current residence.  In between that time I was busy sending multiple emails, calling people I hadn’t seen for a long time, and adjusting to the intense 12 hour difference.

During my first week, I also managed to go to a gathering of Holy Cross alumni and students hosted by Amb. Harry Thomas ’78.  It was great seeing Holy Cross folks in the first week especially Amb. Thomas who I learned so much from during my internship at the U.S. Embassy last summer.  I also got to say hello to Jeff Reppucci ’14 who is interning this year with the U.S. Embassy and my good friend since freshman year, Sandro Silva ’13.

Coming down from the acknowledgement of my post-undergraduate life, I realize more everyday that Holy Cross is the best company you keep.  I’ve been out of college for 2 months, but it feels like my days on Mount Saint James are closer than an echo.  I’m still talking about the things that I learned in classrooms, in the music studio lab, and the WCHC radio station.  I’m tremendously proud of having gone through the Hill and back.

<< Back to Blogs

Paul Fontelo '13

| More
Former Blogger