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The triumphant members of the 10th Manila Composers Lab.

“I feel like I’ve just visited the Bayreuth of the Phillipines,” I said to my gracious host, composer and ethnomusicologist Ramón Pagayon Santos. He’d invited us over for an expansive morning and afternoon conversation, including lunch, the day after the final concert of the 10th anniversary of the Manila Composers Lab.

One critical aspect of my 2019 residency with the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble are my visits to the new music neighbors of Việt Nam. Before arriving in my second home here in Hà Nội, I’ve made fresh contacts with new friends in Singapore and met composers in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, Thailand. Before heading home to California I will go to Kyoto in late April after the conclusion of Hà Nội’s fourth season, to follow-up with many friends in the new music world based in Japan’s ancient capital.

I am already convinced, however, that visiting the 10th anniversary of the Manila Composers Lab will undoubtedly be the biggest highlight. I was utterly blown away visiting the unique world of the Phillipines, a place like no other on earth.


With the generous Ramón Pagayon Santos at his home in Pasig.

10th anniversaries are indeed milestone achievements for any artistic organization. The Beatles were a ten year run, a good measurement of longevity. Having completed thirty successful years directing Southwest Chamber Music in Los Angeles, my wife Jan and I now have an instinct for What’s Next?

No small irony that the memoir of her experiences has this title, a homage to our musical grandfather Elliott Carter. I’d encourage any interested reader to study her book!


B-DW San Ka-pôon-an by Ramón Pagayon Santos.

The brainchild of the energetic composer Jonas Baes, the Manila Composers Lab brought together four young Southeast Asian composers, Lương Huệ Trinh of Việt Nam, Choke Yuan Teng of Malaysia, Septian Dwi Cahyo of Indonesia and José Buencamino of the Phillipines. Along with the leadership of Baes, they were guided by Peter Edwards and Chow JunYan of Singapore joined by Feliz Anne Reyes Macahis and Aj Villanueva of Manila. The Goethe Institut supported the excellent Handwerk Ensemble of Cologne.


Selfie from the left, Feliz Anne Reyes Macahis, Choke Yuan Teng, Lương Huệ Trinh, Septian Dwi Cayho, Jose Buencamino and Chow JunYan.


Lương Huệ Trinh and the Handwerk Ensemble of Cologne at the MCL.


Generational continuity for Aj Villanueva, Feliz Anne Reyes Macahis and Jonas Baes.

I’ve commissioned or premiered a lot of composers from Asia in my career based in the Los Angeles. Programming is not a contest, but I suspect our advocacy for the East at Southwest Chamber Music was significant among all my sibling groups across the United States. My singular list of composers also doesn’t reveal that they all received multiple performances of multiple compositions. Unsuk Chin. Chinary Ung. Toshio Hosokawa. Lei Liang. Hyo-shin Na. Nguyễn Thiện Đạo. Tôn Thất Tiết. Vũ Nhật Tân. Chen Yi. Joan Huang. Him Sophy. Chou Wen Chung. An entire festival devoted to Toru Takemitsu and also young Japanese composers Masamichi Kinoshita, Takemi Ukeda, Tomoko Momoyama and Toshio Watanabe, performed in 2015 at our Los Angeles International Mew Music Festival at REDCAT in Walt Disney Concert Hall by my friends in the Tambuco Percussion Ensemble of México City.

My drawing board is still full and my journey to the east still in process. I’m writing many more chapters to be sure.


The Bayreuth of The Phillipines.

I must confess that before arriving in Manila I was predisposed with positive anticipation. For without question one of the finest staff members Jan and I had in our long thirty year Los Angeles career was Joan Quinto, who was born in Manila. Joan was, in one word, flawless. She was our dream production/office manager, in every regard. And Joan first started with us arranging the percussion set-ups for our Takemitsu Festival. (Note to any new music group: try to hire a percussionist as your Production Manager.)


My wonderful Production Manager, Joan Quinto of Manila.

Joan created the right environment for our first visit to her homeland. She predicted we’d find the people of the Phillipines with the biggest hearts on earth. She was right, and what a unique place on this planet!

A former Spanish colony where no one speaks Spanish anymore. Coming from the Americas with substantive experience with México and Colombia, that was the jolting surprise we needed to see to believe. Often Manila reminded us of a vast city in México, but without tortillas, tequila or Spanish. Quinto, Santos, Poblador, Villanueva, Alejandro, de la Peña, the names keep seeping through with Latin ancestry but the voices are all Tagalog. A country in Asia but the only one without Buddha. Finally, a non-Confucian educational aesthetic. Seven thousand islands forming a vast archipelagic nation, with sibling kulintang gongs to their other island neighbor and its renowned gamelans, Indonesia. A Galleon Route from Manila to Acapulco (Mr. Ma and Company, we’ve heard enough of the Silk Road). A fierce and brutal reconquista by the Spanish when they again encounter Muslims in the Phillipines and not the Aztecs or Incas of the Americas. A violent revolution in the late 19th century against the Spanish followed by a confusing colonial era with the United States. The horrific World War II Battle of Manila in 1945 that destroyed the city’s infrastructure with untold loss of innocent civilian life. A current history still carving its way out of an extractive inherited past.

The Phillipines remain an essential and a big big big big world story.


A memorial to the victims of the Battle of Manila.


The Church of St. Augustin of 1607 in the Intramuros of Manila.

But it was easy to quickly grasp why José Maceda returned home to Manila from his studies in Paris and the United States. Introduce Varèse, Xenakis and Boulez in the 60s? Check. Develop a theory of music for Asia with clarity about the differences with the West? Absolutely. Inspired by Edgar Varèse in New York City, his reputation had been well known to me. Being from Los Angeles, my mentors Lawrence Morton and Leonard Stein knew him from his time at UCLA, where Maceda received a degree in ethnomusicology.  But Maceda was fated to return to these shores, a musical MacArthur, after his first person absorption of huge doses of Western modernism. He knew his homeland was a true One Of A One Country.

To hear his music in performance?

For that I needed to go to Manila. Think pilgrimage, as in Bayreuth for the Ring. Compared to José Maceda, both Wagner and Stockhausen aren’t even close to being ambitious. Keep reading.


A percussion part for Maceda’s AGUNGAN/Gong Sounds of 1966.

There’s a very good chance you’ve not heard a major work of Maceda’s in a live performance. Here’s why. Pagsamba of 1968 is for 116 instruments, 100 mixed and 25 male voices. Cassette 100 of 1971 is for, you guessed it, 100 cassette players (is there a digital makeover?). 1974’s Ugnayan is for 20 radio stations working together and 1975’s Udlot-Udlot is, finally, for a truly mammoth group, several hundred to several thousand people (perhaps rethink the capstone grandiosity of the Mahler 8th or Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder?). By 1985 he calmed down a bit: Suling-Suling is only for 10 flutes, 10 bamboo buzzers and 10 flat gongs. Maceda’s research and field recordings of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia are deposited in the Musée de l’Homme archives in Paris and inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, held at the University of the Philippines Center for Ethnomusicology.

And so knowing all this, I knew that I eventually needed to go to Manila, to locate the world and environment of one of music’s greatest composers, thinkers, researchers, theoreticians, the East-West philosopher par excellence. Precisely because he is from the Phillipines!

Thanks to Ramón Santos, Jonas Baes and Verne de la Peña, I was able to meet Maceda through direct personal contact, removed by only one generation, by listening and talking to his fellow colleagues and former students at the University of the Philippines. One could even with accuracy use the word disciple to describe Maceda’s influence on these inspiring and still very active musicians.


With Ramón Santos at his home in Pasig.


With Jonas Baes after the last concert of the MCL.


Pauline Therese, the soprano for Verne de la Peña’s Si Suan, Si Suan.

My thumbnail take away, at least for this blog post?

Music is a Western concept, composed by an individual with the audience sitting and listening to a composition performed in a linear experience. Ritual is the sound world of Asia. These two perspectives on how we humans use sound were articulated with brilliance by Ramón Santos at a Manila Composers Lab pre-concert talk. He demonstrated the contrasts between cultures in a magnanimous but quite clearly delineated lecture about both worlds.

And Santos and I agreed over a long lunch the next day, we are closer than ever before.

Our closeness was forged by the tough-as-nails, gone but not forgotten Modernism of the 20th century. José Maceda and Chou Wen-Chung studying with Edgar Varèse in New York City.  Elliott Carter and Charles Ives. John Cage and Lou Harrison at UCLA in Los Angeles transforming the revolutionary harmonic chemistry of their teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, by looking across the Pacific (Maceda, by no accident, would also study at UCLA). Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis and Karlheinz Stockhausen washing their ears of western sounds in post-war Paris through the inspiration of their mentor, Olivier Messiaen who, I must add, encouraged the ferocious music of Việt Nam’s musical grandfather, Nguyễn Thiện Đạo.


Novo Concertante Manila getting ready for Maceda’s Gong Sounds.


Gathering audience for the outdoor concert.


The ending of Patangis Buwaya by Jonas Baes.

Jonas Baes curated the two Manila Composers Lab concert with the titles Crossroads and Progressions. Crossroads was a linear concert, with important performances by the excellent Handwerk Ensemble of Cologne and Rag-O-Duo of music by Chino Toledo, Aj Villanueva and Baes’ influential teacher, Mathias Spahlinger. Si Suan, Si Suan stole our hearts of all the pieces, a puppet drama by Verne de la Peña to a text by Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio. It was masterfully directed by Amihan Bonifacio-Pamolete with soloist Pauline Therese Arejola, a voice to watch and encourage, supported by percussionist Jacques Rivas Dufort. The puppets were from the Teatrong Mulat ng Pilipinas. A piece outlining the colonial era of the pernicious Spanish characterization of the Philippines, Si Suan, Si Suan is an essential work.


With Suan and Suan puppets, Pauline Therese and Lương Huệ Trinh.

But it was the Progressions concert that will live in my memory as one of the greatest musical events I’ve ever experienced. Baes put into practice the general Maceda theory bandied about during the Manila Composers Lab. This was a concert of ritual and not music. Performing out of doors truly helped, but would not be essential (I was dreaming that Tanglewood’s lawn has yet to do the greatest concert possible, you know who you are if you just read this in Boston).

This was a concert in the Philippines for the Philippines. The world, and its presenting organizations shelling out thousands for more über-interpreted Tchaikovsky, would do well to pay serious attention.

Climate change needs a soundtrack. Jonas Baes has already delivered what we need, with Patangis Buwaya of 2003.

Four performers wander into the performing area, muttering but coughing. And then they continue to cough. And cough some more. Pollution incarnate. Eventually they retreat to the four corners of the earth, disappearing into the darkness to begin striking gongs. And screaming. In deep anguish. Blood curdling anguish resounding in the balmy night sky of the Philippines, ghostlike haunted laments of slavery and extractive colonialism. And while these screams turn into counterpoint between north, south, east and west, small wind chimes and frog drums are quietly passed out to the entire audience, which is thereby naturally cued to begin the night sound counterpoint. Contributing to the soundscape, taking as long as it takes to dwindle to nothing, the audience becomes no longer listeners but participants. Ritual – not music.

We. Were. Utterly. Blown. Away.


The courtyard tree by José Maceda Hall provided the double bar.

John Cage was right. As much as possible, try to study with the top of the company. He didn’t just study music with anybody, he studied with Arnold Schoenberg. When he searched for guidance from Zen Buddhism, he found D.T. Suzuki. When he worked with a dance company, it was with Merce Cunningham, who danced for Martha Graham’s Company, including the world premiere of Copland’s Appalachian Spring. I must have a little of his spirit in me. Cage and I were born in the same hospital in Los Angeles, the Good Samaritan.

The legacy of José Maceda, the top of the company for the Phillipines and Southeast Asia, demanded a trip of discovery to Manila.

My gratitude to the Manila Composers Lab and all its participants is genuine. I learned a lot, found ideas confirmed while discovering and dreaming of many new paths for music in the 21st century. Staying in contact is now easier than ever before. Jan and I anticipate continuing our conversations with Ramón Santos and Company as time moves forward. Indeed, Santos has family in Northridge, California, so I think dinner in Pasadena is going to find a way on to our calendar without a huge effort.


Composers Feliz Anne Reyes Macahis and Lương Huệ Trinh.

Now it’s time for me to go back to work for my next concert with the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble, which includes music by Feliz Anne Reyes Macahis, Lương Huệ Trinh and Tonia Ko. I met the extraordinary composer Feliz Anne Reyes Macahis through my Vietnamese friend Lương Huệ Trinh. The type of social media introduction so much easier in the 21st century. Feliz is soon having her chamber opera Eurydike premiered at a black-box series of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, around the time of my performance of her Bardo in Hà Nội. To say Feliz has a bright future is to define understatement. I have rarely, if ever, seen scores like hers.

And that’s because of her being connected to the impressive generational heritage of the Philippines. José Maceda, Ramón Santos, Verne de la Peña and Jonas Baes.

None of us do anything on our own. A lesson the new music community of the Philippines knows better than any place on earth.

Best, best, best,