The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 22–JAN 23

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DEC 22–JAN 23 Issue
The Miraculous The Miraculous: Music

34. 1974, Manila

After studies in Paris with the leading French pianist of the time (who, alas, is soon to begin collaborating with the Vichy regime, a decision that will forever shadow him), a young Filipino pianist returns to his home country to begin a successful career as a soloist. His repertoire is devoted to classical European music, and he is credited with introducing to the Philippines the French pianism technique, which, in contrast to the German and Russian styles, emphasizes grace over force. All goes smoothly until one day when he is in the midst of a series of recitals of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23, the “Appassionata.” Suddenly, as he contemplates the fact that he is playing European music for an audience of cosmopolitan Filipinos who probably know little or nothing about the indigenous music of their own country, he says to himself, “What does all of this have to do with coconuts and rice?”

Abandoning his nascent career as an interpreter of classical music, he relocates to the United States where for the next 15 years he devotes himself to studying musicology and anthropology, sometimes doing fieldwork in the Philippines, and eventually receives a PhD in ethnomusicology from UCLA. During this time, he also encounters numerous avant-garde composers. When he finally moves back to the Philippines, his aim is to explore the possibilities of what he terms Southeast Asia’s “musical thought,” which, he believes, is firmly anchored in the natural world. Almost all of the region’s musical instruments are derived from natural products, especially the bamboo plant, including, he later notes, “poly-cordal zithers, parallel stringed zithers, raft zithers, stamping tubes, percussion tubes, xylophones, panpipes, whistles, buzzers, Jew’s harps, clappers, reed instruments, slit drums and scrapers.” Beyond these bamboo instruments, other nature-derived musical instruments include coconut and shell rattles, percussion beams, slit drums, bean-pod percussion, carabao horn, shell horns, coconut leaf clarinet, papaya clarinet, rice-stalk reed, rattan spring clapper, and the craw-claw rattle.

Accordingly, he begins to compose for the traditional instruments of his country, but his compositions—influenced by the work of experimental composers such as Varèse, Boulez and Xenakis, and even more so by his revelation that in contrast to Western music which relies on linearity and closure, in South Asian music “sound is used as if, without marking time, and without having a marker for the beginning or the end of the music, sound could go on indefinitely”—are anything but traditional. He also reflects on the fact that the sounds of this music are often heard in the open air, rather than in concert halls. A decade after his repatriation, such thoughts culminate in a composition he initially titles Atmospheres, for 20 Radio Stations.

Following nearly a year of preparation, the 51-minute piece premieres January 1, 1974. Its 100-page-long score calls for 40 kolitong zithers in different tunings, as well as balingbing buzzers, bungbung low pitched bamboo horns, ongiyong whistle flutes, bangibang yoke-shaped wooden bar, agung wide brimmed gongs, Chinese cymbals, gongs, echo gongs and many wordless voices. He records the composition on 20 different tracks. Copies of these recordings are then distributed to all of Manila’s 37 radio stations. At 6 PM, each station begins broadcasting the recordings (some tracks are played on multiple stations). Prior to this, the population of the capital has been encouraged to tune in on transistor radios and to bring these radios to 142 public parks, squares and street corners that the composer has designated as “Ugnayan Centers.”

At the behest of the wife of the Philippine leader, whose support is crucial to the realization of the piece, the title is changed to Ugnayan (in Tagalog, ugnayan means “connection”). What complicates this support is that the nation has been under martial law for the past two years, martial law imposed by the very leader whose wife has made possible the citywide broadcast of this experimental composition.

By most accounts, the premiere is a success: some 15,000 people gather in the largest Ugnayan Center, and throughout the city, millions more tune in. But there is a cost: “They used me,” the composer later admits, “there was a political side to it. I agreed to it just so I could do the project. One letter from [the first lady] to all the radio stations and, well, I got what I wanted. At least in theory.” While seen, justifiably, as a brilliantly innovative piece of music and as a subversive attack on cultural colonialism, Ugnayan never wholly escapes the taint of its creator’s one-time collusion with a kleptocratic government known for its widespread abuse of human rights.

(José Maceda, Alfred Cortot, Imelda Marcos)


Raphael Rubinstein

Raphael Rubinstein is the New York-based author of The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). Excerpts from his recently completed book Libraries of Sand about the Jewish-Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès have appeared in BombThe Fortnightly Review and 3:AM Magazine. In January 2023, Bloomsbury Academic will publish a collection of his writing titled Negative Work: The Turn to Provisionality in Contemporary Art. Since 2008 he has been Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 22–JAN 23

All Issues