On José Maceda: A talk by Aki Onda
July 31, 2018
AAA in A, '09-'21
43 Remsen St. Brooklyn, NY
Aki Onda (AO): Today I’m going to talk about José Maceda, who was born a hundred years ago in Manila in 1917. He was a highly skilled pianist turned Filipino ethnomusicologist turned composer. Maceda’s work has a very particular cultural and historical significance. As a composer, Maceda left many one-of-a-kind works combining both fieldworks on Filipino musicality and his knowledge of European avant-garde music. His music fused cutting-edge compositional techniques such as spatialization, attention to timbre, and musique concrète with traditional Asian instruments, rhythms, and structures. His fieldwork as an ethnomusicologist rigorously documented South East and East Asian musical practices and folkways. He was deeply fascinated by so-called indigenous music, or village music, from pre-historical times – music that had been performed in people’s lives as a ceremony or ritual for thousands of years. However, that music was disappearing during his lifetime because of global modernization and industrialization of society.
There are three points that make Maceda really special. The first is the deepness of his understanding of cross-Asian indigenous music, and also that his knowledge of avant-garde music was outstanding. He combined them both in a very unique way.
The second is that he was not just a practitioner, but also a real thinker and his scholarship was very important. He created a new concept which he called the ‘drone and melody’ through his fieldwork as an ethnomusicologist and used it in his own work. I will explain more about that later.
Third, He had a very unusual, gigantic, balloon-like imagination. Just to tell you about his uniqueness – his compositions include music composed for 100 cassettes, 20 radio stations, or thousands of performers in an open-air ritual. The scale of some of his compositions was marvelous and unprecedented. Maceda was a non-conformist and alternative thinker and practitioner in the context of 20th-century avant-garde music, although he was unlike anyone else in the field.
However, his legacy and achievement are almost forgotten these days. Outside the Philippines, his work is severely under-recognized and rarely performed. How many of you have heard of Maceda before…? Just one person! Well, he’s in the oblivion, and practically nobody knows him.
I became interested in Maceda’s work, for the first time, when I was living in Tokyo back in the 90s. Maceda was a little bit known in Japanese culture around that time, and there were concerts of his music occasionally. I read about his work in magazines, which certainly triggered my interest. I also remember that the renowned Japanese pianist Yuji Takahashi conducted Maceda’s orchestra piece, which was commissioned by Japanese composer and cultural icon Toru Takemitsu (Distemperament premiered at Suntory Hall in 1992), although I missed the concert. Yuji Takahashi and Maceda met at Iannis Xenakis’ apartment in Paris in 1964. The three of them maintained a friendship over the next several decades. Yuji Takahashi was instrumental in introducing Maceda’s work in Japan as he wasn’t just a pianist but was also a conductor and a very good writer. He translated a book of Maceda’s articles on ethnomusicology and his own work as a composer, which were originally written for various music journals. This is the only book of Maceda’s own texts published outside the Philippines so far, but it’s out of print and a very expensive rare book; it costs more than $150 dollars at online auction.
The first time I listened to Maceda’s work was not in Japan but after I moved to the U.S. in 2000. John Zorn’s label Tzadik released three of Maceda’s albums, all produced by composer Chris Brown. I was fascinated by one of those albums, ‘Ugnayan’, which to me sounded utterly mysterious and even mystical. I recognized some traditional Filipino musical elements and contemporary Western music techniques. However, none of those techniques were obvious; they were all deconstructed in a strange way. I actually couldn’t figure out his influence, background, nor why he made such weird but beautiful music. It was also hard to learn about his work since there were no available publications in Western countries. So Maceda had been kept as an enigmatic cult figure in my mind for some years.
Then, in 2015, I started working as a curator at TPAM – The Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama – a platform for presenting Asian artists in the contemporary dance, theater, and music fields. One of the projects I had in mind from the beginning was re-staging some of Maceda’s compositions, but it was hard to get information. Luckily, I knew Manila and Hong Kong-based curator Dayang Yraola, who used to work at The José Maceda Collection as an archivist, and she recommended me to do a research there. The José Maceda Collection was founded by Maceda himself and it’s a part of University of the Philippines Center for Ethnomusicology (UPCE). The collection includes audio-recordings, texts, and photos of his fieldwork as an ethnomusicologist; there are many indigenous instruments housed there as well. It also includes the recordings and scores of Maceda’s compositions, and items that relate to his creative career. I was fortunate to receive a grant from the Asian Cultural Council and spent a total of two months in Manila researching at The José Maceda Collection and interviewing people who were close to Maceda, including his former colleague and friend, Filipino composer Ramón Pagayon Santos, and others whom had been his students when he was teaching at the University before he passed away in 2004. I also talked to many younger composers who were influenced by Maceda.
I would like to talk about Maceda’s life and how he developed his artistic practice as a composer over the course of his career, which spanned more than half a century. It’s an enormous topic, but because of the time constraints of this talk, it’s impossible to cover everything. So I’ll focus on selected compositions this time, mostly in the first half of his career, and show some archival photos.
José Maceda was born in Manila on January 31, 1917. He was a piano prodigy and his ability to play the instrument was outstanding. He grew up in the elite circle of the music community and studied at the Conservatory of Music of the University of the Philippines. I should mention the history of the Philippines here. Because of the nearly four centuries of Spanish colonization, from 1521 to 1898, Western music was quite rooted in their culture, and it was not unusual to receive a typical European classical music education. Immediately after his graduation, because of his exceptional skill, he was sent to Paris to continue his piano training and studied under the well-known piano teacher Alfred Cortot at École Normale de Musique de Paris for four years. He briefly studied music analysis with Nadia Boulanger as well. One of his favorite composers was Debussy. He returned to Manila just before World War II. Then, after the war, he joined the piano faculty of the UP Conservatory of Music in 1946.
However, he wanted to continue his piano studies, and that brought him to the United States, which had emerged from a victory in the war and was beginning a new era of world dominance. Intellectually and artistically, US culture was so different from old and devastated Europe. He studied piano privately with E. Robert Schmitz in San Francisco first. Then, In New York, he studied musicology and music composition at Queen’s College and Columbia University from 1950-52. Especially at Columbia, he studied musicology with Paul Henry Lang, which helped Maceda to find a new interest in ethnomusicology and Filipino traditional music. He hadn’t been interested in traditional music when living in the Philippines; he encountered it in New York and was mesmerized by this new discovery.
While he was staying in New York, he had an epiphany. He listened to the music of Edgard Varèse then visited his apartment on Sullivan Street in SoHo several times. Varèse was a French-born composer who emphasized timbre and rhythm and conceived of the idea of ‘sound-masses’ or ‘mass structure.’ He also incorporated electronically generated sounds and unmusical noises such as that of a siren. Maceda was shocked by the revolutionary ideas of Varèse’s music, and that started to change Maceda’s core values and aesthetics from mainstream European modern piano music to post-war avant-garde music from this new continent.
After his return to the Philippines in 1952, he started exploring the world of pre-Western or even pre-historic indigenous Filipino music as an ethnomusicologist and devoted himself for a decade to a series of fieldwork trips all over the countryside. Maceda had another epiphany when he listened to the sound of the bamboo Jew’s harp in the island of Mindoro, and that completely transformed his interest in music from the West to the East, or Europe to Asia. Maceda wrote compositions featuring the sound of his favorite instrument, the Jew’s harp, multiple times though his career.
In the ‘50s, Maceda received several major grants, including from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation that led him to do research in other countries of Asia, particularly Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Japan, and Korea. He started studying different kinds of Asian music, and that really helped him to form an idea of Pan-Asian music within this wider geographical region.
At the same time, he was absorbing the front line of Western avant-garde. In 1958, he went back to Paris to study at the GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales) with the musique concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer. The GRM was an electro-acoustic music studio founded in 1951 by Schaeffer, with composer Pierre Henry and the engineer Jacques Poullin and based at Radio France (RTF -Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française). I asked Maceda’s former colleagues and students what exactly Maceda was working on in the GRM. But, nobody could give me a clear answer or show me evidence from this time, and I could not find any records. It requires further research. It is also rumored that Maceda visited Cologne and met Karlheinz Stockhausen, possibly at the WDR (Studio for Electronic Music of West German Radio) on the same trip. In any case, many attest without doubt that Maceda clearly understood the new theories and practices of ever-evolving European avant-garde music and its pioneering spirit, and that helped him on his new adventure as a composer.
His first composition Ugma-ugma in 1963, when he was already 46 years old, was based on his constant research on different kinds of music in Asia during the 50′s. It’s composed for various instruments from the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan, and China, and was an attempt to present his idea of Pan-Asian music. The pitch and timbre of each instrument varies, but he found a way to combine them and that results in unconventional notation and unusual color palette for sonic details.
It was the beginning of a newly invented musical style with a new concept Maceda proposed. He called it ‘Drone and Melody’ which is the useful term to explain his music, as well as different indigenous music in South East Asia.
What is ‘Drone and Melody’? According to Maceda, Western musical terms like ‘pitch’, ‘rhythm’, and ‘harmony’ do not work for his music. In the tradition of South East Asian music, there is an element called ‘drone’ which is a sustained note or ‘ostinate’, a repetition of one or several tones. Both provide a constant status in the music. The term ‘melody’ doesn’t exist in the Western sense; it also has little to do with ‘pitch.’ ‘Melody’ simply means a combination of multiple tones which will add a variation of colors to the ‘drone.’
Maceda considers the music of the Philippines and South East Asia as fundamentally different from Western music. In a sense, Maceda’s concept of ‘Drone and Melody’ was a bold rejection of Western values. However, this is a bit of contradiction, Ugma-ugma is not just music which features the characteristics of Asian music; it was also his answer to the Western music he absorbed. For instance, he adopted ‘mass structure’, which he learned from Edgard Varèse, especially for the highly complex percussion rhythms. And, his unconventional time structure and organization of sounds has a touch of influence from musique concrete. These elements are deconstructed in the Western way. In other words, Maceda didn’t mimic indigenous village music as it is. If you just pay attention to the surface, it sounds very Asian. But the whole structure and concept clearly belong to the Western context. Or, you could say this is really a hybrid music, which doesn’t belong to either side or which belongs to both sides, depending on how you see it.
After Ugma-ugma, Maceda composed two more pieces with a similar concept and compositional strategy. One of those was Kubing which was for Bamboo percussion and men’s voices. Maceda specifically used Filipino instruments and style of singing for this piece, as opposed to Ugma-ugma, which used instruments from many Asian countries. Why bamboo instruments? Because this material was everywhere in the Philippines, had been used in people’s lives for thousands of years, and it didn’t cost much! Maceda’s scores are also very beautiful; this is all his handwriting. And he often specifies the placement of the musicians as if music was played in a ritual or ceremony in a village.
In the same year Maceda composed Kubing, in 1966, he organized ‘The Musics of Asia International Symposium’ in Manila, which was supported by UNESCO-International Music Council. The symposium invited scholars, composers, and musicians from Asia, Europe, and America. This event mainly discussed various topics of Asian music, both traditional and contemporary. It also introduced the works of Western composers such as Xenakis, Boulez, and Cage to the Filipino audience for the first time. Japanese pianist Yuji Takahashi was also invited both as pianist and composer. I interviewed Takahashi earlier this year, and he told me about his trip to Manila and it is quite interesting. After he arrived at the airport, he was picked up by a police car that took him to the palace of President Ferdinand Marcos. To his surprise, he was welcomed by Imelda Marcos, and she played the piano for him since she knew he was a famous pianist. The Marcos regime (1966 – 1986) was infamous for corruption and brutality, especially human rights abuses, but the dictator Marcos and his wife were big supporters of the arts. They founded the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) where the symposium took place. I’ll tell you more about the strange and twisted relationship between the politics of the Marcos regime and Maceda’s work later.
In 1968, Maceda’s new composition Pagsamba premiered in a round-shaped church, the U.P. Chapel of the Holy Sacrifice. Pagsamba was composed for a mixed group of 100 voices and various bamboo instruments and gongs, creating mass structures. A total of 241 performers are to be scattered among the audience, all facing the center of the circle where the conductor leads the ceremony. Because of this arrangement and setting, each participant, either audience or performer, hears the sound differently, depending on where they are in the church. Maceda was aiming to erase the line between performers and audience as if it were a ritual held in a rural village. This also required very specific social engagement for all participants since it was a concert as well as a Christian mass. I heard that the priests were freaked out by the eerie music… Maceda wanted to erase the line between performer and audience in this kind of setting.
There is an interesting story: it didn’t materialize, but Maceda left a note in his article published in a music journal that he intended to present Pagsamba as an electro-acoustic music piece. Instead of 241 real musicians and singers, he wanted to place 241 loudspeakers and play back pre-recorded sounds on tapes. It shows his interest in spatialization and clearly echoes another musical innovation, which happened at the GRM in Paris. In 1974, French composer Francois Bayle designed an 80-loudspeaker complex-spatial-sound diffusion system the Acousmonium in Radio France’s Olivier Messiaen Concert Hall, which is still in use by GRM composers. Surprisingly, Maceda’s imagination was even ahead of the premiere of this world famous sound diffusion system.
In 1971, Maceda premiered Cassette 100, which involved one hundred participants carrying cassette players in the lobby of the CCP. The movements of participants were simply choreographed; they went up and down the stairs connecting different floors so the sounds were moving and flying inside the space. It was his first attempt to use an electronic device for sound diffusion. Back then, the portable cassette was cutting-edge technology. But you can easily see the roots of this from his idea of Pagsamba, in which he wanted to diffuse the recorded sounds through the loudspeakers. In fact, immediately after premiering Pagsamba, Maceda proposed the idea of Cassette 100 to composer Lucrecia Kasilag who was then President of the CCP, and Imelda Marcos, who was a chairperson of the institution. Then, Maceda composed a score of one hundred parts individually recorded onto cassettes.
For this event, Maceda collaborated with two visual artists who hung colorful toilet paper in the CCP. Eventually those are thrown down to the floor. There was stroboscopic lighting in the space as well. If you look at the documentation photos, it looks similar to a ‘60s happening, where anything could happen! Again, Maceda tried to blur the line between the performer and audience in a very chaotic way.
The public and media reaction to Cassette 100 was mixed. However, Maceda himself was encouraged by the result. In a magazine review, he said: ‘If the production of goods is merely for material comfort and not for spiritual enlightenment, society will fall apart.
Last year in 2017, Cassette 100 was restaged in the lobby of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the exact location of its premiere in 1971. After the thirty-minute performance, there was a haunting moment. All the participants lay down the floor, and then a huge amount of tabloid newspapers were thrown from the top level, which looked like a blizzard and started covering the floor and the participants. I was first puzzled by this unexpected surprise, then realized that it was a protest of the current President Duterte’s extrajudicial killing of suspected drug dealers and users. The dead bodies and flood of news. This re-staging was directed by composer Jonas Baes, who studied with Maceda several decades ago, and this shocking finale was his idea. It also somehow echoes the use of toilet paper at the premier in 1971. Some people wonder if there was any political connotation to the original, or whether this act was against the institution or the regime. It looked quite subversive. However, the composer didn’t say anything, and back then, it was risky to issue such a statement in the political climate of the Marcos regime. I personally think that it was not a political action, but you never know…
Maceda frequently worked with the CCP, and to a certain extent with the Marcos regime, especially in the 70s. Because of this, Maceda is often remembered as a ‘controversial composer’ to this day, but I believe we should discuss this notion again. Around that time, a large part of Filipino culture was supported by the regime. And, it was impossible to express one’s political opinions openly. I interviewed Maceda’s former colleagues and friends about Maceda’s political views and many attested that he was seriously apolitical and always avoided talking about politics. They believed that Maceda just wanted to present his works and did not care much about the political implications attached to them. The only person I spoke with who had a different opinion was Jonas Baes. He claimed that Maceda was political as a citizen, but not as a composer.
His next creation Ugnayan for 20 radios was definitely one of his masterpieces, and probably the most ambitious, provocative, and controversial work among his repertoire. It is a 51-minute long piece and consists of 20 recorded tracks. It explores the same concept he used for Cassette 100 but this time he used real radio stations for sound diffusion. He indeed used all 37 radio stations in metropolitan Manila. So some tracks were played back from multiple stations and there were no other radio programs heard during the event since he was using all the stations. It was broadcast on New Year’s Day of 1974, from 6 – 7 pm and all 20 tracks were synchronized just by starting at exactly the same time. 142 Ugnayan Centers were set all over the city, and people were encouraged to go to a center with a transistor radio in their hand and catch one of the radio frequencies. It is said that between 2 to 20 million people listened to the sound. The scale of the project was unprecedented and it was possibly the biggest event in the field of avant-garde arts in Asia.
This project was supported by the Marcos regime and it was quite extraordinary in terms of scale as a sociopolitical music event. In addition to holding this one-hour segment of all radio stations in the city, it was promoted heavily by the national media. There was tons of propaganda. What did they want to promote with this event? Here’s a quote from a propaganda text….
‘The project Ugnayan, as initiated by the First Lady, Mrs. Imelda R. Marcos, in her capacity as founder of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, aims to focus public awareness on indigenous musical instruments while seeking music as a “medium for organized meaningful social action in the New Society.” Ugnayan also hopes to illustrate how art and industry can work together and how persons and communities or tradition and technology can be interlinked creatively.’
Uganayan in Tagalog means ‘interlinking’ and this is Imelda Marcos’s mandate for the name. Maceda’s original title was ‘Atmosphere’ but Imelda thought that she wanted to have a more Filipino title. The regime wanted to employ Maceda’s use of Filipino instruments and its music as a symbol of national unity. However, I’d ask you look at Maceda’s career carefully: his vision and imagination didn’t stick to just one country but kept expanding to wider spectrums of Pan-Asian music. He did not have a nationalistic point of view, and this contradicted the propaganda of the regime.
This event seems to have been both a huge success and a complete failure. Probably, the artistic side of the composition, which achieved a much higher standard than Cassette 100, was a success. Also, it was a perfect representation of Maceda’s concepts and philosophy – in the representation of village culture as a musical statement – and was probably also successful since the music reached out to the entire community of people in the city. However, it was too idealistic and too artistic for the ordinary people who experienced it since they didn’t have any knowledge of the Avant-garde arts or music. Also, only ten percent of the population was familiar with Filipino indigenous music since Filipino culture was quite Westernized, due to centuries of Spanish and American colonialization. The sounds of the indigenous instruments Maceda used were too alien for them. In a sense, there was a huge risk for the Marcos regime in presenting this project. I’d like to share a quote from a magazine article (Philippines Quarterly, 74) written by Rosalinda Orosa…
‘Mrs. Marcos was launching, full-scale, a project that was too eclectic, too esoteric in approach and, therefore, not likely to capture common tao’s imagination. But without taking the risk, she would have allowed Ugnayan to remain nothing more than 20 sheets of paper stashed away in a drawer, doubtless to mold in obscurity.’
If you are an artist or composer, you often learn from a mistake and use it to improve the next work; Maceda applied this strategy. After failing to get a clear understanding of the concept of the Ugnayan from the people, which was too esoteric and intellectual, Maceda explored musical ideas for a large-scale ensemble as an open-air ritual for hundreds or thousands of performers. Udlot-udlot premiered in 1975. It consists of variations of rhythmic drones played by wooden sticks, bamboo buzzers, bamboo stamping tubes, bamboo flutes, and voices. Those can be played and sung by anyone, and it doesn’t matter if they had a musical education or not. The score is also different from Maceda’s other compositions. It’s a simple instruction of what to do, and there is no conductor, although there is a timekeeper.
For Udlot-udlot, Maceda especially wanted to explore the musical suggestion of the sounds of nature and the atmosphere of a ritual in a village. It’s a sort of animistic and spiritual approach for this extended-musical performance. You can imagine the village people gathering together in a square surrounded by the tropical rainforest – birds humming, and any kind of daily activities going on – and those can be a part of this musical performance. It also implies the shared human labor of the village people. For me, Udlot-udlot shows a romantic and optimistic side of Maceda, and this is the most participant-friendly composition of his repertoire.
We have to stop here for this presentation, but to wrap up, in the 80s, Maceda started adopting Western instruments mixed with Filipino indigenous instruments, although his way of using the Western instruments was completely idiosyncratic. For instance, in his composition Strata in1988, he used five six-stringed guitars, five flutes, and five cellos. His instruction in the score was ‘tuning of each differ by a few cents.’ This was so that the sounds would fit with the other Eastern instruments, which were not made for the standard Western tuning. In the 90s, there were two compositions; Dissemination in 1990 and Distemperament in 1992, made for a Western symphony orchestra. But, Maceda brutally deconstructed the usual functions of the orchestra and transformed it into something else. Following that, he composed for his own instrument: piano, two pieces commissioned by a Japanese pianist Aki Takahashi: Music for Five Pianos in 1993 and Two Pianos and Four Winds in 1996. Then, in 2000, he extended this idea with his last piano piece, Sujeichon, which explored musicality of Korean court music.
Maceda changed his compositional style regularly, especially the way of presenting and the musical instruments he used, but his philosophy and fundamental idea never changed. He always dreamt of presenting new kind of Asian music.
I really hope Maceda’s importance and uniqueness will become more recognized in the future, and that his compositions will be performed. I’ll be restaging a selection of Maceda’s compositions – Cassettes 100, Music for Five Pianos, and Two Pianos and Four Winds with the pianists Aki & Yuji Takahashi and other Japanese musicians conducted by Josefino Chino Toredo, a Filipino conductor who was a frequent collaborator of Maceda, at TPAM – Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama in 2019. There is another plan in another country in 2020 as well. Hopefully I can bring his compositions to New York in the future.
Transcribed and edited by Hilary Chassé.
Aki Onda is a New York-based artist and composer. He is particularly known for his Cassette Memories — works compiled from a ‘sound diary’ of field-recordings collected by using a cassette Walkman over a span of the last three decades. Onda often performs in interdisciplinary fields and collaborates with filmmakers, visual artists, and choreographers, including Ken Jacobs, Michael Snow, Raha Raissnia, Takashi Makino, Akio Suzuki, and Takao Kawaguchi. Onda’s work has been presented by numerous institutions internationally such as MoMA, MoMA PS1, New Museum, REDCAT, documenta 14, Pompidou Center, Louvre Museum, Palais de Tokyo, Bozar, and many others. Onda is also active as a curator and has organized major tours and exhibitions internationally, including events at The Kitchen, Images Festival, and Time-Based Art Festival.
Aki Onda’s research was supported by a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council.
This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.
José Maceda was the subject of Asia Art Archive Hong Kong’s 2015 exhibition Udlot–udlot.