I tried to read up on Jose Maceda before Aki Onda’s presentation Tuesday night at the Asia Art Achives in Brooklyn, but I didn’t get very far. The internet just doesn’t quite do it in this case. But Aki Onda has dug deeper, and spoke on this Filipino composer with the authority of someone who’s both steeped in and passionate about his subject.
Aki Onda’s slideshow on Jose Maceda at the Asia Art Archive in America, Brooklyn.
Although born and raised in the Phillipines, Jose Maceda was a citizen of the world. A child prodigy on piano, he took to Paris to study at the Ecole Normale de Musique. He conducted further studies in musicology at Columbia University, anthropology at Northwestern, and finally a doctorate in ethnomusicology at UCLA in 1963. He had associations with some of the most influential musical minds of the 20th century—Nadia Boulanger, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Schaeffer, Iannis Xenakis, and Edgard Varese, among others.
Ironically, he did not discover the folk music of his own country until a student at Columbia—I believe through the influence of Paul Henry Lang, if I’m not mistaken. Furthermore, it was not until the age of 47, after all his studies were complete, that Maceda wrote his first composition. How’s that for a late start?
About twenty people crammed a small library to listen to Aki Onda deliver his remarks. There was an air conditioner and a fan running, in addition to background music of Maceda’s compositions. We all had to listen extra hard to hear Onda’s soft-spoken, melodious tenor voice. No one moved a muscle for almost an hour—an entire room in the flow state, a wonderful way to spend an evening.
Aki Onda pointed out that, although Maceda was Filipino, he aimed for a pan-Asian music, incorporating elements from all over the continent, perhaps most notably the use of a panoply of instruments. In a way, this reminds me of the efforts of Buxtehude, Bach, and Handel at unifying musical approaches from across Europe, most especially France, Italy, and Germany.
At least three of Maceda’s compositions were reviewed on Tuesday night. My memory may be leaving out one or two, as I’m writing from two pages of notes hastily scribbled on the train on my way back to Philly, supplemented by a little internet research. The three were Pagsamba, Cassette 100, and Ugnayam for 20 radio stations.
Pagsamba is based on the Tagalog text of the Catholic Mass. It’s written for more than 200 musicians, including voices, suspended agung, suspended gandingan, whistle flutes, bamboo buzzers, among other things. It was premiered in 1968 at the Parish of the Holy Sacrifice at the University of the Philipines. The church is circular in shape, and the performers were scattered throughout the audience. At times meditative, at other times haunting, the composition was said, in the words of Onda, to have “freaked out” the pastor of the parish. I’ve discovered on Facebook a restaging of this event that took place last year to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
Cassette 100 premiered at the Cultural Center for the Philipines and features 100 performers carrying cassette tape recorders with pre-recorded music and moving according to a prescribed choreography. Onda showed us the score, and it reminded me of a lot of the aleatoric works I played in district and regional bands in high school. I have to wonder if this isn’t the composition that turned Onda on to Maceda, given his own work with cassette tape in performance. Last year at the University of the Phillipines this composition was given a revival, except this time mp3 players were used rather than cassette players.
I’m still not sure I understand how Ugnayan works. Written for 20 radio stations, the title was actually suggested by Imelda Marcos, since, if I’m not mistaken, the work was commissioned by the Filipino government. Onda mentioned that, although Maceda had personal political beliefs, he stayed out of the public political sphere and only rubbed elbows with the government because they were funding certain projects.
One of the goals of Ugnayan was to reach out to the general Filipino public, and while, in various locations, they participated by tuning in to the radio, the idea was too esoteric for most of them, so the fruits of their involvement were limited. One has to admire Maceda’s ingenuity, though. He was certainly tuned in to a different frequency, and has there really been anyone like him since?
I took to Maceda almost immediately upon digging into his music. Pagsamba in particular was giving me a Messiaen vibe—and it should be noted that Olivier Messiaen was also interested in folk music and experimental music. Given all this, not to mention his professional associations, I asked Aki Onda at the end of the presentation if Maceda rubbed elbows with Messiaen, and the answer seems to be yes. To be a fly on the wall in Paris in the early-mid 20th Century! What a world that must have been! I’ll have to add it to the list of places to consider if time travel ever becomes possible.
Toward the end of the presentation, Onda asked how many of us had heard of Maceda before this event was announced. I think one hand, maybe two hands, went up. Maceda is as-yet little known, and the popularity of Aki Onda’s presentation—it sold out so quickly that he generously agreed to have two sessions that night—seems to be related to his own dedicated following in New York. But this could be the beginning of a kind of Maceda revival. Onda has been researching and promoting him relentlessly, often visiting the Maceda Archives at the University of the Philipines in Quezon City. In addition to Tuesday night’s presentation, other events are in the offing, including a few engagements later this year in Australia. I have a feeling Maceda won’t be obscure for long, and we’ll have Aki Onda to thank for that.