“It’s not really music. Not in the strictest sense.”
National Artist for Music, composer, ethnomusicologist, and UP University Professor Emeritus Ramon Pagayon Santos was referring to his area of research—non-Western indigenous expressive traditions included in the genre called “ethnic music.” Music, he said, is a Western concept defined by elements such as structure, counterpoint, harmony, texture, and form, among others.
“I prefer calling it ‘non-music’ because it doesn’t fit that idea.”
Santos began questioning the use of “music” to refer to such expressive practices because of an incident at a Philippine music festival he organized when he was dean of the College of Music.
“I had invited three guitarists and a dancer from Batangas to participate. Imagine my surprise when two jeepney loads arrived!” During the performance, he said the others acted as bystanders who would react loudly and throw money at the performers. “That type of ‘music’ wasn’t meant for just listening because it wouldn’t have the intended effect. It needed the participation of the ‘community.’ There was an experiential condition.”
He also cited the kwintangan kayu of the Yakan, an instrument made of wooden logs set up after planting, which is played non-stop until the seeds have sprouted. “You can listen to it and enjoy it but its purpose really is to encourage the growth of what was planted. It doesn’t follow what conventionally defines music.” Other cultural expressions like the bayok of the Maranao and the badiw of the Ibaloi are similarly dependent on the occasions where these are performed.
Breaking out: from classical to experimental
Santos has been challenging the use of “music” as an ethnomusicologist since the 1980s. But as a composer, Santos has been pushing against tradition for far longer—as early as his undergraduate days in the early ‘60s.
There’s a popular saying about learning the rules first before breaking them. And that’s what Santos did.
His mother and grandmother were pianists, so “music was ordinary” to him. They were taught solfège and how to play the piano. When he went to San Jose Seminary for high school, he “fell in love with schola cantorum,” the singing of ecclesiastical chants. “My interest in music was intensified. I joined the choir and spent most of my leisure time listening to music.”
But music wasn’t his only interest. He wrote poetry and later realized that literature inspired his passion for music, even prompting him to create music for Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems. Like his brother, Santos also painted. Such was his inclination that his parents thought he would study painting in college. But when asked, he told them his choice was Music. “Just like that!” he said, snapping his fingers, “I said I wanted to take Music.”
He was about to enroll at the University of Santo Tomas because it seemed like the logical choice after the seminary. If it hadn’t been for the long lines at enrollment, his father deciding to postpone it until the next day, and his sister who was a UP alumna asking why he was going to UST, Santos wouldn’t have gone to UP. So the next day, that fateful day in 1958, he went to UP and eventually earned his degree in Composition and Conducting.
Before he even graduated, he had already formed the Immaculate Conception Choir in Pasig, written choir music and a whole Mass, and led the choir in presenting operettas. He even joined the symphonic ode category of the Bonifacio Centennial National Composition Contest, where he was the only declared winner at second place. There was no first or third place awardee. “The first honorable mention was my teacher,” he said with a sheepish smile.
He was a regular at the library, always looking for new records to listen to. There he discovered Edgard Varèse, a French composer recognized for using sound outside the confines of musical tradition. “Wow! Is this music? If this was recorded, there must be something to it.”
He was also amazed by Jose Maceda, a visionary composer and a member of the UP faculty who pioneered avant-garde music in the country. “He is my greatest idol in composition and I’m proud to say he recruited me then to play his pieces,” Santos said, before adding with a laugh, “which were very difficult!” He credits Maceda with inspiring him as a composer because his ideas were deeply rooted in Philippine culture and how “we feel and experience music.”
Dissonances had already become part of Santos’ work. “I think my teacher thought it wouldn’t get me anywhere.” But his leanings toward unconventional compositions mixed with his interest in non-western cultural expressions allowed him to forge a path in contemporary Philippine music. His groundbreaking body of work—both in composition and in ethnomusicology—would earn him the rank of National Artist in 2016.
The National Commission for Culture and the Arts describes his style as one with “open-ended structures of time and space, function as a compositional concept, environmental works, non-conventional instruments, the dialectics of control and non-control, and the incorporation of natural forces in the execution of sound-creating tasks.”
His latest project, “Likas-an” or “Nature-ing,” was performed in the Iloilo City campus of UP Visayas on August 25. “I composed that in 1978 using instruments that I made, like kantawayan, metal junk, whistle flutes, and sound coming from nails being pounded, for example.” His performers in 1978 were not musicians but administrative staff and the same was true for Iloilo. But because he believed the performance of his compositions must adapt to changing times, he made an additional composition for a choir in the recent “Likas-an.”
As for the future of ethnomusicology and composition in the country, Santos is quite happy that the number of composer-ethnomusicologists is increasing, although he admits genuine Philippine music still has a long way to go. “We always need to be conscious of the fact that we are not Westerners, that we should not merely follow Western trends. Our experiences are different. Our sentiments are different. Our culture is different. I hope that we can eventually have a name for what I call ‘non-music.’”