In Light of the Frenzy: How José Maceda Took Over Manila Public Radio

By Aki Onda

 

In the Philippines, there was a composer who had a very unusual, gigantic, balloon-like imagination. José Maceda was an ethnomusicologist-turned-composer who emerged from the context of 20th-century avant-garde music, although he was unlike anyone else in the field. He studied French piano repertoire with Alfred Cortot at École Normale de Musique de Paris before World War II. He brushed shoulders with the greats: he visited Edgard Varèse at his SoHo apartment, was presumably introduced to musique concrète with Pierre Schaeffer at the Groupe de Recherches Musicales, and befriended the French-Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, absorbing the golden age of the Western avant-garde. But despite his proximity to the elite, he was eventually drawn to the indigenous music, or so-called village music, of his country—music that had been performed in people’s lives as ceremony or ritual for thousands of years. In his fieldwork as an ethnomusicologist, he rigorously documented South East and East Asian musical practices and folkways. By the time he composed his first piece in 1963, he was already 46 years old. For the remainder of his life, Maceda dreamt of creating a new model of Asian music, working steadily until his passing in 2004.

“Poscripts to Ugnayan” article by Rosalinda Orosa published by Daily Express on January 11, 1974.

Image courtesy of the UP Center for Ethnomusicology Archives.

Ugnayan is a composition for 20 radios, likely the most ambitious, provocative, and controversial work in his repertoire. It is a 51-minute long piece that consists of 20 recorded tracks. He used all 37 radio stations in metropolitan Manila for sound diffusion, some tracks played simultaneously from multiple stations. It was broadcast on New Year’s Day, 1974 from 6 to 7 pm, all tracks synchronized to start at the exact same time. It is said that between 2 and 20 million people listened to the composition. 142 “Ugnayan Centers” were set all over the city, and people were encouraged to go there with a transistor radio in their hand and catch one of the radio frequencies.

 

In one of the biggest Centers alone, 15,000 people congregated. In this situation, the original 20 tracks can be multiplied by thousands of radios and the mass of sounds become extremely dense. Indeed, he wasn’t interested in presenting his composition in a complete form, and his intention of achieving this countless multiplication was to create a musical atmosphere that covered the entire city.

Ugnayan article by Alice Reyes, with photos by Ramon Vecina. Published by Expressweek on January 17, 1974.

Image courtesy of the UP Center for Ethnomusicology Archives.

The piece was supported by the notorious Ferdinand Marcos regime and it was an extraordinary sociopolitical music event. In addition to holding this one-hour segment on all radio stations in the city, it was heavily promoted by the national media. The nine-month production was strongly supported by the first lady, Imelda Marcos, who was the chairperson of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Indeed, Imelda named Uganayan, extracted from ugat natin iyan (there are our roots), despite the fact that Maceda’s original title was Atmosphere. The regime wanted to employ Maceda’s expertise in Filipino indigenous music and the use of native instruments as a symbol of national unity. However, the audience response to Ugnayan was almost apathetic. It was too idealistic, too alien for a listenership that did not have prior knowledge of the musical avant-garde. At the same time, only ten percent of the population was familiar with Filipino indigenous music—the culture was strongly Westernized due to centuries of Spanish and American colonization. The broadcast could have even posed a risk for the Marcos regime, who had declared Martial Law in 1972, with regards to large numbers of people congregating in public spaces. Somehow, Imelda’s support of the project pushed it through.

“Ugnayan: a world happening in music” by Rosalinda Orosa. Published by Daily Express on January 2, 1974.

Image courtesy of the UP Center for Ethnomusicology Archives.

In 1971, Maceda premiered Cassettes 100, which was possibly a study for experimenting multiple possibilities for his next creation, Ugnayan. Cassettes100 involved one hundred participants carrying cassette players into the spacious lobby of the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Manila. Each participant was given simple instructions on how to position themselves and when to ascend or descend the Center’s interconnecting staircases. They pressed the play buttons of their cassette players at the same time, running the recording for the piece’s thirty-minute duration. Though Cassettes 100’s sound was sourced from and meticulously scored for bamboo percussions, flutes, and gongs, the composition was also the composer’s first for electronics. By re-coordinating the score as a mobile array of recordings, Maceda constructed a looming, three-dimensional cacophony.

As soon as Cassettes 100 commenced, people were encouraged to circulate around the lobby and into the balconies, erasing the line between participant-players and audience. Chaos took over. Everywhere there was stroboscopic lighting by Teddy Hilado. From the top floor, colorful toilet paper streamed down (the work of artists José T. Joya and Ofelia Gelvezon-Tequi). Indeed, the event was referred to as a “sound happening.” In light of the frenzy, the public and media reaction was mixed, though a pleased Maceda commented: “If the production of goods is merely for material comfort and not for spiritual enlightenment, society will fall apart.”

Gorio and his Jeepney comic strip by Ben Alcantara.

Image courtesy of the UP Center for Ethnomusicology Archives.

While his use of modern technology shows hints of musique concrète (an influence the composer openly acknowledged), his intention for adopting cassette players was to diffuse sound into aural space, rather than to augment the nature of the sound itself. Throughout his career there was an attention to how sounds flow through and occupy territory. Even his earlier works dwell in the multivalent, atmospheric qualities of rituals heard in rural villages. Unlike the sonic abstractions of his European contemporaries, he did not use tape manipulation and electronic processing, or other typical musique concrète tactics. If musique concrète had a role in his composition, it’s perhaps in how he deconstructed compositional elements. In his first composition, Ugma-ugma, from 1963, Maceda would mix instruments from across Asia, placing their varying pitches and timbres alongside one another. Maceda mobilized the spirit of musique concrète to transform these traditional harmonics into sonic collages.

Maceda’s musical adventures in the ‘70s were quite unique and outstanding in terms of music-creation and its relationship with the audience—meticulous concepts, cutting-edge use of technologies, a keen fusion of the ancient and the modern, spatial attention to sounds, a willingness to depart from the idioms of western music composition, and a nurturing of the possibilities of collective action. His work certainly opened doors to new possibilities. Despite these singular achievements, he remains an elusive and mostly forgotten cult figure.

Outside of the Philippines, his work is surprisingly under-recognized and rarely performed, and the critical discourse around his work is severely outdated. So many questions remain unanswered. Global narratives of 20th-century avant-garde music are largely blind to Maceda’s contributions, and need to be revisited in light of them. And then there is Maceda’s entangled relationship with the Marcos regime, which at the time was responsible for a substantial part of the Filipino culture. That Marcos simultaneously fueled a political climate that made it difficult to express one’s political opinions openly, while backing such progressive artists and composers. More than four decades after Ugnayan, it now seems easier to evaluate his artistic experimentations with extra-musical rationale or sociopolitical agendas. He was probably too far ahead of his time. The exploration into Maceda’s work has only just begun.

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