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       Contemporary music in the Philippines usually refers to compositions that have adopted ideas and elements from twentieth century art music in the West, as well as the latest trends and musical styles in the entertainment industry. This brief introduction covers only the works written by the art music composers.

       The modern Filipino repertoire consist of pieces that have been written in twentieth century idioms that have evolved out of such stylistic movements as impressionism,  expressionism, neo-classism, as well as the so-called avant-garde and New Music. A good number of these works have utilized the standard formats of classical European music such as the concerto, the symphony, the symphonic and tone poems, cantata, etc. and may therefore be broadly categorized as neo-classic. At the same time, they have also been greatly influenced by the textural colors of Debussy’s music and the ambiguous and “dissonant” tonalities of early 20th century expressionist compositions. Moreover, the sounds of non-Western instruments have been added to the tonal fabric.

       The first modern works that belong to the above descriptions are attributed to Nicanor Abelardo, who from 1931 till his death in 1934 produced works that show a dramatic departure from his highly chromatic–tonal idiom to dissonant and ambiguous tonalities and complex rhythmic textures. Some of the representative works of that period are the “Sinfonietta for Strings” and the “CinderellaOverture. In Panoramas, a chamber music suite, Abelardo also experimented on unorthodox instrumental combinations (flute, violin, viola, celesta, piano). Two short pieces for piano Dancing Fool and Malikmata by Antoni Molina, Philippine Suite by Ramon Tapales, and Mindanao Sketches by Antonio Buenaventura were isolated works that assumed some degree of modernistic structural elements, immediately following Abelardo’s output.

       Philippine neo-classism is significantly represented by three names: Eliseo Pajaro, Rosendo Santos and Lucresia Kasilag. Most of Pajaro’s works (usually bitonally chromatic) are set in such extended formats as the symphony; concerto; symphonic ode; e.g. Ode to Academic Freedom; and song cycles using Filipino folk tunes (Himig Iloko). the prolific Rosendo Santos, also a versatile performer in the keyboard, percussion, and wind instruments, has written hundreds of compositions for a variety of instruments and instrumental combinations; e.g. Suite Brevet for clarinet, alto saxophone and piano, Two Poems for flute, vibes, and percussion,Etude for six timpanist and multi-percussion, Fantasy for Contrabass and Harp, etc.

       Lucresia Kasilag, aside from using neo-classic idioms, has added a further dimension to her compositions by infusing the sounds of native instruments as well as their scales, and experimenting on new forms such as the operatorio Her son, Jose and Dularawan, a contraction of dula (theater) and larawan (pictures). Some of her landmark compositions are Toccata for percussion (orthodox and Muslim) and winds, and Orientalia Suite for Piano and chamber and Philippine percussion instruments. She has also applied elements of improvisation in her Ekologie I: On a Day off for tape recorder and indigenous instruments andImprovisations No. 3 and 4 for Moslem gamelan and tipangklong.

       Another sub-classification of Philippine neo-classic works are those written by Alfredo Buenaventura, Jerry Dadap, Eduardo Parungao, and Manuel Maramba. Their works are characterized by the eclectic utilization of various harmonic idioms, from late romantic to early twentieth century.

       A departure from the standard forms of western classical music is a significant characteristic of the works of composers who are exploring alternative directions and concepts in music composition. Led and inspired by Jose Maceda, these works derive their essence, theoretical and structural parameters from non-Western sources, specifically Asian music and Philippine indigenous cultural traditions. At the same time, they have been initially influenced by the ideas of mass structures that were advanced by such  avant-garde composers as Edgar Varese and Iannis Xenakis, and later by the different  streams of indeterminacy and improvisation as explored by John Cage and his followers.

       The initial works of Jose Maceda may be classified as color and cloud compositions, utilizing the tones and timbres of non-Western instruments to create different blocks of sounds; e.g. Ugma-Ugma and Agungan. His later works assumed overwhelming dimensions in the use of acoustical space, mass performance and the concept of a modern ritual- Pagsamba, Udlot-Udlot, Ading, Ugnayan, etc. Also belonging to this formal category are Ramon Santos’ Ritwal ng Pasasalamat I and II as well as his Likas-An and Nagnit Igak G’nam Wag’ nwag Nila, a Philippine Centennial piece for orchestras, 7 choruses, audience, and conductor. Jonas Baes also contributed to this literature with his Pantawag, Kalipay and Yeyunan which is based in his study of Iraya mangyan culture.

       Another category of New Music compositions are improvisational works. The early pieces of Ramon Santos such as Radyasyon and Quadrasyon were later augmented by Toledo’s Samut-sari, Pintigan and Terminal Lamentations, all written as musical graphics, and his Humigit Kumulang for Malay hadrah and kompang. Baes’ Wala and Banwa, both written in 1997, uses audience as well as the participation of traditional Philippine instruments.

       One of the more preferred media by the younger generation of Filipino composers is mixed media and theater forms. Santos has significantly contributed to this body of works with his Awit, Panaghoy, (on the poetry and Ninoy Aquino), Ta-O at Dasalan and Pompyang at iba Pa by Chino Toledo. The experimentalPanata ng Lupa by Francisco Feliciano and other composers is an outdoor theater that fuses elements of opera and Kalinga rituals. Feliciano has also composed the music for the music dramas Sikhay sa Kabila ng Paalamand Ashen Wings, as well as the monumental opera La Loba Negra. Related to this category are ballet and dance compositions to which belong Kasilag’s Sisa, Legende, and Tapestry; Santos’ Aninag; Jerry Dadap’sTomaneg at Aniway; Feliciano’s Yerma; Toledo’s Pilipino Komiks and Abe… (on the music of Nicanor Abelardo)

       Some works may be categorized as “unclassified” for their uniqueness in conceptual framework as well as the musical materials used; e.g. Santos’ Yugto-Yugtong Tagpo na Hingango sa Makasaysayang Panaginip ni Antonio Manggagawa, a modern epic; Jose Maceda’s Music for Five Pianos and Mosaic for Gongs and Bamboo.

De la Torre, Visitacion. Lucresia R. Kasilag: An Artist for the World. Vera-Reyes Inc., 1985 Feliciano, Francisco. Four Asian Contemporary Composers: The Influence of Tradition in Their Works. Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1983Kasilag, Lucresia R. The League of Filipino Composers: 1996 Directory and Selected Works. 1996

Santos, Ramon P. (ed.) Tunugan ’97: Proceedings of the 18th Conference and Festival of the Asian Composers League. Manila: ACL Philippines, 1997

Samson, Helen. Contemporary Filipino Composers. Quezon City: Manlapaz Publishing Company, 1976


Maceda, Jose. “Contemporary Music in the Philippines and Southeast Asia”, National Centre for the Performing Arts quarterly Journal. Vol. XII No. 4, 1983

Santos Ramon P. “American Colonial and Contemporary Traditions”, The CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art. Nicanor Tiongson (ed.) Volume VI. Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1994

____________. “Art Music in the Philippines in the Twentieth Century”, The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: Southeast Asia. Sean Williams and Terry Miller, (eds.) New York and London: Garland Publishing Company, 1998

About the Author:
Ramon P. Santos, Ph. D. is a composer and musicologist, having received training at the University of the Philippines, Indiana University and the State University of New York at Buffalo. He was a full fellow at the Summer Courses in New Music at Darmstadt and undertook post-graduate work in Ethnomusicology at the University of Illinois with grants from the Asian Cultural Council and the Ford Foundation. His works have been featured in major festivals in Europe and in Asia. Recently, he has been awarded residency fellowships at the Bellagio Study Center and the Civitella Ranieri Center in Italy. In the field of musicology, he has undertaken researches not only in Philippine and Asian contemporary music, but also studied Javanese gamelan music and dance and Nan Kuan, and engaged in continuing field studies of Philippine traditional music such as the Ibaloi badiw, the Maranao bayok, and the musical repertoires of the Mansaka, Bontoc, Yakan, and Boholano. He has contributed major articles on Philippine music to various encyclopedias and anthologies such as The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, the Encyclopedia of Philippine Art, the Compendium of the Humanities in the Philippines. He was chief editor and writer of the book Musics of the ASEAN, and has produced CD’s on Mindanao Highland Music, Mansaka Music and Music of the Bontoc from the Mountain Province. He is currently serving as University Professor of the UP, Commissioner for the Arts of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and 2nd Vice President of the International Music Council.