III. SAGAYÁN (from Mangá Pakalagián), performed by the Philippine Madrigal Singers at the 2017 European Grand Prix for Choral Singing
Mangá Pakalagián (Ceremonies) - Nilo Alcala
I grew up in the Philippines where culture is as colorful and diverse as the number of its islands — all 7,107 of it. A quick Google search of “Philippine History” will give you a peak at our rich history of pre-colonial kingdoms (rajahnates, sultanates, etc.) which began to rise about 900 AD. Prior to Christianization of the Central and Northern parts, and even prior to the Islamization of the Southern parts of the country — these Philippine kingdoms shared with its neighboring Southeast-Asian lands a gong-chime culture that has, at the center of its music-making, a set of graduated and bossed pot gongs. The Philippines’ very own bossed gongs we call kulintang. Our rich pre-colonial kulintang music remained intact up to this very day, yet the general musical culture of the country has been arguably enriched by the active trading within the Asian region, as well as the Spanish colonial rule (for 300 years), the brief British Invasion, the American occupation, and the Japanese occupation.
Even as I grew up in mainly-Christian Luzon region (Northern Philippines), I have been in awe of the richness of this gong-chime culture prevalent in (present day) Islamic areas of Mindanao (Southern Philippines). While an undergrad in composition, I studied kulintang as a minor instrument and attended various lectures on kulintang to satiate this fascination. During that time, I’ve begun composing based on traditional chants from Southern Philippines, incorporating them especially in choral music.
When LA Master Chorale Artistic Director Grant Gershon reached out to me to commission a work for chorus that would feature a Filipino Master Musician, I had the kulintang instrument in mind. In my search for a Master Musician I was fortunate to have come in contact with legendary kulintang artist and National Endowment for the Arts awardee Guru Danongan “Danny” Kalanduyan who is currently based in the Bay Area. (Incidentally, I had brief kulintang lessons with his brother while I was an undergrad at the University of the Philippines College of Music.)
Ceremonies: music and community
The playing of kulintang (which refers both to the repertoire played as well as the actual instrumental set of bossed gongs) — is very much integrated in the everyday life of Mindanao communities especially in Maguindanao where the Kalanduyans hail from. In almost every occasion, there is a specific kulintang piece to be played; the playing of this music somewhat elevates a community event or ritual into “ceremony status”.
Mangá Pakalagián is a suite of 3 choral works that highlight ceremonies or rituals with kulintang at the forefront: 1) welcoming and honoring guests, 2) thanksgiving during harvest, and 3) invoking invincibility in a pre-battle/war ritual. The three choral pieces are to be introduced by actual traditional kulintang repertoire specific to those ceremonies/rituals, namely 1) Kapagonor, 2) Kaluntang, and 3) Tagonggo. It took several visits and interviews with Guru Danny, as well as months of personal research before I was able to delimit the scope of the ceremonies to these three. I then wrote the texts for all three pieces of the suite which was then translated by Guru Danny into his Maguindanaon dialect.
Ceremony 1: Midtagapéda (Fellowship)
The Maguindanaon's welcome distinguished guests into their villages by playing the kulintang piece called Kapagonor. Its root word onor means accomplished, and as such it is solely played before someone they deem important.
As I wrote the text for this, I imagined the royalties of olden Mindanao, led by a chieftain and his wife, welcoming rulers or maybe important traders from other islands of the region with such pomp and musical extravaganza — most likely with its kulintang ensemble being played by their most skilled musician. Two soloists in the choral piece, a tenor and a soprano — may very well serve as the royal couple welcoming these guests. It wouldn’t be far off if their fortunate guests would have received gifts that include the kulintang bossed gongs, apart from the musical entertainment itself as played by a master musician.
This piece (as in all three ceremonial pieces) draw from the kulintang aesthetic of having multi-layers of rhythmic motifs that serve various functions — as main melodic rhythm, middle ground rhythm, background rhythm, etc. As traditional kulintang “rules” of playing give leeway to improvisation, so does segments of this choral work to the kulintang player.
The integration of everyday ‘bodily percussion’ into the composition, i.e., stomping and clapping — is my own symbolic way to ‘reciprocate’ the integration of music into the everyday life of the Maguindanaons.
Ceremony 2: Papedsalámat (Thanksgiving)
The traditional piece Kaluntang serves as prelude to the second piece, Papedsalámat. Kaluntang is usually played on the wooden or bamboo counterpart instruments of the kulintang ensemble. Playing this during harvest supposedly scares off birds to protect the crops, but most importantly to ceremonially signify the festive day of harvest.
Drawing from the concept of Kanduli — the Maguindanaon thanksgiving banquet — I have written the text as a call to the villagers to celebrate a bountiful blessing. It is widely believed in the region that preparing this banquet is both a way of Thanksgiving for past blessings as well as asking for them anew.
Incorporated into the piece are pairs of pebbles to be struck together by the men in the chorus — another ‘symbolic reciprocation’ this time using stones that are found in nature, just as kulintang playing is integrated into a ritual which thus celebrates nature. I also have come to see these pebbles as inanimate representation of the seeds that were sown seasons ahead of the bountiful yield of crops.
Ceremony 3: Sagayan (Pre-Battle Ritual)
The traditional kulintang music Tagonggo that opens this ceremony, is originally not intended to be played in concerts. It is actual ritual music used in 1) healing rituals, 2) driving away negative energy/spirits, and 3) at a pre-war ceremony to invoke invincibility and power. The playing of Tagonggo pre-dates Islamic Maguindanao and nowadays has interestingly evolved into music that signifies important festive events, like wedding ceremonies. Sagayan, the title of the choral work, focuses on the pre-battle aspect of the ritual and is also the traditional name of the dance ritual that is accompanied by Tagonggo.
Related to this pre-battle ritual is Kasalawat, a practice of chanting to seek for blessing. The choral piece begins with a Male solo chant, seemingly initiating the ritual which then proceeds to a rhythmic ritual dance music. This ritual dance music has a slow interlude to be sung by the women of the chorus in which I imagined the wives of the Maguindanaon warriors pleading for their husbands.
The work closes with the kulintang ensemble and the chorus coming together in a mélange of rousing traditional melodies and rhythms with brief segments of kulintang improvisation — all underscoring an imagined ancient battle.
The scales and pitches of kulintang ensemble instruments vary from one village to another, and is mostly not well-tempered — an added challenge in putting together the work. The main instrument kulintang has eight gongs and often features a pentatonic scale with a few repeated notes to complete the eight-note pitches.
An inspiration for the multi-layer and intricate rhythmic texture of the whole work are the intricate and very colorful designs of Mindanao textiles and tapestries. You will hear different layers of organically related motifs that are interwoven in various sonic atmospheres; this results in a texture that is both intricate, driven, and evolving. Evident in sections throughout the suite are interlocking rhythmic patterns, similar to a hocket, wherein a single melodic or rhythmic material is spread among the vocal sections, creating a resultant melody or soundscape.