TUNUGAN '97 ("Soundings"), Asian Composers League Festival: A Report

by Priscilla McLean

(Society of Composers Newsletter, Vol 27 # 6, June/July '97)

From January 20-26, 1997, Bart and I were privileged to be invited composer-performers (The McLean Mix) at the 18th Asian Composers League International Conference and Festival, held biannually, this year in Manila, the Philippines. ACL has many simularities to SCI, as most of the participants are teaching (or studying) at a university or freelancing, almost all of the composers have studied in the U.S. or Canada, except for the youngest participants, and many write in a heavily western-influenced style. Unlike SCI, the Asian Composers League exists solely as a conduit for the international conferences, with no newsletter, journal, recordings, or regional (the composers' respective countries') conferences.

However, if this festival held in Manila is a good example, the biannual conference is a major event in the country, with cooperation and assistance from major hotels, the mayor, the Cultural Center, the tourism and transportation boards, and five universities, along with granting agencies. A festival book listing all the events, biographies with photos of the composers, and program notes includes forwards written by Fidel Ramos, President of the Republic of the Philippines, Carmen Padilla, Executive Director of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, among other high executives (let us not compare the state of a new music festival in the U.S., hoping for a note of greetings from President Clinton!!). We were generously housed in a first-class hotel near the beautiful modern Cultural Center of the Philippines, where many of the evening events took place, and (along with the other participants) given all of our meals by the various hosts for the day. This translates into almost 90 composers, plus performers and speakers, all receiving free meals for a week! Four air-conditioned buses with festival banners on them drove us everywhere gratis, and were even waiting for us after a two-hour ferry ride (also gratis) to Subic Bay, another island, on the last day! Bart and I, as well as a few others, were also fortunate enough to have our hotel expenses and airplane fare paid for, a rather hefty sum flying from the Albany, NY side of the U.S.!

Composers who participated, either with works performed or workshop lectures, were from Australia, Azerbaijan, Canada, Cyprus, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan (Formosa), Thailand, U.S. (the McLean Mix and Michael Tenzer, who now lives in British Columbia), Vietnam, and Yunnan, China. I can only sum up our experience, and make a few comments on the incredibly (over)packed schedule of events. Each day we went to a new campus and heard concerts, reports, and workshops, the venue providing the performers, and nights were usually concerts at the Cultural Center (the "Lincoln Center" of the country), which has several elegant halls. The last concert was dramatically held near Mt. Pinatubo, still wallowing in volcanic dust, and was in a private cultural center, a Spanish-style villa with mango trees and an ultra-modern wood and glass concert and art gallery building. The Philippines are breathtakingly beautiful, but we were kept mostly too busy to look around!

Of the composers there, 56 were men and 32 were women. The Korean delegation had eleven women to three men composers! There was a young composer's contest with two prizes of $1,000 US dollars each, one going to a Korean woman composer and the other to a Filipino man composer. All of the entries selected as finalists were performed on the festival, and were often the best pieces.


The musical styles heard included no elements of pop music, hardly any minimalism, some native folk elements, especially from the Taiwanese and Filipino composers, and much dense atonal European dissonance. Several of the pieces, moreover, seemed to have a different sense of climax, form, and sense of pause than I have heard before, perhaps an intrinsically Asian sense unfamiliar to my ears. The Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra performed the most difficult concert we have ever heard, superbly conducted by Josephino Chino Toledo, playing seven complex atonal works for over two hours! Imelda Marcos' daughter was in the audience, but few of the regular concert goers were there, as sadly seems to be the case there as well as here! The chamber and ethnic music concerts, however, were very well attended.

The highlight of the festival was the inclusion of many superb ethnic music ensembles in bright costumes, often coming right out of the Asian villages to perform! Because of rehearsing, we were unable to attend all of the events, but the most memorable were the Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia Gamelan Ensemble, who performed traditional as well as a stunningly exciting vocal and instrumental improvisation in modern style, Tom Lewis-- an Australian aborigine improvising an incredible variety of sounds on the didjeridu, the Formosa Aboriginal Troupe from Tufuya Village who danced in snakelike fashion while singing, reminding me (at times) of native American music and dress, the Samulnori Percussion Ensemble, who performed just before the McLean Mix on an outdoor concert, and created a teeth-rattling bone crush of militant sound that drummed incessantly ( almost pulverizing the performers!), traditional Chinese Nankuan Music, a very refined, delicate ancient solo singing and small ensemble of Chinese instruments, very lovely, and an arrangement, "Kaisahan: Pitong Alay" by the national artist, Lucretia Kasilag, of ancient Filipino music, in full dance and costume by the Philippine Women's University Philippine Music Ensemble. In addition to these was the national winning children's Paranague III Rondalla Ensemble, a Filipino folk orchestra performing Spanish-derived music on strummed "guitars" of various sizes. These ethnic ensembles were all extremely different from each other, beautifully performed, and spread out over the seven days of concerts.

Our own contributions came on an outdoor concert with high winds, as a typhoon narrowly missed Manila, and kept our large video screen in a desperate sway for hours, while the students bodily held it in place. I always give a prayerful plea to the spirits of the concert space, and magically the typhoon missed us, sweeping in a blinding full moon, which had the decency to hide under clouds until after our video, as it was shining directly on the screen! I sang "Wilderness" which includes extended vocal techniques performed with bird and animal sounds on tape, which was tremendous fun, as I gestured to the roiling clouds overhead like a goddess! The video was "Rainforest Images", video by Hasnul Saidon of Malaysia and music by us, with sound system and video system provided by the Cultural Center. The audience was in a carnival mood, sitting on the grass and wandering around the courtyard, and it was a bit like performing during the Middle Ages at a street fair! This took place at the University of the Philippines. Electro-acoustic music was very sparse at this festival, and we had the only art video except for one featuring native Filipino peoples, shown on the same concert as ours.

This was our second trip to Asia, the first ending a three-month residency at the University of Malaysia at Sarawak December 4, and our first chance to rub elbows with so many Asian composers, whom I found to be extremely friendly, generous, complimentary, and (mostly) good speakers of English. The only people really lacking in English were the ethnic tribal performers, except for the Indonesians, who will probably be hosting the next festival in '99. The U.S. is pathetically underrepresented, as Bart and I are not members, and the other U.S. composer attending lives in Canada! It is a rare chance to participate in another part of the world's music, and we would recommend it for anyone who has the slightest curiousity about what is happening on the other side of the world, even if many ACLers have absorbed too much Stockhausen!

There was a good variety of quite beautiful chamber as well as orchestral music, and it would be difficult to list all the pieces we enjoyed, so I will just mention a few of the ones I liked most: three orchestral works come to mind -- L'Bad by Ramon P. Santos (Philippines), the title derived from "lebad", a small musical cell from Yakan folk music, and forms a very powerful work of great energy; Snowflake by San Kwan (Hong Kong), more of a tornado than a snowflake but very effective; Il Pensiero del Bosco by Tomoyuki Hisatume (Japan), a lively cacophonous listen to a forest of birds; Peril IV by Chung-Kun-Hung (Taiwan) for solo piano harp and keyboard, which won an audience ovation and had lovely shrieking and wailing sounds; Liam-Hiong by Chick-Chun Lee (Taiwan) for six traditional Chinese instruments, very coloristic and dissonant, from Formosa folk music; Balangaw ("Rainbow") by Lily Ann Perez (Philippines) for banduria, octavina, and guitar, gritty and rhythmically interesting; Konzertstuk I by Khajjam Mirzazadeh (Azerbaijan) for chamber orchestra, in east Euro-Russian style, alternating delicacy with dense chromaticism.

All in all, we felt extremely lucky to have participated in the ACL Festival, and kudos go to the ACL president and head of this year's festival, Ramon P. Santos, who managed to put together beautifully an extremely difficult, costly, and complex group of people, music, venues, and everything that makes something like this work, plus his army of helpers, the resilient, always cheerful Filipino faculty, Cultural Center and Subic Bay people, students and dozens of Manila townspeople -- we have a glimpse of what this is like from our own SCI conferences! Now imagine an SCI International Conference with Canada, Mexico, South America, Central America, Greenland, the Caribbean, and Europe attending!

C 1997 Priscilla McLean