Polyphony: A Review of Attitude of the Mind | Jose Maceda

An interlay of crackling wood, beating brass, and high-pitched whistle—all in diverse rhythm—interspersed with flooding male voices chanting, and a consistently soft electronic buzz greet one as s/he enters the midst of the exhibition. The polyphony resembles that of cafeteria noise, comprised of the chatter of different circles of students breaking free from the monotony of school. Everyone has something to say, and the energy to say it; to listen to each cluster requires attention.

Then thought of as unintelligible noise, Jose Maceda’s experimental ‘musique concrete’ compositions heralded Philippine avant garde music. Ricky Francisco’s installation of Maceda’s archival materials summarily points out how these works stride along the indigenous’ natural sense of time, pinning the events to a specific environment. With the change in the cycle of time comes the change in music as well. Maceda invented and perused a musical notation that allows for the mimicry of sounds from nature, distancing itself from the conventional Western one. This is especially evident in Pagsamba (1968), with its circular spatial layout, inducing an enveloping reverberating effect starting from rather haunting whistles and high-pitched male voices, and ending in spirited wooden thumping.  Listening to the piece resonates with the experience of being in a forest, hearing birds sing in hibernation as the rain approaches.

Departing from its antecedent exhibition “reading Maceda, Prelude,” which staged Maceda’s breadth of works, “Attitude of the Mind” presents varying trajectories selected artists took in response to the creative and documentarist contributions of Maceda. They were invited to partake of the voluminous archives, and to create works reflecting their interpretations using their own artistic practice as lens.

At the center of the room lies Tad Ermitaño’s kinetic sound installation, Pakiramdaman (2017), a five-piece ensemble of percussion instruments from the Maceda collection, played by machinic interventions controlled by electronic frequencies produced by improvising central software. The keys of the Balinese penyacah were attached with magnetic diodes, which upon vibration, hit the keys and produce brassy chimes. The gong plays a rich, eerie reverberating sound when hammered by a makeshift mallet attached to a motor. A container with a small dangling cymbal inside, and a ping pong ball were placed on an upturned bass speaker in such a way that when the speaker’s cone thumps due to bass notes, the ball bounces, striking the cymbal, subsequently causing slightly sharp ringing. Through the unconventional manner of automating and improvising music production, Ermitaño creates puzzling mosaics of sonic pulses, imitating the arbitrariness of natural phenomena, foregrounding Maceda’s willingness to abandon the classical musical traditions, within the backdrop of his own new media practice.

At the farthest end of the room are the renditions of sound artists Arvin Nogueras and Malek Lopez of Maceda’s “un-premiered” composition Accordion and Mandolin with a special orchestra (2003), played alternatingly. The challenging notation, comprised of aural streams of multilayered classical wind, string, and percussion instruments, was given sonic form by translating this into machine-readable files in MIDI format, and by replacing some instruments with manipulated samples and software synthesizer-generated audio. The result is a humorous and lively, sometimes jumpy, blend of notes from different recognizable instruments and new electronic sounds, perhaps aspiring to establish a new aesthetic. However, whether it is a delight or an abomination is something challenging to evaluate, and might end up merely as a test of instinct or taste, rather than of productive discourse, as the point of reference—the comparable piece in auditory form, that is (relatively) faithful to the original intent of the composition—is yet to come.

These three artists invoked the capabilities of technology as they interacted with the works of Maceda, and through it, were able to intimate the experimental attitude of the latter. However, their dependence on technology brought them into a gridlock, as the element of participation from a number of people playing the pieces, a consistent aspect of Maceda’s works, was truncated by the “all-encompassing” and alienating power of technology to multi-task. Perhaps, it is in this way that they attempt to reorient us to respond to Maceda’s challenge, to reevaluate how we live our lives, and see how a return to nature can rehumanize us.

Such is a testament to the artist that even if Maceda has passed away, his archives—a Memory of the World—remain living, able to converse with whoever attempts to dialogue with it. Like getting used to cafeteria noise, the polyphony of all the different voices in the exhibition silences the background, and contributes to a singular, unified melody—that is, the appreciation of Maceda’s wisdom among generations to come. 

The exhibition will run from the 26th of September to the 3rd of December 2017 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Manila City.

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