I gazed at the keyboard at the center of the room. It was almost three o’clock in the afternoon. Our mentor told us to study the timbre of the instrument, according to our assigned range. I have always secretly wondered about what musicians, physicists and other academicians alike have postulated through the centuries—the miracle of the octave —or the sole existence of seven notes in a given scale beginning from C-D-E-F-G-A-B and back to C, where C would both become the lowest note of the former group, and the highest sound of the succeeding register that should have followed the prescribed melody thereof.
Weekends meant a series of songs across the radio, cassette records sprawled on the floor, and the unending kinesthetic trills for exhaling a rhythm of sighs, a curious attempt at words.
I began singing when I was two years old. I would stand on a chair, grab the microphone from Papa and follow the melody of the song. I would gaze at the letters shaded in shifting hues. Instinctively, I somehow understood that the changing of the colors and letters from white to blue meant that the said phrase should be sung right away, soon, soon enough before the advent of the forward replay, the compulsory slideshow of geographic graces in the punctus of words.
Perhaps I inherited this love of music from my parents. Papa had been working as an educator yet he also had an established reputation for singing. Since his childhood years, he had joined a lot of singing contests in Surigao del Sur. I remembered seeing Papa’s collection of records from Philippine male singers like Ariel Rivera and Martin Nievera. For almost a decade, Mama had been the conductor of a flute orchestra group in an elementary school in Calinan. She was a music teacher. She would also be the voice mentor whenever the school had to send participants for the solo voice competitions.
“Yabag man no,” a relative said about the way I would project the song with my own conventions of so-fa syllables. I was only a child but I somehow understood that yabag meant one who could not follow with the realm of performers in the established music world, the world of 97 million and counting songs.
“Ma, gusto nako mag voice lessons,” I told Mama years ago.
“ Ayaw lang kay basin madaot ang…” Mama ended her reply with a facial expression that would translate to a “no.”
I understood my mother had her fears, although I could not see and comprehend those fears in full. I contemplated on her reply. I could not help but feel disappointed. I surmised that the purpose of learning vocal techniques was to execute proper voice projection and modulation while singing. Training, I thought, would help me use my voice at the proper vocal placement, at the right time.
I joined a band without the knowledge of my parents. It was not like they would disapprove of it. I just wanted to keep this one from them first. Olga, my kababata, the bassist, welcomed me to the QWERTY PAD Band.
In January 2013, the school celebrated the annual Spanish month. There were several competitions for the Spanish month celebration—one of which was the Battle of the Bands. Our band had agreed to join. We began to meet for our primary consideration: the song choice. For the Battle of the Bands, each group must perform a three to four-minute song presentation in Spanish. We had the option to research songs from Spain or in Latin-American countries, or to find songs from the American pop genre with an equivalent Spanish version. We decided to go with the latter.
Since our band had been practicing with pop songs, we figured out that we had to limit our choices on that specific genre. One of us suggested the song, “We Are Young” by Fun. The song happened to be one of the most popular songs in International charts at that time. The original performer of the song was a male singer. Consequently, the structure of the song by default would go for the male voice—which could be too low for us to sing, in terms of the key. Lan, one of our guitarists, initiated the job of arranging the song. The instrumentalists adjusted their pitch accordingly.
As vocalists, we had the work of mastering the lyrics. It was difficult for us to practice the song because it was in Spanish. We had our Spanish classes but performing a song in the said language was completely an indescribably different experience. The Spanish sound had its distinct tone, nuances, and effect. We scoured the worldwide web, showing different vocal artists across the globe. We spent weeks, filling up the practice studios with quel, el, sols like some form an obligatory overnight stint of recitation for the upcoming examinations.
Vi played the keyboard. Shane hit the drums.
During the performance, my co-vocalist and I took our turns in singing the verses of “Somos Jovenes.” I looked at Tine, my co-vocalist. I noticed that one of us had forgotten the correct lyrics. On the flip side, the syllables sounded the same. The good thing was, all these lyrics dilemma happened at the last two lines of the song. One of us covered up for it by singing the part in an improvised tune—by singing some parts a bit higher than the other so that the voices would clash and blend accordingly, producing a contrast, an edge to the timbre of the collective voice.
I seemed to have forgotten we were in a competition. I looked at the crowd. The panel of judges nodded. Everyone gave us a round of applause.
We won second place. All our hard-work paid off.
I joined the pageant, Mutya ng Calinan 2017, on 3 August 2017. One of the segments I had to prepare for was the Talent Portion. I thought of giving a song performance right away. Weeks before the pageant, my cousins had asked me about the material I would choose for the show. As much as possible, I wanted the performance to be an exclusive space between the audience and me. I only wanted to create a brief presentation, to tell a story.
I have the option of singing ballad songs, since that was the genre I have always been comfortable with. I limited my choices to Original Filipino Music because I desired to perform a song that the majority of the audience could relate to. To me, there would always be a sense of magic in listening to Filipino love songs. The language itself had romantic nuances.
There were hundreds of love songs in Filipino music. The choices were overwhelming. One may think that a favorite song or the fight song should be the option. Song choices should not be as difficult as their execution. However, I thought and I felt that a song choice should not be too close or too far from the performer. Otherwise, the execution would be put at stake. If a performer would be too close with the song, these possible situations might happen: the performer might steal the limelight from the song, and tamper with the execution, or break down in tears in the middle of the performance, only a few sighs before the dimming of the lights on the stage.
If a performer would be too estranged from the song, the performance might sound like a formulaic, robotic utterance. There would be no sense of dramaturgy, no genuine hold for the song.
One advice I would hear the esteemed musicians say to the contestants of televised singing competitions would be the lesson on song choices. Songs should always sound genuine. The sincerity of the performance was one factor that would give the whole performance a distinct texture. The sincerity of the performance, one of the panel of judges had said, could only be achieved when the performer truly comprehends all that is in a song.
One never had to experience the scenario inscribed in the lyrics to understand it, I have always believed. Reading books would prove to be one of the best avenues where a person could sharpen their understanding of life. Here, the reader, would somehow feel the tangibility of the world she had been trying to discern. The power of literature had the inexplicable thrust of creating the illusion where the readers, in a peculiar way, would find themselves juxtaposed with that of the narrative, seeing what the character sees, hearing what the characters hear, and experiencing all the sensation present in the piece, somewhere in their private domain.
I have read literature about love stories inside and outside classes. Love, in the context of our classroom discussions, was a complex term to have a single, universal definition. Alice Munro’s “Carried Away”, for example, had shown the complexities of love, and of human relationships. The novella had depicted Louisa’s passing, fleeting life. Louisa had brief, romantic relationship with a soldier whom she had never met in person. They would keep on writing letters to each other. That was literally love in a time in a war. Months later, Louisa would soon find out that Jack had married another woman. The years came in a flash. Jack died because of an accident. Louisa married Arthur, a businessman, the owner of a piano factory. They had children; they had a good life. Louisa was in her old age when she witnessed a procession of soldiers in the streets. She mistook one person with Jack. That was one of the highest turning points in the story. All these years, Jack may have left her hanging on hopes. Jack may have married. She may have married. But what they once had would never be forgotten. Jack never lost his private sphere in her life, even after all those years.
Lost love. How could a person leave just like that? How could one thing that began in the most unexpected of ways end so soon? How could one feel something and be unable to fight for it? How could one fail to choose the one who have given them a sense of life, of death, at the same time? How could one move forward and leave the other, hanging on a loose tread, standing on the fine line? How could one remember all that there is, all that there was, all that there could be in a person, after all those years of scourge?
I could choose a song, a popularized song, with a similar theme—with the themes of the complexities of loving we had studied and thoroughly discussed in class.
I chose Jona’s version of “Pusong Ligaw.” This was not to say that the song would be my automatic “theme-song-on-mind” for the literary pieces I had read in class. I chose the song for its popularity, and for the theme, which I thought I had clearly understood. Even the song itself was quite poetic. The lines, “Ikaw at ako/isinulat sa mga bituin/at ang langit sa /gabi ang sumasalamin/” caught me. The lovers themselves were likened to the stars, lost in the conventions of their private realm, their secret universe.
I almost literally froze in front of the audience. I missed the first three seconds of the song. That was not the first song performance in a competition I had, but it seemed to me that even a little experience could barely counter the advent of the frenzy of nervousness taunting me. Still I knew I had to continue. The song had played. The panel of judges, and the audience had surrendered their gazes on stage.
“Di kita malimutan/ Sa mga gabing nagdaan/Ikaw ang pangarap/nais kong makamtan/ sa buhay ko ay/ ikaw ang kahulugan…”
The lights dimmed after the last note. The lights lit up the stage once more. The succession of these lights had scheduled the beginning of the performances. The lights marked the end of the show.
Third runner-up. My first major pageant experience ended well, after all.
“Ayaw na pag join, lisod gud,” one of the auditionees said to me in a worried tone after her turn. I was surprised to hear her words. She left right away. I had the slight idea that it would be difficult. All auditions were meant to test the aspirant’s skill, to the limit or close.
I gazed at the application form. There were blank spaces to be filled out. Some of these spaces were allotted for personal information. I wrote pertinent details accordingly. On the lower center corner of the paper, I saw the criteria for judging: voice quality, intonation, and diction. Ratings, I supposed, would be done from one to five—one would be the lowest score, five would be the highest. At the bottom part of the form, I saw the marks: S1, S2, A1, A2, T1, T2, B1, and B2. I went on and asked the registration officer about these codes.
“Those are voice classifications. You will know your voice classification after the pitch test,” she said.
I did not think of participating in the auditions in my first year in College. I was too pre-occupied with trying to deal with the new world I was engrossed in. I was still a struggling Architecture student then. Years passed by and I still found myself too busy in academics. At the last minute, I honestly second-guessed the chorale auditions. I could not help but think I could be too late for one.
A representative of the choir called me inside. After the introduction, the conductor told me to start singing whenever I would be ready. Once again, I froze in front of the choir members. One of the section leaders said that I could sing, facing the wall instead. I was about to turn my back when a sudden thought occurred my mind—I wanted to see the reaction on their faces so I would have a slight idea about the quality of my performance for the night.
I performed Mandy Moore’s “Only Hope” and Morisette Amon’s “Akin ka na lang.” I chose those songs because I have been singing them for quite a long time. After which, the conductor told me to repeat the notes he would play on the keyboard. That was the pitch test, I heard the choir members said. I tried to follow the melody I heard in the room.
Some of the choir members nodded as I sang.
“We will just notify you via text if you are qualified to join the University Choir,” one of the resident singers said.
Out of the 21 qualified applicants, only seven of us remained for the initiation rites of the UP Mindanao Koro Kantahanay Overture Concert. There were two new performers each for the Soprano, Tenor, and Bass groups, and one for the Alto group. I did not know what had happened to the other applicants. I just heard that some of them had jobs to attend to, academic tasks to attend to, and so on and so forth. The remaining applicants underwent note-reading, quartet-singing, and individual singing exams.
I sung “Minsan lang kitang Iibigin” composed by Aaron Paul Del Rosario, for the solo exams.
“You’re in,” the resident singers told me.
For more than 15 years, the UP Mindanao Koro Kantahanay had been showing the annual Overture. Choral baptism, as what the resident singers, called would feature the debut of the qualified applicants.
All overtures had their theme. Kapayapaan (Peace) and Pangandoy (Dreams) were some of the former themes, and consequently, the titles for the past concerts. During our rehearsals, the choir president used our break session to start a meeting about the coming overture.
The repertoire of songs could be categorized into three: Religious songs, the love songs, and the indigenous folk music. All of the songs, to me, had one dominating, all-encompassing theme. That was desire—desire in all its forms: the desire to find God, the desire for love, the desire for peace.
I gave my suggestions for the title of the show. “Tinguha,” is the Cebuano word for desire. Jacques Lacan, whom we had encountered in our Critical Literature classes, posited that desire, through the times, has fueled people from creating indices of pursuits to fill in the void that exists within. The text was premised on the notion that people have been in constant search to fill up the ‘lack’ or “gap” in their beings amidst the calm, the chaos, and the contrasts of the world—rejoicings, political unrests, wars, unity, persecutions, inclusivity, onslaught of diseases, healings.
“Te, pwede ka maghimo og spoken word para sa overture? Magtugtog ko og violin te samtang naga perform ka,”the conductor said, requesting me to present a spoken word performance for the introduction stint of the overture. He told me that he would play the violin for the accompaniment of the piece.
I titled my work, “Kandila” (candle) which was my metaphor for desire. I recited the lines, complementing the music from the violin.
Mental block came.
I took a brief pause.
I heard some people in the audience said, “hala, nakalimot siya,” in a worried tone. I did face acting and created lines in front of the stage. Fortunately, I did not forget my last stanza:
“Ang hangin /sa imo milubong/apan dili niini mapalong/ang imong mga hunghong.
I gazed at the conductor to signal him that it was the end of my spoken word performance for the night.
“The song should sound fragile,” one of the choir members said, upon the distribution of the music sheets.
The choir president and I shifted positions. I transferred to the last row of Soprano singers, beside the singers from the Alto group. Before my chorale stint, I thought that the performers could just stand anywhere they wanted to. I understood that in certain songs, they had to sing beside their section mates. I never thought that in every section, each performer must be carefully arranged.
I am (technically) a Mezzo Soprano but during choral gigs, I would be frequently assigned as either Soprano 1 or Soprano 2, with two other (one lyric and one dramatic) Sopranos respectively. Almost in every presentation, I would be positioned at the leftmost or the rightmost corner of our section, depending on the required dominant tone color. The arrangement of performers, I surmised, could be likened to the arrangement of scenes in a literary work.
I remembered Leo Tolstoy’s words, “Art is thinking in images.” The primary concern of the artist, in the context of writing Poetry, would be the arrangement of these images. The arrangement of these images would demand for a specific language for its execution; the arrangement of these images could affect the musicality of the poem, and consequently dictate the structure of meaning as well.
This was Musikahan 2018 contest piece: “She Dwelt Upon the Untrodden Ways” by William Wordsworth (Music by Ralph Hoffman, 2008).
William Wordsworth, the key figure of the Romanticism, opined that “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility.” Poetry then, became an avenue for the lyricists to vent out all their passions, their grief, their dread, and their ecstasy in the boulders of verse.
The persona began with a description of a “She” said to live upon the untrodden ways. The phrase, “lived upon the untrodden ways” could be taken both literally and figuratively. The untrodden ways meant a place in the country, a place barely mapped, a place almost unknown, a place, close to being non-existent. The untrodden ways were neither bright nor spectacular. The untrodden ways could mean an unlikely, unfamiliar, homely way of life. No one would desire such place at first sight. In the second verse, the persona likened the woman to a violet by a mossy stone. To the voice, she was the grace amidst the cull of the dull. The last verse confirmed my suspicion that the poem was a lover’s deep recollection of all that was, of all that could be in their love. At this point, Lucy had left. To the public, her death was as mundane as the thousands of deaths that had reminded all the passport to the end of human existence. But to the voice, the circumstance was among all of Lucy’s dusks and twilights which he had the unending thrust to witness with utmost fidelity to every movement, every silence, all the music present in the scene, from afar.
We sang the song, from dusk till almost dawn.
Repeat. Repeat this line.
Mistakes would always be an inevitable enemy during practices. No one should forget the lyrics. No face should look robotic. No section should sound louder than it should. No one should feel “lost” in the middle of the rising of sounds.
Harmony, not competition must prevail.
“Again,” the conductor said.
Instead of giving our collective sighs, we went on singing our assigned parts in the music sheet.
“Entry number 1,” the Masters of the Ceremonies announced. Guests, performers, and chorale competitors across the region have come, filling up the four corners of the music hall. I tried to control my tears as our group slowly made our trek to the battle stage. I prayed to God. I invoked the intercession of Saint Cecilia, the Patron Saint of Musicians, hours before the show.
The conductor played the first note on the keyboard.
I gazed some distance past the stage, lifted my inaudible sigh, and imagined the untrodden ways that had become the lovers’ secret constellation, until death bid them the cyclophonic goodbye.
She dwelt upon the untrodden ways/ Beside the springs of Dove…
Seven choirs had given the rendition of the contest piece. Before the announcement of winners, the Maters of the Ceremonies requested all of the chorale groups to occupy the stage. The conductor from the second entry went toward the center, raised his arms in the air, and gestured a signal for the momentum of the orbit of sounds. I saw Ralph Hoffman’s face lit up from the moment all of the Tenor performers exhaled the introductory notes, to the juncture of the harmony of tones at the singing of “the difference… to me.”
“The winners are…”
“Group 1 from UP Mindanao ata madaug pud,” I heard one singer from a different chorale group remarked after the collective singing of the contest piece.
After moments of drum rolls, three schools were announced as Champion, First Placer, and Second Placer, respectively. The chorale groups, who have competed and won in international chorale competitions received this year’s top three spots.
To me, the goal was not to win, to emerge as the champion. Giving dignified representation to our University Chorale and rendering a performance with great passion in our hearts was more than enough.
“At this juncture, the choirs will be requested to occupy specific seating areas. The panel of judges shall walk around the hall, visit one group at a time, and give their respective impressions of the performances,” the Master of the Ceremonies said.
The drill reminded me of Creative Writing workshops, where all of the Literature majors would be compelled to hear comments from the mentors and co-students after the submission of their manuscripts. Except that this time, there were no white type-written sheets stained in red ink or green. The hues for marking would always be dependent upon the teacher’s prerogative.
Sir Ralph Hoffman, the composer of the contest piece, and a member of the panel of judges for the competition, held our rating sheet on his hands. Almost all of my choir-mates occupied the front row. I had no choice but to stay at the back of them. Hoffman spoke. I could barely hear his voice. The hall was filled with all kinds of post-competition utterances: the discussions of the winning choirs, the microphone reminders for the series of programs outside the hall, the murmurings of hosts, the audience giving out their critical remarks of the seven acts, and the full-force modulation of mood setter music on the stereo, setting the background score of the day’s episode.
I heard some points about our group tempo. The rest were a blur. I tried to move closer but to no avail. What I merited from the gesture was the view of our contest score. It was above average. From the zero mark, we reached the above average cut-off. To me, the score could already be considered a gift. Although we did not win a spot in the competition, I could not help but feel at peace with the results. I was contented about the quality of our performance. In fact, some of the former conductors of Koro had given the remark that this year’s batch had a distinct, highly textured timbre—the timbre, which could be our pathwalk to defined doors of ten-fold more music ruminations.
“There is no other way around but up,” Sir Arwin Tan, one of the judges, said to us, in his closing statement.
The year 2020 arrived. History would remember the year 2020 as the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. News of daily deaths had marked calendars and grids worldwide. Community quarantines were a common sight. The economic pitfalls, hunger, political, and socio-civic unrests had added to the taxonomy of pre-existing and perpetual social sorrows the world has known.
Where do music stand in these times?
Musicians and music enthusiasts alike have spent their hours inside their homes writing songs, recording their band sessions, composing music, and creating and managing online communities with fellow musicians. Online concerts and Zoom recitals were a common sight. Music, to some, has been a source of living. To the others, music has always been the way to make sense of present realities. Music has somehow provided a sense of “healing” for the soul, a sense of hope and refuge in the unfortunate times we live in.
Day job and evening classes helped me not to lose track of my days. I haven’t been doing anything related to music, except for listening to a study music whenever I would face office computers or read my codals, books, commentaries, and cases for law school. I haven’t been joining in the music ministry services of the Vox Optivus Chorale, our church choir in the Immaculate Concepcion Parish because my parents deemed it safer for me to participate in online Masses than go to the Church physically. I was not sure whether our university choir had (online) musical stints this year as well.
Since I could not join our choir, I have resolved to writing lyrics instead. I desired to try to add new lines to the scribbles I wrote on my old music notebook from my elementary years. The unfortunate thing was, I could not locate the old notebook where I have written them. The least I could do was to reconstruct the songs from memory. But I felt rewriting the songs would turn them into new ones, instead of trying to preserve the old codes I had on hand.
I gazed at the keyboard in the center of the room. I knew I needed a break. I could start somewhere; an image could trigger a memory. Perhaps when I would go for a coffee at dawn, or face both paved and unpaved lanes home, all of nature will have sung their inevitable chorus, somehow, in the absence of words.
In faith, I spent the rest of the sunset, gazing across the skylines for a new wave of inspirations.
Joanna Paula M. Cagape is a law student from the University of Southeastern Philippines School of Law. She is an advocate for women and children’s rights.