Nilo Alcala: An emissary for music

Nilo Alcala: An emissary for music

“All we do as writers [composers] is carve away at the mountain of reality and then pass on the pick and shovel to the next in line.”

— Nestor Vicente Madali (NVM) Gonzalez, National Artist of the Philippines, 1997.

 “How can we tell if it is really poetry? …the question is bestowed the same answer defining just the basic character of poetry as we see this genre today, … its more critical demands on subtlety, indirection, fresh insights and the special use of other literary instruments like thematic tension, understatement, ambiguity, tone control, among many other intricate sophistications; these finer – spun minutiae are explained and understood in a more spontaneous and natural way in the course of the discussions on the submitted poetry.” Edith L. Tiempo, National Artist for Literature in the Philippines, 1999.

To an audience with sophisticated tastes and stock knowledge of colorful sound palettes, Nilo Alcala came into his own.

He was amongst his colleagues of composers and the community of Los Angeles’ musicians. In the form of sacred chants — as if an offering, much like an ascent up the mountain or a summiting of one’s imagination, perhaps — Alcala earned bravos during “COMPOSERS LIVE!” held at the AT&T Theater in Downtown Los Angeles last Oct. 15, 2015.

Animated, articulate and affectionate towards his colleagues (Dale Trumbore, Matthew Brown, Moira Smiley, Jeff Beal, and Shawn Kirchner), Alcala represented the giants of music and poetry in the Philippines, through his original composition, “Ceremonial Burning,” to what NVM Gonzalez would imaginably describe as “a definitive structuring of the self, whose words bear their quiet authority.”

Process of composing ‘Ceremonial Burning’

For the Filipino composer, quiet authority comes from hard work, discipline, higher education, sustained training and musical expressions.

Alcala was still in graduate school when he was handed a composition assignment, a poem by Wendell Berry, “An Autumn Burning.”

“The poem talks about him, as a writer/poet — having to burn pages of wasted words — whether literally or figuratively, the reader can decide for himself.  And the poem ends on a very hopeful note, as it describes ‘life beyond words’ springing forth from these burnt pages or leaves,” Alcala said.

With a week to finish the assignment, Alcala articulated the cycle in which he “digested this poem, meditated on it for several days without thinking about the music,” before piecing together a new poem — a “ritualistic burning of the words,” he noted.

“My poem surprisingly retained the essence of the original, which was for me a burning of the old, and a rebirth of something new,” he said. “And it didn’t take long after coming up with the edited text that I started to hear the music in my head, and in my imagination it was a mystical, ritualistic burning of these symbolic words.  It felt like my subconscious (or something or someone larger than me) was supplying the music to these words.  I believe it took me just three hours to write everything, which I tell you is very rare, I hope it happens all the time.  It’s one of those pieces wherein a composer can say it almost wrote itself.”

Adeptly sharing his origins from the Philippines “where there are 7,107 islands depending on high or low tides,” he spoke of “diverse indigenous groups, each with their own vocal tradition of ornamentations or appoggiaturas,” a sound palette that inspired him to compose “Ceremonial Burning.”

“Now after the first performance in class…I decided to make the text 100 percent my I crafted this new text…this time about burning or letting go of fears and ill/negative  thoughts.  It ends with the speaker, having sort of a rebirth and possessing a newfound courage,”Alcala continued on his process of composition.

First, the erasure of words, much like the ceremonial burning of leaves; then, seeing what was essential, he went through his own ceremonial burning of fears to give birth to his own words. Much like the ceremonial burning of the leaves — clearing the land of debris from past crops to make way for new shoots — Alcala did his own ceremonial burning of fears, resulting in this epic composition.

In “Ceremonial Burning,” he writes:

I have fears to burn 

Thoughts too ill to let pervade.

I know a flame that quickens inside must purge these wraiths.

 I fan this flame and it craves for more kindling.

This torch of courage burns them, nothing escapes.

 And when the embers have died,

There’s new light…

from the ash.

 Behold this blaze inside my heart.

 Manga Pakalagián (Ceremonies) 

With past commissions from organizations, such as the National Music Competition for Young Artists of the Philippines, Asia Europe Foundation and Metro Manila Concert Orchestra, Alcala was soon commissioned by Grant Gershon of the Los Angeles Master Chorale to create a piece.

The process itself took 10 months, beginning with intensive research and interviews with Master (Guru) Danongan “Danny” Kalanduyan, a legendary kulintang artist and a National Endowment for the Arts awardee.

The Guru lent Alcala reading materials and several audio CDs of kulintang repertoire, which he studied carefully. After four interview sessions, mostly in San Francisco, and more research on kulintang, he composed “Manga Pakalagián.”

“The piece draws from the kulintang aesthetic of having multi-layers of rhythmic motifs that serve various functions – as main melodic rhythm, middle ground rhythm, background rhythm. As traditional kulintang ‘rules’ of playing give leeway to improvisation, so does segments of this choral work to the kulintang player,” he said.

The result: a suite of three choral works that highlight how the Maguindanao people of the Southern Philippines integrate kulintang music in ceremonies or rituals for welcoming and honoring guests; thanksgiving during harvest; and invoking invincibility in a pre-battle/war ritual.

“It will close 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,” he noted.

Higher education

An Asian Cultural Council grantee, Alcala is a recipient of a Billy Joel Fellowship at Syracuse University where he earned a master’s degree in music (majoring in composition) and received the Irene L. Crooker Music Award.

In a sit-down interview one Sunday at the White Memorial Church’s Music Room, Alcala described a special instance while still a student at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

He recounted how sounds “came to him” for a composition called “Dancing Delusions.”

“I got to a dead-end at 2 am. I slept then, woke up at 4 am from a dream with a full orchestration in my head: the flute, the violin, the marimba, the cello, the percussion, the whole chamber ensemble. I proceeded to notate the music on my software. I could sense that I should not take 100 percent credit for it.  I believe that any creative product, any art form, any good thing comes from something or someone larger than the artist — a Divine source,” he said.

But, at Syracuse University, his professors taught him not to simply depend on inspiration. He was trained to be consistent and disciplined in the craft.

“Our teachers trained us to have various compositional technique as tools, and to treat composing as we’re fishing. Not all days would be productive but we should just show up to work anyway, like a regular job,” he said, joking that he will treat himself to ice cream once his composition is completed.

The musical genius in the making

Though endowed with genes of musicality, from both fraternal and maternal roots of musicians, Alcala tried to distance himself from music by first completing a bachelor’s degree in developmental communications at UP Los Baños and after, working at a non-profit for street children.

But, his talent for music could not be hidden, as family and friends encouraged him to apply to the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Music.

At UP, he took brief lessons from Kanapia Kalanduyan, Guru Danny Kalanduyan’s brother. Alcala was fascinated with the Indonesian gongs, called gamelan, Thailand gongs, called piphat, and kulintang, the Philippines’ own bossed-gong ensemble.

“I was enamored by the shimmering, metallic sounds of the kulintang — not well-tempered, and thus totally different from Western scales.  That was foreign to me at that time…and these gong traditions expanded my soundscapes,” he said.

At UP, he graduated magna cum laude and received  the Gawad Tsanselor Natatanging Mag-aaral (Chancellor’s Outstanding Student) award.

Since then, Alcala has become a soloist and composer-in-residence of the renowned Philippine Madrigal Singers, which performed his works at the Florilege Vocal de Tours (Tours, France), the European Grand Prix for Choral Singing (Arezzo, Italy), and numerous international events including the 2013 American Choral Directors Association National Conference (Dallas, TX), the 9th World Symposium on Choral Music (Puerto Madryn, Argentina), and America Cantat 7 (Bogota, Colombia). He was also awarded the Ani ng Dangal (Harvest of Honor) from the Office of the Philippine President in 2009 and has won the POLYPHONOS Young Composer Award from The Esoterics in Seattle and the 2nd Prize Asian Composers League Young Composer Award in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Walt Disney Concert Hall Debut

On November 15, Alcala’s “Manga Pakalagián” will be performed by the Grammy-nominated, 60-strong Los Angeles Master Chorale, along with Subla, a Kulintang group, and a solo by Sal Malaki, a celebrated Filipino-American tenor based in Los Angeles.

First, it was legendary Lea Salonga followed by the Philippine Chamber Singers of Los Angeles. Now Nilo Alcala’s epic composition will be performed to an expected audience of over 2,200 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

“Manga Pakalagián” is Alcala’s living poem, which fits Edith L. Tiempo’s description of poetry, a piece replete with “thematic tension, understatement, ambiguity, tone control, among many other intricate sophistications.”

The world premiere of “Manga Pakalagián” completes the final chapter of the Chorale’s LA world commissioning series. Highlighting the concert are premieres by other prolific composers who have successful careers crossing over from film to concert halls, including the legendary Paul Chihara and Emmy Award-nominated “House of Cards” composer Jeff Beal.

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