Voices lost in industrial winds

Spotlight on UP’s Maria Christine Muyco as the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio fellow 

By Emma Orozco

Maria Christine Muyco, music composer, ethnomusicologist, and music composition professor at the University of the Philippines recently enjoyed a scholarship of residency at Bellagio. It took her 20 hours total flying time from Manila to Milan, then an hour and a half of land trip from Milan to Bellagio.

The residency/fellowship program was hosted by the Bellagio Center of Italy funded by the Rockefeller Foundation in New York.

Rajiv J. Shah is the Rockefeller Foundation president, but the managing director for Bellagio Center is Pilar Palacia. Muyco enjoyed the place as the Bellagio Center is on top of a hill overlooking Lake Como, a beautiful place nestled in the heart of island lakes surrounded by olive trees. This center is a villa, donated by the princess of Italy to the Rockefeller Foundation. 

The Rockeller Foundation funded Muyco’s residency at the villa so she could accomplish her proposed creative work, a song cycle titled “Voices Lost in Industrial Winds.”

MUSIC AS AN EXPERIENCE A lecture that she gave during her residency

The pieces in this cycle draw upon a range of sound sources, especially vocal music and chanting of indigenous peoples living in or near ASEAN countries. This sense of loss—or survival at the edge of attention and audibility—gives substance to the marginalization of indigenous peoples throughout this region. The songs echo their voices lost in the noise of globalization and geopolitics, their wisdom and history, and connection to lands that predate ASEAN or the nation states making up ASEAN. These pieces bring their voices forward using various formats—acapella solo, small groups of voices with music instruments, and large masses of voices. 

“I draw upon my expertise as an ethnomusicologist specializing in the music of indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia (Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, and the Philippines), where I have conducted fieldwork through the Japan Foundation Asia Center grant in 2016. The lyrics of the songs are collaborated on with people I met in my Southeast Asian fieldwork. In some pieces, I also serve as a conjurer who brings together a range of creators in making a new creation grounded in ritual and community. The making of this work is as important as the finished product. It fosters understanding, linkages, relationships and dialog,” says Muyco. “I have two sets of notation, one that is graphic and open to participation, particularly by communities where I did the fieldwork. Another is standard music notation for a staged performance (as art songs).”

The songs echo their voices lost in the noise of globalization and geopolitics, their wisdom and history, and connection to lands that predate ASEAN or the nation states making up ASEAN.

Experience more than performance is what matters to Muyco. Aside from sitting and watching her work being performed, she aims to make the audience experience the music. “I plan to visit the Southeast Asian communities someday and let them try the music, perhaps even joining them in the performance,” she muses. 

Aside from scholarship covering expenses for airfare, visa application, insurance, lodging and food, and PCR tests, Muyco was provided with a composer’s studio with piano and facilities. 

PROPELLING EVOLUTION Maria Christine Muyco at the Bellagio Center 

“There were 15 of us. Two came from Asia and the rest were from Europe, the US, Australia, and Africa.  The selection of residents was curatorial. There were no duplicates in disciplines. So from the Philippines, there was me and our disaster-risk control medical officer, Dr. Ronald Law. From other places, there were diverse practitioners—a journalist, malaria-control scientist, biochemist, fiction writer, non-fiction writer, translator, immigrant lawyer, public education investor, historian, administrator, public health advocate, and ecologist.

Composing for Muyco took periods of gestation, which would include reflecting, growing the music, and determining structural materials, among others. 

“Daily we were given time to be creative but we had breaks, aside from meal times and resting. There were also lectures at 6 p.m., cocktails at 7 p.m., then formal dinner at 7:30 p.m.,” she says.

In terms of musicality, Muyco credits both of her parents for her talents. “My father studied at UP to be a chemical engineer but he frequented the UP College of Music. He even reviewed for exams at the Listening Room while he was a student. So his music repertoire was wide,” she beams. “My mother, on the other hand, plays the piano and her mother, my grandmother, was a music teacher and principal at a school in Capiz. I believe I should give credence to my past mentors, as well—National Artist Dr. Ramon Santos, a past Bellagio/Rockefeller fellow, UP chairman of composition department Prof. Chino Toledo, and University of British Columbia professors Keith Hamel and Stephen Chatman. I also attended composition workshops with Italian composers in the past.”

Muyco’s music crosses different genres. “I use both open and close forms, exploring different tonalities and a wide palette of sound,” she explains. “But I find that labeling one’s form of writing is too limiting. It’s better not to ‘box’ one’s musical expression.”

INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMACY IN MOTION With other residents from different parts of the globe

Her next planned compositions are a continuation of her long work on a requiem. “Since my father’s death in 2015, I still cannot fully get over this loss and the requiem is helping me somehow. My husband is kind enough to commission me on this music,” says Muyco.

By immersing in musical activities where women are involved, she was granted the UP Gender Award last year. “I have an NGO called Balay Patawili, Inc. and together with indigenous scholars and other advocates, we assist in sustaining the traditions of Panay indigenous peoples. This includes giving women and children spaces for artistic expressions. I also have a published choral book and activities set for women composers so that their music is foregrounded and heard of.”

The nomination to join the Bellagio Residency came from an Indian arts council, but individuals recommended Muyco as well as UP Fine Arts professor Dayang Yraola and CCP director Chris Millado. The UP administration, led by Dr. Verne dela Pena and chancellor Fidel Nemenzo, also endorsed the trip, thus fully encouraging her career growth.

The history of music goes on in the country because of people like Muyco. “I also look at present and future challenges and how my music can motivate excellence among our youth in terms of their creative expression in writing and performance,” she says. “Music composition in the past could be individualistic but today because of our national artists such as Lucrecia Kasilag, Jose Maceda, Ramon Santos, and Francisco Feliciano, I look at collaborative music-making as the key to building a more meaningful work, constructing self-and-community growth altogether.”

Beyond mere musicmaking, Muyco also finds new means of expression. “I look forward to finding novel expressions that will propel the evolution of Philippine music, renewing local roots while modernizing means of expression,” she says.