By Ace Gangoso
May is a month worth celebrating! This month is Chamber Music Month AND Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month here in the United States. During this past season’s Origin Stories concerts, I was thrilled to explore and share my heritage through some of the music of the Philippines. One of the most fascinating and treasured musical genres of the country is called kundiman. On the surface, kundiman present as songs of longing, courtship, and love, but they have double meaning: the beloved represents not just one person as a love interest, but the Philippines itself and the pride and resilience of its native people. These creations were a means of coping with and challenging the oppressive Spanish colonial rule beginning in 1565 and lasting three centuries.
There was an interesting dynamic of resistance, a phenomenon some refer to as “Filipinization”---in a way, a form of “reverse colonization”. Filipinos learned to embrace the educational, social, and cultural practices forced upon them, but utilized them for their own benefit, recreating their own native identity through these foreign mediums. Kundiman songs illustrate this perfectly, adopting the musical idioms of Spanish dances, and scored music in the formal western classical tradition that university-trained musicians know well today.
The earliest known iterations of kundiman date back to about 1800, evolving through the century to more broadly resemble art song compositions of Europe. The composer Francisco Santiago (1889-1947) is often hailed as the “father of Kundiman Art Song,” and his 1917 song, simply titled “Kundiman” (sometimes subtitled “Cancion Filipina” or “Anak-Dalita”) is one of the most widely performed of the genre. The poem by Deogracias A. Rosario (1894-1936) is a serenade of one beckoning a love interest to come to the window to accept one’s pleas of love. It carries the characteristics most typical of kundiman: plaintive melodies, abundant tenuto and rubato, ascending tessitura, lush accompaniment, and modulation from minor to parallel major---a simple but effective way of symbolizing the journey from despair to hope.
This is the story of my ancestors, but I am sure that the feelings of loss and captivity have been ever-present to all of us this past year. May this music be a beacon of light in the darkness for you as it has been to many.
by Ace Gangoso
Today I bring you footage from my own personal archives: a performance of “Litany” by John Musto, self-recorded around the beginning of last summer.
In his setting of this Langston Hughes poem, Musto managed to make a song in a major key sound deeply mournful, a trick straight out of Franz Schubert’s playbook. During the long piano intro, the tonality shifts and wanders as the meter changes almost every bar. The vocal line lilts about and floats above the piano hauntingly, often entering and moving off beat. Yet all of the harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic quirks somehow take place without drawing excess attention to themselves. The song doesn’t sound as jarring and amorphous as one might expect given its qualities on paper. Instead, what emerges is a sound world that evokes feelings of longing, searching, and unsettledness—feelings which we are wont to experience in our current physical world.
As much as we had hoped that January 1, 2021 would magically free us from the woes of the previous year, deep down we knew (or were quickly reminded) that things are rarely that simple. Similarly, we know that, even as new national leadership takes office, the substantive change that many hope for will take time. Some voice their eagerness for things to “go back to normal,” but my hope is actually that this doesn’t happen. The “old normal” was wrought with ignorance and complacency toward inequality and injustice, and I like to think that, overall, we have grown as a society in our consciousness and compassion. We have seen and felt suffering and hopelessness more plainly than ever, and have made sacrifices for the greater good.
But what I hear wrapped into the great beauty of this song is a call for even more—to not let “we’re all in this together” to be a mere cliché, to identify and actively seek out the people and things in our lives that we habitually ignore or put off, and to listen more closely for (and respond to) the cries for help around us.
Do you hear a similar call? Does this music speak to you in a different way? What are you most hopeful for this year? Feel free to use the comment section or reply to the emails with these blog entries to engage with us and let us know your thoughts! We have enjoyed staying connected with you this way and look forward to bringing you new content and performances soon.
Hello, and welcome to the blog! We are Fourth Coast Ensemble, Chicago's classical vocal quartet. Join a different member of our ensemble each week for insights into our favorite art songs, links to archival and new recordings, and reflections on why we value and continue to come back to this musical medium. We proudly present, your weekly #artsongfix!