Inheritance: Interview with Ramon P Santos

As contemporary art music goes global, Ramon Pagayon Santos searches the Asian soul
- Off The Edge, April 2007

The Asian composer faces a very special dilemma by nature of his or her profession - the struggle against the dissonances that arise between the inherited traditions of the East and the acquired compositional tools of the West. At the Asia Pacific Festival and Conference 2007, where past met present and the avant-garde met the traditional in meaningful counterpoint, the issue seemed all the more relevant. Whose music were we celebrating? Can we really lay claim to this tradition? 

For Filipino composer, educator and music activist Ramon Pagayon Santos, whose keynote address during the conference centred on these issues, our  

OTE: From what you’ve seen and heard during this festival, where do you think Asian composers are heading? 

Ramon Pagayon Santos: What we’re seeing here is very significant; we share the same goal of creating a new musical environment in Asia [from a very general perspective]. But while we may have commonalities in our formal training [in music composition], the commonality stops there because we come from different cultural environments, with differences in our histories in art, music and so on. Asia is like that. 

Right now, I find something substantial happening. Listening to the concerts [at this festival], it seems that the pieces performed, whether from a traditional music or contemporary/art music standpoint, seem to be undergoing change – there is a kind of cross fertilisation taking place.  

Where we’re going, I don’t know… We want an Asian identity in our musical expression, quest for self-discovery has only just begun.  one which is shared by people who come from different cultural histories, really. 

The atmosphere here certainly is very positive. Would you agree that Asian composers are asserting themselves as a powerful voice? Yes, this is what I’m feeling now, and it’s a good feeling. But of course, there’s the larger world to be addressed. How do we influence that larger world of music, of organisation, of progress, of technology, of politics...? 

What we’re looking for is the medium by which we address that world. We want a world that is relevant to us as Asians; at least, that is what I’m personally looking for.  

I was studying music science and technology even before going abroad; computer music was just starting at that time. But when I came back to the Philippines about 25 years ago, I felt irrelevant with that new knowledge, because the way of life in the Philippines is so different from in America or Europe. So this is what we are searching for – what is it that is Asian. 

Where do you think we should start looking?

We have to start from the beginning [by] rediscovering ourselves; in a way, reinventing ourselves as Asians. But how do we do that after 500 years of colonial rule? We cannot erase that. Music is one area in which that challenge can be confronted. 

I think that Asia will be an important part of the world, economically, politically and culturally; we have to find out who we are in light these developments. What we’re doing with music is seeking new, yet old, behaviourial patterns – a new mindset. When I say ‘new’, I mean renewal of what/who we are/were. It’s a tough process because of that period of foreign influence, or of non-Asian influence, I should say.  

And music, being a very human form of expression, is really at the core of the strategy in finding our relevance to this part of the world.  

A point that has constantly been raised at this conference is that the musical avant-garde is still being driven by the West. Do you see Asia reclaiming that?  

We inherited formal musical education from the West. But what we can and should do, for example in the Philippines, is to expand the concept of paedagogy, because all our institutions have been inherited from the West. We must be aware of that.  

The way to go is to expand the concept of education, training, transmission – to look at how music and traditions were transmitted before [the advent of Western-style music education] – and perhaps adopt those methodologies. We are, of course, talking about different phases – the substance, the methodology, and, ultimately, the wisdom. 

Former Asian Composers League chairman Ramon Pagayon Santos was dean of the University of Philippines College of Music from 1978-1988 and president of the National Music Council of the Philippines from 1984-1993. He has held the position of commissioner on the National Commission for Culture and the Arts since 1998, and is currently professor at the University of Philippines.

This year he was been recognised with the title of National Artist.

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