Alternative modernity and integrity of local knowledge: UP College of Music’s Emerging Interdisciplinary Research Project on Arts and Culture

It was “a product of thinking about the arts and its relationships to Philippine culture and society and a creative and imaginative re-envisioning of the possibilities that Philippine traditions can possibly make in the present moment.”

This was how Dr. Jose S. Buenconsejo, professor at the UP College of Music, described the Emerging Interdisciplinary Research (EIDR) program he led from 2015 to 2017.

Called “Emerging Interdisciplinary Research Project on Arts and Culture”, the program of the College of Music consisted of four projects that not only “spelled out an alternative modernity” but believed in the “integrity of local knowledge, giving dignity and rootedness to one’s cultural identity.”

“The project grew out of frustration as to why, in the rush to ape the templates of the Westernization, globalization and modernity, local traditions in Philippine arts and culture were erased or neglected,” Buenconsejo explained. He said that progressive, affluent countries, in contrast, “pay close attention to the local and respectfully and rationally appropriate it for new things and this enables them to shine in the world’s stage.”

“While the inevitable encroachment of modernity and cultural imperialism had homogenized world’s culture, the return to grassroots of expressive culture, which is constitutive of local cultural difference, is an important move to articulate social agency in a country’s re-encountering of the dominating foreign cross-culture imperatives,” the former dean of the College of Music added.

To implement the four projects, the EIDR program involved UP Diliman scholars, teachers and students from the humanities and social sciences as well as other historians, literary theorists and critics, film historians and critics, and people in music, dance and theater.

Dr. Ma. Lourdes Camagay (History, UP Diliman), Dr. Patrick Flores (Art Studies, UP Diliman), Dean Leonardo Rosete (Fine Arts, UP Diliman), Dr. Amparo Adelina Umali (Theater Arts, UP Diliman), Dr. La Verne Dela Pena (Music, UP Diliman) and Prof. Arwin Tan (Music, UP Diliman) served as co-proponents.

On cultural nationalism and the development of music in the Philippines

The first project, The Making of Philippine National Culture, was carried out with the UP Diliman Department of History and resulted in the academic book Philippine Modernities: Music, Performing Arts, and Language, 1880 to 1941. The time period was chosen because the Filipino intellectual culture, considered revolutionary as it fostered new ideas in the field of education in Philippine society, started in and spread throughout the country during these years. The culture was the “lynchpin for the quest for colonial reforms and then aspirations for freedom from colonialism/imperialism in our political histories.” 

The second project, Saysay Himig: A Sourcebook On Philippine Music History, 1880-1914, became a coffee table book with an accompanying CD of recordings. It was completed in partnership with the UP Diliman Department of Art Studies.  The book traces the development of transcultural Philippine music and musical practices, and provides an alternative assessment of the nation’s history, focusing on the production and circulation of cultural nationalist discourses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Both books were recently published by the UP Press.

The two books from the program were launched by the UP College of Music last month. Photos from the UP Diliman Information Office

An opera and a komedya: filling in the gap in art, music and literature

Two creative works that explored new contemporary Filipino expressions using both Western and local idioms were also staged.

The first was the komedya Putri Anak , a performance collaboration between the UP College of Music and the UP Center for International Studies. It explored the Filipino pre-colonial and colonial heritage through oral literature, music and the San Dionisio komedya performance tradition. The work was largely based on the Maguindanao celestial maiden narrative of the Philippines. Celestial maiden narratives are common among the cultures of Southeast Asia.

The second was the lyric opera Diwata ng Bayan which was informed by archival research. It was set in the early 20th century when social division in Philippine society followed from the American colonial government’s policies against grassroots resistance. Thus, although fictional, it told of the culture change that was inevitable in the Philippines due to the rise of a new power-holding class. 

Putri Anak was staged in April 2017 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Photo by Trixie Dauz

Culture for national development

With these four projects, the EIDR program was able to shed light on Philippine arts in the context of particular cultural histories. This is significant given that contemporary scholars in the country “still lack an appreciation of the importance of culture in national development, in particular in the critical period when the Spanish and American imperialisms were fought, not by physically violent means, but also importantly at the level of symbols and artistic expressions.”

Buenconsejo stated: “Conventional historians mostly deal only with political/diplomatic history, but this is blind to a historiography that highlights social experience and its embodiment in patterned artistic symbols. Thus, the project stands as a corrective to mainstream historiography for it argues that politics can be made through the arts and humanities, in short, through culture.”

Administered by the Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs, the Emerging Interdisciplinary Research grant supports interdisciplinary research programs that generate fundamentally new knowledge and have beneficial applications.