Felicidad A. Prudente  

Participating artist in Andi taku e sana, Amung taku di sana / All of us present, This is our gathering, featured exhibition of the Philippine Pavilion in the 59th International Art Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia 

Felicidad is one of the leading Filipino ethnomusicologists in the country today. Her field of expertise is in indigenous music cultures with a specialization in Philippine music. Having conducted field research around the Philippines over the years, Prudente has written and published articles on various aspects of Philippine music such as epic singing, vocal polyphony, and gong culture. A piano and music education graduate from St. Paul College of Manila, she pursued graduate studies in musicology with emphasis in ethnomusicology at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor where she was Visiting Professor in 2004. She served as music professor at the University of the Philippines and consultant at the Philippine Women’s University. Currently she is an active member of the International Council for Traditional Music and its study group on the performing arts of Southeast Asia where she presents her research.

How did you get started in ethnomusicology?

I was a piano major and I used to teach piano in the 60’s. When I decided to take my masters at the University of the Philippines, I enrolled in Music Theory. As a Music Theory major, I was invited by [National Artist for Music] Dr. Jose Maceda to do music transcriptions of field recordings he collected from different parts of the country. That was my work and that’s how I started my career in ethnomusicology.

Dr. Maceda is a National Artist for Music and is known for his work in indigenous music. What did you learn from him that you apply in your current practice?

Dr. Maceda taught me his method of fieldwork. I started doing fieldwork only when I was in UP. Remember, I was a piano major graduate.  I was also a music education teacher  teaching grade classroom music. When I went to UP, that was when I learned to conduct field research under Dr. Maceda.

What are your most memorable trips for fieldwork and why?

I have done many field work around the country but I think the most fruitful and productive one was my collaborative project with the University of Malaya with Malaysian colleagues in music, dance, and Southeast Asian studies. The project was about the Kulintangan culture in the Sulu area which includes Mindanao, Palawan, Tawi-Tawi, and areas in Borneo such as Sabah, Kalimantan, and Sarawak. That was memorable and productive because I was able to go outside the Philippines and interconnect the kulintangan culture with neighboring countries of Indonesia and Malaysia. It was a two-year project – from 1998 to 2000.

What are your favorite musical pieces?

I like variety of music – indigenous, classical, popular, world music, and contemporary. I listen to popular bands like the Eraserheads, or Maguindanaoan kulintang playing tidtu, Schubert songs and all that. I have many favorites.

How do you describe yourself as an ethnomusicologist?

Adventurous because I like to experience new things. I guess I can be persistent too because I do what I want to do and if there are any obstacles I try to solve it. I can say I’m also hard working and diligent.

With regard to your work in the Philippine Pavilion. The work that you shared is quite different. We haven’t seen anything like this. What was your role in the creation of the work for the project?

I was approached by Gerry Tan who conceived this project and it was very timely. At that time, I was already packing my things out of UP because I just retired. When he came, he said that he needed a music transcriber and that I was recommended by another colleague to do his project on weaving.  As a musicologist,  I told him we need to go on field work to collect the weaving sounds.  So that’s what we did. We went to the field and our first fieldwork was in Iloilo, in Miag-ao. That’s how it started in 2016.

As one of the featured artists of Andi taku e sana, Amung taku di sana / All of us present, This is our gathering – what message are you trying to convey with your work?

I think the main message is to be open, be open to do collaborative work because it creates new ideas, new knowledge, and if you collaborate you can produce something unique. This is what we are presenting at the Venice Biennale at the Philippine Pavilion, where the concept is different. I believe no one else has done this kind of project and exhibition.

What does it mean to you to have your work be featured in the Venice Biennale?

I have been telling my friends that my participation at the Venice Biennale is unthinkable and definitely unplanned since my world is in music.  At the Venice Biennale, I am designated as a participating artist with visual artist Gerry Tan and Ifugao master weaver Sammy Buhle. I have never done an art show in my entire life. And It is only now that I am crossing over to the art world with this project. It is unthinkable! We are also very thankful to NCCA for supporting our proposal.

With regard to process – you mentioned that Gerry [Tan] approached you and he asked you to do some transcription and you started to do fieldwork. The first one was the Miag-ao, Iloilo. Was there any specific reason why you went to Miag-ao?

When Gerry went there, he was hosted by a friend from Miag-ao. He was stunned when he heard the weavings sounds produced by many looms at the same time like minimalism music.  Intuitively, he thought about weaving the produced weaving sounds be woven back into textile. That’s how the concept  of the project started. I went with Gerry only later in 2016 to do video documentation of the Miag-ao weaving and experience how the weaving is done.

After Miag-ao, what other communities did you visit?

We went to various weaving communities like Abra, Ilocos, La Union and so forth. I also went to Kalinga, Ifugao, and Mt. Province; then to Mindanao to document  the weaving of the T’boli,  Bagobo, and Yakan. In the Visayas, I went to other Ilonggo weaving houses and the last one before the pandemic was with Kiniray-a weavers in Bugasong, Antique.

Were these all Gerry’s contacts or did you have personal connections with these weavers?

I have been doing a lot of fieldwork around the country being part of my profession as a musicologist and music researcher. I have many contacts and friends who recommended me to weavers in Cordillera and Mindanao. In the Visayas, my student from Iloilo helped me with contacts in Antique. Plus Gerry is from Cotabato and he knew where to go for Maguindanaon weaving.

The communities you selected somewhat provide a good representation of the Philippines’ weaving communities. Was that deliberate?

Yes, that was deliberate; we needed representation from Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao for the NCCA proposal.

From the fieldwork and recordings, you did the notations and Gerry did the sketches. Can you explain the process further?

Yes, we have a process. My sound transcriptions will go to Gerry for him to do the patterns, colors, and sizes. Then the patterns go to Sammy [Buhle] who will interpret and weave the patterns into textiles. Let me show you an example of my sound transcription. Please note that the transcriptions are not in western notation (showing the transcription over the camera).  For example, here you have rectangular shapes or boxes.  This box for the shuttle sound is one beat with a triangle showing  the direction and sound of the shuttle. Then you go to the next box which is smaller to show that it is one-half  beat and solid for the loud sound. After the loud sound, there is a muffled sound which is also one-half  beat where I put a symbol to represent the muffled sound.  Then back to the sound symbol of the shuttle pointing in another direction; that’s either to the left or to the right depending on the movement of the shuttle. This is the transcription I made for the Miag-ao weaving sound. Then I pass my transcription to Gerry to put it into pattern, color, and size. Then Gerry’s pattern goes to Sammy.

How did you come up with the symbols? Are they based on traditional music notations or was it something you developed?

It is something that I invented. Like for the loud sound, I thought that I should have a solid bar to symbolize a loud sound. Then I needed a symbol for the shuttle which has hissing sounds so I put an S inside a triangle as a symbol. What is crucial in the weaving sound transcription is the rhythm and beat which needs technical skills in music theory like how long is the shuttle sound, how long is the loud sound, how long is the muffled song, etcetera.

In the exhibition catalogue, Sammy and Gerry were talking about improvisation which played a big part in your project. On your end, how did improvisation come into play?

I think the improvisation is more about inventing symbols. How to improvise the symbols and the patterns that can be woven because the loom has its limitation. The loom cannot do large circles for example, so I have to improvise and invent symbols that can be woven.

Do you have any standards as to how Gerry represented the notations you made?

The process is really back and forth process. If Sammy has a question like for example  where does the pattern begin and where does it end? Sammy he would ask me or Gerry. Other times Gerry would come to me and would ask inquiries like, “Is this pattern okay? Is it correct?” So it is really a back and forth process. It is not a one-way process. 

Good thing that we have Facebook Messenger, emails and zoom, that we can talk with each other quickly. Before the pandemic, we would go to Banaue and bring the pattern and explain to Sammy on how we want it like the color, size, etcetera.

Among all the other talented weavers in the country, why did you decide to work with Sammy Buhle?

That is a good story. We had gone to other different weavers, the first one was in Baguio because a friend recommended that we go to this particular weaving house. However, they could not do it. Then we even went to Ilocos, but then again they couldn’t do it too because they stick to their own traditional patterns. Our patterns are contemporary, they are new. Eventually after asking around, Gerry was told by a friend to go to an anthropologist from UP Baguio, to Dr. Ikin Salvador Amores who is doing research on Cordilleran textiles. Dr. Ikin who knows many weavers around the Cordillera region because of her CORDITEX project. When Gerry approached her in UP Baguio, she knew Sammy Buhle is the person for the project. That was how we found Sammy. We went to Banaue with Dr. Ikin and met Sammy. That was the beginning of our collaboration with Sammy. We are also very thankful to Dr. Ikin.

Was Sammy open to do the contemporary patterns?

Yes. When he saw the pattern, he immediately said he can do it unlike the others. The others did not accept our patterns for various reasons.

Sammy is very open, he is a real artist and very talented. In one of our conversations, he said that he doesn’t count threads. You see in weaving, you have to be very good in math. You have to count down the threads to create the patterns. He even shared with us that he doesn’t write down his thread counts. All counts are in his head. He is intelligent and creative.

One final question – what is next from you? Are there any next projects that we can look forward to and watch out for?

I want to finish my book on Kalinga music, it’ been long overdue and also maybe something new that I can do from my Venice experience. I am thinking about church bells. I was telling some friends that the sound of church bells in Venice will be interesting to do. Let’s see.

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