Robin Estrada and the Musicality of Language

Mar 8, 2016

Composer Robin EstradaBerkeley-based Robin Estrada is an adjunct faculty at the University of San Francisco and a former SFCA Composer-in-Residence. He sat down with composer Jason Carl Rosenberg at the Center for New Music to discuss the use and possibility of language in choral music, especially within the context of Estrada’s “Ecclesiastes 3”, which was commissioned by SFCA for their March 2016 concert series, Prayers from the Ark: Songs of Lamentation & Jubilation.

Jason Carl Rosenberg: The choral music you present online is written in the Filipino language, if I’m not mistaken. Is the piece you’re writing for the San Francisco Choral Artists in Filipino as well?

Robin Estrada: Yeah. How much do you know about the piece?

JCR: Not too much actually. So perhaps we should start with you providing a bit of an introduction to the work, yeah?

RE: The idea of setting the text of Ecclesiastes 3 came from a piece that I heard back in high school by another Filipino composer, Ryan Cayabyab. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find a recording or a score of it, so I wrote my own. Ecclesiastes 3 complements an earlier piece that I wrote for a Filipino choir, Psalmi 137. They complement each other because both compositions use interlocking melodies, similar to those used in Balinese gamelan. I took Balinese gamelan classes in Berkeley and enjoyed it immensely. With these two works, I was inspired to apply interlocking techniques – melodic and rhythmic­ – practiced in Kalingga music in the Philippines, in the Balinese “kecak,” and probably in other vocal and instrumental genres in Southeast Asia. Have you performed “kecak” before? It’s the monkey chant, which goes like chak chak cha chak cha chak…

JCR: I haven’t. I played with a Balinese gamelan ensemble at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, but we never performed the monkey chant. But anyone who’s seen Baraka has such a powerful image and sound profile implanted in their brains.

RE: Right.

JCR: It’s a powerful scene. And not just visually, but sonically as well, with the interlocking vocal patterns and the exchange between the soloists and the ensemble.

RE: Exactly. That’s my inspiration. I believe this technique highlights the social aspect of community performance. Each individual part plays an integral role to the whole.

JCR: Have you then led “kecak” sessions yourself?

RE: No, but I’ve attended lectures and seminars to learn more about it. I’ve been working with interlocking techniques earlier on, but these two recent works explores them more–to create soundscapes or textures, to create melodies or melodic figures, to create harmony and complex rhythm. That’s what the piece is about.

JCR: I’d like to now return to the language issue for a minute. I know it’s a somewhat thorny topic to traverse, but I’m curious about the potential relationship between one’s native language and one’s compositional approach. I myself do research on the relationship between music and language in the brain. Recent research suggests that a composer’s native tongue influences the music they produce, even in instrumental and non-programmatic music. In what way, if any, do you think that your music is shaped by the language with which you were raised?

RE: Well, I definitely believe that the language I’m using for the text will affect how I write the music or what kind of music I write. The reason I like Filipino is it lends well to both rhythmic and lyrical compositions. I believe there are two reasons for this. Firstly, Tagalog word structures are based on affixes: prefix, suffix, and infix, and repetitions of these syllables. Tagalog also extensively uses glottal-stop vowel sounds. This, together with the word-structure characteristic, makes it natural to create a rhythmic quality to the work. On the other hand, Tagalog vowels are mostly, if not all, pure vowels. We have very few diphthongs. The phonetic sound usually occurs when the letter “y” follows a vowel. English uses diphthongs, “tripthongs,” who knows what else. [Laughs.]

This pure vowel quality sits well with lyrical and melodic compositions. I really find it difficult setting English text to music. I don’t know what you can take from that, but the music that I’m interested to write doesn’t fit well with the English language. One time at the conservatory, the students were asked to set Lorca’s “Aire de Nocturno” to music for a choral composition competition. I already knew what I wanted to write but the provided text was an English translation. It just didn’t feel right, probably also because it wasn’t the original language. I usually prefer using the original text if possible. I ended up using both the original text in Spanish and the English translation. It worked out well: I actually won that competition. [Laughs.]

JCR: Not to be pugnacious, but you could also say something similar for Ecclesiastes 3, no? That is, do you also have a similar hesitation or reluctance or difficulty to write music to text that was originally in Latin, for instance?

RE: Well, Latin is really close to Filipino because of the pure vowels, like Spanish or Italian. It’s pretty close because of the vowel and consonant sounds we use. So they’re phonetically very similar. Latin, Italian, Spanish, Filipino, Indonesian (I’ve written something in Indonesian before)…it’s usually easier for me. Language itself has its own musicality already. The innate musicality of a text, both the language itself and the text structure, should inform what one writes. I would be interested in your research, by the way. [Laughs.]

JCR: Well, I’m happy to talk with you about it afterward. [Laughs.] As a follow-up to what you were just saying, your vocal music tends to disrupt the typical semantic flow of the lyrics; it’s nonlinear, it’s fractured.

RE: Fractured? Hmm, I don’t know if that is the same with Ecclesiastes 3. It’s less that way. Which is the one you heard, by the way?

JCR: I listened to a few. One that Volti recorded …

RE: Ah, the reason that that one was fractured was again because of the structure of the text. I was happy with that piece because I wrote the text. [Laughs.] It was a dedication. That was the title, Paghahandog, meaning “dedication”. The title is the dedication, the composition is the dedication, and the text is the dedication. So the whole piece is a dedication. The text goes “To those who are listening, who can hear, and who are heard”. Sa sinomang nakikinig, nakakarining, at naririnig. Notice “ka ka”, “ri ri”, “na ki ki”. It was easy for me to manipulate and deconstruct the text. That was the idea for writing the text. For this one, it’s from the Bible and so you respect the text — at least I do since I’m Catholic [laughs] — and that the text should be at least understood. So I did not use the text as a source for compositional material in this piece. Well…some parts I did actually. But it’s more a feature in my other pieces, like the piece for Volti, where I use the text itself as a musical and structural component.

JCR: Perhaps what drew me to those conclusions about your music’s fractured settings is the phonetic qualities of the text — that the text emphasizes percussive qualities, especially when it’s repeated quickly [illustrates].

RE: Yeah, exactly.

JCR: It reminds me of a tabla player’s vocal improvisations, where they have a phoneme attached to each percussive stroke. [Illustrates.] The sonic qualities can be similar to what you create in your music and can evoke a similar emotional resonance related to percussive effects.

RE: Yeah, I can see that, especially if you don’t understand the text.

JCR: That makes me curious, especially since you sometimes use graphic score elements, about how you treat the words of your new piece, Ecclesiastes 3, now that it’s more about semantic meaning that you are trying to convey.

RE: I’m reading this book about medieval music and chants. The function of the text in liturgy is the source for how they structure their chants. I’ve noticed that my compositional process for this piece is similar. For instance, it opens with “There is a time for everything.” Sa bawat bagay ay may kapanahunan, at panahon sa bawat panukala sa silong ng langit “Everything has a time underneath the heavens.” It functions as general and introductory statement. That’s the first section of the text and so for the music as well. Then it continues with a litany of sorts. “A time for this, a time for that, a time for this, a time for that…” That forms the second section. The third section does not conform to the sequence of the actual litany. Instead, I grouped together all the “negative” statements, like “A time for war”, “A time for sickness”, and “A time for death” and statements which were more positive “A time for peace”, “A time for love”, etc.–providing two contrasting thoughts. So there are three sections in this composition.

JCR: You mentioned that you want to have clarity with the meaning of the text in the piece. But on the other hand, you were inspired by interlocking rhythmic and melodic patterns. How did you combine those desires?

RE: I broke down the text into different groups. If a section sings their part alone it would not make sense.

JCR: It’s like a hocket.

RE: Exactly. [Sings an example.] It was also an opportunity for me to work with space. I indicated the positions of the singers in the piece. For instance, if soprano 1 and 2 are singing an interlocking melodic line, their positions on different locations on the stage would allow the listener to hear separate parts but also a single aggregate melodic line at the same time. That was an appropriate reason (compositionally) for me to specify spatial arrangement for the singers. It’s an integral aspect of the piece.

JCR: Interesting. Are you particular about the spatial arrangement, or would you be open to other spaced arrangement, like standing around the audience?

RE: No, that would be fine. The idea is just to have the individual lines of the interlocking melody separated to highlight its individuality. I’m excited to hear the premiere. The first time I applied this technique to Psalm 137, it worked out really well. With Ecclesiastes 3, I wanted to further explore the technique.

JCR: You were a previous Composer-In-Residence for the Choral Artists. In 2008, I believe. …

RE: Yeah, I wrote two pieces for them. One was “Et Apertum est Templum”, which was in Latin again (“And the gates of heaven opened”). The text was really vivid. There was thunder and lightning and earthquakes…end of the world, basically. And this was supposed to be for Christmas. [Laughs.] But then at the end it goes “A woman appeared with a baby in her arms…and the stars on her head and the moon at her feet.” So that seemed Christmas-y. [Laughs.] And I stopped there because the text goes on describing dragons eating people. [More laughs.] But it was a visual piece; for word painting and such.

JCR: Perfect text for word painting. But through that experience of writing for the choir, hearing their unique voices, learning their strengths and weaknesses, etc., how did that experience and knowledge shape what you wrote in this newest piece?

RE: I know they are very capable of performing difficult works. Having heard the Choral Artists’ previous repertoire and performance under the leadership of Magen, I just wrote what I wanted without holding back, maybe pushing the comfort zone a little bit for choral singers. I am nevertheless very confident that their performance of my work will be impeccable.