Music’s “Non-Music” Man

| Written by Arlyn VCD Palisoc Romualdo

I call it ‘non-music’ because it doesn’t fit the idea of what music is,” says National Artist for Music, composer, ethnomusicologist, and UP Professor Emeritus Ramon Pagayon Santos.

“It” is his area of research: non-Western indigenous expressive traditions that are part of the genre called “ethnic music.” Because “music,” he explains, is a Western concept defined by elements such as structure, counterpoint, harmony, texture, and form, among others, “it is not really music—not in the strictest sense.”


National Artist for Music Ramon Pagayon Santos at the UP Center for Ethnomusicology (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)
National Artist for Music Ramon Pagayon Santos at the UP Center for Ethnomusicology (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)


It was an incident at a Philippine music festival he organized as dean of the College of Music that prompted him to question why those ethnic forms of expression were considered music.

“I had invited three guitarists and a dancer from Batangas to participate. Imagine my surprise when two jeepney loads of people arrived!” During the performance, the others acted as bystanders who would react loudly and throw money at the performers. “That type of ‘music’ wasn’t meant for just listening because it wouldn’t have the intended effect. It needed the participation of the community. There was an experiential condition.”

There’s also the playing of the kwintangankayu of the Yakan, the bayok of the Maranao, and the badiw of the Ibaloi which are similarly experiential and dependent on the occasions during which they are played. Cultural expressions such as these “don’t follow what conventionally defines music.”


Knowing the rules and breaking them
As an ethnomusicologist, Santos has been challenging the use of the term “music” to describe these forms of expression since the 1980s. But as a composer, Santos has been pushing against tradition for far longer—as early as his undergraduate days in the early 1960s.

He grew up with classical music around him. His mother and grandmother were pianists, so he learned solfège and how to play the piano. High school for Santos was in a seminary, where he “fell in love with schola cantorum.”

He wrote poetry and literature inspired his passion for music, even prompting him to create music for Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems. Like his brother, Santos also painted. His parents even thought he would study painting in college, but he didn’t. He earned a degree in Composition and Conducting from UP instead.

He formed the Immaculate Conception Choir in Pasig before he even graduated, writing choir music and a whole Mass, and leading the choir in presenting operettas. He also joined the symphonic ode category of the Bonifacio Centennial National Composition Contest, where he was the only declared winner at second place. No first or third. “The first honorable mention was my teacher,” he recounts with a sheepish smile.

In UP, Santos discovered Edgard Varèse, a French composer recognized for using sound outside the confines of musical tradition. He was amazed by Jose Maceda, a visionary composer and member of the UP faculty who pioneered avant-garde music in the country and was later named National Artist for Music.

Santos credits Maceda, his “greatest idol in composition,” for inspiring him because his ideas were deeply rooted in Philippine culture and how “we feel and experience music.”

Dissonances then became part of Santos’ work. “I think my teacher thought it wouldn’t get me anywhere.” But his leanings toward unconventional compositions mixed with his interest in non-Western cultural expressions allowed him to forge a path in contemporary Philippine music.

His groundbreaking body of work—both in composition and in ethnomusicology—earned him the rank of National Artist in 2016.

Santos is quite happy that the number of composer-ethnomusicologists is increasing, although he admits that genuine Philippine music still has a long way to go.

“We always need to be conscious of the fact that we are not Westerners, that we should not merely follow Western trends. Our experiences are different. Our sentiments are different. Our culture is different. I hope that we can eventually have a name for what I call ‘non-music.’”