Author: Joshua Cerdenia

New Beginnings

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Actually the beginnings to which I’m referring are not that new, since I’ve now been part of the team at The Canales Project for about three months, but there is much, much more journeying to do in this unfamiliar world. Last year, despite not having a clue what to do with myself, I decided to suspend my academic aspirations temporarily in favor of something a little more novel and real-world; I had every intention of going back for a DMA/PhD in 2017, but… I am enjoying the arts administration life too much—not to mention I’ve written more music in the last few months since graduating than in my entire second year at Juilliard, so I think I’m in a good place.

Earlier this month at the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center we wrapped up the first in a series of shows called “Between Two Worlds,” the idea of which is to feature a motley group of artists who, in one way or another, work between different levels of cultural or professional identity. I’m not heavily involved in the next one on December 4 at New York Live Arts, since in the days leading up to it I’ll be in Houston for a performance (more details another time!), but it will feature my good friend and collaborator Drew Forde.

My work with TCP has pushed me to think more about cultural advocacy, the social impact of the arts, and what it means for us creative workers to engage the wider world around us. Do I really know about these things? No. But I think these are questions that are better acted upon than asked verbally, and now is a great time to be acting upon them indeed.

What is music for?—and some new videos

No, really: what is music for? What’s the point? In light of the many recent goings-on in the world, this question seems to sting anew. But the more we insist on asking it, the less it becomes clear that there is in fact any point. Maybe it’s the wrong question. It’s like asking: what is anger for, or fear, or joy, or excitement? Music is is how I react to things; I can’t quite help it.

I was recently able to gather my thoughts and sit still long enough to write a brief essay in which I explain why I compose—instead of dumping it all on this page, which is really supposed to be for “news,” I have put it in the “About” section of this site as a kind of personal or artistic statement. For now, it represents the best attempt I can make to make sense of this ridiculous activity to which I, along with many others, have come to devote myself.

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And lest I forget, not too long ago I finally received videos from Ensemble Gô’s Yokohama tour in the summer of 2015. Here are their performances of Cariñosa and Heavenward. Enjoy!

Summer Notes

There are so many stories to tell from the time between my last post and now, among them:

1) performing Air a bunch of times all over the Juilliard building with my friend ThatViolaKid, including on his solo recital and graduation jury, both of which were nerve-wracking but made me feel somewhat like a legitimate composer;


2) the world premiere at Lincoln Center of Spoliarium, which I maintain for a few different reasons is my worst piece in recent memory, and which I expect will never see the light of day again, though I am quite fond of the ending where a lone bass drum utterly destroys the entire ensemble (to quote the New York Times, “the piece pretty much explodes at the end”);

3) writing an entire piece in one night and playing it myself the next day—don’t ask; and,

4) graduating from Juilliard.

But Peter Dinklage was right: you sort of get a bit derailed after graduation, though in my case I have always been more or less constantly derailed in many aspects of my life anyway, so not much else is new. In fact, my newfound freedom from the many distractions of the academe has left my brain clear enough these past eight weeks to allow me to put the double bar on two pieces so far—one for violin, another for choir—despite my history of long, unproductive summers and the New York heat making it impossible some days to do anything. Do I see a third double bar in the near distance? To be sure, things are moving slowly, but expect that I will have exciting things to announce and more uses for this space in due time.

Future Classics with the Minnesota Orchestra

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As it happens I’ve been in Minneapolis all week for the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute, which will culminate tonight in the orchestra’s annual Future Classics concert, of which I’m beyond thrilled to be part. Last night my fellow composers and I introduced ourselves to a small audience of administrators, staff, and friends of the Minnesota Orchestra, and as the only non-American in the group I made it clear that I was a very long way from home. Growing up in the Philippines, classical music was simply not a life option. And when I discovered the pleasures of orchestral music for the first time, I didn’t think that one day I’d be writing it, let alone be sitting in a hall to listen to one of America’s great orchestras perform something I’d written. But—here we are.

The rest of the program, made up of all-new orchestral music by some very talented people, is sure to be an experience too. Also, a live broadcast on Classical MPR…!

Projects Big and Small, 2015–16

Juan Luna, Spoliarium (1884)

The 2015–16 season is upon us, and things are settling nicely (as nicely as things can settle in the world of concert music) after the whirlwind that was the beginning of a new academic year at Juilliard, so some small updates are in order.

Two big things are lined up my way: first, the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute in January, in which I will take part, and in which a slightly revised Magayon will receive its professional orchestra premiere. Needless to say, I’m terribly fortunate to see this piece performed a second time, and thrilled to hear what magic the Minnesota Orchestra will work on it.

Second, a new piece for the New Juilliard Ensemble’s season-closing concert in April is in the works. This time I’ve chosen for my subject the most famous of Filipino paintings, Juan Luna’s Spoliarium, which depicts a scene from a chamber in the Roman Colosseum where the bodies of fallen gladiators were dragged and stripped of their armor—a deliciously ripe subject for a piece if I ever saw one!

But big projects are giant curtains that obscure a different, more uncertain world underneath, made of smaller projects, and full of scurrying and scrambling to make things happen. A few days ago, for instance, I completed a new work for viola and piano—provisionally titled Air—for my colleague Drew Alexander Forde. A performance or two will more or less certainly take place at Juilliard some time toward the end of the concert season, though these things can be quite fluid, and the premiere might very well occur sooner. And now I occupy myself with a quick setting of the Magnificat for the Philippine-American Choral Project in New York; of course, updates to come as things unfold.

World Premieres with the Juilliard Orchestra

Mount Mayon erupting, 1928

Check out this article on the Juilliard Journal about the upcoming Juilliard Orchestra concert featuring new music by four Juilliard composers including myself. As with all things of this nature, there were a few inaccuracies in the first version of the article, not the most surprising of which was my real last name being misspelled—which is precisely why I’ve discontinued using it for publicity. That error has since been corrected, but there remains another, more complex one that I’m not quite sure how to deal with: a supposed connection between my piece and the “concept of home.” When you’re in a foreign land and trying to create an identity, any connection to a home tends to get amplified. Yet, while I took inspiration from a story from my birthplace, it’s been a long time since I sincerely thought of my birthplace as home, and I approached my source material more as a fascinated outsider—except I thought my sheer irreverence legitimized somehow by my heritage. Hence, for better or for worse, you will hear no Philippine tunes, no deliberate indication of anything Asian in my piece, unless you choose to hear it—there’s nothing to stop you; that’s the beauty of it all.

In any case: the concert will be on Tuesday, April 28th at Alice Tully Hall, with Jeffrey Milarsky conducting. I’m equally excited to hear the music of my wonderful colleagues here at Juilliard; you should be too!

Here’s the program note I submitted to the publicity folks:

Magayon means “beautiful” in the Bicol language of the Philippines, and it forms part of the name of Daragang Magayon—literally “beautiful maiden”—the central character in the origin myth of Mount Mayon, an active volcano that overlooks my birthplace: the Philippine province of Albay. According to the myth, Magayon, having previously rejected many powerful suitors from distant villages, was set to marry the chieftain Ulap. But as preparations began for a grand, feastly wedding, the jealous hunter Pagtuga intervened, holding Magayon’s father hostage and setting off a brief but deadly skirmish.

When all of the main characters died—most tragically Magayon herself, who was hit by a stray arrow—the entire village went from celebratory anticipation of the wedding to mourning. The maiden was laid to rest on a grave next to her husband-to-be, which the villagers were alarmed to find rising higher and higher each day, accompanied by earthquakes and muffled rumblings of the earth. At last a crater formed, spewing hot ash and rocks.

My piece is concerned less with depicting the myth in its entirety and more with the emotional journey that the story evokes. I kept in mind Mount Mayon’s near-perfect cone in shaping the piece: its three sections (fast–slow–fast) are of roughly equal length and form an almost symmetrical arc, flowing seamlessly from one to the next. I also place less emphasis on the tragedy of the myth, and more on my own sense of wonder toward the mythology of my home country; hence, the piece, though brutal at times, ultimately comes to a triumphant close.