Susie Ibarra’s recent project with Electric Kulintang speaks of her upbringing within a community of Filipinos. She seeks to bring the folk traditions manifest in Filipino culture into the setting of contemporary music. With only two of four members of the group performing, Ibarra and Roberto J. Rodriguez carried out her intention at the last concert of the Magic Triangle Series at UMass, Amherst.
The major component of Kulintang is a group of eight distinctly pitched gongs, characteristically lined up in a horizontal row within a box. (In an original context. the entire Kulintang ensemble would include in addition an array of vertically hanging gongs, handheld gongs and wooden drums.) The eight bronze gongs form a solid unit of sound and are one instrument rather than eight. This instrument was set prominently on the stage for this performance. Flanking these gongs were electronic devices programmed by laptops, other handheld percussive devices, a keyboard, a set of pipes and a basic drumset made up of two cymbals, bass drum, snare, two toms, and hi-hat. The instruments were acoustic and digital; the sounds put forth were reverberant and repetitive.
My memory of drummer, Ibarra, in a past trio concert, glistened with a recognition of the method in her playing. A density grows within a rigid set of limits. Her sticks can fly, the pulse she creates radiates, but she seems to stay tightly within the confines of her drumset. Since she motorizes the drums, she makes sure the engine is always running close to the chassis.
The same kind of limiting shaped the Electric Kulintang. First of all, the core instrument of the Kulintang has a closed tonal range. Coupled with a pattern that structured the music, the simplicity of the planned improvisation blossomed. It is also notable that Ibarra chose an appropriate ensemble of instruments because she played both the traditional and the contemporary with a similar group of attacks.
The electronics served to complete the Kulintang ensemble. Rodriguez managed a refined electronic vocabulary which contained altered recordings of assemblies of people and children, ambient sounds of waves, breaking-glass-like spills, voices and beats. The electronics served to support the live music with an underlying drone line or embellish it with overlapping nets of discrete tones & sounds.
The temperament of the music was set when Rodriguez traced over the edge of a singing bowl with a wooden stick to bring its pitch up high enough to match the tonal quality that rose as Ibarra struck the miked gongs. She played them sweetly and gradually produced smooth, evocative multi-tonal runs. When she moved to her drumset, she drove a groove that was antithetical to the groove that could be reached on the gongs. On occasion, apart from regulating the electronics, Rodriguez, in the same way, played out rhythmically with his hands on the wooden box on which he sat. Ibarra opened up on the drumset because she gave herself more variations with which to work. Rodriguez paralleled Ibarra’s freedom with hyping up or piping down the electronic sonics.
At the keyboard at the pivotal point of the performance, Ibarra’s vocalizations resembled a course a French Impressionist composer would chart as she accompanied herself on the keyboard one-note-at-a-time. She and Rodriguez conversed with each other as two distinct musical characters. Ibarra went back to play the drums in nearly the same fashion as before; Rodriguez answered her in kind with digital repetitions and accents of shells rattling or finger cymbals tinkling. They were swinging. In fact, the two approached several grooves mixing analog and digital abstractions. Ibarra would return to the gongs to renew the cycle of her conception and eventually, the music ended. All in all, the crux of the performance was the intense rhythm and changes within it, which held together the acoustic and electronic instrumentation like glue.
From beginning to end, Ibarra kept the parabolic direction of the music in her mind. You could see that in her face. She was monitoring the sonoral interaction of the acoustic as it was balanced with digital, of the Filipino traditional as it encountered the contemporary improvisational. The success of this blending was interrupted too often with applause. Each musical outage marked a transitional silence from one movement to the next. These silences should have been honored.
Along with many other vanguard and classical musicians of her stature, Ibarra is moving to join the cultures of the world in a manner in which each culture can maintain its integrity. Someday, maybe, everyone will catch the drift and, at least, dance.