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Matthew Welch: "The Dynamic Stream of Culture"

May 23, 2018

In 2017, composer, musician, and conductor Matthew Welch embarked on a six-week ACC Fellowship in the Philippines.

Matt Welch's goal was to engage with local musicians while researching his opera And Here We Are, which debuted May 6, 2018 at National Sawdust. His fellowship provided an opportunity for him to reflect as an artist on his family’s rich history in the Philippines (1905-1945) and the depth of Filipino cultural traditions. The following post, “The Dynamic Stream of Culture,” was originally published by Matthew Welch on Experiments in Opera (January 31, 2018), tracing his grant experience and its impact.


Matthew Welch over the rice fields of Maligcong

Traveling to the Philippines was a tremendous opportunity for me. Amid the whirlwind of travel and meetings, musical lessons and long hikes, I could not have fully understood how this trip would make an impact on me and my music. Now that I am back in the US, I can see just how rare an experience it was to take such a pilgrimage back to my mythic homeland and walk the soil of my family’s unique Philippine history.

One of the first things I noticed was that, because I am working on my opera And Here We Are, I immediately became more aware of the soundscape of both my hereditary past and my work as a composer. In my study of gangsa (Cordillera ritual flat gongs pictured on the right), I learned four different regions of the Cordillera: Benguet, Mountain Province, Ifugao and Kalinga. 

I learned by rote the subtle differences between each of the traditions, magnifying the diversity of the regions and painting a much broader and subtler picture of the musical landscape of the country.

In addition, I explored the techniques of performance, melodic construction and improvisation for both the Kalinga nose flute tradition. In these studies with Alex Tumapang, I immersed myself in the history of coupling poetic syllables with melodic constructions in the Ullalim epic from Kalinga. 

This exploration of language and music has had direct impact on my techniques as a composer for voice and instruments.  In aural traditions, the references to past treatments of epic songs has a great deal to do with how history is constructed and communicated. 

Along with my musical studies, I was able to get closer to my own family history. I stayed at my family’s old hotel that survived the war.  I also toured through the buildings of The University of Santo Thomas (pictured on right) which, during the war, served as the internment camp where my family was held. This experience was indescribably eerie. 

Equally as surprising was my discovery of Kneedler Road in Baguio (my family was named Kneedler), on which the remains of my family’s log cabin still existed. My tour of Brent school in Baguio (where the Kneedler boys were enrolled) to recreate photos from the Kneedlers’ boyhoods was indescribably profound.

And, I met the 102-year-old wife of my great-grandfather’s lawyer who was bequeathed our Baguio property. In tribute to my family he named the street they lived on “Kneedler" (shown above).

In this way, the trip was truly a pilgrimage. These images and emotions have already made their way directly into And Here We Are, sometimes concretely and other times as ghostly shadows.             

I returned with a head-hunter tattoo by 100 year-old batok artist Whang-Od, myriad assortment of Cordilleran gongs (gangsa), bamboo buzzers (balimbing), nose flutes (tongali), and heaps of theoretical and ethnomusicological writings by Filipino composer-researchers, all of which I am now applying to And Here We Are. Through my research on Filipino composers, gained a sensibility on how the dialogue between extant local music traditions and globally modern influences has occurred in the Philippines. As a hybrid-oriented composer myself, this understanding has been critical in my discovering the overall sentiment of my opera’s story.


Matthew Welch receiving tattoo from Whang-Od

The profundity of the trip’s impact can be formulated this way: before the trip, I had already composed a lot of music for this opera that would speak to the American (and Kneedler) side of this history. Following the trip, I can conceive of the cultural landscape within which the world of this opera exists: displaced and comingling cultures within the already multifarious sound world of the Philippines. We think of cultures as having borders, but they are more dynamic streams of fluidity that flow, eddy and permeate.

Below: Matthew Welch with his gangsa teachers and classmates