All program notes © 2011–2018 by Joshua Cerdenia

Celestine (Prelude for Orchestra) (2017) – for orchestra

The Latin root of the word Celestine is caelestis, meaning celestial, referring to the sky or heaven. It is also the name of a mineral with a subtle blue color. Unlike most of my other works, Celestine takes no inspiration from any story, narrative, or other work of art; instead it is an exercise in melody and accompaniment. From beginning to end it is dominated by one tune, developed and transformed against a steady rhythmic backdrop and through various harmonic turns. It is a simple musical object, intended simply to charm and amuse.

Creed (2013) – for orchestra

Though I made several attempts at orchestral music when I was younger (only two of which I ever completed, and only one surviving into the present), Creed is my first attempt after having undertaken some formal study of orchestration. It is a short slow movement with a narrative directly based on the Nicene Creed. Despite the nature of the source material, there is no intent to express any specific religious meaning. The entire piece comprises a single large gesture: a gradual progression from an initial germ of an idea to a grand and resolute statement of profound belief, and, ultimately, prayerful contemplation.

Feuertrunken (Fire-Drunk) (2017) – for orchestra

Feuertrunken is a loud meditation (if one can meditate loudly) on joy. In the months that I spent composing the piece, between March–June 2017, I found little cause for celebration in the many goings-on both locally and abroad; perhaps this was the reason I thought the subject of joy had so much urgency.

During this time I also found myself absorbed in the Divine Comedy, especially the Purgatorio: Dante’s vision of purgatory is a giant mountain partitioned into seven terraces, each devoted to purification from one of the deadly sins. Dante ascends the mountain terrace by terrace, until at last he finds a great wall of fire between him and paradise. An angel of God encourages him to make the plunge into his final trial. Though my piece as a whole is not programmatic (meaning musical events generally do not correspond to anything in Dante’s story), there is a brief interlude in which I imagine Dante in devoted silence before he submits to the fire.

The title, meaning “fire-drunk” or “drunk with fire,” is of course from Friedrich Schiller’s famous “Ode to Joy:” “We enter, drunk with fire, Heavenly One, your sanctuary.” I thought some reference to Beethoven was the obvious route; instead I chose Mahler, whose music I think conveys joy so adeptly. Feuertrunken quotes the opening of Mahler’s first Symphony before veering off into various, intertwined episodes of supplication, blasphemy, and finally, praise.

Magayon (2015) – for orchestra

Magayon means “beautiful” in the Bicolano 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 place of birth, 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.

Spoliarium (2016) – for chamber orchestra

According to some sources the spoliarium in ancient Rome was a chamber attached to the Colosseum into which the bodies of fallen gladiators were sent to be stripped of their armor and dispatched. It is also the subject of the celebrated Filipino painter Juan Luna’s magnum opus, which won a gold medal in the Madrid Exposition of 1884 and now hangs in the main gallery of the National Museum of the Philippines. The giant canvas depicts at its center lifeless gladiators being dragged into the dark of the chamber. On one side a crowd of spectators riots; on the other, a woman weeps.

Though I have taken Luna’s painting as my starting point, as I wrote the piece I sought a more personal meaning to the title. A large, quasi-symmetrical narrative arc provides structure to a number of musical episodes, some of which were inspired by José Rizal’s description of the painting—“the tumult of the throng, the cry of slaves, the metallic rattle of the armor on the corpses, the sobs of orphans, the hum of prayers”—and some that are entirely my own invention.

Also, there are a number of references, some subtle and some blatant, to other pieces of music. Like Luna’s gladiators, I have dragged them into an imaginary chamber to strip them of whatever I might find useful to my own purposes.

When You Contemplate the Waters (2013) – for chamber orchestra

An old haiku by Kyokusai (1816-1874) goes: “When you contemplate the waters at day break, you can hear the lotus blossom” (English translation from Japanese Death Poems, ed. Yoel Hoffman, 1986), alluding to a popular but unsubstantiated belief that the lotus flower makes a subtle noise when it opens. Instead of approximating that imagined noise, When You Contemplate the Waters affirms what the lotus traditionally symbolizes: purity, awakening, and life. The piece is built around two opposite forces: the water—fluid, unstable, and freely given to transformation; and the lotus-solid and assured in its purpose. Sometimes they are directly opposed; at other times it is more difficult to tell them apart. In the end the flower blossoms, emerging out of the murky waters.