The tenor of sound practice in Manila

It was sometime in July, the height of the monsoon season in Manila, when I first visited the exhibition there is no sound artist, just sound art. True enough, a storm was pounding the metro that day. As I shuffled from room to room of the UP Fine Arts Gallery, I sifted through sound waves from AM radios, tape recordings, and other show paraphernalia against the rumbles and patters of the rain.

Sound is a medium that, I realize, is both vulnerable and unyielding to the forces around it—my ear, the rain, and space included.

With the room’s windows left open to the storm, sounds from Jett Ilagan’s multi-channel work converses with the rain.

More curiosities about sound and sound practice came about as I wove through there is no sound artist, just sound art, an exhibit of installative sound works on view at the UP Fine Arts Gallery last July 8 to August 11. Curated by Dayang Yraola, the exhibit presented sound works by over 20 practitioners in Manila to examine how sound caters as an art medium in the contemporary art scene. The show is the exhibition component of the international festival The Listening Biennial, for which the Philippines (through UP Fine Arts) acted as the main host in Asia.

there is no sound artist, just sound art is largely an outcome of Yraola’s research on sound practice in Manila. The curatorial statement explains that the title—an alteration of Ernst Gombrich’s claim that "There is no art, only artists"—reckons with the complexity of the scene such that “sound artist” is no longer a sufficient marker of its practitioners. 

The claim comes from the recognition that not everyone who works with sound identifies as a sound artist. Since the early years of the practice, sound works have been produced by experimental musicians, electronic musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, media artists, performance artists, and possibly many other figures whose diversity extends outside the territory of a sound artist.

The exhibition occupied several rooms of the UP Fine Arts Gallery.

From the exhibit’s propositions, what is gleaned is a landscape of practitioners, objects, and mediums that has always-already been rich and multifarious. Curiously, despite a history that has spanned generations, much remains to be understood about this practice that appears to be “perpetually emerging,” in Yraola’s words. Beyond the exhibition, Yraola has extensively reflected and written on this, guided by her decades-long dual position as a scholar and practitioner of sound.

I spoke with Yraola to parse through the exhibition and what it means for sound practice in Manila.

From magnetic tapes to sound practice

An associate professor at the UP College of Fine Arts, Dayang Yraola (known as Doc D at the university) traces the beginning of her involvement with sound in 2007. The year marks the beginning of her work digitizing and archiving the Jose Maceda Collection of the UP Center for Ethnomusicology. The job was a legacy project that she couldn’t decline even if it entailed digitizing 2,700 hours of magnetic tapes in real-time.

In between the 2,700 hours of chants, interviews, ethnic instruments, and singing, Yraola entertained herself by paying attention to incidental sounds. “Since those were field recordings, there’d be creaking sounds from the door, a baby crying, dog, chicken, tricycle, etc. It was entertaining to create narratives or contexts based on these incidental sounds,” she recounts. Around the same time, Yraola founded Project Glocal and participated in Japan Foundation’s Media Art Kitchen. These two curatorial projects, both international in scope, introduced her to new media art. 

With this scholarly and curatorial background, it seemed only natural that Yraola gravitated towards sound practice. Among her first projects that involved the creative sound scene came in 2013 with Listen to my music, the first art-archival exhibit on Maceda involving non-conservatory trained artists and musicians. 

From here, the rest is history for Yraola.

New media artist Tad Ermitaño’s self-playing gangsa, reflecting sound practice’s close affinity with technology.

A short backtrack

An integral part to Yraola’s scholarly practice are her efforts to historicize sound practice in the Philippines. Yraola’s research points us to the political and cultural backdrop of the 1960s to 1980s as seeds for the contemporary scene. Massive state support for the arts, albeit a strategy for the Marcos regime’s self-aggrandizing propaganda efforts, led to a burgeoning of cultural infrastructure and brought the creme of Philippine music, such as Lucresia Kasilag, Felipe de Leon, and Jose Maceda, in conversation with international practices. Eventually, these names and institutions would serve as inspiration to present sound practitioners.

The following years found arts and culture no longer a primary concern of the administration. Responding to this decline in state support, the late 1980s going towards the 1990s saw artists taking the lead in creating their own platforms. Artist-initiated projects and artist-run spaces dominated the landscape and served as catalysts for innovation and self-sustained practice, yielding more conceptual and experimental projects beyond what was favored by the art market.

An ecology of practices

Such historical context yielded a landscape of sound practice that Yraola has described as an ecology. Central to this idea is the symbiosis of individual practitioners whose works, taken together, chart a multifarious sound landscape. We caught a snippet of this complexity from there is no sound artist, just sound art. The exhibit’s broad roster included practitioners who call themselves, among others, sound artists (e.g. Erick Calilan, Jett Ilagan), visual artists (e.g. Datu Arellano, Ian Jaucian), composers (e.g. Teresa Barrozo), and media artists (e.g. Tad Ermitaño). 

Marco Ortiga transformed the harmonic patterns of a harmonograph into an auditory experience.

“In Manila, many artists refused to be called ‘sound artist’ as they do other things besides sound. But they do sound works. Hence, the title. For example, Tad Ermitaño calls himself a media artist, not sound artist, but he is one of the pioneers of sound art practice,” states Yraola.

With this terrain of practitioners, one can only imagine the dynamism of the scene in terms of output. This was reflected once more in the exhibition which, despite already being extensive in scale, was limited only to installative sound works.

In a taxonomy created by Yraola, sound works can come in three typologies that are not mutually exclusive: installative (objects that produce or explore sound), compositive (composed sound, not necessarily to produce music), and performative (live acts that produce or explore the elements of sound). Within each type comes an even greater diversity of formats, something well captured in the exhibition.

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“The exhibit contains a good sampling or survey of various forms that installative sound artworks employ. There are those that are digital, analog; there are some that are narrative, others are more sensorial; some carries issues, others don’t; some self-generating, others had to be activated, etc. It showcased ‘what we have’ at the moment,” explains Yraola.

If not sound artist, then sound what?

Decades after regime changes and technological shifts, contemporary sound practice in Manila remains a dynamic landscape—perhaps so much so that it evades a singular label that will distill its complexity. Still referring to Yraola’s research, the first term to take tenure among artists when referring to sound-related works of artistic nature was “sound art” in early the 1990s.

Lirio Salvador’s sculptural assemblages.

Today, “sound art” suffers the same fate as “sound artist” in itstheir inability to capture the diversity of the practice. In the same publication, Yraola proposed “sound practice” in an effort to “[decenter] the discourse from ‘what they make’ to ‘what they do.’” There are still sound art and sound artists, but they come with the recognition that they are not the entirety of the scene.

A landmark development also came in 2020 with the creation of the “Sound as Art Media” course at the UP College of Fine Arts. For Yraola, the move is critical in the sense that it marks the decades-long journey of the practice.

“This is pivotal, because in a few years, you will have sound artists who are entering the practice very much aware that they are sound artists (not media artist who is doing sound work). This is not only about labels, but it carries with it a certain brand of work ethics, creative motivation, critical decisions, among others,” Yraola shares.

Despite all these conceptual shifts (there are far more than what we have covered), Yraola anticipates more changes to come. Perhaps this is a barometer of a thriving, continuously innovating scene—without discounting the issues that hound it and its related practices. How its practitioners will define and defy these bounds remains to be seen (or heard)—but we listen to their tenor, until then.

Benj Meamo the experience of a public market in Baguio by integrating audio gleaned from these spaces.

As in Yraola’s concluding words for our interview: “I offered that we use sound as art medium when you are talking about the form, so as not to conflict with the generic use of the label sound art. We are starting to adopt this Western definition slowly due largely to the education of the artists. Hence, later there might not be a need for the phrase ‘sound as art medium,’ and be in understanding with the rest of the global discourse when using the term ‘sound art.’ As to whether this is good or bad, is an issue for another day.”

there is no sound artist, just sound art, curated by Dayang Yraola, ran from July 8 to Aug 12 at the UP Fine Arts Gallery in Quezon City.

Chesca Santiago studies anthropology and art at UP Diliman. Her art writing is guided by the intersection of the two disciplines, especially through the lenses of political economy and social justice.

Images courtesy of the writer.