Behind the Music: Ryan Cayabyab's 'Misa' not just for Lent

Leah C. Salterio

Posted at Apr 15 2022 05:57 PM

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MANILA -- In 1983, Ryan Cayabyab wrote “Misa” for his graduation recital, performed and recorded originally by the UP Concert Chorus with Latin lyrics. 

“I grew up reciting the Latin mass,” Cayabyab told ABS-CBN News. “On special occasions, I have sung a full Latin mass with the church choir in UP [Parish of the Holy Sacrifice] prior to Vatican 2.

“Vatican 2’s most significant contribution was to have the masses said in the vernacular or local language and have easier to sing congregational mass songs that use modern popular music.”

Back then, the National Artist for Music had an affinity for the Latin text of the major mass parts: “Kyrie,” “Gloria,” “Credo,” “Sanctus” and “Agnus Dei.”

“It wasn’t a challenge to write for Latin texts, but it was very important for me to have a line-per-line English translation every time I set to music Latin texts,” Cayabyab explained.

“It is very important that I also understand the exact meaning of the lines – where they start and end, so the phrasing, the breath marks are appropriately placed.”

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Writing “Misa” (1983) for his graduation recital at the UP College of Music was admittedly a joy for Cayabyab. “It was difficult, but I enjoyed it tremendously because I was able to free myself of the usual conventions,” he recalled.

“I tried to ‘invent’ textures and I also tried to experiment on other types of writing, aside from the contrapuntal style of writing, or homophonic styles.”

“Example: the opening two voices of ‘Kyrie’ is heterophonic in nature. I also utilized a double choir in the ‘Christe Eleison’ part and a harmonic drone at the end of ‘Kyrie Eleison’ part.

“The ‘Gloria’ in this ‘Misa’ is probably the most popular segment, having been performed by Filipino major choirs, not only locally but in international concerts and competitions.”

The music in the original “Misa” are better rendered in a cappella and performed by a choir. “With as many voices as I can imagine at the moment of writing,” shared Cayabyab.

“Which means, it can flow from one to two voices and then to a multitude of voices in harmony and in counterpoint at any time it is ‘devised’ or ‘conjured’.”

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Little did Cayabyab know at that time that “Misa” would later turn out to be an even bigger musical undertaking for him.

In 1999, he was approached by noted choreographer and dance artist Douglas Nierras, who asked if he was interested to collaborate on a dance project with him. That was the ballet, “Metanoia.”

“Since I have worked extensively with Douglas previously, it wasn’t hard to decide to accept the collaboration,” Cayabyab said. “He explained that he intended to participate in the Onassis Cultural Competitions slated for the new millennium 2000.

“We discussed possible formats or themes and I came up with the idea of setting the major parts of the mass in Latin for choir and orchestra and he agreed.”

In October that year, Cayabyab was ready to record the music for “Metanoia,” so he requested his orchestra musician friends to play for the session. He also asked for choir volunteers to learn and record with him.

“Happily, they all played and sang for free, although I had set aside some funds for the session,” Cayabyab said. “I just spent for our packed dinner and the rental of the Abelardo Hall in UP, plus, of course, the recording equipment and staff.

“By December of 1999, Douglas was ready with his massive dance work and he had it video-taped. Before he sent it to the secretariat that accepted the entrees, he shared with me the information.”

Thankfully, there wasn’t much of a challenge at that time and “Metanoia” was approved immediately.

“The cultural competition consisted of separate music and dance entries in competition,” Cayabyab said. “If I remember right, Douglas did send the video as both dance and music entries, and that was that.

“I guess it was because we had to produce a serious work and it must be a Filipino contemporary work. We got the go-signal to do it because it represented modernity and a massive sound.”

Sixteen months after their entries were submitted, Cayabyab received a call from the Onassis Cultural Competitions informing him that he had won the silver prize in the music category.

He bagged the Original Music Composition for Dance, besting entries from different parts of the globe.

“I was elated!,” Cayabyab excitedly said. “I lost no time in asking if the dance entry won and was saddened that it did not. I was also informed that I shared the silver prize with a composer from the UK.

“When I asked who had won the gold, the person on the other line said there was no gold prize winner. I was invited to attend the awarding ceremonies in the last quarter of 2001. There, I found out that none of the entries in both dance and music won in tandem.

The “Misa 2000” is significant because it was the only Asian entry that won in the Onassis Cultural Competitions that year.

The awards ceremony was “doubly memorable” to Cayabyab since he and his wife, Emmy Punsalan-Cayabyab, traveled to Greece to receive his award.

In 2001, when Cayabyab got the good news from the Onassis Cultural Competitions, he had just sat as executive and artistic director of the San Miguel Foundation for the Performing Arts.

“Our first project as a joint undertaking with both the Philharmonic Orchestra and the Master Chorale was this CD, ‘The Sacred Works of Ryan Cayabyab’.”

Released in 2003, “The Sacred Works of Ryan Cayabyab” was interpreted by the San Miguel Master Chorale (SMMC) and the San Miguel Philharmonic Orchestra’s (SMPO).

The first CD has the “Misa 2000” – five tracks and “Te Deum” – featuring the SMMC and the SMPO. All the songs were composed by Cayabyab in 1999.

“This is the CD with a cappella choir tracks,” Cayabyab informed. “I enjoyed trying to ‘invent’ sounds for each music score.

“I do not know which music score is the most difficult to perform. It will be up to the choir and conductor to actually decide on that. Perhaps a poll is in order?”

Meanwhile, the second CD also has five tracks – “Aba Po, Santa Mariang Reyna,” “Aquesta Me Guiaba,” “Sanctus,” “Agnus Dei” and “Anima Christi” – featuring the SMMC in all a cappella works. The songs were written back in 1983.

The tracks in “Misa 2000” do not only utilize the piano, but even native or indigenous instruments, like the bamboo pipe and the flat gong of the Kalingas. 

“My years at the UP College of Music required me to study Philippine indigenous instruments and Asian instruments, as well,” Cayabyab said. “Putting these two disparate textures and systems together is always an exciting experiment for me -- as a young ‘inventor.’

“But as the years pass and as I grow old, I have succumbed to the mantra ‘less is more’ and so I leave it to the young people to experiment at will. I have not fully accepted or decided if my experimentations then are still worthy of doing now.”

“Misa” is described as a “mass set to unaccompanied chorus.” Others initially thought it was Cayabyab’s most difficult musical work to date. However, he will be the first one to disagree.

“I don’t think I have written hard to perform works,” Cayabyab insisted. “What then was the most difficult work for me? I think it is the setting of the music to Nestor Torre’s ‘Magnificat.’

“It took me more than two years to finish that work. It is not difficult to perform, but it was, for me, the most difficult to write.

“Second most difficult is ‘El Filibusterismo: The Musical.’ What makes it difficult? The libretto setting is not mainly in verse form, but in almost free form. It is like creating a shape from something shapeless, in a manner of saying.”

Aside from the “The Sacred Works” CD, Cayabyab has also written several congregational masses and a number of collaborative works, almost 20 of them, setting to music words or poems written by Archbishop Socrates Villegas.

Surprisingly, even now that it’s Lent or in most liturgical occasions, the religious songs in “Misa” are not just played or rendered by choirs in churches.

“I would normally get information when they are performed,” Cayabyab said. “Usually, the sacred songs in the double-CD are performed in concerts, not always religious in nature or theme, but as part of a repertoire that is serious and contemporary.”

Cayabyab’s impressive body of work through the years includes many other noted and memorable orchestral pieces. Yet, he cannot readily single out what is closest to his heart.

“I can only say that each music score I write has my heart imprinted on them, as I believe a supernatural energy helps me produce the music,” he asserted.

“I have always believed that I am only a medium of the music coming from God, if you so believe or the vibrations of the universe, if you would like to think that way.

“If you will ask what my contribution then is, I will tell you that I was ready to receive them and I was there when it was being transmitted -- because I do not know if it was the music per se that was being transmitted or it was something else -- and that I had just put them down into a music score.

“Isn’t that amazing? Of course, I can only verbalize them now because through the years of constant practice, I cannot really know if I wrote the music myself or it was just really being transmitted to me.”

While many people believe “Misa” is Cayabyab’s greatest composition to date, he thinks otherwise. 

“I really do not know if it is,” he said. “I have no idea what the requirements are for your work to be named ‘greatest composition.’ Let me die first, then let the musicologists and the historians decide. Trabaho nila ‘yun.”