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Shattering song

By M.C. REODICA, The Philippine STAR Published Jul 18, 2022 5:00 am

In Mark Salvatus’ solo show “Active Shadows” at MO_Space, inked fingerprints dot yellowed sheets of music fastened to a wall. “Sketches and Prints” remixes and reconfigures these old sheets, arranging them into vertical prints in a manner that obscures notes, letters and lyrics. Many staples in a musician’s repertoire like This Masquerade by The Carpenters or Palabra de Honor (that now reads, “‘La Honor”) become unfamiliar yet again, and the blanks beg to be filled in.

Beside the installation is a monitor screening hands playing the piano pieces, articulating familiar melodic cadences that fragment into a dirge-like march. The sheet music, as it has often been read by musicians before him, is now fragmented into periods of melody and pauses. It reminds us that, though a single printed piece of paper may be read by a hundred musicians, it will be interpreted in a hundred or more iterations, each varying ever so slightly or drastically. It could be the timbre of the instrument they play it on, the manner in which they physically play each note, or perhaps even their moods or thoughts dictating how the music emerges from their fingertips.

Fingerprints mark “Sketches and Prints,” a work by Mark Salvatus.

Historically, Western musical notation as a system dates back to the mid-15th century and the advent of the printing press, which was able to quickly reproduce a landscape of five evenly-spaced lines with musical notes and its accompanying annotations. Not only has it been a didactic way of instruction, it has also become a framework by which musicians write and translate ideas into music. However, the system remains quite limited in the sense that it works best for Western traditions of music. 

Often, this has been taken for granted as canon in classical music and music education, and has been questioned and abstracted by experimental musicians from the 1950s onward, including Brian Eno and John Cage. In conjunction with modern art, musicians like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Cornelius Cardew approached notation as visual inquiries as well, finding answers in modern art.

“La Honor” reads one sheet.

In the Philippines, artists such as Gerardo Tan, Dr. Fe Prudente and Sammy Buhle have also explored different ways of visual notation. In the 2018 exhibition “Visualizing Sound” at the Vargas Museum, Tan’s “Speaking in Tongue” was a thought-provoking piece notating an elder chanter’s prayer of gratitude, where the elder’s tongue would mark its gestures on a transparent glass with squid ink. And of course, National Artist Dr. Jose Maceda made great strides in both research and composition to steer Philippine music away from the riptide of Eurocentrism into new territories.

Salvatus extends this dynamic of disorientation and mapping in another work in “Active Shadows,” where he painstakingly blacks out every name and street on large-scale maps of different areas of Metro Manila.

Musical notation is more of a tool than gospel, really, and all over the world, there are wildly diverse ways of transcribing sound visually. Still, when Western notation is seen as visual abstraction, even without knowing how to read music, one can somewhat discern its rhythmic and melodic complexity. That is, until one departs from the book about how to read sheet music, and approaches it as a visual abstract. “Sketches and Prints” is one of the more recent explorations of graphic notation that challenges how music is read by physically, and quite literally, imprinting a surface rich in codes with gestures.

An installation view of Mark Salvatus’ “Active Shadows” at MO_Space.

Salvatus extends this dynamic of disorientation and mapping in another work in “Active Shadows,” where he painstakingly blacks out every name and street on large-scale maps of different areas of Metro Manila. The shorelines remain as a primary detail to anchor the map, and many visitors to the gallery have lingered in front of it to search for their addresses or other familiar places. In navigating the map, people rely on memory and spatial awareness. Their childhood home could be down the road from this major road. Their daily jeep route might ply this sequence of roads. Instead of directing the traveler, the traveler directs the map. 

Back to “Sketches and Prints”: the vertical orientation of each fingerprint provides a methodical logic to Salvatus’ work as graphic notation. Each circle could be a tap of my right or left foot. It could even be laughs interrupting a whispered conversation. Chillingly, it also recalls the censorship and suppression of art and expression under tyranny. The work invites thought and reflexivity from musicians and non-musicians alike. In the absence of familiar signs and directions is the liberty to be a cartographer on one’s own terms.