Style Living Self Celebrity Geeky News and Views
In the Paper BrandedUp Hello! Create with us Privacy Policy

Anya Lagman: ‘A composer is an architect of emotions’

By IGAN D'BAYAN, The Philippine Star Published Jul 30, 2023 5:00 am

You know that scene in movies when the audience is cheering and applauding, but the main character can only hear silence, or one note from a piano that stretches seemingly infinitely, or a gaggle of electronic sounds overlapping orchestrally, faintly at first, getting louder by degrees, everything in slow-mo… and then—boom!—he or she returns to the moment: the ornate hall with its finely set tables, the luminous lights, the clink of cutlery. The central figure is appreciative, even if a bit awestruck and altered. Time led that person here. Time as the ultimate storyteller.

That was probably what Anya Lagman felt after completing a repertoire of her original compositions and covers at the Pagsibol concert at the Goldenberg Mansion in Malacañang together with members of the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philippine Madrigal Singers. Conducting musicians to bring her own pieces to life (The Night Garden, Unravel, Balikbayan, I Am Mother) was surely overwhelming. Those tracks were interspersed with OPM staples such as Anak by Freddie Aguilar and Narda by Kamikazee. One of the highlights for the composer was performing Together We Build with Carla Guevarra-Laforteza, which Anya co-composed with her siblings Elijah and Mica Lagman.

First Lady Liza Araneta-Marcos and Anya Lagman are flanked by Anya’s parents, Mike and Charmaine Lagman. The First Lady presented the concert at the Goldenberg Mansion as part of her heritage series of shows.

“The powerful and emotive performance of I Am Mother with the Philippine Madrigal Singers also left a lasting impact,” points out Anya, “especially during a haunting section where the singers whispered synonyms for ‘mother.’”

Anya is a composer, multi-instrumentalist and inter-disciplinary artist who graduated summa cum laude last May from the University of Southern California’s (USC) Thornton School of Music. Lagman studied under composition chair Donald Crockett, Grammy award winner Andrew Norman, and Pulitzer finalist Ted Hearne. Anya’s compositions have been performed by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Hub New Music, and MUSE Cincinnati Women’s Choir, among others. Her most recent commission, I Am Mother, premiered at The May Festival in Cincinnati last March, and her choral work, Balikbayan, won the Peter David Endowed Memorial Award and the Provost Research Fellowship.

Anya says, “The title of the concert ‘Pagsibol’ was suggested by my father, and it perfectly encapsulates the theme, symbolizing a blossoming future for Filipino arts and culture.”

Anya’s overture began before she was even born.

Her father, Mike, would put headphones on top of the stomach of her mother, Charmaine, whenever she was pregnant. The strains of Mozart would trickle through the wires of the audio player and into the ears of their child who was still in between worlds. Those notes—the flight melodies, playful strings—never strayed away from Anya.

“My parents enrolled us in music lessons, encouraged us to participate in competitions, and attended every performance,” she says about growing up in the Lagman household where music was always blossoming somewhere.

Pagsibol—featuring the members of the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philippine Madrigal Singers, and Carla Guevarra-Laforteza—was an unforgettable experience for Anya, motivating her to work harder and represent the Philippines through her music on a global stage. “I feel blessed and inspired to continue sharing my stories and passion for music with the rest of the world.”

Mike was a director who would watch the most iconic pieces of cinema with Anya and the rest of the kids such as The Godfather, Ed Wood, Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist. (“He played a significant role in shaping my passion for film and music.”) Charmaine was and still is the cheerleader and life coach. (“She has become the most important audience member in any room.”)

“Collectively, my siblings and I played the flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, piano, guitar, bass, and drums. As the youngest child of four, I found myself curiously observing my elders and learning from their experiences. Seeing how much they enjoyed playing instruments inspired me to pick up the piano as well as learn different ones.”

During Anya’s piano lessons, something unique happened. She says, “I would listen intently to my teacher playing passages on the piano. Rather than reading sheet music, I observed her every move, trying to replicate what I heard and saw. I focused on remembering the melodies and accompaniments, striving to understand the music beyond the notes on the staff.”

The young Anya was content to play instruments, but then she heard a Hans Zimmer piece titled Time from the soundtrack of Christopher Nolan’s Inception; something started whirling. A wise man said we all have two lives, and the second one begins when we realize we only have one. When Anya composed her first film score in her freshman year of high school, that was the start of a composer’s journey, a key moment.

“It felt like I had stumbled upon a hidden part of myself that I didn’t know existed,” she explains. My music teacher encouraged me to perform my composition with the school orchestra. Playing music was one thing, but to craft the notes on the sheet music and to pair my music with visuals were on an entirely different level of fulfillment.”

Composer Anya Lagman in a red terno by Michael Leyva: “I am deeply interested in the power of music to evoke emotions, and to enable listeners to attach themselves, relate to, and find resonance in my work. This human connection, the ability of stirring emotions in others through my compositions, is a driving force behind my artistic expression, and it reinforces the notion that music truly mirrors the human experience.”

Imagine how the young girl had initially expressed interest in pharmacology at that time, but music probably figures in all the timelines in Anya’s multiverses. “My parents understood me better than I understood myself, and they gave me the green light to pursue a career in music through composition.”

That path led to USC’s Thornton School of Music.

Anya explains, “One of the unique aspects of USC’s music program was its blend of a conservatory-style training and the freedom to explore diverse interests beyond music. While I received a solid foundation in the necessary musical fundamentals, I also had the flexibility to take classes that piqued my curiosity outside of music. This environment opened up a world of possibilities where I collaborated with students from different schools, such as film and dance, creating unique interdisciplinary art.”

'Pagsibol' was an incredibly culturally rich concert that paid tribute to OPM music and the people who have shaped my journey as a composer and musician.

She was also situated at the heart of the entertainment industry. Los Angeles offered her not only education from a renowned conservatory but also the opportunity to work with and meet professionals in the industry. “I had the privilege of interning at Warner Records and assisting a composer for an upcoming HBO Max show, gaining valuable real-world experience that complemented my academic training.”

The young composer loves experimenting and taking chances, counting Steve Reich as one of her musical influences. (“Reich’s revolutionary approach to phase and tape music in the 1960s opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about compositions.”) She also loves Julius Eastman, who was one of the first to blend minimalism and pop music. If Lydia Tár has Mahler’s Fifth, Anya dreams of one day staging Femenine (as well as Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union and Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians).

“The intricacies and complexities of these compositions hold a unique allure, and I am eager to witness the interplay of musicians as they collectively bring these minimalist masterpieces to life on stage,” she explains.

As for her own pieces, they tell their own unique stories and backstories.

The Night Garden started as a film score for a scene from Coraline during her film-scoring intensive at New York University in July 2022. Sidelined by COVID and working under immense pressure, she managed to create the score over a sleepless night, which was then recorded in Budapest by a professional orchestra. (“Diamonds are made under pressure, after all.”)

Unravel is a string quartet piece she composed as a Luna Lab fellow for the 2019-2020 season (the first Filipina composer in the esteemed program of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra). She says the entire composition blossoms from a single motif that reveals a journey of sharp, unexpected turns and emotional intensity within the piece.

For Balikbayan, Anya took an experimental approach during its creation, composing the entire piece on a digital audio workstation (Logic) and then transcribing the score afterward—an unconventional process that allowed her to explore new artistic avenues. “This composition was a personal journey, as I used my voice as the instrument, layering improvisations to create a truly authentic expression.” The composition made its initial premiere as part of her capstone recital in Los Angeles. “The choir of eight voices, including mine, premiered this work, making it a significant milestone in my artistic journey.”

I Am Mother was inspired by seeing the gathering of Filipina OFWs in Hong Kong every Sunday. (Anya read in The Guardian that Sundays and public holidays are the only days domestic workers are not legally required to stay inside their employers’ home.)

“These resilient women would sit on cardboard cutouts or plastic mats in front of luxury brand storefronts and prominent banks. Their unity and strength in the face of challenges inspired me, and I Am Mother is a tribute to their unwavering spirit.” I Am Mother is a collaborative effort with MUSE Cincinnati Women’s Choir, a group dedicated to advocating for feminist rights, who truly understood the gravitas of the situation and effectively conveyed the piece’s emotion.

Her most significant feat so far is the staging of Pagsibol.

Pagsibol was an incredibly culturally-rich concert that paid tribute to OPM music and the people who have shaped my journey as a composer and musician,” says Anya. “The project originated from the First Lady Liza Marcos’ interest in having me perform at the Goldenberg Mansion.” Preparation for Pagsibol took two weeks as Anya’s mom played a crucial role in gathering a dedicated production team to help with the event. She adds, “I worked tirelessly to create arrangements for the Manila Philharmonic quartet and the Philippine Madrigal Singers—and the performances were nothing short of a dream come true.”

Who is Anya Lagman when not composing or conducting an orchestra?

“A curious learner who enjoys getting lost in movies and TV series,” she answers. “I also love cooking Filipino dishes, which brings me comfort and allows me to stay connected to my heritage through familiar flavors.” Cooking and composing are both meaningful ways for Anya to share a part of herself with the world.

“In the kitchen, I particularly enjoy the freedom to make ‘tantsa-tantsa,’ relying on my gut and instincts instead of strictly following recipes. This encourages spontaneity and openness, trusting my senses to create delicious and unique outcomes.”

This is probably similar to musical composition. Music may be reigned over by its strict architecture and the sobering mathematics, but music can also be fluid, free-flowing, chance-reliant, and arrived at by the sorcery of “tantsa-tantsa.” (Reich, John Cage, Brian Eno are adept knitters of fog and improvisatory geniuses in the kitchens of sound.) 

“I find myself drawn to compositions that don’t strictly follow melodies, but instead take the listener on a whole new journey through textures, almost in an out-of-body and meditative experience,” Anya concludes. 

This is how graceful music sculpts beauty out of time and air.