Diwa de Leon makes the Adarna sing and fills its world with music

Diwa de Leon makes the Adarna sing and fills its world with music

Diwa de Leon has used the many inspirations in his musical life in composing the theme for Gerardo Francisco’s Ibong Adarna. Here, he holds the hegalong, a two-stringed lute that he likes making music with.

By Susan A. De Guzman

Diwa de Leon only has vague memories of the Ibong Adarna, recalling the storybooks he had read about this mythical bird when he was a child. But now, for the past several months, he has been steeped in its lore – how three princes embark on a quest for the fabled bird with the healing voice to cure their ailing father, the king.

The creative team behind Ibong Adarna after a recent run-through, from left: scriptwriter Angela Blardony Ureta; composer Diwa de Leon; choreographer Gerardo Francisco; actor Bodjie Pascua (the Ermintanyo); Ballet Manila artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde; soprano Gia Macuja-Atchison (the singing Adarna); and Ballet Manila co-artistic director Osias Barroso. Photo by Eileen Lopez

It’s quite understandable that Diwa has plunged headlong into this well-known legend. After all, the composer, arranger and musician has been entrusted with a most crucial mission – to create the Adarna’s song. He also has to fill the forest it lives in with music, along with the kingdom that the princes inhabit. All these he gets to do as part of the creative team behind Gerardo Francisco’s Ibong Adarna, the 22nd season-opener of Ballet Manila which will have its world premiere on August 26 at Aliw Theater.

“It is a great challenge since this is the first time I wrote more than 1 hour and 30 minutes of ballet music, at the same time truly satisfying and fulfilling after immersing myself in the end result,” Diwa says of his experience in Ibong Adarna.

Though he has written music for films longer than this, he calls ballet a “different beast.” “I work mostly as a film and TV composer in which music is mostly a supporting element that serves the vision of the script and the director. But for ballet, the music is front and center with the choreography. They are intertwined and inseparable. I get to make my music shout, wail and flail about, whereas in film music, I must always restrain myself to not overpower the story and characters.”

The Ballet Manila production features two Adarnas – one that dances (with Abigail Oliveiro and Katherine Barkman sharing the role) and another that sings as embodied by West End musical theater actress Gia Macuja-Atchison.

Diwa is thankful that he was given the freedom to explore and create in Ibong Adarna. “Geri is very exciting to work with because he does not restrict my artistic expression. I am allowed to write in my own style, with my own set of rules and inspirations, and Geri encourages it even more. His artistic vision for his dance creations totally match my musical sensibilities so it is no surprise we are working together for a third time.”

The composer and choreographer had previously collaborated on Pista (from Halo-Halo) where Diwa’s world music Band, the Makiling Ensemble, was involved, and then on Palasyo ng mga Dwende (from Tatlo Pang Kuwento ni Lola Basyang), his first solo collaboration with Ballet Manila.

Ibong Adarna will soar to music that composer Diwa de Leon hopes viewers will be humming long after they’ve left the theater. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

Diwa equates writing ballet music to writing a new concerto or a musical masterpiece. “It’s a legacy work,” he enthuses. That’s why he was so excited when Geri casually mentioned the project to him last year and raised the possibility of teaming up anew. Like most other composers, Diwa admits to constantly “hearing” music in his mind on a daily basis, resulting from years of schooling and practice. But with a new goal, there was even more stimulus for him.

“Immediately, the melodies in my head went ballistic and every day I would think of new melodies and harmonies that could fit the project. It was like this for months – no cohesive plan yet but the ideas were there, churning, cooking, and when the project was finally greenlit, I already had a treasure trove of musical ideas to mix and match.”

Geri eventually showed Diwa the Ibong Adarna libretto or a brief summary of the plot. Having worked together before, there was already a professional trust between the two so Diwa was pretty much free to create his interpretation. “Of course there is constant communication, but it is still very basic, very free. We usually discuss the minutiae – the number of seconds, minutes, the lengths of the scenes, the number of transitions before the next big scene, etc. But when it came to sweeping artistic interpretations of my music, I was left to my own devices, which is what I prefer.”

Having complete rein, however, is a double-edged sword. As Diwa reasons, one can also easily get overwhelmed with so many possibilities. Thus, he has developed a system of composition and arrangement over the years. There would be days – sometimes weeks – that he would dedicate to rest and recreation, so he would have a chance to relax his mind. When he is at peace, he says, it is when melodies naturally come to him.

He always keeps his phone handy to record musical ideas that pop into his mind, otherwise these would just disappear as suddenly as they had come. “Musical ideas come in short bursts of ‘light bulb moments.’ Within a day, I would have collected at least six short musical ideas. These ideas can be developed into ten-minute musical suites, or maybe even just a two-minute jingle or a 30-second TV ad score. That is how I prepared for Adarna – two months of rest and recreation, and then five months of adrenaline as I executed the ideas I collected into full-blown compositions,” says Diwa who describes living a hermit-like existence while going through this process, leaving the studio only when necessary.

Diwa explains his creative process to Art 2 Art host Lisa Macuja as a guest of the program in 2013. Photo by Susan A. De Guzman

The music of Ibong Adarna is a reflection of the many inspirations Diwa has had in his musical life. “You can hear influences from the Balinese gamelan, Ifugao gong music, Maguindanao melodic inspirations, cinematic inspirations from film composer John Williams and Hans Zimmer, harmonic sensibilities borrowed from renowned video game composer Nobuo Uematsu – all mixed together with the dozens and dozens of melodies I hear in my head on a daily basis.”

But the centerpiece of it all is how the Adarna bird sounds, what song it sings. There are five major scenes featuring the singing Adarna and for these, Diwa recalls it wasn’t really the bird he had in mind when writing the melodies. “Rather, I employ a compositional style that are regular tropes of fantasy music, such as music from Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter. I wrote the music first, then had my regular lyricist Shallah Montero add the lyrics much, much later when the music was already whole.”

While Gia was still in her England base, Diwa already sent her the necessary materials so she was able to try out the songs on her own for weeks. With Gia now in Manila, the rehearsals have proceeded quite smoothly.

Diwa is hopeful that he has created an “earworm,” a tune so catchy that it sticks to a person’s mind long after hearing it. Indeed, that is the effect his Song of Adarna has been having. Even Gia’s kids who got to listen to it at home while mom was practicing, ended up already singing it. The dancers and the team involved in the Ibong Adarna production, as well as those who have watched the rehearsals, invariably end up humming that song.

Asked what he wants audiences will take away from Ibong Adarna, the multi-awarded composer answers simply: “I hope they enjoy it, learn the moral of the story, and go home humming the Song of Adarna.”

Judging from what has been happening so far, that last goal seems most certainly assured.

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