Author: joshuacerdenia

I’m a songwriter (?)

Just a quick post from a little hotel room in downtown Washington, DC to share that I am here this weekend for TEDxMidAtlantic: Unbreakable.

Photo stolen from Janet Noh

Since last year I have been taking a much-needed break from the writing of concert music and have turned my attention toward the writing of… songs. So far, the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop has been my primary source of credibility in that regard, but recently I was also given the opportunity to write a song with which to close the final TEDxMidAtlantic session on Saturday evening (this is a TEDx that particularly enjoys musical performances). I have rather unimaginatively titled it after the conference theme, “Unbreakable.” Joining me are vocalists Carla Canales and Janet Noh, as well as some members of the local DC Youth Orchestra Program. Many thanks to TEDxMidAtlantic, The Canales Project, and El Sistema for making this happen.

Still under construction—and some juvenilia

As the title above subtly suggests, this site is still very much under construction, though I can hardly wait to get this blog up and running. Now, my curse is that I’m a musician who hates attention, and if I had my way I would live alone in the woods in a cabin of my own making alla Thoreau, but alas, I am a prisoner of civilized life, a man must make a living, etc., etc. Anyway, you may have noticed some stirrings here and there, particularly in the music section; well, stay tuned. There are many things I want this site to be: obviously, a place of business where folks can come find information about me and my work, but more than that, a humble little corner of the internet devoted to my story. Naturally, it will be a confused mish-mash of many different things … so here goes!

To that end, I cannot recall a clear beginning to my life as a composer other than that I always saw composing as a natural extension of playing an instrument—in my case, the piano (my younger self would have been utterly baffled by the thought of someone who could play but not write music). And even though I was a decent pianist for a child, I learned early on not to be too attached to the instrument: first, when I discovered that my favorite composers of piano music—Mozart, Beethoven, and the rest—all wrote orchestral music with not a piano in sight; and second, when I discovered that one could write music on a computer. My very first piece, a little tune for piano, was written totally on the demo version of NoteWorthy Composer and completely unplayable by any human.

By the time I was 12, I had written my first orchestral piece: an untitled three-minute tune, very Mozartean but completely lacking in grace. The symphony orchestra quickly became my favorite musical medium, as it still is today, and after that I wrote a few more orchestral pieces (including two movements of a terrible piano concerto), which, for better or worse, are now lost forever. But eight years later (and eight years ago), with a little tweak here and there, I sent Orchestral Piece No. 1, onto which I slapped the title Orchestral Caffeine Rush, as part of my application to the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. Until today I don’t know what in the world they were thinking by accepting me, but God only knows where I’d be now if they hadn’t. I offer the piece below, in gloriously rendered MIDI, as my thanks to you for visiting my site and reading this far:

Under Construction

Hello!  I have begun to migrate from my old site to this one, in an effort to create something more authentic, whatever that means. I have known for a while now that the one-word identity of ‘composer’ (and worse, the two-word identity of ‘serious composer’) wasn’t quite doing it for me, but was unsure of how to break away from it. So lately I’ve been performing more, writing songs (including my own lyrics), and of course, my work with Carla Canales and the Canales Project keeps me busy most days. So this will be an experiment, a work-in-progress, an ongoing document of my musical adventures—and who knows what else?—here in New York and beyond. I humbly thank you for tagging along.

World Premieres with the Manila and Detroit Symphony Orchestras

Two days before Thanksgiving I put the double bar on Celestine (aptly subtitled”Prelude for Orchestra”), which will open the Manila Symphony Orchestra’s holiday program on December 9 and 10 at two venues in Metro Manila. When I received this commission last April, I had barely gotten started on Feuertrunken and knew I would have little time and energy to write a second orchestral score by the end of the year; but I’m glad I accepted. As it happens I first wrote the music to Celestine (I can’t remember why I chose the title, other than that I liked the sound of the word) November last year, for oboe and piano, which I performed in Houston with my friend Celina Hawkins. It is light-hearted and entirely hummable, meant only to charm and amuse; I knew I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to orchestrate it and expand it a little to give the orchestra more breathing room. One of the common complaints against new music is the lack of hummable tunes: of course this ultimately has nothing to do with whether a piece of music is good, but every now and then I do like to give in.

Unfortunately I will not be in the Philippines, as December 9 and 10 also happen to be the dates in which I will be in Detroit for the world premiere of Feuertrunken (Fire-Drunk), which, unlike Celestine, is neither charming nor hummable. For his final season with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Maestro Slatkin has chosen to commission works not from the great composers of his generation, but from their students; I am especially proud in this case to be a former student of Christopher Rouse, who is one of my musical heroes, and from whose bag of tricks I continually steal…. If you are not in Detroit, I do hope you can catch the live webcast on Sunday, December 10 at 3:00 PM.

Here is the program note I submitted to the publicity folks:

Feuertrunken is a loud meditation (if one can meditate loudly) on joy. In the months that I spent composing the piece, between March–June 2017, I found little cause for celebration in the many goings-on both locally and abroad; perhaps this was the reason I thought the subject of joy had so much urgency.

During this time I also found myself absorbed in the Divine Comedy, especially the Purgatorio: Dante’s vision of purgatory is a giant mountain partitioned into seven terraces, each devoted to purification from one of the deadly sins. Dante ascends the mountain terrace by terrace, until at last he finds a great wall of fire between him and paradise. An angel of God encourages him to make the plunge into his final trial. Though my piece as a whole is not programmatic (meaning musical events generally do not correspond to anything in Dante’s story), there is a brief interlude in which I imagine Dante in devoted silence before he submits to the fire.

The title, meaning “fire-drunk” or “drunk with fire,” is of course from Friedrich Schiller’s famous “Ode to Joy:” “We enter, drunk with fire, Heavenly One, your sanctuary.” I thought some reference to Beethoven was the obvious route; instead I chose Mahler, whose music I think conveys joy so adeptly. Feuertrunken quotes the opening of Mahler’s first Symphony before veering off into various, intertwined episodes of supplication, blasphemy, and finally, praise.

2017 Updates

And here I am again a year later… I hope it’s not too late to talk about the summer. I spent about seven weeks of it in my hometown of Cainta in the Philippines, finishing up the last bits of Feuertrunken, a timpani and bass drum-ridden concert opener for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and attempting to enjoy home after my three-year absence. During that time, Tiffany Liong-Gabuya of the local classical music radio station, 98.7 DZFE was kind enough to invite me to their beautiful studio at a high-rise in Ortigas Center for an interview on their “Maestro Filipino” program. Tiffany and I had a fun, lively conversation about how I fell into the musical life, and the minutiae of being a Filipino composer. The program, in two parts, aired sometime this week and the last. I did not catch them due to the time difference between Manila and the East Coast (not to mention, naturally, my aversion to the sound of my own voice), but the station does post their interviews to SoundCloud every Friday for those of you to whom such things are interesting.

Armed with my spanking new O-1 visa, which now finally puts me far and away from being a student, I returned to my beloved New York earlier in September and jumped back right into work with The Canales Project, with a full season ahead, and TCP Ventures, which is co-organizing the second CultureSummit in Abu Dhabi in April 2018. The first one earlier this year was a blast and left me energized and excited about the notion of culture as a solution to first-order world problems; it is a joy and privilege to be among the extremely bright and talented minds of the Summit, and if I’m the dumbest person in the room, I’ve always considered it a good thing.

October was quite a full month, and I found myself not only in the thick of composing and administrating but also at the piano seat; first at The Canales Project’s appearance at the National Gallery of Art’s long-running music series, where I had the brief but great pleasure of accompanying Kaoru Watanabe on his composition “Shinobu” for the shinobue flute. The other featured performers were pianist Lara Downes and the tabla virtuoso Sandeep Das, who easily brought the house down not only with their artistry but with their charm, passion, and humanity…

And then, for the second time, at the annual TEDxMidAtlantic conference in downtown Washington, D.C., where once again the honor was all mine to accompany Carla Dirlikov Canales on a couple of songs. Carla is a world-renowned opera singer, and I am a conservatory-trained composer, but neither of us is immune to the many joys of a simple, upbeat pop tune with only three chords. I am looking forward to seeing the video come out. For now, please enjoy the video below from last year’s conference of our performance of two lovely songs from Carnegie Hall’s Lullaby Project, featuring Jessica Garand on viola.

As for the rest of November, I am putting the finishing touches on (i.e., writing the bulk of) a new piece for the Manila Symphony Orchestra, as well as looking forward to my world premiere with the DSO—both pieces will play on the two same dates, December 9 and 10, on opposite sides of the world. Details in my Calendar page, though I expect I will be posting again closer to December to express my excitement.

New Beginnings


Actually the beginnings to which I’m referring are not that new, since I’ve now been part of the team at The Canales Project for about three months, but there is much, much more journeying to do in this unfamiliar world. Last year, despite not having a clue what to do with myself, I decided to suspend my academic aspirations temporarily in favor of something a little more novel and real-world; I had every intention of going back for a DMA/PhD in 2017, but… I am enjoying the arts administration life too much—not to mention I’ve written more music in the last few months since graduating than in my entire second year at Juilliard, so I think I’m in a good place.

Earlier this month at the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center we wrapped up the first in a series of shows called “Between Two Worlds,” the idea of which is to feature a motley group of artists who, in one way or another, work between different levels of cultural or professional identity. I’m not heavily involved in the next one on December 4 at New York Live Arts, since in the days leading up to it I’ll be in Houston for a performance (more details another time!), but it will feature my good friend and collaborator Drew Forde.

My work with TCP has pushed me to think more about cultural advocacy, the social impact of the arts, and what it means for us creative workers to engage the wider world around us. Do I really know about these things? No. But I think these are questions that are better acted upon than asked verbally, and now is a great time to be acting upon them indeed.

What is music for?—and some new videos

No, really: what is music for? What’s the point? In light of the many recent goings-on in the world, this question seems to sting anew. But the more we insist on asking it, the less it becomes clear that there is in fact any point. Maybe it’s the wrong question. It’s like asking: what is anger for, or fear, or joy, or excitement? Music is is how I react to things; I can’t quite help it.

I was recently able to gather my thoughts and sit still long enough to write a brief essay in which I explain why I compose—instead of dumping it all on this page, which is really supposed to be for “news,” I have put it in the “About” section of this site as a kind of personal or artistic statement. For now, it represents the best attempt I can make to make sense of this ridiculous activity to which I, along with many others, have come to devote myself.


And lest I forget, not too long ago I finally received videos from Ensemble Gô’s Yokohama tour in the summer of 2015. Here are their performances of Cariñosa and Heavenward. Enjoy!

Summer Notes

There are so many stories to tell from the time between my last post and now, among them:

1) performing Air a bunch of times all over the Juilliard building with my friend ThatViolaKid, including on his solo recital and graduation jury, both of which were nerve-wracking but made me feel somewhat like a legitimate composer;

2) the world premiere at Lincoln Center of Spoliarium, which I maintain for a few different reasons is my worst piece in recent memory, and which I expect will never see the light of day again, though I am quite fond of the ending where a lone bass drum utterly destroys the entire ensemble (to quote the New York Times, “the piece pretty much explodes at the end”);

3) writing an entire piece in one night and playing it myself the next day—don’t ask; and,

4) graduating from Juilliard.

But Peter Dinklage was right: you sort of get a bit derailed after graduation, though in my case I have always been more or less constantly derailed in many aspects of my life anyway, so not much else is new. In fact, my newfound freedom from the many distractions of the academe has left my brain clear enough these past eight weeks to allow me to put the double bar on two pieces so far—one for violin, another for choir—despite my history of long, unproductive summers and the New York heat making it impossible some days to do anything. Do I see a third double bar in the near distance? To be sure, things are moving slowly, but expect that I will have exciting things to announce and more uses for this space in due time.

Future Classics with the Minnesota Orchestra


As it happens I’ve been in Minneapolis all week for the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute, which will culminate tonight in the orchestra’s annual Future Classics concert, of which I’m beyond thrilled to be part. Last night my fellow composers and I introduced ourselves to a small audience of administrators, staff, and friends of the Minnesota Orchestra, and as the only non-American in the group I made it clear that I was a very long way from home. Growing up in the Philippines, classical music was simply not a life option. And when I discovered the pleasures of orchestral music for the first time, I didn’t think that one day I’d be writing it, let alone be sitting in a hall to listen to one of America’s great orchestras perform something I’d written. But—here we are.

The rest of the program, made up of all-new orchestral music by some very talented people, is sure to be an experience too. Also, a live broadcast on Classical MPR…!

Projects Big and Small, 2015–16

Juan Luna, Spoliarium (1884)

The 2015–16 season is upon us, and things are settling nicely (as nicely as things can settle in the world of concert music) after the whirlwind that was the beginning of a new academic year at Juilliard, so some small updates are in order.

Two big things are lined up my way: first, the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute in January, in which I will take part, and in which a slightly revised Magayon will receive its professional orchestra premiere. Needless to say, I’m terribly fortunate to see this piece performed a second time, and thrilled to hear what magic the Minnesota Orchestra will work on it.

Second, a new piece for the New Juilliard Ensemble’s season-closing concert in April is in the works. This time I’ve chosen for my subject the most famous of Filipino paintings, Juan Luna’s Spoliarium, which depicts a scene from a chamber in the Roman Colosseum where the bodies of fallen gladiators were dragged and stripped of their armor—a deliciously ripe subject for a piece if I ever saw one!

But big projects are giant curtains that obscure a different, more uncertain world underneath, made of smaller projects, and full of scurrying and scrambling to make things happen. A few days ago, for instance, I completed a new work for viola and piano—provisionally titled Air—for my colleague Drew Alexander Forde. A performance or two will more or less certainly take place at Juilliard some time toward the end of the concert season, though these things can be quite fluid, and the premiere might very well occur sooner. And now I occupy myself with a quick setting of the Magnificat for the Philippine-American Choral Project in New York; of course, updates to come as things unfold.