Thursday, May 24, 2007

Where have the piano makers gone?

Where have all the piano makers gone? Gone with globalization every one.

That’s my take on the vanished piano-making industry in the Philippines. Almost gone too are the craftsmen and artisans who built these great musical instruments that had brought music and liveliness to Philippine homes and concert halls.

But not entirely. Australia-based Filipino visual artist Alwin Reamillo, who comes from a family of piano makers, is back, trying to prove that the music from Philippine-made pianos need not die. Not if the few remaining piano builders could be brought back to old abandoned workshops, and with their hands (some gnarled because of tricycle driving), pick up the scattered pieces, strings, ivory keys, metal scraps and all, and put them together.

This is what Reamillo’s art exhibit “Mang Emo+Mag-himo Grand Piano Project” is doing. This exhibit is not Reamillo’s alone. Collaborating with him are piano craftsmen Jaime Pastorfide, Sabas Rabino Jr. and Tranquilino Tosio Jr., all from the Reamillo family’s closed-down piano factory that produced the Wittemberg pianos.

The exhibit’s catchy name comes from the nickname of Reamillo’s father Decimo, who was fondly called Mang Emo. “Mag-himo” is Visayan for “to make”. Mang Emo, Reamillo says, learned the rudiments of piano making by working for a piano company. Later, with his trained craftsmen, and with his brother and nephew as partners, he built a company that began with piano repair and restoration. They later went into fine pianos, some of which are in the Philamlife Auditorium, Miriam College and the Benedictine Sisters in Leyte.

The two-part, two-site commemorative visual installation is part of Reamillo’s four-month Asialink Visual Arts Residency at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and Galleria Duemila. The exhibits present the documented development and restorative construction of an art case for an upright and a parlor grand piano.

In 2005, Reamillo came home from Australia to immerse himself in what was left of the family-owned factory that closed in the 1990s. He tracked down people, especially the craftsmen who had gone their separate ways. He found one tending a fishball stall in a slum area.

Reamillo flung open the gates of the old factory and rummaged through the rubble. What he found could have belonged to the dumpsite if not for the keen eyes of the craftsmen who saw in them music waiting to be heard. Cast iron parts, sounding boards, wood, patterns, and boxes of ivory keys lay strewn about.

But with determination, Reamillo was able to make the place hum again. The key: community values and the participation of every one. These, Reamillo says, were values the late Mang Emo imparted to his workers. He was brother and fellow worker to every one.

The theme of migration is evident in the work of Reamillo who, as a Filipino migrant in Australia, has experienced what being swept away to a distant shore means. The sea and its creatures turn up in his mixed media work and on the casings of his pianos. The ghost of explorer Captain Cook lives in his ocean themes.

In Galleria Duemila (210 Loring St. Pasay City, tel. 8319990), part 2 of the exhibition presents an art case grand piano as a work in progress. A space in the gallery has been transformed into a workshop. A photo documentation has been mounted along with mixed-media paintings using the “transfer technique”. The exhibition will close on May 31 at 6 p.m. with piano performances by various Filipino artists, Ingrid Sala Santamaria and Jonathan Coo (who will both play Rachmaninoff), Eira May Tardo (Bach), Harold Galang (Smetana), and Greg Zuniega (Beethoven).

A graduate of the National High School for the Arts in Makiling, Reamillio attended the University of the Philippines where he studied visual arts. He calls himself a cross-media artist who uses painting, sculpture, sound, installation and performance. His works have been part of several collaborative projects abroad.

So will the piano-making industry in the Philippines be resuscitated? Can finely crafted pianos compete in prices with factory assembly-line brand-name pianos from China or Japan? Maybe not.

Globalization, trade liberalization and all that, have intruded into the fine art and soulful making of the finest of musical instruments. What have become of the piano makers, the piano tuners, the carvers, the metal workers, the assemblers?

Have you seen the innards of a piano? It is a wondrous thing to see, a work of art in itself.

Reamillo muses: “While I have often perceived that old piano factory as a decayed and emptied shell, not dissimilar to old perceptions of the Philippines as a nation in crisis, I have come to realize that creative transformation and change is possible. I see great possibility in breathing new life into this emptied shell…”


Those of you who’ve followed the music path of internationally acclaimed conductor Helen Quach who was here last April for her comeback concerts with the Manila Symphony Orchestra (MSO) could read about her journey to healing in the Sunday Inquirer Magazine, May 27.

And, music lovers, treat yourself to a night of Sir Edward William Elgar’s romantic music at 7:30 p.m., Friday, June 1, at St. Cecilia’s Hall of St. Scholastica’s College.

The MSO conducted by Arturo Molina and young American violinist and gifted composer William Harvey are the evening’s treat. English romantic composer Elgar is known best for his orchestral work, particularly the “Enigma Variations”, (which inspired the hit Rob Dougan track, “Clubbed to Death”, in the soundtrack of the 1999 smash-hit “The Matrix”). The program will feature Sir Elgar’s violin, orchestra and chamber music compositions “Chanson de Nuit, Op15, No. 1”, “Salut d’ Amour, Op. 12, ”, “Enigma Variations, Op.36” and “Violin Concerto in b minor, Op. 61”.

Elgar’s 150th birth anniversary is on June 2, 2007.