Making Do: The Mang Emo + Mag-himo Grand Piano Project

(by Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez)

There is something undeniably romantic and gung-ho about piecing forlorn fragments into a melodious whole.

And so it is that three decades into Perth-based Filipino artist Alwin Reamillo’s bayanihan-propelled experiments, we find the artist summoning the ghosts of piano workshops past. Perhaps unconsciously cultivating an affinity for other recuperative, process-laden, and collaborative practices such as Joseph Beuys’s social sculpture and more recently, Junyee’s Angud installation for the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Earth Day celebration, Reamillo’s long-drawn bid to kick-start a once much-admired technical facility to craft Filipino grand pianos comes home to roost.

Work for this most recent incarnation of the piano project (with previous transitional stagings done in Australia and Singapore) primarily took place in a non-descript site I literally missed on my first pass through the main avenue of a Parañaque subdivision-turned-industrialized zone. It was here that I was to encounter Jaime Pastorfide and Tranquilino Tosio, Jr., two of the three seasoned piano makers (Sabas Rabino, Jr. is the third) who speak about fashioning pianos as profoundly intense as your neighborhood art superstar of the moment.

The three had been key to the operations of the Wittemberg Piano factory that Reamillo’s family clan once owned and ran for some 36 years. Quite candidly, for the artist, there was a much more personal stake in getting the workshop back in shape. By their own collective account, the death of Reamillo’s father, Decimo Zabala Reamillo in 1985, book-ended the tumultuous ebb and flow of ideas, objects, and relationships that make up the history of this place once known as the only maker of Philippine grand pianos.

While I have often perceived that old piano factory as a decayed and emptied shell, not dissimilar to old perception of the Philippines as a nation in crisis, I have come to realize that creative transformation and change is possible. I see great possibilities in breathing new life into this emptied shell, a carcass of an instrument [that may] propel creative possibilities (Reamillo, e-mail correspondence 2006

Nostalgic piano makers recreating a fine instrument

Getting anything to even function nominally on site was a major reconnaissance operation, however. In what looked like a virtual war zone, Reamillo, Rabino, Tosio, and Pastorfide set out to culling piano parts and working tools from the debris of a devastated business, pilferage, and termite infestation. Working on a technical adaptation of Italian piano maker Bartolome Cristofori’s original design since infused by Decimo’s signature harpitone toning device, this rag tag, battle-scarred band began ticking off on a spartan blackboard a list of the salvaged materials they’d scrounged together thus far.

Among the rummaged structural components were a cast-iron frame, a wooden structural base and assorted wooden soundboard table moulds all begging for various degrees of restoration. Notwithstanding the sorry state they’d found this former work sphere in, the openly nostalgic piano makers visibly charged the space with a can-do vibe that culminates (for the moment) in a part-shrine/part-workshop project sited at CCP and Galleria Duemila, both sites predictably housing work that is as much about object-making as it has been about the act of making itself.

Characteristically, Reamillo employs Mang Emo as verbal pun on Decimo’s name and the Waray term for ‘to make’. Like his crabs which allude to a seminal childhood fishing episode and which have since become a creative menu staple (pun intended), these latest installments of the artist’s social installations draw heavily both on memory-laden found objects, incidental texts, as well as unstable meaning sponged out of the daily, sometimes banal negotiations that play into to the tenuous instances of human collaboration Reamillo’s mustered in the course of an art practice begun at the Philippine High School for the Arts.

On most counts, these projects have proven visually ambiguous even as the productions arguably remain hard to pin down on a closed-off cognitive level. At a quick glance (which is what much contemporary art gets afforded generally), the constructions seem to have increasingly morphed into layered texts summoning the complexity of the artist’s own wrangling with past, present and future paths.

An important focus of my work over the past three years has involved exploring the art and craft of piano-making (specifically the family-made pianos), my relationship with my father, and in turn my relationship with my son, Kaprou Emo and the idea of art and community, animated and performed within the creative space of a workshop. – Alwin Reamillo

Fragile Associations, Mixed Metaphors in Social Concerto

Given this penchant toward fragile associations, Reamillo is hardly ever a facile read, deliberately taking circuitous tangents even in the midst of the most casual of conversations on anything from: how the piano waned in status as an elite Pinoy household artifact; how re-building a single grand piano led to the weaving of a compounded web of trade and personal relationships; how the old family piano workshop transitioned from a mere repair facility to producing upright pianos, eventually moving into an exclusive grand piano line.

Reamillo is given to doggedly mixing metaphors. Building on the father-searching theme running through the Pinocchio and Gepetto tale climaxing in the belly of a whale, he unhesitatingly shifts gears to talk on his own migratory routes around the Asia-Pacific rim over the last decade. Understandably, this cultivated disjointedness and seemingly incomprehensible juxtapositions of crustacean, marine mammalian, and diaristic shrines seem to have nothing to do with each other except within Reamillo’s long-drawn out quest to ‘find’ and ‘re-construct’ fragments of a life lived on two continents amidst raw personal struggles.

And so while the work, at least on the surface, may come across as self-absorbed navel-gazing, it is simultaneously, imaginably textually dense in that the artist remains keenly attuned to how the family-based venture ties into webbed questions of class, labor relations, globalized traffic of surplus goods, and the sheer difficulty of crafting sense from fractured bits of living.

Mang Emo/Mag-himo tracks this forward and backward, with the installation visually punctuated by artifacts picked out of episodic nodes--telling of how a once thriving workshop built on informal though deep-rooted apprenticeships wrestled with the dynamics of play, improvisation, self-knowing, as well as dissent.

Banking on infecting others with his tenacity to activate the decommissioned: objects (food and building detritus, piano workshop debris), people (dispossessed workers and estranged family relations), and spaces (the rundown 2 floor affair that was Javincello & Co. since sub-let from a garments factory as well as the CCP and Galleria Duemila installation sites), Reamillo cumulatively builds upon tropes of disconnection, superfluity, rekindling, and mending.

As he and the remnant piano makers set off on essentially problem-solving jaunts, coaxing tones out of pieced together parts pried out of half-built and broken pianos, their acts of finding and making illustrate the journeys that have had to be taken. At turns serendipitous, Reamillo for instance found the source for a missing grand piano action assembly and metal accessories/brass fittings through Watanabe Musical Instruments while on a Fukuoka residency.

Similarly, they found and borrowed the last parlor grand built by the Wittemberg workshop in Reamillo’s old school in Makiling; and in the same way, bummed the use of tools critical to assembling the pianos by getting the CCP to provide access to its production design workshop.

As did his father before him, Reamillo’s specific intervention comes in the form of bricolage—socially weaving connections while visually intervening--inserting a cast-iron frame embossed with text as metonymic inscription of memory, infusing the piano structure with biographical traces such as the names of former workers and images extracted from family photographs. Even as the still unfolding story now seems discordant with the local piano manufacturing industry’s being diminished to mere dealership of imported instruments, plans remain afoot for collaborative and improvisatory performances with local and Western Australian musicians, artists, and music students.

In the end, a nagging key question still has to do with how this will all pan out—whether the project generates actual linkages between Fremantle and Parañaque, that is if the financial juice required to re-enliven the craft materializes or whether the local trio of Rabino, Pastorfide and Tosio will revert to living off the odds and ends of memorialized brilliance. It may just be that the unpredictability posed by so many uncontrollable factors plays as potent propellant in this extended social concerto.

Exhibition text from the Mang Emo + Mag-himo Grand Piano Project, Galleria Duemila + Cultural Center of the Philippines, 2007. Text was reprinted at first posted 11:56:00 05/24/2007

Filed Under: Culture (general), Music, history, Human Interest