Art Inspires Art: A young composer creates an orchestral work inspired by Rebecca Louise Law: Awakening

In spring 2023, composer Paul Gabriel L. Cosme visited the Honolulu Museum of Art to see Rebecca Louise Law: Awakening, at the invitation of museum docent Virgie Chattergy. Cosme was in his first semester as a graduate student in music composition at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, and had met Chattergy through the East-West Center where he is a Graduate Degree Fellow. Chattergy had a feeling the floral installation would strike a chord with the young musician, and she was right.

Following a long musical lineage of composers inspired by visual art—such as Claude Debussy and Monet’s paintings, and John McCabe and Marc Chagall’s windows in the Synagogue at the Hadasseh-Hebrew University Medical Centre in Jerusalem—Cosme created the orchestral piece A Stranger in a Festival of Spirits after seeing Awakening.

“It’s really an experience,” Cosme says of Law’s work. As opposed to a painting that one can theoretically capture in a second, he explains that the installation comprised of a million pieces of flora unfolds the way music does—linearly through time.

“In a way it was a synesthetic experience, you don’t just see it, you also smell it. Sometimes it feels tactile even if you don’t touch it, because you’re familiar with the flowers. For me as a musician, I can also hear it. Color evokes particular sounds.”

The work was literally a profound awakening for Cosme. “It made me realize the soundscape I’m living in,” he says. “Many of the flowers and fauna in the installation are part of the Hawai‘i ecosystem, even if they are foreign to here. And like Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and other immigrants, were brought here. They’re not native to the land. Same idea that went through my mind. It’s an integration of my own life experiences. I left home when I was young and learned about music from a lot of different people far from home. The artwork is an impetus of what was happening already in my life for years.”

Cosme says he had been tasked with writing a large-scale piece for his master’s degree and had been mulling over what it would be. “I told Virgie after the tour, ‘I think I have my idea for my master’s thesis.’”

At 23, Cosme, who was born in the Philippines, has already accomplished a lot in his field. A winner of the Lila Bell Acheson Wallace Endowed Prize in Music, he graduated summa cum laude from Macalester College with degrees in music and international studies. As a composer, interdisciplinary scholar, and writer, he blends traditions and breaks boundaries to narrate stories of home, loss, and recovery.


The Stranger

A Stranger in a Festival of Spirits is partly autobiographical. Cosme explains that it is a play on a story that is a part of many Asian cultures—the stranger who suddenly finds themself in a spirit world and goes on a journey of acceptance and accepting. “On a deeper cultural level, the stranger is me,” says Cosme.

To illustrate his point he talks about being a member of the University of Hawai‘i Javanese Gamelan Ensemble. “It is not my culture, but my friends who are Javanese welcomed me into this space to play the gamelan. So I accepted their invitation to learn. All of the things my friends have taught me are amalgamated into this piece. I’m not randomly choosing music from Asia. I chose music that has meaning to me and tried to blend them together in a way that makes sense to me. I’m not trying to create music that is from their culture. I’m trying to emulate what it sounds like to my ears. The music is from the stranger’s point of view.”

When asked how he translates the visual into the aural, Cosme explains that something “happens in my head.” If he sees a rose, for example, he starts to think of common descriptors, like velvety. “What does velvety sound like? The first level is to translate the tactile feeling into a word, and then translate that word into sound. That process happens instantaneously in my head. But then you now have to create a structure that makes the sound viable. That is where the work really enters. I can imagine for Rebecca Louise Law, she might have found many beautiful flowers, but how do you structure them and create a beautiful installation? It is the same thing for a composer.”

His orchestral work begins with the bright piping of a clarinet. “Those woodwinds are the sounds of different birds,” says Cosme. “They are a common way of depicting forests.” Contemplative strings reflect the calm many people experienced in Awakening. Then a little over halfway through, the music turns dark.

The installation also made him think about aging and death. “There’s a latent content in those kinds of colors—it is about the lack of life, not just calmness. Sometimes it can be a brooding sound, or even a remembrance,” says Cosme. “So that’s why in the music there are a lot of moments where there are Filipino folk songs. There are sections where it becomes quiet, and you can hear lyrical, sweet little tunes—those are Filipino folk tunes that are close to my heart. Now you are in this different world, it’s like being homesick, and you’re grabbing onto whatever reminds you of home.”