Have you ever been to a wedding reception or corporate event where you would hear anything from the music of your favorite Disney animated movie to Ebe Dancel’s “Bawat Daan” coming from a string quartet? Most likely that quartet is composed of members of the Manila String Machine, a collective of musicians from various music colleges and orchestras in the Metro who play everything from standards and love songs to K-Pop hits and even thrash metal covers.
The Manila String Machine (MSM) was formed in 2008 by graduates of the University of the Philippines College of Music. According to MSM proprietor/manager, cellist, and arranger Ted Amper, the idea of forming a group that played popular and contemporary music with strings was inspired by the Vitamin String Quartet, a Los Angeles-based group that has recorded and released dozens of tribute albums to everyone from AC/DC to Yellowcard.
“They were playing rock music, popular music,” he tells Billboard Philippines. “At that time, in the early 2000s, wala pa masyadong strings na tumutugtog ng ganoon [not many string groups were playing that kind of music], usually (just) love songs. So we picked up on that trend.”
Amper clarifies that the Manila String Machine wasn’t the first string ensemble ever to play modern music, but they are honored to be regarded as one of the pioneers of that style in the country. Today, MSM counts its membership to “about 40,” with a core group of around a dozen musicians that typically get the first call to arrange new pieces and play gigs. They’ve also become more than just suppliers of live background music at events; they’ve appeared on records (like Mayonnaise’s 2020 album Friends & Family) and backed many top Pinoy acts on stage, from Ely Buendia, Greyhoundz, Razorback, and more at the 2014 Red Horse Muziklaban Finals to Ebe Dancel’s 20th anniversary show in February 2020.
“Sobrang lakas [It was too loud],” Amper recalls of the Muziklaban gig with a laugh. “Di namin marinig sarili namin [We couldn’t hear ourselves playing].”
The MSM members present during the interview (Amper, first violinist Miks Casal, second violinist Kim Ng, and viola player Peds Casilihan) all affirm that they are fans of many genres of music, including the artists they cover, as some of them had been in bands and play other instruments as well. “Personally, ang hilig ko talaga ngayon is rock [rock is my current favorite], but in our line of work we’re required to play (all kinds of music),” says Casal, who plays guitar on the side. “So nasasanay ka na lang [you get used to it]; you can shift your emotions from this (genre of music) to K-Pop (and so on).”
“Parang may switch ka nalang kung anong genre ‘yung gusto mo at anong kailangan mong i-play [It’s like you have a switch you can flip between the genre you love and the music you need to play],” adds Ng.
As such, the group can take on the challenge of doing special requests, like they did for an event of a certain sports eyewear brand. “(They approached us and said), ‘Hey, we want you to play Metallica for our event,’” narrates Amper, “so nag-arrange kami [we made string arrangements] for Metallica (songs).” Looking at MSM’s repertoire page on their official website, one can see that anthems like “Enter Sandman” and “Master of Puppets” are among the pieces the group can perform if so desired by their clients.
Among their wide repertoire that ranges from traditional classical pieces to TV series and even anime themes, even the individual members can’t help but have their own favorite tunes to play. Ng prefers jazz standards like “Misty” (popularized in 1959 by Johnny Mathis) and “The Nearness Of You” (written by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington in 1937, later recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Norah Jones, and others), while Casilihan enjoys playing the Avengers theme and other movie/TV themes; he recounts arranging the music from the popular 2019 K-drama Crash Landing On You during the pandemic “kasi maraming time [because I had a lot of time on my hands].”
Casal singles out the song “So Close” from Disney’s Enchanted because “gusto ko talaga ‘yung kantang ‘yon [I really like that song].” On the other hand, Amper echoes Casilihan’s preference for movie themes, enumerating Braveheart, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings. “Maybe the reason is that when I’m playing it, hindi lang basta nota; parang nai-imagine ko yung world [I don’t just hear the notes; I can imagine the world in the movie],” he says.
While the Manila String Machine has successfully established itself as the go-to string ensemble for contemporary music, Amper stresses that the bigger goal is for them to be able to collaborate and record with other artists on a top-of-mind basis. “We based our name on a group in Nashville called Nashville String Machine,” he says. “What they do is they record for artists; hindi sila pang events na group [they’re not a group that plays for events]. They play for recordings. So (we thought), ‘Uy, sana meron ding ganoon sa Pilipinas [we hope to be the local equivalent of that],’ where a string group plays for artists in general, or (if) a foreign group comes and then they need strings, pwedeng tawagan itong group na ito [they can call us].”
“It’s starting to (happen); we’ve listed names of artists that we were able to collaborate with,” he continues. “We’re living the dream.”
Other goals for the group include composing and recording original music – including “short pieces” that can be used for TikTok, media scores, and same-day edit videos. “Iniisip pa namin [We’re still thinking about] how we can monetize that,” adds Amper. “But from an artists’ perspective, OK talaga na may sarili kaming [it’s good to have our own] music, compositions.”
For the Manila String Machine, it won’t be a matter of if, but when, this will happen, as their versatility, talent, and enthusiasm for their craft have long been proven by their vast repertoire and resume. They’ll remain a constant fixture at events, providing familiar tunes that people want to hear, but it won’t be long until they’ll be known for music of their own.
Watch out for more of The Manila String Machine here on Billboard Philippines.