Sunday, August 31, 2008

Doing Nothing

Today, Saturday, is the first time in a very very very very long time that I have spent the entire day doing nothing. It is an extraordinary feeling. I shouldn't have been doing nothing, of course; I've got operas and requiems to compose, a trilogy to finish, and god knows what else besides, but I have to admit it really felt good to be away from it all. Last night, I didn't even dream.

This is probably the first day I've done nothing in in about two years. I hope to do so on Sunday as well. I really need this!

By Monday morning, I should have arrived at a Zen-like serenity and be ready to deal with the next crisis.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Vox Dei

You can rationalize it how you like, but it's still just about the worst thing ever to happen to me in my entire life. I am referring to another hard drive malfunction (or was it that? nothing else seems to be affected) which annihilated another complete movement of my long-awaited Requiem (by whom?) ... causing me to have to reconstruct the entire piece from memory and a few scraps here and there.... is this the Voice of God telling me not to compose this piece of music?

The last two days have been more full of spectacle than usual. It began with Amitha's article about me in the Bangkok Post - a very big piece indeed and in the words of two people who wrote to me about it, "grudgingly laudatory" ... yes, they both said this, which shows you the lexical likemindedness of the kind of people who consider themselves to be my friends. Despite a few minor cavils, I was very glad of this article because it brought a number of issues out into the open ... things like the famous evil spam that circulated two years ago in an attempt to destroy my career ... and so on. And the various vicious attacks I have to endure, and so on so forth.

So that night, the under the aegis of the very generous Khunying Patama, one of our benefactors, the Bangkok Opera was co-hosting the funeral of HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana at the Grand Palace along with other organizations also sponsored by the Khunying. It was a solemn and beautiful occasion. Except that one of those vicious attackers happened to be present — he runs one of the largest, though in some ways the least artistically successful, conservatories in the region. So there was a bit of unpleasantness when the Khunying beckoned all the heads of the various organizations to be photographed, and this gentleman refused to be in the photograph because of my presence; he also went off in a huff with his whole team and sat in the back of the hall.…

This kind of thing is symptomatic of everything that's wrong with the arts in this town. But hey, I'm used to it now. So let's talk about things that are right with the arts here.

The next day, I had to appear at a press conference to announce the Silpathorn Awards. But the most exciting thing (to me) about this press conference was that it took place in an art gallery on the other side of town (rather near to where a large crowd is protesting the government). The gallery was having an exhibition of art by kids — aged 6 to 18 or so — and it was one of the most thrilling art shows I've ever seen, full of brilliant colour and — to my amazement — trenchant social and political comment.

For instance, look at the picture I have just posted (above) - by a 17-year-old kid. It shows the seduction of Sita by Ravan (from the Ramayana) being performed by traditional puppets, while Superman busts in through the wall and old superhero costumes lie around. Not only is it very well executed technically, but it seems to say a LOT about modern Thai society. And the title: "Don't pull my strings" — adds to it. It's a really thoughtful picture about the collision between traditional values and pop culture.

And it's got irony. I always thought that the arrival of irony would mean the final maturing of the arts in Thailand. It's good to know that young people are developing a healthy sense of it.

So, though I was bummed out with the quarrelsome and backstabbing old people, I felt a sense of excitement and renewal when I looked at the work of young people....

Vox Dei? The funeral service was beautiful, as it always is, despite the childish behavior of the aforementioned. But I didn't feel the same emotional frisson that I felt before, at those midnight services many moons ago, with the virtuoso chanting. This was a more public mourning, heavier on spectacle than those other, intimate services.

Friday, August 22, 2008

More about Chiang Rai

Jay (pictured above in front of my office computer) got his first official concerto gig while in Chiang Rai … he will play a Bach concerto with a visiting Belgian orchestra next year. So that's one of the big things that occurred while we were up there. The massages were much cheaper too. There seem to be several reasons for wanting to move up there and enjoy an idyllic life and all that. But … I am a city kid.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Chiang Rai and the Ogre

Today I'm in Chiang Rai, which is defined by many Bangkokians as the other end of the universe. But last night I had an excellent prime rib in my hotel, and this evening we ate at an Italian restaurant every bit the equal of those in big cities, at a third of the price. I also sampled the local espresso, grown by members of various hill tribes, and found it exquisite.

I was actually here to see a performance of the Chiang Rai Youth Orchestra ... an interesting collecting of young string players trained by the indefatigable Geertje Podevyn, a crazy but dedicated Belgian. At the last minute I took Jay with me, and he joined the orchestra and played with them on a single rehearsal.

I feel new vistas opening up here. I"ve had another dream. This was in the Wiang Inn Hotel up here, which by the way served an enticing prime rib that night. I have a feeling this is a dream that bodes well for a complete renewal of all I'm doing.

So in this dream, an orange ogre has taken over the entire world; he's sort of cartoonish, a bit Tolkienesque as well, and he lives in a gigantic monopoly board in a lakeside estate. There is a casino on the monopoly board, and a huge wrought iron fence around the entire development, and I can't get home.

Across the lake, a gigantic two dimensional orange tiger stands hard, and an orange lion lies in repose. They are both made of paper and as tall as the skyscrapers that line the horizon. The lake appears to be Lake Rachada, near the Sirikit convention center.

Some school friends and I have managed to squeeze in through the gates, but we cannot do anything until we create a magic missile which we lob over onto the estate. It is a magic missile because it "makes us who we truly are."

The paper tiger and the lion become real! They come to life! I notice for the first time there is another paper lion right in front of us, blocking our entrance to the homes (they are sort of row houses) and the ogre is now affected by the missile and starts to grow into his true, monstrous size.

He becomes too uncomfortable to sit on the monopoly board. He swells and swells and he is sweating. At length he rolls up the monopoly board and as he does so, the parched soil beneath begins slowly to sprout vivid green grass. He vanishes into a corner and disappears, taking the paper lions and tiger with him. Peace returns.


The dichotomy between orange and green is an interesting one. Is this catholic vs protestant, Holland versus ... I don't know, something green? I do seem to associate orange with the Dutch and I am haunted by certain elements that come from Holland ... are they in fact paper tigers? Interesting that the dream should choose a Maoist dialectic with which to address me. Is the dream telling me that "a dutch ogre and his threatening paper tigers will no longer possess a monopoly on my life and will get out of the way so that I can get home (ie find my true self)?"

Or is it something else entirely? It is interesting that the dream came in the stress-free environment of Chiang Rai. Now I'm back as I finish writing this. Stress is once again the normal condition of things. This morning I find that I have once again lent my last penny to the opera foundation, and I am as far as possible from the stereotype of the grand old man/eminence grise as can be imagined. However, in a couple of hours they are coming to interivew me about the Silpathorn Award - (Kittikun Level) which I am about to be presented with. I will have to pull myself together and appear as the pontificating one, the seer, the latchkey to the gates of truth.


Oh, last night I played both Subbulakshmi amd Stockhausen on my radio show. I wonder if there is anyone listening!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Back from the Radio Station

... and already have one email from one Jo Cadilhon, a tenor in the opera chorus who seems to have enjoyed the show. In advertising they say that one response equals 1000 people, so I'm assuming this is a decent approval rating.

However, I have to say that running a talk radio show in Bangkok is pretty weird. For one thing, being witty, urbane, and being able to use sesquipedalian vocabulary isn't something that comes entirely naturally to me in Thai. For another, whenever I did any talk radio in the States, it would actually go on air at the advertised time. In Thailand, however, they tell you when you arrive, "Oh, it'll be a half hour or so," and rather than telling you that your show will end at ten pm, they say, "Oh, just go on as long as you want." This whole laid-back attitude made it very easy to work there, and Mr. Aw, a seasoned talk show personality, was appointed to keep the thing moving and to fill up any dead space if I ever forgot some simple Thai word.

So, there were a few amusing gaffes — I hadn't realized, for instance, that every hour on the hour, the show automatically cuts to the news. In the middle of a long concerto movement, I suddenly realized that Trisdee's pianistic flourishes would soon be interrupted by a blaring disco beat with the latest stock market figures, serial killers, and political movements. In despair, I pleaded my case in the control room. And guess what they said? "The news is pretty boring right now, it's just Thaksin or something; we'll just skip it."

What a grand feeling of power, to know that one's musical whims could overrule, if but for an hour, the public's Need To Know about the latest political scandal!

Well, I managed to play MOST of the music I had pcked out for the show despite rambling too much and being interrupted by commercials. It was a hilarious bag of eclectica, including music by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan as well as Alessandro Striggio, Prokofiev and my humble self. Pontification was fun! I think I will hold off on allowing call-ins ... for a while longer ... until I have become a little more confident....

I've come home and while randomly surfing the web discovered that a story of mine, Little Red Caplets from the online magazine Aberrant Dreams, has made StorySouth's "notable stories of 2007". It's a story which sat on a hard drive for seven years, unsent to any publisher. Maybe I won't give up writing quite yet.

As for the above photograph, no prizes for identifying which of the three persons depicted is the author of this blog.

Somtow's World Goes On The Air

The rumours are true, I'm afraid! SOMTOW'S WORLD will go on the air TONIGHT on FM 98.75, and every Monday night thereafter. This is sort of a classical music and cultural show, and I will be playing all sorts of eclectic music ... and having weird guests ... and all that stuff.

But I should warn the readers of this blog that the show is in THAI....

8 pm to 10 pm .... Monday nights ....

and furthermore, a TV spinoff is coming soon....

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Less Humiliating Experiences

Last month, I reported a humiliating experience — I went to give a reading only to find an audience of zero.

I thought I would sit back and catalog some of the less humiliating experiences of the week — maybe that will lend a fresh note of optimism to this blog. It is perhaps sorely needed after all this talk of death.…

• Here's something. A signed copy of one of my books is selling for a thousand bucks on some website in Minneapolis. I stumbled on it ... Here's the link. Who would ever have thought it? Now if someone would actually PAY that.... Someone's also selling a copy of my "V" tie-in book for $284 ... heavens!

• The Czechs have struck back - now I am to be a judge in the competition on their home turf - where they have promised me something like 160 choirs will be competing! They even offered me a conducting dig for their local Philharmonic.

• I did win this vast national award that seems, according to Wisekwai's blog, to have been created especially for those who would have won the National Artist Award if only they hadn't been so "controversial".

• I have a new radio show opening Monday night – 8 pm, FM 98.75, called, for some strange reason, "Somtow's World". Plus, my much touted TV show might open next week as well ... I'll let you know.

• None of my hard drives have crashed this week.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Day in My Life

I believe this video really speaks for itself. Or does it?

Seeing Dead People (Again)

My house is now full of ghosts. So I am told. Everyone who lives here seems to have encountered one.

Lights mysteriously turned on and off while Trisdee practiced the harpsichord in the dead of night. And these were not power failures; the switch actually moved. Jay heard music playing from the music room … the Chopin A flat major etude … only it was in the minor key. But no one was in the music room at the time.…

While performing my office in the lavatory, I distinctly heard a Jewish chant coming through the pipes. There is indeed a synagogue in the neighbourhood … half a mile away!

Now, my orchestra manager, says he's had some kind of "experience" too. But he's too frightened to explain it. So, it would seem, terror is stalking the hallways of the Bangkok Opera.

As reported in my dream diary, themes of mortality and dead people seem to be recurring more and more in my dreams.

For example, two nights ago I had a familiar dream of being lost in a labyrinthine science fiction convention hotel. It was a huge hotel — in fact, I think it was the Fontainebleu in Miami, where I attended my very first worldcon. I'm lost after some huge party and trying to get to my room.

someone tells me it's faster to go down one floor, turn left and go all the way to another elevator located at 21J. I go there and find the elevator — it's dimly lit and old-fashioned. maybe a service elevator — take it, find myself in a completely different hotel.

And now, I am running towards what I think is my room. It's a dank alley outside but I reach the end and I see row upon row of white houses, built with wooden facing, all with motel room like doors. The walls have white wooden planks which I call pickets, though even in my dream I know that pickets are not planks on walls. They do have picket fences as well. The houses are a bit like a cross between suburbia and Auschwitz barracks. They are dreamlike, perfect rows, scrubbed clean, sepulchre like, I run like mad and I am thinking, Why do I always see these houses in my dreams, and never dare to go in?

You see, it has become a lucid dream. I am aware of everything, even that it is a recurring dream and I can change something.

And so I stop and push open a door.

It's dark. A row of dormitory beds. Someone in each bed, completely covered in a brownish greyish blanket. They are like shrouds or body bags. I shout, "Someone say something! you people never say anything!"

All the blankets move at once to reveal a row of bandaged, mummy-like heads, they simultaneously lift their heads to look at me. As I wake up, I realize they are dead, yet they are staring at me.…

... Yes. My house has become full of ghosts.

Friday, August 1, 2008

What do I really think about Preah Vihear?

Last week I was invited to be one of the judges at a huge international choir competition in Pattaya, organized by some Czechs. When I got there, the competition wasn't so huge after all ... although there were five categories, the number of contestants had somehow dwindled to just two. One of the two was an Indonesian youth choir. Naturally, they were a bit put out.

Well ... I asked what happened. Oh, they said, "recent events" had made all the European choirs pull out in fear. What events, I wondered? Um, the earthquake in China. So, if there was an earthquake in Bratislava, you would forego a choir competition in Madrid? I asked, marvelling at the geographic wisdom of the typical European. They hemmed and hawed, and eventually I figured out that the average person in the west thinks that we are in the middle of some huge war with Cambodia.

That would of course be impossible; my country's skills at war are such that generals outnumber privates two to one, and Siam is the only country in the world to have lost both sides of the second world war. (Or won, depending on how you look at it.) The likelihood of anyone here attempting a real war with a country one tenth its size, which just happened to defeat the greatest military power in the world a mere 40 years ago, is not too high. There are much more important social issues in Siam to address. For instance, a school out in the remote boondocks became the first to install separate toilets for transvestites. Let no one in the world accuse Thailand of being behind the sociological curve!

My dad is one of the few people alive today who was on the legal team during the infamous Preah Vihear case. The other day he gave a talk on it and elucidated with great clarity the complexity of the issue. But you know, what I really think is that we could go on forever laying claim to this and that. Maybe the best solution is for Southeast Asia to become a borderless federation in which the exact delineation of a few square meters of land is truly irrelevant. (Of course, such a borderless federation would de facto be ruled by the biggest, meanest member of the family … whether that member is going Thailand is really a question of what Thailand's self-image really is.) Ultimately, the sour grapes over this temple conceals a far bigger thing: the sense of fury and frustration at having lost all those thousands of square miles of land to France and never having got it back. But no one is really saying this.

The Austrians have laid claim to Mozart, Mahler, and Sigmund Freud. Mozart came from Salzburg, which, at the time, was not in Austria, but was an independent country. Freud and Mahler actually came from what is now the Czech republic. England thinks that Handel and Mendelssohn are the most quintessentially English of comnposers.

I believe that what we need is a new way of looking at the concept of ownership. For the entire recorded history of humanity, ownership has been largely thought of as belonging to whoever managed to actually squat on the land, keep the jewel in the hand, have the power of life and death over ... it has been thought of as dependent on the ability to exercise power over something.

But when you think of things that way, then there is generally always a "rightful" owner with a prior claim to everything. Thailand can certainly claim that it is the "rightful" owner of ninety thousand square kilometers of territory now inside other countries, because the treaties under which it was handed over to colonial powers were signed under duress, and we don't believe in international piracy, aka colonialism, anymore. But then it could be said that all this territory was conquered from the Khmer Empire by the Thais, and should be returned to the Khmers; and then Thailand should get Southern China back because of the depredations of Kublai Khan, and so on. Italy should get Somerset, because the ruins at Bath are clearly Roman ruins, but shouldn't Wales get England, because the Anglo-Saxons stole it from the Celts?

Perhaps, in this new millennium, we should be thinking in terms of a new kind of ownership: virtual ownership. As Buddha once wisely observed, nothing really exists. Why should not owning the idea of a thing be as real as having the physical thing under one's control? If we could all believe in virtual ownership, we could all lay equal claim to our past. Of course, this is a dangerously radical notion, so I should shut up before I get censored again.

Meanwhile, the Czechs are having another go at putting on this choir competition next year. I intend to help them get more people … and hopefully convincing people in Europe to look for Thailand on the map before they panic....