Saturday, February 27, 2010

Bach to the Future

To speak about connecting with my roots is always awkward because in a sense, I have  no roots.  Or perhaps it can be said that I have many different sets of them, or that, like a banyan tree, my branches have frequently taken root in an alien soil.

So I can’t say that my second visit to Korat is about the rediscovery of my roots.  It’s not that simple.

It has been as much about planting new seeds in ground that might be fertile or stony.  As when three members of our Shounen-Thai Quartet sat in the middle of a field and started playing the slow movement of Bach’s double violin concerto amid the sights and sounds of what called itself the “Kollywood Festival” but was for all intents and purposes a temple fair without the temple.  Next to them, a street vendor sold homemade dim sum and another touted that fabulous oriental delicacy, French fries (served up in a little banana-leaf boat).  Behind them, a woman demonstrated the ancient art of weaving on a hand-loom, while in the distance a vendor hawked battery-operated light sabers.  A folk opera jangled from about 200 yards away.  Yes, it was noisy, and yet … around the Bach there was a sort of aura of stillness.  And people were stopping to listen.  And they were really concentrating on this ethereal music with its slow suspensions, its aching long notes.  So the idea that this might be the first time this piece of earth was being touched by Bach was very moving ... it brought me to tears ... the innocence and purity of the moment ... 

The quartet isn’t even going to be all here until tomorrow, when Post, our viola player, shows up with his mother.  Then they’re going to have a session with some local young musicians, exchanging ideas and being teenagers.  In the evening, they will join forces with a traditional Korat singer.  We have no clue what is going to happen, but I am sure it will be magical.

My American friends often assume that I come complete with “mysteries of the east,” but I left Thailand when I was six months old and didn’t come back until I was 7, and then only for 5 years.  I am as European as I am Asian.  Not to mention American. Indeed, I can truly say that I am a child of three continents.  In Thailand, I frequently am seen by Thais as being too much infected with the “mysteries of the west.”

As a Thai, I’m a city boy, whose childhood came with walled enclosures and imported foreign bland food.  So I never lived in a village, never ate duckbill shishkebabs, never swam naked in a muddy stream.  I’m having a lot of trouble with the local food.  And yet … there is something about this that calls to me from a past.  It can’t really be my personal past, so it must be something from the collective unconscious.  I’m connecting with a past that I might have had.  Yet it feels as real as if I had really lived it.  Like a good novel, I suppose.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Carrying the Torch

On Wednesday night, after the gorgeous strains of Mahler's Ninth died away, I have to admit that I had a lot of mortality issues.  Mahler 9 makes you think about death a lot.  Death the lover, the dancer, the cynic, the consoler, they're all present in this piece.  You have to play this piece as if it's the last thing you ever do, and during the last movement I really felt as if it might be the last thing I ever did.  And to be honest, I really did feel as if I had died.  During the reception afterwards I was virtually incoherent and the next day I was really ill and had to cancel a Rossini rehearsal.

It was only the previous day that I knew I would be using a baton last used by Leonard Bernstein to conduct the same symphony 21 years ago.  Stan Gayuski, a member of the New York chapter of the Mahler Society and (as all Mahlerians are) a little crazy, came to lunch and had it with him.  "I want you to use it for this concert," he told me.

It was an awesome artifact.  The cigarette stains alone hinted at a world that doesn't exist anymore ... a smoke-filled, largely all-male world.  I thought back to my first encounter with this symphony, when I was 13 and visiting Paris ... that was with a wheelchair-bound Otto Klemperer, who knew Mahler personally, for God's sake.  It was a concert which changed my life, the first "proper" concert I'd ever been to.

So what was it like?  Did I get possessed by the spirit of Bernstein, floating over to the Thailand Cultural Center from whatever Sheol he currently dwells in?  It is not that simple, any more than possession itself is that simple.

You all know that the Thais are Buddhists, but in a way they're not.  Buddhism in Thailand is a rich and lovingly-sculpted façade that covers a deep and potent tabernacle of animism.  Animism, the old religion that was here before Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity (all of which have left their mark) is about the essential "livingness" of all matter.  Water, air, land, rocks, buildings, and even batons have spirits.  You can talk to the wind, to trees, to animals.  And there is no question to me that waving that stick is as much about magic as anything in a J.K. Rowling novel.

Bruce Gaston, as a young student, used to hang around Bernstein quite a bit and one day, he remembers, Bernstein said to him, "If you conduct Mahler's Ninth properly, things happen."  That's because Mahler's Ninth isn't just the death-song of one death-obsessed composer, but a death-song for the entire romantic movement, for an entire century of a certain sensibility.   It is a symphony absolutely drenched in death.  Clutching that flimsy piece of cork, mingling my DNA with the DNA of a dead hero, was in a real sense an erotic encounter with death, because to a romantic sensibility, love and death are the same.  In the last movement, I understood for the first time empirically why in Shakespeare's English, "to die" had the double meaning of achieving an orgasm.

And things surely did happen.  Stan Gayuski fell into a terrible state at the end of the dress rehearsal and almost had to be carried out; he was too weak to attend the performance and could only watch it on video; it fell to Singapore conductor Adrian Tan to write a review for the Post which Stan had promised to do.  Friends of friends dropped dead or attempted suicide the next day.

The day after the concert, whose success was way beyond what I envisioned — I mustn't forget to mention that two separate ex-pats who don't know each other emailed me to say that this was the most impressive classical music event they had attended in forty years of living in Thailand — I received a vicious email spam attack.

Copies of a letter from a fake email address, purporting to be a member of our orchestra, were being circulated on the net.  The letter talked of my venality, my evil, the fact that they weren't proud of being in my orchestra because of my evil exploitation ... you get the picture.  The same thing happened to me in 2006 right after one of the biggest international successes we had managed to carry off: the premiere of my opera Ayodhya.  A massive email smear campaign.

The identity of the perpetrator of the 2006 campaign became apparent a year later when her mother accidentally invited one of my friends to join the "let's destroy Somtow" plot.   It must be said that the plot almost worked; someone was even quoted in Opera Magazine as saying that the Bangkok Opera was moribund —this before we had the most artistically successful year in our history.

The 2010 smear campaign seems to have already petered out after only a week.  Perhaps, possession of the Bernstein baton constitutes holding one of the "magical objects" that the Cambodian Prime Minister was recently using to curse our own Mr Abhisit.

The attacks were followed by a shower of blessings.  Barbara Bonney's agent contacted me and the next thing I knew, she agreed to do the soprano solo in our Mahler 4.  If Bernstein's baton was like receiving a relic of the True Cross, getting Barbara Bonney's agreement was not unlike a visitation from the Virgin Mary.  After a few days of absolutely debilitating post partum, I felt reborn.  Visiting the old city of Korat and hearing the ancient songs of the village people also was a renewing experience.  When Bruce Gaston and I played our Avatar Duet this Sunday, it was as if we were reinventing music itself.

When you do Mahler Nine, you have to start thinking beyond death.  I'm finding myself (as Schönberg said) "breathing air from another planet."  I don't know what's going to happen next, but whatever it is, it is going to stoke the old "sense of wonder" in a big way.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Hurrah for Kollywood

Yes!  I've agreed to appear at the Kollywood Festival, improvising along with the singing of an incredibly brilliant folk artist. The poster, viewable here, is beyond belief.  But you can see that I wasn't kidding in my recent twitter announcements about folk opera troupes dressing up in 18th century Viennese costumes....

My visit to Korat last week was full of suprises, not the least of which was to discover that fried duck bills were being sold as shish kebabs.  First it turns out that there is a beautiful symphony hall in Korat, and there is an entire, and possibly rather neglected, field of local music.  In particular I encountered the gorgeous singing of a woman who had learned the songs from her mother and whose folk tunes may well be lost if there is not some mechanism for their preservation.

The there were the little old ladies who gave a demonstration of folk dancing at a temple, only we had to wait for someone to finish getting cremated.

And of course there were also the ancient ruins.  Like this 1,300 year old reclining Buddha image....

Oh yeah, I woke up from an interesting dream this morning.  I dreamt that I was buying candy from the prime minister, who had taken over a booth in the food court of the Trnity Shopping Mall in Silom....

Friday, February 19, 2010

Curses! Foiled Again!

I read in the paper that the prime minister of Cambodia has put a curse on the prime minister of Thailand.  The quote, from The Nation, is a pretty strange one:  "let magic objects break your neck, may you be shot, be hit by a car, may you be shocked by electricity or [may you be shot] by misfired guns".

I for one am dying to get hold of one of those "magic objects".   They would surely be useful to have around for breaking the odd enemy neck.   And the "misfired guns" are pretty cool, too.  I suppose that to get guns to kill someone not by mistake would be a higher level of curse.

This is why I prefer to live in Asia these days.  Because despite our city-wide wireless, ubiquity of McDonalds and Starbucks, skyscrapers, and high-tech lifestyles, we still live a lot closer to the primal realities of the human condition.  

And witch doctors are certainly cheaper than psychiatrists.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Bit of Mahler

Would like to share with my friends the finale of Mahler 9 ... not because it's the most technically polished performance of all time ... but because an incredible passion and spirituality was generated that evening.    I hope you enjoy this.  I used a baton last used by Leonard Bernstein in 1989 to conduct this same symphony, which was presented to me by Stan Gayuski of the New York Chapter of the International Mahler Society.  It was wonderful to feel so connected to the person whose interpretation of this symphony was so important to me in my youth.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Murdering Mahler

So, today, Friday, is a day without a Mahler rehearsal, but I am so physically and emotionally drained that the day is a blur.  And I fall asleep at around 8 pm.  Now, three hours later, I've woken up from another wild dream.

So in this dream, I'm a photographer and I've been assigned to take pictures of a very impressive wine glass collection in a huge contemporary-style house.  The collection is all in one room, a huge dining room (although the dining table, later on, feels kind of like a morgue table).  First, I order all the lights in the house shut off so that I can control the lighting in the dining room better.  The wineglasses are in lovely glass shelves and it's my intention to take some of the standing lamps in the room and direct them so they can pick up the richness of the wineglasses' colors and textures.

But no matter which lamps I set, the room is too dark.  There must be something wrong with the lamps.  None of the lamps is bright enough.  I call for help, for more light bulbs.  All sorts of people are coming into the room now. piling boxes of light bulbs on the table.  The dining table that is ... or is it the morgue table?

None of the bulbs is any good.  Someone says ... Look, a German bulb!  It's a small thing with a black socket and a different kind of screw that won't fit into a standard lamp.  I pick it up and Curt Ayers III, a Southern gentleman who is a member of the Orpheus Choir of Bangkok, says, "Oh, ah think ah'll take that if y'all don't mind." 

Holding the bulb in my hand I have a flashback ... I murdered someone in this very room ... a bald German gentleman.   I am tormented by guilt.  Then the dead person rears up.  His bald head bears a scar from having been stitched back together ... post autopsy, perhaps.  I start screaming, "I've murdered Mahler!"

Only as I wake up do I realize that this bald fat elderly corpse couldn't possibly be Mahler.  It's Bruckner.


Is Bruckner's ghost telling me I better do his Ninth symphony as well?  This call for more and more light ... is it a remembrance of Goethe's last words — "Mehr licht!" ?? 

Obviously anxiety has something to do with this dream, but is there something else?  I didn't notice any Giacometti sculptures skulking about....