Friday, July 27, 2007

Notes from Limbo

In Limbo? What does that mean exactly?

It means I'm vaguely ill all the time, but I think I shouldn't be, and act like I'm not, so people continually expect me to do the same things I've always done, which stretches out the length of time it takes to recover....

Meanwhile, we're having very fruitful days, in some ways. The Butterfly production is cast ... I mean the comprimario roles, because we always had the larger roles cast ... and a lot of interesting people are making their solo debuts with us. For instance, Bangkok's well known "singing policeman" is making his Bangkok Opera debut in the role of Yamadori; it's a good role for him. The office was a-bustle with production and excitement and it felt almost like old times. And at the chorus rehearsal on Thursday, many gorgeous sounds were elicited from the chorus, especially the women.

After we didn't hear back from Yun Deng, the Met's Suzuki for many years, I contacted my dear friend Grace Echauri, upon which Yun Deng managed to resurface on the immense ocean of the internet. Either way this would be a dream cast for Madama Butterfly, and so it's all very exciting.

I've been waiting with bated breath to see what my agent thinks of my new trilogy. To my delight and relief she seems to think it's good enough to ship out to several major houses this week, so it's possible that my career in the fantasy world is about to be relaunched; that would certainly be a thrill. At the same time, I also do appear to be working on two very different movie soundtracks from Hollywood, and the two films could not be more different from each other. Creatively there is a sense of great renewal here, despite some hideous bouts of sleeplessness and a feeling of mounting dread.

The latter, of course, comes from the knowledge that this idyllic period of inner renewal is about to end and I'm about to be thrust once more into the dog-eat-dog arena that is Thailand's classical music scene. I know I haven't fully obeyed my doctors, but I don't see what else I can do at this point. And I HAVE lost weight; this morning I was down to 98.4 kg, still at least 20 too much, but it does mean I have lost close to 10 lbs over the last few months. (If I use kg for the weight itself, and lbs for the weight loss, the numbers seem far more encouraging.)

I haven't had an "apocalyptic dream" in a week. No encounters with Ganesha, holy children, or anything like that. So I *am* getting better. Once I get a breathing machine that doesn't frighten me, I'll probably be getting better a lot faster.

Is my newfound creativity going to doom the opera company? I continue to hope that, with the delegation of most of the opera's functions, I will be able to coexist with myself in the long run.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Trading Visions

Yesterday I staggered away from the quagmire of the Bangkok Opera Admin to spend a few hours at Narong's Composers' Festival. I intended it to be a quick in-and-out because I was barely awake even before I left, but it ended up as a rather inspiring experience. Although there was hardly anyone there, they were the right people.

It seems that people never tire of my geriatric war stories about the "bad old days" ... which, by the way, are also seen as a Golden Age by some! In fact, when I saw the Taiwanese composer Hsu Po-Yun last year, he said, "Oh, Asian composers these days ... it's hideous now ... it's all politics ... the old days were so exciting ... we were young, we were going to change the universe...."

So yes, I gave my little talk about all that, and then it came to talk about the present. So I did the whole spiel about how I've now become the Poster Boy for the "Oh, how dreadful music politics is in Thailand" chorus, and how this has been wildly backfiring on the "Let's Slander Somtow" crowd. People found all that quite entertaining. These war stories are entertaining, aren't they?

So last night, gave a smaller dinner to which Robert Markow came. He had actually flown into Bangkok to see my Wagner; when it was postponed, he decided to come anyway and hang out with friends. Catherine came, Anette Pollner came, and the amazing Kit Young, who is the legendary patron saint of classical music in Burma, popped in as well. It was quite a remarkable evening in which everyone was gossiped about, from the highest to the lowest.

In the two dinners, both with other composers and many visionaries present, I learned a lot about how other creative artists see the world. For instance, I learned that Bennet Lerner had, like me, had "aural hallucinations" in a Thai monastery while spending time as a Buddhist monk. His reaction to it was one of annoyance when his abbot told him that it was all maya, all illusion, and that he should dismiss it. I didn't tell my abbot about it, so perhaps I escaped with the idea that it could be a profoundly spiritual experience. I also met John, the composer who lives in Singapore and who is doing an opera about the creation of the State of Singapore. What a politically complex, not to mention dangerous, idea! We both traded stories about offending the censorious powers above and how to handle them....

I don't think I can anticipate much sleep until the weekend.

Monday, July 23, 2007


No, this is not my laundry list, but it might as well be. You can bid $9.50 for it on ebay by clicking right here.

Who in the world would think such a thing worth selling?

I mean, okay, if I were Maria Callas, or even a baseball star, but ...

I think that the oddest thing about this is that I haven't the faintest clue who it is addressed to, or what it is about. The handwriting is mine all right, and the address shows that it has a 1986 vintage. This means someone kept it for 21 years and decided it was worth something.

I wouldn't sell now if I were they. They should wait until I'm dead, or at least nearly so.

Or do they know something I don't????

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

My Own Private Wicker Man

H - E - L - P !!!!!!!!!!!
Yes, I'm sick. No, I'm still not sleeping.
The only time I can really sleep is when I'm out of the country!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Notes From An Undisclosed Location

Somtow with Cactus

Well here I am in the old "undisclosed location". Let me reveal the truth; it's Shanghai. I've fled here to the friendly old Holiday Inn in order to be in my room writing and sleeping. And indeed, I did sleep, all day today. I have to confess that I have had my second dream within a short period that contains the following elements: (a) a mysterious number (b) Harry Potter (c) one or more of my kids, godchildren, their friends, etc. (d) a theatre (b) death. If you check the archives, you'll see a description of the last one under the title "Seeing Dead People." And as you know, dead people and numbers in dreams, for Thais, means a winning lottery ticket. What a pity the last one didn't quite work out....

Now that my doc has informed me that these dreams occur at times when my breathing stops during REM sleep and that the ominous spectre of death is actually sort of real, I'm a lot less concerned about winning the lottery! Therefore, I will simply give out the numbers here; others can buy the lottery tickets and presumably win. Luckily, there are no malpractice suits for prophesying winning numbers ....

In the dream, I have acquired a huge number of tickets to a Harry Potter opening. There are more tickets than actual seats, but I donate them to a whole busload of kids including my own, their friends, and so on. The theatre is on a high floor of a building and is reached by an M.C. Escher-like network of staircases (a bit like the tower in Hitchcok's Vertigo). Lots of people have tickets, but our bus arrives quickly and our group is hustled up to the very front of the queue. Suddenly, however, I have to go to the toilet, or write my novel (I'm not sure which) and I run off with my laptop to a shed that could be an outhouse. I an sitting on a huge gray boulder with my laptop, writing away (or is it shitting?) when I realize I might miss the opening, so I run back to the big mass of interlocking staircases where I am now standing at the end of the line with the Headmaster of the Bangkok Patana School, who appears to be Andy Homden with a dash of Paul Beresford-Hill. They start counting off the available seats and they reach 601 (or 801). There is one left, and there's me and the headmaster. The headmaster says, no, no, you go. After all, you gave us the tickets. Just tell me one thing: Does he live or die? At the last minute, I decide to sacrifice my place in the line. I yell up the steps for someone named Bryan to drive my kid home later, and I get in my SUV and drive home alone....

The stairway might perhaps be the stairway to heaven, and my self-sacrifice seems to be yet another last-minute reprieve from death....

And I wake up. So, you lottery buyers, 601 or 801, and don't blame me if it's wrong.


What little I have seen of Shanghai from the hotel window reminds me of the planet Trantor in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series (of which the world of Coruscant in the Star Wars movies seems to be a very accurate rendition.)

Now, my excuse for coming here is that my old friend Hsu Po-Yun has invited me to the opening of the French musical "Le Petit Prince", so it is an excuse to see the splendid new theatre and concert hall here. Which is also quite science fictional in appearance. Inside, the walls seem to be composed of giant cocktail wieners. The concert hall is staggering, the opera house a little less so. The place is absolutely crammed and I realize that in Shanghai the people comingt to these classical music events act as though they're coming to a pop concert; and that's a level of enthusiasm we're missing in Bangkok.

Elsewhere there are many signs that the audience is relatively new to all this; people keep pouring in long after the show has started, chattering at he tops of their voices, and cell phones go off constantly. But there is no denying the sense of excitement that radiates from this audience.

The play itself? Well, I can't say I adore the music, and I don't think that Le Petit Prince can ever be played effectively by a grown woman. If you think of the huge effort the BBC put into finding the right little boy to play the stunning Rachel Portman operatic adaptation, which was quite brilliant, I don't see why a musical could merit any less of an effort. The world has changed and it's a lot harder to buy this particular illusion. However, the production value and effects were startling, the lighting was beautiful and the production clearly expensive.

I felt really tired afterwards, though, and had to run back to the hotel to sleep, avoiding all the partying, etc. that is normally required of visiting intendants.


Well, tomorrow I shall return to Bangkok and to the search for the perfect non-malfunctioning breathing machine.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Delusions and Revelations

For a person who's been ordered to do nothing at all by my doctors, I'm still not quite getting it, and I'm afraid I've had a couple of sort of off-days ... nothing like the huge collapse of last month, but just a general tiredness. I think it's because I've been too frightened to attach myself to the breathing machine since that scare I had the other day. So, once again, no matter how much sleep I think I'm getting, I haven't really slept. Certainly there's been the return of the apocalyptic nightmares ... last night, for instance, an asbolutely indescribable one in which I was being forced to serve the sliced-off feet and ears of a Jew to a dog on a staircase. I think this is one of those Joycean punning dreams about monotheism (dog, of course, being God backwards.) They might have been my own feet and ears, actually. Isaac Asimov once told me I was too intelligent not to be Jewish. (My Chinese friends also say this about me, substituting the word Chinese.) Seriously, though, the nightmare probably comes because I'm writing a short story about the Inquisition.

Trisdee gave a little house concert. It rained violently, and many people cancelled; we ended up with about fifteen people, but it was a gorgeous and moving evening. For me, the highlight of the concert was Trisdee's rendition of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy," which he played and sang himself. A grizzled veteran of the covert war became so overcome with emotion he had to leave the room. When he came back, he said "They were playing that in the bar when Vientiane fell." When he shared this, it was absolutely overwhelming for me, and it brought back memories of that LP (which I wore the grooves out of when I was a teenager.) He also played Bach and Beethoven superbly, but we expected that.

Then Trisdee played a song he had just written that morning called "No one's perfect but me" (my sentiments exactly).

The next day I really felt the effects of the sleep disorder pretty badly and I had to attend an opera admin meeting (because in order for the opera to run by itself, it has to first be told how). I barely survived it, and I missed an important reception at the British Embassy because I was feeling so hideous. But by about 9 pm, I was waking up, and a Dr. Klaus Billand, from Vienna, showed up to interview me about Wagner. Now there is a fan. "I've seen 65 productions of The Ring," he told me.

When I said to Trisdee later, "He's seen the Ring 65 times," he corrected me. "I've seen 65 different productions," he said. "Of course, I've seen the actual operas hundreds of times."

By then it was 11 pm and I was wide awake; there was a midnight show of Harry Potter 5, it was the opening night, so I thought, what the hell again, and Trisdee and I went to it, sitting in the ludicrously luxurious "Emperor Circle" for $8. (these chairs are like airplane first class chairs, and they serve you drinks at a little side table -- I explain this for my friends who aren't in Thailand, because unless you have actually been in one, you cannot imagine the luxury level of a premium seat in a Thai movie theatre. Comparing it to a tube theatre in an L.A. mall is like comparing a glass of Moet Chandon to a cup of Denny's coffee.)

I'm forced to confess I really liked this installment. It was, indeed, better than the rather rambling and shapeless book. I had sort of planned to take a nap at it (the luxury seats are like airplane first class). But I stayed awake all the way through it. This is a major compliment coming from my advanced state of ennui and my current illness.

And there it is, 24 hours in my doctor-imposed work-free life. I haven't used the machine yet since that night; I'm still nervous. My friend Bill lent me a battery thing that will kick in for 30 minutes. The trouble is, if the power snaps in this house, I have to physically reset the switch, so if Bill's machine kicks in, it will merely delay my demise for 30 minutes....

By the way, my most recent published story which came out a few days ago can be found here.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Mr. Croxford's Pronouncement

photograph: Somtow's muse deserts him....

At Eton, we had a teacher named Mr. Croxford. He was very bright, and very young, and was interested only in completing his novel, which undoubtedly is the reason he wanted to take a year off to teach; he must have thought it would give him time to write. He was too close to us in age to feel comfortable with discipline. I can't remember what period in history he was assigned to teach us, but it must have been monumentally boring. We liked him, I think; he was always easygoing.

Mr. Croxford said to me, "You are simply the laziest boy I have ever met." Oddly enough, I think he met it as a compliment. You see, it was perfectly obvious to him that I wasn't reading any of the books and was completely faking the essay tests, but he kept being forced to pass me because the essays' blandishments somehow managed to convince. He was obviously the only truly intelligent teacher I had that year, because he actually knew for a fact that I was lazy. I thought I had them all fooled.

Mr. Croxford's book came out and I ran out and bought a copy in Alden & Blackwell's. I thought about him today for the first time in forty years. I wanted to know what ever happened to his book. After all, any man perceptive enough to see through me must have been a brilliant writer. (I can't find the book; after many international moves, I don't know where it is.) He's not on google, and I can't find any mention of his name on, which lists every used book in every bookshop in pretty much the whole universe. He's in a black hole somewhere, which is wrong.

My doctors and my friends have accused me of not being lazy enough. On the surface, it looks like they're right — I'm about to hand in my 50th book and there are these piles of operas and such lying around my office — and I worked myself literally (almost) to death, it seems. My doctors, my family, and my friends are all forcing me to be as lazy as I can for a while.

In this state of enforced laziness, somehow the wellsprings of creativity have opened up (elsewhere I've mentioned that my seven year writer's block seems to have unblocked itself) and this means that, in this resting period, I seem to have handed in a novel that was two years late, sold two short stories to a U.S. magazine, submitted an 84 page proposal for a new trilogy to my agent, and started working on a film score for a friend in Hollywood.

Mr. Croxford must feel quite vindicated. Because you see, working your butt off does not in fact always produce the required result. Rather, sometimes, you have to just let go, completely, utterly, and fearlessly, and just believe that it will all come flowing through you from some deep place within.

To achieve true laziness is the supreme struggle, it seems. I don't know where you are now, Mr. Croxford, but I want you to know that your words are still resonating, almost half a century away.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Trisdee and Brendan

Trisdee and Brendan

Posted 1 Hour Ago

Trisdee and Brendan perform an Elton John song at a party at Somtow's house

If you happen to be looking at this in Facebook or some such, I think you have to click the link to actually see the video.

The View from Mars

I'm sitting here at 2 in the morning having an online convo with my nephew, Guy, whom I've never met. (That's not surprising since I've got over 100 of them, I think. Nephews I mean.) He's around 14 and our conversation is mostly monosyllabic (well, on his part ... I say a sentence and he says "Yeah".) But what is so cool about this conversation is that it takes place at approximately 10 minute intervals. In other words, it's a perfect simulation of what it would be like to converse with someone if I were on Mars, which is about 4 or 5 light-minutes away from Earth. I suppose one could use msn or something, but I'm rather enjoying pretending to be a Martian.

I really like talking to Guy, not just because it's very cool that he doesn't mind conversing with my geriatric self, but also because he goes to Eton. And even in the 21st century, it seems, there are things in the world that only other Etonians can comprehend. Recently read Nick Fraser's book about that. He speaks of being slapped around by a drunken Tony Trench and other sordid, faintly perverted things; I guess I wasn't important enough for such a privilege. Alas, he of the rasping voice and apelike appearance is no more and the current headmaster was actually at school with me; he's even a year younger, I think.

Earlier today we had a party to welcome Trisdee back and to send him off again, to which a magnificent total of eight people showed up; five more had come the previous night by a peculiar accident of temporal displacement. One person who came, to my surprise, was Brendan Schatzki, who played "Miles" in our production of "The Turn of the Screw" four years ago. He had just flown in from the States. He and Trisdee began singing Elton John songs together and eventually made a video of one which I intend to post here in a little while. It's awesome. Totally.

It's now four in the morning. I will try to sleep, but since the power went off for a moment an hour ago, I think I will avoid "the machine" tonight as well. As I start to sign off, I see that Aberrant Dreams, an online SF magazine, has published my first short story to appear in seven years. To read it, you should go here.... I have to tell you that this story is not the first fruits of my writer's block breaking, but a piece from just before the block happened; when it did happen, right after my sojourn as a Buddhist monk in late 2001 and 9/11, it was so sudden that there were stories on my hard drives I didn't even send out. While I was novelistically out of commission, the online magazine was born and so I suppose it's only fitting that I should first be resurrected in one.

The intrepid Dominic Sargent was at Trisdee's little hello-goodbye party earlier. He says he reads this blog quite often and it seems to appear so quickly that he wonders whether it doesn't appear before the events it describes. Well, he has of course cottoned on to my secret. I use a special ink that dries faster than light, so that the words appear the previous day. This FTL ink is available on ebay. Do you think I'm joking? You don't know ebay, then.

Friday, July 6, 2007

We Live and Die by Technology

Last night I had a near-death experience of a quite different stripe. Yes, this bizarre apparatus with its spaceman-like mask has been very effective, but in the middle of the night I suddenly had a dream of being in the coffin, being talked about by my friends, and being carried about in a funeral procession. So I wake up and I'm suffocating and clawing the air and I'm in complete darkness in a stifling room. Half conscious, I start to rip off the mask. It turns out there's been a power outage. The technology has stopped working. I sort of stagger out towards the fusebox and, working completely blind, I managed to flip the electricity back on. In a second, the airconditioning works again and a few dim lights come on and I can breathe.

Now this is genuinely frightening, because I had intended to take a sleeping pill. Had I done so, I might not have been able to wake up to reset the electricity. I might not have been able to rip off the mask, which, without the current of air, is a death mask. I might, indeed, actually be dead.

If I have to spend my nights attached to machinery, I think I had better look into some kind of electrical stabilizing device/battery backup sort of thing.

It's been quite a sobering morning.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The Rocky Road to Recovery

July 4 today ... my National Day! And one person, the intrepid Colonel Sinclair in Kentucky, my fellow Ky. Col., sent me a card? Were I in better shape I would go to the American community's big event, but instead I'm sitting here doing this blog.

The opera is chugging along without me, albeit a bit clunkily. This weekend I was getting a lot better; the weird breathing machine actually helps; I don't get tired during the day. Then, I suddenly found myself doing all sorts of opera work, like answering endless emails, over the weekend, and then I forgot to plug in the device so today I feel amazingly tired. Also, the weird, vivid dreams came back! That proves that when I stop breathing, that's when I'm getting these mystical visits from God. And I guess this all proves the machine works. Tomorrow, another trip to the hospital but whether I will be admitted for more medical experiments is a matter of some conjecture. Maybe they'll attempt the MRI again, using more drugs....

You'll see here a mockup poster for Butterfly; that's one of the things I ended up having to dash off in the middle of the night; I think that for the next week the opera is still going to be suddenly turning to me for something which should really be done by someone else but never has been ... but that can't be helped yet. In a sense, this illness is the best thing that happened to me and to the opera company itself.

Tomorrow, rehearsals for the chorus of "Butterfly" are already starting up with the resourceful Dominic Sargent at hand. Tomorrow, too, I return to the hospital, but hopefully not overnight. A few days ago, Trisdee returned from the Netherlands and has now learned to do an astonishing Elton John imitation. I can see now that my funeral requiem will be a lot more like Princess Diana's than I originally thought.

I'm preparing myself for attachment to the machine for the evening by reading The Gulag Archipelago. For some reason, despite being a literate person, I've managed to avoid the book so far. Right now I am reading all about Soviet interrogation techniques. Ouch! So, okay, I'm sorry I publicly accused the Ministry of Culture of being Stalinist when they tried to censor my opera. After all, theirs was not a carefully thought out campaign of terror, but merely the power grab of some bureaucrat who never thought it would actually backfire on the entire ministry... Besides, our government is gradually coming round to a proper idea of supporting the arts. It's growing pains, I suppose.

Now that I have packed off a proposal for a new fantasy trilogy to my agent, I have to consider carefully the idea of combining more closely the musical and literary sides of my life. They have always been quite distinct. Now, in the twilight of my existence on this earth, the barrier between them is crumbling. One symptom of this breakdown is, oddly enough, Facebook … I seem to be getting "added" by people from both my worlds. Inevitably, the worlds will leak.... Two days ago, I rejoined the SFWA after, I think, about a 20 year gap. Surprisingly, they still remembered me.…