Sunday, September 30, 2007

Never Enough Fame

As if my recent "coronation" at the iTunes store were not enough ... you may recall they now have me down as one of the 25 "non-Western" classical composers no collection can be without ... the inimitable Peter Young has elevated this humble blogger to another High Honour: selected the photo you see above to be an upcoming "Science Fiction Picture of the Day" (

What more can a Two-Time Hugo Loser hope to gain in life?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Prisoners of the Air

When one is in the airport in Thailand, one is often faced with the dilemma of what to read on whatever flight one is about to take. Suvarnabhumi Airport's bookstores are particularly unexciting, but even at the old Don Muang the choice was pretty stupefying. But I fly out of Bangkok so frequently now that I have been forced to read much that I would never normally read. One of the genres that is most powerfully represented at the Bangkok airports is the "I was an Inmate of Thailand's Mediaeval Prison System" genre. There is always a large selection of titles in this genre on display at the airport. Occasionally, there are even copies of the same book with different titles, presumably to tempt you into reading the same book on your next flight because presumably you have completely forgotten it the first time round.

Because I find the genre of the seedy old caucasian among the girls of Patpong to be an even less entertaining choice of reading material, I have found myself being forced to read a number of these prison books and I have found them to fall into a very pat formula. First the ingenuous farang commits some crime such as drug smuggling, little realizing that he might get caught. He is then sentenced to some gargantuan prison sentence, where he is beaten, sent to the hole, raped, eats cockroaches, and so on, for a while. At some point, he learns the meaning of life. Finally, either through a royal amnesty, or through various efforts on the home front, he returns to his home country, swearing to write a book so that everyone will know better than to strap that pound of heroin to his corset on his way out of the land of smiles. (There's even one about a white woman in a Lao prison.)

They're actually quite enjoyable, these books; they follow a certain redemptive formula that delivers a satisfying ending in spite of being almost uniformly atrociously written. Mostly, they give a rather bad impression of Thailand, which is why their airport ubiquity surprises me a bit. One of the ones I read last year had the prisoner serve the rest of his sentence back home in England ... and this author's conclusion was that a Thai jail was a lot more fun, even with the beatings and cockroach curries!

So I was somewhat surprised to find, this evening, on my way to Singapore to interview some valkyries, a new book being displayed ... something called "Inside", all about the hideousness of American prisons! And having spent two hours on Jetstar flight 3K514 in the company of the denizens of America's finest penitentiaries, I must conclude that we in Thailand have a lot to learn from the First World about cruelty, dehumanization, and anal intercourse, not to mention how to conceal weapons in tubes of toothpaste and hide them in ones rectal passage. Luckily, Jetstar doesn't serve food (unless you pay) so when my gorge rose, the contents of my stomach were too slight for a reenactment of The Exorcist.

I can usually finish an entire book on the Bangkok-Singapore trip (it's about 2 1/2 hours, as long as Das Rheingold) but the pilot got there 20 minutes early, so luckily I don't actually have to finish this one.

Tomorrow, I'll report on my meeting with three Chinese Valkyries. That's why I popped down to Singapore today, to hand them their music.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Singapore Slang

So, tonight, I finally saw this play which has the improbable title of "The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ". I don't know if it was a good idea to sleep through (and therefore miss) the opening night ... but tonight had the added bonus of being the director's birthday, so Trisdee and I managed to get in, somehow, on the champagne and cake after the show.

Eleanor Wong's play is simply one of the best new plays I've seen in a decade. I'm just in awe of this woman's command of her craft.

It's, I suppose, a sort of political satire. Structurally, it's almost an identical twin of Joe Di Stefano's screenplay for Pyscho, indeed it's the only theatrical work I know of that has this structure. But of course it's all put to a completely different use. In fact, only a collector of paradigms such as myself could ever leap to such a bizarre connection, but amazingly, the paradigm fits.

By the Psycho structure, I mean that the person set up as the protagonist, and with whom all our sympathy is engaged, gets shockingly killed off at the exact midpoint in the play, and the second half introduces a completely different central character who spends the second hour unravelling the mystery of what happened in the first act. It's a daring conceit. It shouldn't come off, but improbably, it works brilliantly. The first half, played for laughs, deceives us completely; in the second half, the laughs come just as thick and fast, but because the hero has been killed in the first act, we aren't so easily deceived; indeed, we are quickly drawn into a labyrinth of paranoia and suspicion which has all been elegantly set up in the first half.

Lots of things were impressive ... the fact that two people played a dozen roles, in a bewildering array of accents, age groups, and personality types ... Brian Tan's very cunning little cinema montages between each scene ... (I met this Brian guy at the party afterwards, and I thought he was some 15 year old kid, was startled to see him drinking ... boy did I feel stupid when he said to me, "Actually, I'm very old" … you cannot tell with Asians, even if you are one yourself!)

But what particularly engages my attention is that this play which starts as a joke and escalates into a searing indictment of the Singapore government's Machiavellian cynicism, callousness and venality, has been produced in a country which, in theory, is far more repressive than Thailand … funded in part by the very government it chillingly satirizes.

As everyone (who is anyone, at least!) knows, I had my own brush with the censors last year. But this was nothing like a formalized censorship system; it seems to have been a haphazard thing, perhaps even a personal vendetta, and despite the various threats, I was not dragged off to the Gulag in the middle of the premiere. I wrote a highly public letter of protest to the prime minister, and no one hauled me off to a firing squad.

And yet, I don't think a play such as the one I just saw would be put on in Thailand, paid for with public money, and performed in a national cultural institution. Thailand has had numerous scandals, sweepings under carpets, corruption within corruption scenarios and whatnot, but we don't wash our laundry in public with the obvious glee that these Singaporeans are now doing. They are just having a great time pointing out their own foibles and at the same time not having some huge complex about having foibles ... and this seems to be the one thing that Thai society doesn't yet do well ... this ironic detachment thing. There's still too much terror of looking like a fool. But we are all fools. That's the human condition, isn't it?

So, Ivan Heng and I will definitely do an opera together, and it will be High Camp. I will not reveal the subject until it is set in stone but I guarantee that my science fiction readers are going to cream.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

One Fine Day Indeed

Oh, and here's the "Un bel di" clip from our production of "Madama Butterfly"

Dreaming with a Forked Tongue

I'm in Singapore and I completely slept through the play I came to see. Not exactly the fault of Ivan Heng, my favorite Singapore director; it was not the play itself that put me to sleep, rather my own insane schedule and bizarre sleep deprived lifestyle. You see, in order to catch the early morning flight, I thought I'd just stay up an hour or two longer than usual, get to Singapore, take a brief nap then go to the theatre. The beds at the Hilton must be extra comfortable, because I didn't wake up until the play was over, and found a rude note from SISTIC (the Singaporean equivalent of Ticketmaster) informing me that I couldn't get my money back.

Well, the play is completely sold out (it's a Singaporean political satire) but, as it happens, I do know the director, so UNLESS I happen to fall asleep again, I think I shall get to see the play this evening....

But I digress. Having slept a lot, and at odd times, I have a peculiar dream to add to my dream diary. I woke up today from a very strange dream indeed. It was set in an idyllic country landscape, perhaps New England, lush, with lovely country roads. I was making a film or something because there was a set, but I had decided to take a little time off, and I was driving around. The roads formed a series of very big squares (almost as though they were created in a program like SIM CITY) and for some reason I decided to make a left turn that was earlier than my destination.

The reason is that I saw some Iroquois warriors standing by the road and I slowed down to look at them.

When I turned I was in an Indian village and a man with long hair, very much like someone you might run into in the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, came up to my car. He wore a blue denim shirt and had a headband. He had a young daughter. He said to me that he was going to be my guide.

It was a village of thatched houses, more like some African kraal than a village in the plains states.

My guide began speaking to me in Lakota. I was surprised because I had thought this was going to be a Mohawk or Iroquois village (the warrior I had seen from the road was definitely NOT a Plains Indian.) I knew it was Lakota because I can understand a lot of Lakota words and though I didn't grasp the sentences, I could pick out words like "oyate kin" (the people) and "akichita" (warrior) and so on. The girl said, in English, "I will be your translator. He is going to show you around the village."

But the first house we come to is more like something in colonial Williamsburg or rural Pennsylvania. There's a regular concrete pavement next to it. I go in and see typical Americana: quiltwork, a dark wood rocking chair, and so on. The guide explains things and the girl translates.

I say to her (thinking on the Iroquois brave I saw earlier) "I didn't think you people were Lakota."

"Well actually, we're not," she tells me. "We're English."

"That's funny," I said. "So am I."

And then I wake up....


What does this tell me about my identity crisis? I wasn't English last time I looked. But, according to my mother, when I was two, I used to think I was English. I used to say to people in my piping little voice: "I'm English — you — foreigner!"


Monday, September 10, 2007


Two reviews in the local paper of Butterfly so far. Night and day. One of them, very knowledgeable, accurate, insightful, perhaps expecting a bit too much, but not unfair; the other a huge rave which of course I love, but perhaps a bit over the top ... it was once the case that whenever I performed here, the review, if there was one at all, was mostly about what some Khunying was wearing, but it must now be said, I think, that for the first time in many years there are reviewers who know what they're talking about. Or at least have a vague idea. At least they're not only talking about the size of khunying so and so's pearls.

All the "wannabes" must be quaking in their boots.

Now, I am in Singapore, having paid big bucks to get the best seats for the opening night of Ivan Heng's new play. Horribly enough, I had to stay up all night to catch the morning flight to SIngapore. So when I got to the Hilton I decided to take a little nap ... and missed the play! Oh well, I will go tomorrow. I know that opening nights are always full of glitches. I know this from experience ... don't we all?

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Yes! Canonized by iTunes!

Awards are all very well ... even the notoriety of having the Thai authories attempt to censor me is all very well ... but let's face it, real fame only comes from iTunes.

Which is why I was jolly pleased to discover that the iTunes shop has put a series of albums called "Essentials" ... collections of pieces considered vital to an understanding of every genre. The collections come in four sections: "The basics", which is 25 pieces of music you absolutely MUST have; and then there's "next step", an unjustly neglected section, and so on. So one of the essentials collections is called "Classical World" ... the non-Eurocentric classical music collection. And right there, in "the basics" along with people I have heard of, like Ravi Shankar, Takemitsu, et al, there's an aria from "Madana," an opera composed by "Modesty Prevents Me." So it seems that iTunes has magically determined I'm one of the 25 must-have "world classical" composers.

Of course, no one in Thailand will ever be aware of this because the iTunes store, the world's bestselling source of digital music and so on ... is inaccessible to people with Thai addresses. Too much credit card fraud or something. It's only because my credit card is on my L.A. address that I happened to run into this ... so once again, absolutely no impact on my Life as a Dog.

Perhaps I should add that during the Thailand ban on Youtube, which lasted 3 or 4 months, the Bangkok Opera's Youtube channel was visited almost 400,000 times. Not, of course, by any of the law-abiding Thai citizens who wouldn't dream of flouting a ban from our beloved military authorities ... so, it must have been those pesky foreigners ... when will they ever learn ... oh, whoops, I forgot, I'm a pesky foreigner myself ... where did I hide that U.S. passport? Better not tell iTunes or I'll be kicked off the "essential non-Western western music composer" list.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Spinning Ball of Our Existence

The spinning ball of death is a feature of the Mac ... though perhaps not one that Apple publicizes too much. It comes up when something is wrong. It spins and spins and drives you to the brink of madness. You can do nothing. It is a metaphor for the futility of our existence, and for the world itself (because as it spins and spins it becomes your whole world) and in general it is the most frustrating thing in the universe, especially as it seems that I will now have to spend at least a WEEK moving files by hand from one computer to another. Unfortunately, my Angel of OS X, Ryan Stern, is about 12,000 miles away right now, so I shall have to try to deal with this alone.

I do have a wonderful new computer. It's just that I'm migrating the data from a self-destructing hard drive, the equivalent of transferring cargo from a sinking frigate to a huge modern liner with only a leaky rowboat to ferry me forth between the two. (My nautical similes have never been accurate ... in fact, the last time I was on a boat was in 1983, and I puked over the side ... on the way to Tiberius's enchanted grotto on Capri....)

When the horror is all over, I shall be able to do splendid things. But not today.

I hope you are enjoying the couple of preview clips of the "Butterfly" video that I have been posting. There won't be any more until the computer troubles are over.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Sneak Preview of the Bangkok Butterfly video

"Madama Butterfly" - Love Duet from Bangkok

Israel Lozano and Nancy Yuen in this (unedited, sound not yet fixed, etc.) excerpt from the Bangkok Opera's rather sizzling "Butterfly" last week...

Sound distorts and isn't mixed, but I wanted to share a glimpse of this production with those who couldn't be there ...

Want to share a letter from a normally very discriminating and picky operagoer....

Your production of Butterfly was exquisite. I've seen it at the Met
and at Covent Garden with far grander productions and, honestly, I found
this much more touching and beautiful.

What was so extraordinary was the simple, spare perfection of every
aspect. The production design was stunning, from the set itself, to
the inspired idea of the calligraphy, which I thought a series of
small masterpieces. The arrival on this minimal canvas of the maximal
chorus of spectacular kimonos, I almost cheered.

The end of Act 2 and the beginning of Act 3, of course is always an
art director's showpiece, always my favorite part of the opera,
musically, but I can't remember seeing it more evocatively,
impressionistically done, incredibly emotional in its muted way,
musically and visually.

The acting - always the veeeery weakest link in any opera - was
brilliant, actually convincing! Suzuki masterly, Sharpless peerless,
and the general blocking of the cast an extremely clever and
constantly inventive use of a perfectly lovely set. The dutch scrim, I
see, is working overtime.

The orchestra, you're right, must be kept together. You led it
beautifully, restrainedly. And the tenor - I forget his name - is
quite some find, no? An unsympathetic role made almost heroic by -
again - terrific acting, even more important, terrific INTERacting and
REacting. The stage direction really was superb all around.

I guess it's too much to hope that this creative team can be kept
together, but stage direction and production design of this level of
taste, understanding and interweaving is almost unique.

Many congratulations for putting it all and keeping it all together.

Well, I am trying to edit together a video from the two performances. More news on that soon.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Return of the Nightmares

Another post-Butterfly day has passed. It's taking a while to return to normal after what seems according to most people to have been a major triumph. Last night, my breathing problems seem to have come back in a big way, and I woke up three times, each time with a different nightmare lingering in the memory. Two of these dreams involved science fiction personalities with whom I haven't spoken in a decade: in one of them, I was frantically editing a novella by Beth Meacham (who was actually my editor back in the 80s) while in another, Harlan Ellison was trying to force-feed me a Caesar salad that was covered in huge mounds of extremely dry garlic.

Although it is true that I am turning back to SF, having just rejoined the SFWA and having originally planned to go to the worldcon in Tokyo (it didn't work out because Butterfly simply wore me out) ... I don't know why these two science fictional eminences would suddenly appear in my dreams ...

The other nightmare is perhaps more comprehensible. I enter a wooden room. It's a house on stilts, a big rectangular room with a side entry to some kind of covered veranda or music room (this is I think, the exact same house as in my dream of 25 years ago about the woman in red and the ape, but more of that later). As in that previous dream, I have escaped from something and I'm hiding in the house. Carefully I seal off the veranda room and lock the front doors. The back is a sliding glass door, or a French door, that overlooks some kind of jungle or dense foliage sort of landscape. Ascertaining that I am perfectly safe, I sit back on the sofa. Suddenly, a huge, feather-headband-sporting native American bursts through the glass door -- which has never been closed at all -- brandishing a weapon which is a huge staff made of green sugar cane (or bamboo!) So, this creature chases me to the bed, wildly waving the sugar cane.

I fall back and I look up. This seems to be the bottom bunk of a double-bunker, one of those big wooden ones with a loft bed on top (or maybe the bottom is the sofa) ... but the thing is there is a big, shaggy brown teddy bear attached (maybe nailed) to the planks of the upper bunk, so it's hanging above me, and the teddy bear turns around and it's only got one eye (or one button where an eye should be...)

Is this scary or what?

Now this week, I have to turn my thoughts to my own physical survival, having let myself get torn apart a bit over the opera. But the odd thing is, I didn't really feel sick during the opera, even with occasionally conducting for nine hours. Maybe I don't really need to be attached to breathing machines ... I just need to be working on real creative stuff ... who knows?

However, there won't be much opera this month. For one thing, I've a soundtrack and a trilogy to write and for another, I am giving my first ever piano recital in my life since being thoroughly beaten by Jeremy Menuhin in a piano competition when I was 13. (His fingers moved so fast, they literally blurred.) What am I playing in the recital? The entire recital will consist of music by John Cage. Yes, I'm even playing the 4'33" of silence ... and I'm gonng play that piece from the music, so everyone will know I'm not cheating. I bought the score. It cost me $9.95 and consists entirely of the instructions....

More on this, and other matters, after I figure out why I can't get to sleep anymore....