Tuesday, October 30, 2007
It was a depressing day, but answers came to me in a dream. Oddly enough, it was someone else's dream.
A long time ago (it seems) I met a young composer in the interval at a concert. He was 15. He told me wanted to write music "when he grew up". I half-jokingly said, "So what've you composed?" He then started to pull bits of manuscript paper out of hit backpack. One of them was "a Chopin-sort of polonaise, only I used an Isaan melody". It was because this kid knew virtually nothing at the stage, and yet had already learned how to be playful with what he knew, that I realized the extent of his creativity. I had a dream a few days later; I dreamed I was teaching Trisdee to fly.
Recently, I was in great despair over my whole existence, as I frequently have been lately: in some ways, artistically in particular, things have never looked better, yet the (as it were) forces of evil seem to be growing in viciousness, and the forces of coincidence even more vicious than the deliberately evil; and on Wednesday, I set myself a deadline. If a dramatic breakthrough didn't happen, I was going to make some life-altering decisions, such as going back to writing full time and chucking the opera, or even changing course more radically.
Partly it was because a government agency had agreed to give us a large grant, but the actual cheque was stuck in red tape for months, causing me to have to borrow money from my friends to subsidize the opera, and if the red tape was not unravelled, I was going to end up selling flowers on the street; partly it's the long term malaise brought on by thousands of disinformative spam attacks that were made against me months ago, by my the onset of serious apnea, etc. etc. And the fact that my opera salary is four years in arrears and that everything I might otherwise do to actually earn a living is on hold, etc etc. Well, there it is, the normal roller coaster of an artist's existence, but at its very nadir.
A day before the deadline, Trisdee had a dream and he bust into my office to tell me this. He said, "You were sitting in a hotel lobby with a man in a dark suit." Then he said, "You have been searching for a lost pin. A package came for you. I handed you the package it had a brooch in the shape of wings. also some other things, cloth."
I thought back to my own dream six years before and I understood that the gift of flight is being returned to me. I had in fact been sitting in the lobby of the Sheraton with a man in black only that afternoon, a British impresario who runs an operatic tour company. (Trisdee is too young to know that in the 1960s, unaccompanied minors on planes got to visit the cockpit and always received a brooch in the shape of wings as a memento from the captain. There's too much fear in the air now for such beautiful moments.)
On the very day of the deadline, the government agency sent me a piece of paper guaranteeing that they would write the opera the cheque. That isn't the cheque itself, but it is a major breakthrough in the bureaucratic labyrinth. Perhaps, having spent the last seven years here showing young people how to fly, I will be allowed to fly myself, again, before it is too late.
Posted by Somtow at 6:57 PM
Here's a blurry pic from the party described in this blog a week or so ago ... Viscount Bangor, the inimitable Trisdee, Anette whose book "Bangkok Blondes" just came out, your humble narrator, best-selling biographer Sarah Bradford, banned filmmaker Ing K, Ambassadress Barrington of New Zealand, and David Giler, one of the "Tales from the Crypt" partners. Certainly a namedroppingworthy snapshot of a typical evening at my house ... nah, not really. Only 12.5% of the people depicted are in the Thailand Tatler Society 500. I'm a failure.
Posted by Somtow at 1:00 AM
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Many, many years ago, I sat down to write a funny guide to opera for the uninitiated which I was sure would be a big hit. As usually happens when I think of some sure-fire idea, nobody believes me, and it was a decade later before all those idiot's guides started coming out. And indeed I couldn't get anyone to publish it; the only person who wanted to do so was my friend (and father of my godson) Hank Stine, who was working for a New Age publisher at the time … but before he could do anything about it, he got sucked into the sex change world.
Recently I discovered part of the ms on an old hard drive and one of the chapters was an analysis of that great Chuck Jones cartoon, What's Opera, Doc? So, for those of you who simply have to know which Wagner opera is quoted from at every moment of this cartoon's soundtrack, I'm posting the chapter to this blog....
Now on to What’s Opera, Doc? in which the war between Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny — the timeless dance of the hunter and the prey — is transported into that most exotic of realms, the world of Wagner’s monumental four-opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung. The plot of this thing, pretty familiar to those who have read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, much of which is ripped off from Wagner’s masterpiece of teutonic overstatement, concerns a magic ring, dwarves, dragons, dumb jocks with big swords, and the like. It also features Wotan (the German name for the god Odin, familiar to all fans of Marvel Comics’ Mighty Thor series) a god whose career as Lord of Valhalla pretty much parallels the real-life career of President Richard Nixon.
I’m sure you’re all familiar with the Bugs Bunny cartoon version. You have all enjoyed Elmer Fudd’s rousing rendition of the “Kill the Wabbit” theme and been aroused by the spectacle of Bugs Bunny sliding down a horse’s steatopygous derrière whilst wearing a brass brasière.
But how many of you realize how many Wagnerian musical themes are used in this cartoon? How many understand the many levels of irony implicit in the musical subtext? After you have examined the chart which follows, I am sure you will be convinced that director Chuck Jones’s complexity of vision is every bit the equal of, say, Ingmar Bergman’s.
I don’t believe anyone has provided such a chart before, but here it is. What I’ve done is provide a key to every musical motif used in the cartoon, along with some notes which, I am sure, will be of great use to you should you find your self at a loss for words at one of the cocktail parties described in the preceding chapter
What’s Opera, Doc? — a listener’s guide. Each segment describes briefly what we see in the cartoon, then discusses the music that we hear accompanying the visuals.
(1) Opening Credits
Orchestra tuning up.
Trombone solo: Flying Dutchman theme
Clarinet solo: Venusberg Music from
Trumpet solo: Valkyrie Theme from The Ring
(2) Thunder and Wild Weather
Flying Dutchman theme — climaxes in huge chords which are a theme from The Ring that represents, believe it or not, bondage
(3) “Be vewwy vewwy quiet I’m hunting wabbit:
just singing — not a theme from The Ring
Elmer stalking Valkyrie theme played by a muted trumpet accompanied by pizzicato strings
“Wabbit Twacks! Kill the Wabbit!”
Full blown Valkyrie theme as played inThe Ride of the Valkyries, Act III of Die Walküre
Brünnhilde’s War Cry, first heard in Act II of Die Walküre
(4) Bugs Bunny appears.
“O Mighty warrior of great fighting stock,
Might I inquire to ask, eh, What’s up, Doc?”
Siegfried’s Horn Call, first heard in the opera Siegfried, the third part of The Ring
(5) Elmer Fudd describes his Magic Helmet
What’s this? There is a magic helmet theme in The Ring, but for some reason it doesn’t appear at this juncture in the cartoon. Could Chuck Jones be telling us it’s the wrong magic helmet?
(6) Elmer Fudd demonstrates his Magic Helmet
We start off with a weird, distorted brass version of the Song of Woodbird theme from Siegfried, then we launch into a reprise of the Flying Dutchman theme. Of course, this theme doesn’t appear in The Ring, and it is perfectly okay for you to put on a huffy purist attitude at this point and become indignant at Mr. Jones’s ignorance.
(7) Elmer Fudd sees Bugs Bunny, attired as a woman, riding a horse. He thinks Bugs is the beautiful Valkyrie Brünnhilde.
The Pilgrim’s Chorus from the opera Tannhäuser is heard at this point. This is appropriate, since the pious Fudd, who has been doing his proper huntsman’s duty, is about to fall victim to his repressed libidinous desires.
(8) Bugs, still impersonating a female, leads Elmer on a wild goose chase. Both characters execute a number of tricky ballet steps, such as the fiendishly difficult fouetté and arabesque.
The Venusberg music from Tannhäuser. Wildly appropriate. This ballet music was added to the opera Tannhäuser to appease a Paris audience’s demand for a ballet in every opera’s second act. The crowd rioted when the ballet appeared the the wrong Act. Wagner never went down well with the French after that. It is supposed to represent uninhibited and decadent sexual excess, and the spectacle of a little bald midget trying to get it on with a transvestite certain qualifies as sexual excess in my book.
(9) Love Duet
Ironically, we are back to the Pilgrim’s Crusader theme.
(10) Helmet falls off — Bugs Bunny’s gender deception is revealed
Falling scale theme — could be a reference to the theme of Wotan’s spear in The Ring. The spear represents the sacredness of pacts and treaties and the fact that we hear it here could imply the breaking off of the relationship between Elmer and Bugs due to Bugs’s abrupt gender reversal.
(11) “Kill the Wabbit” A reprise of the Valkyrie theme.
(12) Bugs Bunny’s Death
Once more, a return to the Pilgrim’s Chorus. Elmer Fudd’s tragic repentance at his thoughtless slaying of Bugs Bunny is quite touching. One recalls that in the Ring cycle it is rather the opposite that takes place — the beautiful Brünnhilde, in a fit of jealous pique, causes the tragic death of Siegfried. The gender reversal is followed by a rôle reversal. Fairy, fairy interestink!
Now it can clearly be seen from all this that What’s Opera, Doc doesn’t just condense everything in the fifteen-hour Ring Cycle into a mere seven minutes.. A lot of other Wagner operas are referred to as well, often with an irony that demands considerable knowledge on the part of the audience. Tannhäuser and The Flying Dutchman are Wagner operas that bear no thematic relation to The Ring of the Nibelung, but Chuck Jones has managed to tie them all in anyway.
Posted by Somtow at 4:50 PM
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
The smiling young man you see in the upper left hand corner of today's blog is Dichpong, a gentle viola player who has been in my orchestra for years. Everyone liked him. He never had a bad thing to say, never lost his temper, never complained, and even a day or two ago he and his friends were merrily chatting away on msn. Now, he has apparently committed suicide.
I'm very bummed out about this. I mean, it would be different if I dropped dead. I've already had time to dash off a few books and operas. I'm angry with myself for not magically being able to fix it.
Then again, I suppose I might drop dead. My new breathing machine, being shipped in from Europe, is stuck in customs....
Posted by Somtow at 4:10 PM
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Unlike most of my readers, I do actually know God. We were at Eton together. I'm referring of course to His Imperial Highness Crown Prince Zere-Yacob of Ethiopia, who would be emperor if there were still an emperor, and, at least according to some Rastas, has inherited his grandfather's divinitas as well the imperium. I haven't seen him for something like forty years, but I particularly remember that once, the owner of a small grocery store nicknamed "Tudor Hole" on the Eton High Street invited us both to tea, because we were at that exact time the only two foreigners in the entire school. At least, the only two people who weren't white. He was a charming, slightly chubby boy. Perhaps he was as weirded out by the tea party as I was. Still, I think we liked each other.
I found myself thinking about him again last night. I don't know why, really; perhaps it was from a desperation born of having so much to do one just wants to procrastinate everything. But in the twenty-first century one can always google, so I decided to start hunting down my erstwhile schoolmate, post-apotheosis. I soon stumbled on an Imperial Ethiopian College of Heraldry (which was a bit of surprise — I hadn't realized that Ethiopia went in for any of that mediaeval pageantry) — operating out of Maryland! — and learned of many fascinating things, including the (alleged) fact that HIH had founded a knightly order which foreigners could join if they did something for Ethiopia. A few mouse-clicks later, I landed on the home page of some American guy who was an actual member of this order, and who revealed that "doing something for Ethiopia" was only to the tune of a $500 "passage fee" followed by an annual "oblation" of $250. Now at first it might seem outlandish that a knighthood could be purchased so cheaply, but then I got to thinking how many starving third world families $500 could actually save from death and I thought to myself, why not? If you rescue lives at the cost of puffing up someone's vanity, why not?
After all, I reflected, there are dozens of purveyors of titles on the web, offering duchies for dough, and this looked like something real that would actually benefit a country that needs help.
So I thought to myself (at 3 am), I mean, hey, why not. I'll bite. Then I started clicking around so more, to see where the money should actually be sent to ....
It was this point in my internet stalking that I came across a bitter online feud and the pointed use of the word "allegedly" to describe this too-good-to-be-true order. Someone said they had gone to see His Imperial Highness personally in Ethiopia, and the prince apparently didn't realize half of what had been going on in his imperial name. Bummer!
Well, I've often dreamed of visiting Ethiopia, so perhaps one day I will be able to call on the divine one himself, who, I am sure, has completely forgotten me. After all, he's had dynastic upheavals and revolutions to deal with. But if not that precise god, there's always James Earl Jones dressed as a giant bug, playing an Ethiopian Locust God in Exorcist II - The Heretic.
Posted by Somtow at 6:28 PM
Sunday, October 21, 2007
Ah, the revelation that shook the world, right up there with Watergate and President Clinton's disappearing cigar! And to think I was blithely sitting around composing operas when this epiphany seized the world's imagination! Well, although J.K. goes up in one's estimation for (a) the brilliant media savvy of dropping the right bombshell at the right time and (b) the nature of the bombshell itself ... I am a bit disappointed that this subtext was not made explicit enough for such unperspicacious literateurs as myself ... if *I* couldn't see it crystal-clearly ... there goes the chance of any sexually confused 11-year-old finding a decent role model....
Much of my news now comes through the distorting lens of Trisdee. He follows the news much more than I do these days. He told me not only about this, but about Mr. Ahmadinejad's dramatic announcement, also at some huge public do, also, paradoxically, in that fairyland we call New York, that there are no homosexuals in Iran. Makes you think, doesn't it? After all, the greatest glory of Persian literature is the ghazal, a kind of lyric love poetry from the mediaeval period, traditionally addressed to young men, especially cupbearers. (Oh, but there's no alcohol there either, I forgot.) These poems influenced the west: Goethe did a whole bunch of "remakes" in German, even retaining their sexually off-color content!
I know that Thomas Jefferson thought we should have a revolution every ten years, but I don't think he meant we had to sweep away all the great art and culture of the past! We can only learn from the past if we know what the past contains. Historical revisionism is always a disaster — for a country, for a society, and for the individual.
But, as I said in my last post, our self-appointed "advanced civilization" shouldn't be so smug. I read in some magazine that Ken Burns made his WWII documentary because he discovered that 90% of American kids he talked to thought the U.S. and Germany were allies in WWII against the Russians. I myself have asked a dozen kids here in Thailand if they knew whether Thailand won or lost the Second World War. None of them got the right answer.
But as for Dumbledore ... actually, it's a good thing J.K. didn't tell the reader, or the screenwriters, in advance. Especially the latter. They might have started writing in "stereotypical" behavior for our favorite wizard queen.
Now, here's the thing. At some stage, I'm going to have to give a speech in New York. Haven't done it for years; gave one at the Asia Society in the 1970s, gave a few talks at science fiction conventions, I think I even spoke at a CUSFS (the Columbia University Science Fiction Society) meeting once ... 25 years ago or more! But after Rowling and Ahmadinejad's dramatic pronouncements, what bombshell is there left to drop?
I know. I'll tell them I'm actually Jane Austen.
Friday, October 19, 2007
I recently stumbled upon a blogger's review of Moon Dance, one of my most popular books. It's a book that took six years to write and of which one Amazon reviewer said: One hundred years from now, this will probably be regarded as THE werewolf novel, the one by which all others will be judged. A classic on a par with "Dracula" or "Frankenstein", but far deeper and darker than anything a celebrated 19th century "horror" writer could have spawned. It's won all sorts of awards and things, but this blog isn't really particularly about blowing my own horn. Let me tell you what Mr Martes says on his blog:
Descriptions of pretty much every deviant sex act, lots of bodily waste and urination, misogyny, anti-white racism, young boys, you name it. This is the type of book that makes you want to wash your eyes out with soap after reading it, written by a guy who's not afraid to wear his kinks on his sleeve. I've read my share of dirty books, and this book is more vomit-inducing than titilating.
What I'd like to talk about is this interesting clause: a guy who's not afraid to wear his kinks on his sleeve. Because I think it points out an interesting problem that every writer has from time to time: the confusion that many readers have between fiction and reality.
My friend, the tenor Todd Geer, told me that when he does the role of Pinkerton in the United States, audiences boo at the end because in Madama Butterfly, Pinkerton is such a cad. Todd, however, isn't a cad. Why should he get booed? He must have done a brilliant job, to convince all those sophisticated opera goers that he actually is that two-timing S.O.B.
Moon Dance is a historical novel set in a time of hideous atrocities and staggering beauty. It's also about werewolves, and once I had decided my werewolves were going to really be wolves, and started studying how wolves behave in the wild, I realized these human-seeming creatures would have to go around marking their territory, sniffing each other's butts, and generally exhibiting canine social behaviors. However, I am not, myself, a werewolf. It's also a Victorian novel, set in a time where there was a huge gulf between publicly avowed morality and people's real behavior, where a proper woman might faint at the immorality of an exposed chairleg while her husband cheerfully copulated with ten year old prostitutes in alleys. However, I have neither fainted at a chairleg nor pursued jailbait in alleys. A woman friend of mine who read this book appeared on a panel at a science fiction convention, and told an enthralled crowd that a sex scene written from a female point of view in this novel had been so accurately visualized that she, a woman, had been able to use it as material for ... but I digress. Despite this, I have never actually been a woman. An acquaintance who used to have multiple personality disorder and who had successfully integrated her personalities with the help of her shrink told me that she was truly able to identify with the multiple personality kid who is a major character in the book and that I had managed to figure out "what it really feels like." I am not, however, a multiple personality.
There's a lot of kinky sex and excruciating violence in the book, but in the end, its subject is compassion and healing. Most readers figure this out, but not all; the book makes a lot of demands.
Reading this review, in which the reader had confused me with the characters in the book, made me feel a lot less complacent about the recent Kite Runner flap.
I read the book years ago, found it very moving, was excited to know that a film is about to be released. Then I saw in the news that certain, ah, unsophisticated Afghanis might think the movie was real. That the actors who so tellingly portrayed these fictional characters might be in real physical danger because of the cultural undertones of what happened to them in the film. All the news reports have been, I suppose, a little bemused that people in this day and age can mistake fiction for reality. There's been a lot of talk about how backward these benighted folks must be to actually believe a movie.
We "sivilized" types think we know better. But do we? And in fact, shouldn't a work of art draw us in so much that we do in fact believe? Shouldn't we be a little envious of those for whom the magic of storytelling is still magic? Can't we still believe in transubstantiation despite the law of conservation of matter?
I realize now that Mr Martes' reaction to my book isn't that far removed from the reaction of our Pashtun friend who may never have seen a movie before. He too thinks it is real and ... in the final analysis ... I have to take his ad hominem interpretation of my book as a kind of compliment. Like the booing of Mr. Geer.
A work of art, you see, has an existence quite independent of its creator. And when you look into such a work, it is always a mirror. It always yourself that you see in it ... not the author of the work. My lady friend, my multiple personality friend, and many others saw something of their own selves in my book. And they weren't ashamed of the self that they saw. But perhaps the self that Mr. Martes saw reflected in my book was a much darker one than he dared to admit to himself. For all his protestations, Mr. Martes insists that he read the book from cover to cover, leading me to suspect that he may have enjoyed some its "dirty bits" even though he may have hated himself in the morning. Perhaps he always had such fantasies of kinky sex and violence, but as long as he never saw them written out, he would never have to confront them. And perhaps if he did confront them, he could have more compassion for himself, and could even start to heal.
Of course, now I am psychoanalyzing this person I've never met, but as we say in kindergarten, He started it.
In my life I've had the privilege of meeting pretty much every living horror writer, from Stephen King to Dean Koontz to Ramsey Campbell and so on. Many, like the late Robert Bloch, became very close friends. And I will say this about horror writers: as a group, they are the sanest, happiest, least screwed-up humans I know. I think it's because they spend a lot of time in front of that mirror, and they've stared their way through all the dark parts, and they've seen at least a glimmer of light on the other side.
Yes! I finally have the highest position among all my Zombie companions on Facebook! Indeed, today I was elevated to the rank of Stealth Zombie, and am therefore the Highest Zombie yet known unto Myself. And yet ... what is this quintessence of dust?
On a more serious note, I was a guest at the annual SEA Write Awards a couple of days ago. This is only my second visit to the awards, and the first time where I didn't actually have to do anything, because last year I gave this rather provocative speech there. One only is allowed to give such a speech once in one's life, but at least I've done one thing James Michener and Gore Vidal have done, that is speak at SEA Write.
The occasion was a bit odd. The guest speaker was Sarah Bradford, The Viscountess Bangor, author of monumentally successful biographies, mostly of major female figures from Lucretia Borgia to Princess Diana (and a male or two like George VI). She spoke very well and told many interesting anecdotes (those who have watched CNN might have heard some of them before, but I certainly had not.) And yet, Lady Bangor did say something at the very beginning which gave me pause; she said she had prepared some remarks about the nature of fiction and biography, and that the organizers had instead asked her to do "the Diana thing." It made me think that I missed a very penetrating "other speech" which, in some alternate universe, she might have given. After all, we're talking about one of the world's leading biographers, and she probably had great secrets to impart to other writers. As all such award dinners are, the sublime and the ridiculous walked arm-in-arm all night. Legendary hotelier Kurt Wachtveil's revelations about the Wales's sex lives whilst staying at the Oriental proved to be the funniest moment of the evening.
Well, I invited the couple to dinner the next night, but didn't ask for any trade secrets, because I'm sure that no celebrity wants to talk shop at dinner. It was a wild party. Others present included my distant cousin Ing K, a notorious banned filmmaker, and her partner Manit who that very night was on TV inveighing against right-wing censorship, David "Producer of Alien" Giler, who is one of Bangkok's fixtures now, the women's writers group leader Anette Pollner, the New Zealand Ambassador, and so on. Trisdee played the Goldberg Variations and alternated them with selections from Elton John. Enormous quantities of drinks were downed and a rousing chorus of Tom Lehrer songs finished the evening.
Many remarked that since the 18th Century, it has probably been a rare occurrence to go to a party and someone's house and hear the entire Goldberg played live while quaffing a gin and tonic.
The next morning, I had lunch with a possible new owner for the film rights to Jasmine Nights (after 1o years, I'm still surviving on that book's option income....)
And the NEXT day, I was being videotaped for an interview with Tom Mintier which spilled past the thirty minute and into a second "evening".... That will be broadcast next week ....
Posted by Somtow at 1:36 AM
Thursday, October 18, 2007
"They know better than to bother us," said Somtow. He was kneeling behind her. She felt his tongue, tracing a line up the inside of her thigh. "In any case," he said after a moment, "you would not really mind if they were watching, would you?" He lingered in the crease where her thigh swelled into the fullness of her buttocks. Katherine let out an involuntary sigh, and opened her legs a little wider. ...
No, guys, I didn't write this. Amusingly enough, there's an erotic novelist writing under the name Lisabet Sarai who has named a character Somtow. We have sent emails back and forth before. She's a nice person. My own sex life, however, is much duller than this namesake's.
If you want to read the exploits of my alter ego, you had better go here:
Not that Somtow's World is prudish, but to reveal more might violate the "fair use" provisions of international copyright law....
Posted by Somtow at 3:26 AM
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
I suppose it would make sense that since today is my day to go to the hospital, and I happen to have some kind of sleep disorder, that I'd have a pretty bad night beforehand. So, last night I have an identity crisis dream. I'm flying home to Los Angeles (after all this time in Bangkok), accompanied by one of my students and his mother, for some unfathomable reason.
We get to LAX and I'm panicstricken to discover that I've lost my American passport. I find myself trying to get into the country through the baggage chute, which is a high rollercoaster-like thing, and I'm perched at the top clinging onto the railings while the conveyor belt barrels on down carrying all in its wake....
So, after the usual wake-up-screaming-can't-breathe routine, in my next dream I have apparently murdered the Cornflake King. It's a mafioso setting for this one. Taiwanese gangsters are involved, and I'm in a coffee shop wildly confessing, only no one believes me.
So, I go and see my cardiologist, and he says I'm really fine, but my condition has deteriorated since Butterfly, when, apparently, it was pretty good, perhaps because of the hours and hours of conducting were causing me to lose weight and sleep properly. Now I'm back to brooding and stressing. Stop with the admin already, Dr. Nithi has told me. Believe me, I am working on it!
Posted by Somtow at 8:19 PM