Sunday, January 31, 2010

Time considered as a helix of maxed-out credit cards

So, for the last few days, everyone in my house hasn't known what day it is, and it all came to horrid collision of timelines and timeframes this morning.

I'm just running off to Singapore this morning for only 24 hours, the idea being to catch the opening of "Boheme" with Nancy and to be able to have another chat with Covent Garden resident director Andrew Sinclair who has offered to do a production of Jenufa in Thailand in 2011.  While I'm there, I was going to take Jay to see the NUS music school as well as perhaps pop in to see a bunch of flayed corpses at the Body Worlds Exhibition.

So I get to the airport at the time it says on the E-ticket and I ask the counter why the plane is leaving an hour earlier now.

She says, "You missed your flight!  It was yesterday." It seems that wrong-day-itis has afflicted the entire family.

Time for a split second decision.  Should I buy a new one way ticket?  If it was just me I would have turned around and gone home.  The hotel in Singapore is already paid for but it's deeply discounted, I got it mostly on award points.  It's not like I've never seen "La Boheme" before ... I just conducted it last month and I'm doing it again in August!

But there's also this other kid travelling with me and Jay, someone from Jay's school.  His dad bought his plane ticket.  I can't really send him to Singapore alone!  So here I am, an hour late for check-in, having to decide whether to stay or go.  If I spend the extra $400 on a ticket, will my credit card become suddenly maxed out so I have to hitchhike to the opera in Singapore?  I decide to get the money from the ATM and call someone to quickly deposit more money in this account so that by the time I get to Singapore in two hours I'll have enough money for lunch.

I realize that today I'm like the protagonists of "La Boheme", rushing through life without knowing how I'll pay the next bill.  Maybe, having achieved all these supposedly big-time distinctions, it's time to settle down to a nice boring teaching job in a quiet rural conservatory.


Monday, January 25, 2010

Ravens, Flying, Past, Future, Pools, Destiny

So I had a dream so extraordinary I must share it with you in its entirety.  In fact, I remember it all vividly hours later, suggesting that it is a visitation from the collective unconscious.

The dream is set in the future, in a vast crumbling mansion in which I live alone, in a large attic room.  The house is mostly dark, sculpted wood.  One day, there comes a visitor from the past (that is, a time traveller.)  I spend all day preparing a special room for him, but when he arrives I am so exhausted I am already asleep.

I come downstairs and he has been sleeping, he says, on a bench.  No, no, I must show you to your room.  I take him there.  It's a room that must once have been a covered entryway or hallway.  The French doors/windows have dark wooden shutters that do not reach all the way so that a bright sunlight comes in.  I apologize that I didn't put new mosquito netting in.  He might have been bitten.  My guest doesn't mind.

I open a drawer.  It contains jade knives (like from the ancient Chinese burial sites) but they're clearly fake because there is some Chinese inscription in old characters but also something written in English on each one.  They are pale green jade.

Other draws contain knives too.  And other cutlery.  I say ""The linen must have been kept here."  (Odd thing to say because there is no linen.)  I realize that this is no bedroom; it is an anteroom to the huge dining room full of antiques and a dim chandelier.  Then I say to the visitor: "You might think this is my house from 'Jasmine Nights' - the big mansion - but it's not.  This one is the ruined house."  It's a reference to the ruined house of dreams in my novel, Jasmine Nights.  He wants to know where the big house is and I saw it's outside.

We leave the house through the opposite side from the visitor's guest room.  We're in a vast green lawn.  The house must be that way, I say, because Sukhumvit is up here.  I point to the main road and see that it is completely walled off.  You cannot see the street.  We are cut off from the world.

The main house is not where I think it is.  Instead, there is a dark forest.  "If Sukhumvit is to the north," I say, then the house must be that way, beyond the forest."

The visitor cries out in fear.  We see that the way to Sukhumvit is guided by huge rocs ... giant, black, man-eating birds.  Each one stands guard, grim-faced.  They look like crows, but in the dream we call them rocs.  They may be ravens, but they are flightless.  Their red eyes glare.  There are also human guards.  Or perhaps robots.

There is no way to get out to the real world except through the forest.  So we set out to reach the main house, or perhaps the world itself.   But inside, the forest isn't made of wood at all, it is a concrete jungle.

First we pass a courtroom where someone is sitting in judgment.  The jury and court are like zombies.  They are just going through the motions.  It is a simulacrum of justice.  The visitor and I sneak past them and soon find ourselves in a labyrinthine mess of little cobblestoned streets.  There is no sky.  There has been no sky all the time; all this is inside something.

I reach a piazza lined with rococo columns, yellowing.  There is a stone pool or trough and in it, boys are swimming, naked, each one with a brightly colored toy.  The toys are the first brightly colored things in the dream.  They look like antique machines from an era of plastic.  They are all shouting, "These toys are for us to drown ourselves with!"  and they're gleefully submerging themselves.

"No, no," I tell them.  Quickly I take one of their toys.  "You've got it wrong.  These are ancient toys from a distant time.  They were not made for children to drown with."

I show the toy, hold it up.  It's a cone-shaped fluorescent green thing with little corkscrews dangling from it.  "These toys are not for drowning, but for flying."  And instantly, it takes to the air, fluttering in the first breeze to blow through these claustrophobic streets.  The boys cheer.  "You've forgotten so much," I tell them.  "Once, when we had a sky, a toy like this could fly oh, so, so high."

I turn to the stranger from the past, because now I suddenly know who he is.  And I am about to tell him so when I wake up.

I woke up from this dream six or seven hours ago, and jotted it down.  But until a few minutes ago, when I told the whole dream to Jay, I didn't realize that I was going to say to the stranger, "You're me."

And just now, I realized that although the plastic toys could touch the sky, the ravens were flightless.  Does this mean I shouldn't be afraid of death but I should trust invention?

This dream holds the clue, creatively, to what comes next in my life.  What's past is prologue, indeed, but also the rediscovery of flight, the confrontation with the Deathbird (there was a raven on the cover of my LP of Bernstein's Mahler 9, which I had as a child.) ... going through the forest of judgment, "forging" the sword of destiny (double meaning there because the jade knives were forgeries....)  I'll have to analyse it all the way to when I sleep again, and maybe revisit its world....

Right at the Curve?

 David Giler sent me an article from the SPECTATOR, and it says that the three most significant events that define the last century in classical music are the following:

1. Mahler become a universal icon
2.The discovery of Janacek's operas in the non-Czech-speaking world
3. The rise of regional opera companies.

This is a truly extraordinary list of things, but if it is true, it puts Bangkok Opera at the top of the curve.

1. We're pioneering the first complete Mahler Cycle in Thailand.
2. We have discussed with a prominent director from Covent Garden a new production of "Jenufa" forThailand in 2011.
3. What do is practically the Platonic Ideal of the words" "rising", "regional" and, maybe, even opera company!

Makes you think, doesn't it?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Libera Me!

After just over two years of agony it is finally done.  So now I can talk about my Requiem Pro Matre Cantuum (for the mother of songs) at last.  Apart from the emotional strain of trying to create a worthy monument to one of the most important benefactors of classical music in this part of the world, there has also been an intellectual burden because in this composition I have tried to solve my personal conundrum, caused by my being caught between two worlds, two widely disparate ways of looking at the universe.

As some of you may know, I have been agonizing over the knotty question of the fusion between Thai and Western music for at least 35 years.  I've solved the problem in many different ways: in the 1970s by evolving a kind of textural polyphony, allowing the worlds to coexist without really blending, just sort of bleeding and cross-fading into one another.

In the 1980s, during my long escape into novel-writing, I formed a different view of where I should be as a composer.  It was a more Asian view because I longer believed in music as a linear progression from past through present to future.  I felt that the entirety of our musical past was physically present and there was no real need to feel connected only to the immediate past.  To be honest, this liberation came from writing music for low-budget films.  There was a freedom to experiment that I hadn't felt since being in Thailand in the late 1970s.

In the early 2000s, after returning to Thailand, I had reinvented myself as a neo-romantic.  Interestingly, many composers in Thailand, especially the academic ones who had not really actually had careers in the "real world" and who had essentially been cut off from many of the developments in the west, thought I had sold out, not realizing that the return to tonality was actually "more modern" than the post-serialism of the 70s.  But one of the things this enabled me to do was integrate melodic ideas from Thai traditional music more fully.  But eventually this wasn't enough and there was a need to use the underlying philosophies of Thai music as well.

There is a fundamental problem when we come to do this because western music is bound up in the western perception of time.  In western music, causality is therefore of the essence.  Music is about things that germinate into other things.  Ideas like development, recapitulation,  variation exist because time in western music linear.

In many kinds of Asian music, however, time is not perceived in the same way at all.  In the traditional "thao", as basic to Thai music as "sonata form" is to the classical period, the most developed, expanded variation is presented first, and then the music gradually collapses to its most rudimentary form.  In general, even in less extended formal structures, we must forget western notions that music proceeds by addition towards a climax and that each thing we hear has been built on that which went before.  We are into a more non-linear mode of temporal perception.  And the greatest performances of Thai classical music can generate a feeling of time standing absolutely still.

In my Requiem I wanted to explore all the different musical languages I've learned during my life including those I have long since abandoned, and try to find their commonality.  Thus there are movements founded completely on traditional Thai folk motifs, movements that pair serial technique with Monteverdi-like choral recitative, and movements that draw on the colors of science fiction and fantasy film music.  But the challenge was to draw these elements together into some kind of unity.

That is the reason that the composition of the last movement dragged on for almost eight months.  Of course, this movement need not have been written at all; but when I was speaking to Brother Martin about using the monumental ABAC church for this concert, and he said to me, "Don't forget the Libera Me."  This section is often left out of Requiems.  But then, the Libera Me - In Paradisum section of the requiem mass provides a wonderful progression from horror to sublimity, and it soon became clear that this massive movement could be used to bring all the disparate elements and forces of the requiem together.  The melodic element of in paradisum came to me months ago, as a simple Siamese folkloric theme that would not be out of place in an Isaan village.   I had already, in the Pie Jesu movement, used the idea that a short Thai motif that never modulated and simply repeated itself recursively without modulation could be a viable movement, and in the Sanctus I had explored the idea that I could freeze-frame a G major chord and (using western rather than Asian melodic ideas) pull it into an Asian timelessness. 

What I needed was to integrate this into the whole.  In other words, to write a music that was both in time and out of it at the same time.  My solution was a childishly simple one, but one that I was in fact stuck on for many months.  It was to create a string of timeless "bits" in which the string itself was a temporal construct but the bits were not.  I found a way to have my cake and eat it too, in other words.

Whether it works or not will have to be decided by others....

But what is clear to me is that in the libera me I have managed to cathartically free myself from much of my own musical baggage ... from the post-serialism of my youth to the constraints of linear time. 

I don't know whether this provides an entertaining glimpse into the compositional process or whether it's just a bunch of self-justifying B.S.   We will have to find out over time.

Or not-time.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Why Thai Kids Don't Know Things

I had a very disturbing conversation with Trisdee a few days ago about quantum mechanics and spacetime.  Okay, these are not exactly subjects that impact our daily lives, but the conversation led to areas that definitely DO have such an impact.

It started when I asked Trisdee what the Thai for "spacetime" was, because I was trying to formulate a way of saying something in Thai about relating the musical structure of one of my compositions to relativity.  As some of you may know, we are planning a "science through music" camp for young people and I particularly want to discuss the relationship between music and relativity.

Trisdee couldn't tell me offhand so he searched around on Thai Wikipedia and came up with the word "kala awakash".  This is Sanskrit-based neologism.  "Kala" means time, and "Awakash" means space.  But wait a minute, I said to myself.  It means "space" all right, as in "outer space", because the roots of that word mean "without air" and therefore a "vacuum" and therefore the space that lies beyond our atmosphere.   There is absolutely nothing in the word that has anything to do with the meaning of the word "space" as used in "spacetime" ... i.e. space as in the three dimensions of space, space as in Euclidean geometry.

How weird, I said.  Whenever Thai kids learn about spacetime in physics, they automatically carry in their heads an image has has been engendered by mistranslation.  Whoever created the term looked up "space" in a Thai-English dictionary and didn't bother to penetrate any deeper into the semantics of it.

I started to wonder how many other Alice-in-Wonderland images young Thai students carry in their minds, so I asked Trisdee to look up "field theory."  You guessed it.  The world for "field" used in the Thai terminology is a word that evokes an elegantly manicured lawn. 

There is a big issue at stake here.  The very first people to create physics textbooks in Thai, or any other textbooks that require wholesale creation of new terminologies, were either (a) not physicists and therefore not sensitive to the specialized usages of those words in English or (b) not good at English, and therefore content to believe the first Thai translation of each word out of context or (c) not good at English OR physics or (d) just mechanically slapping a one-for-one equivalency without being interested in English, physics, education, or anything except getting paid by the page.

However, because the Thai educational system emphasizes rote learning and extreme, nay idolatrous, worship of and obedience to one's teachers, no kid would ever raise his hand and ask, "Why does gravity come in lawns?"

I am not talking about the pernicious revisionism that permeates Thai school texts anyway (I once tried asking a dozen Thai kids who had won the second world war -- all of them thought Thailand had).  Shoring up one's national identity may require that history textbooks be written like a superhero comic, and no country is immune from that ... elementary history books in the U.S. are particularly nauseating in their cartoonification of the past ... I am prepared to admit that nations do mythologize their history and to some extent this is inevitable.

But we're not talking about history.  This is physics, i.e. hard science.  We're not even talking about the whimsical minds of physicists who have given quarks colors, strangeness, charm, and beauty.  We're talking about inappropriate translations of root concepts.

A day later I was talking to a German gentleman, Dr. Amrehn, who teaches at a Thai university.  He told me the problem is even more pervasive because when it comes to specialist vocabularies, each expert has created his own, and they spend as much time fighting over which word to use as over the subject in question.

Is it possible that there could be some kind of commission to completely rethink what is being taught here ... to find the best way to translate key ideas if needed ... to create textbooks that actually make objective sense?

Otherwise we're just going have another generation of rote-learning zombies, with all the external accoutrements of a technologically advanced society, but it'll only be skin deep.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Passing through the Window

Sometimes dreams can be quite cosmic ... seeing God and that sort of thing ... I know when I have dreams like that they are NOT acid flashbacks, because I didn't do acid in the 60s.  Or did I?  I don't remember the 60s, so I must have lived through them.

Thais believe that seeing dead people in a dream is very lucky which is why there are always lottery vendors at funerals.  But what if you see yourself dead?

In last night's dream I was a fugitive being hunted through the wilds of Alaska, I think it was during the gold rush.  I'm crawling through the snow wearing a lot of furs and one of those Russian looking hats.  Anyway I'm caught by someone, a posse I imagine.  I'm thrown into a cage on the back of train and we begin a long and epic journey through snowy, desolate terrain.  I distinctly remember being unshaven.

At some frontier outpost I manage to escape and find myself in a two-story building.  But they come after me.  There is a bloody shootout, me versus what looks like Seventh Cavalry uniforms.  It's very bloody.  My last enemy has his legs blown off and I crouch over him, but he turns himself over on one arm and shoots me between the eyes with the other.

And here's the thing, I feel myself get colder and colder and the world getting dark and it's not scary like I thought it would be.  When I look out of the window I see a woman escaping on  a white horse.  I realize that she was with me the whole time.  She is the one I have been protecting on the train journey, only I didn't see her before.

As I wake up, I continue to die, so the two sensations cross-dissolve very slowly.   So my waking moments are as dreamlike as my dream was real.

... As a committed Jungian I would point out that the woman on the white horse is clearly a representation of the anima and that the dream is clearly not about death but about survival ... transformation ... it's in fact a highly positive dream about how things are going to change this year.

I said anima, not enema!  Jeeze!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Two Years and Counting....

Tomorrow it will be the second anniversary of HRH Princess Galyani's death, and as of now, I am still composing the Requiem, which is supposed to have been completed a long time ago, and performed already, and so on. As with any labor of love, it just does not seem to turn out neatly. I have composed virtually the entire piece and it could perhaps easily be performed as is, without the final movement. After all, most requiems don't even include the "libera me" and "in paradisum" sections ... and this is what I have stalled over for months, composing an average of a minute's music a month for the last six months.

The reason I am writing them at all is that, two years ago, when I was starting the piece, I sat with Brother Martin at ABAC and he said to me, "Somtow, you must not forget to set the libera me section of the requiem mass." I realized that I had a unique opportunity to create the first setting of a major piece of Latin liturgy by a Thai composer. Maybe that's a rather retro thing to want to do, half a century after Vatican II, but I've always had a powerful streak of retro: why else am I trying to revive the sonnet, put on concerts of Dufay, and set long bits of Latin to music?

Those who have followed the saga of my Requiem pro matre musicae perhaps know it's been a painful process. One movement from the piece, by far the smallest, has had a bit of a life as an excerpt. having been played at one or two memorial concerts for the princess, but this work. created specially for the space at the huge ABAC cathedral in Bangna which is a sort of scale model of St Peter's Basilica in Rome, has just kept getting bigger and bigger, so that parts of it now require something like 200 - 300 performers, including seven soloists, off-stage brass band, two boys' choirs, a large mixed chorus, and an orchestra with an organ. Although most of it actually feels like chamber music.

This is the requiem of which one movement disappeared completely in a hard drive crash and had to be reconstructed completely out of thin air, not once but twice....

The requiem is also my personal "Monteverdi Vespers" in that it's a compendium of every technique I've ever used from neo-romanticism to serialism to neo-Asianism, and it's a real attempt to reconcile all the different creative strands in my music. And that final coming together happens in the last ten minutes of the piece, which it's all been building towards and that's why it is such an angst-ridden bit of composing.

But I've suddenly turned a corner. Suddenly I see how the end is going to have to be. It must have just taken this long to figure it out. Not used to this. Now I'm composing up a storm. It might even be finished in a matter of days....

In which case, it will be the my first composition to take over two years to compose....