Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ten Commandments for Artists

S.P. Somtow has come down from the mountain, and this is what he wants to tell all of you who wish to join the second oldest profession....

1. Have something to say.
2. Say it, and say it as well as you can, and don't get sidetracked.
3. Don't look for short cuts.  They don't exist.
4. Listen to your inner voice, and face your inner darkness.
5. Tell the truth.  (This is especially important in fiction!)
6. Believe before you expect others to believe.
7. Never, ever, disrespect your public.
8. Never believe your own hype.
9. Know that in the moment of creation you are utterly alone.
10. In life you may be timid as a mouse, but when you create, fear nothing.

Everyone of the statements above is a cliché, but it doesn't mean they're not true.

If you do all the above, you will be a real artist.  I can't promise you'll be a GOOD one ... that's for history to judge.  But you won't be a phony.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Free Speech

During the afternoon of the Sinfonietta concert last Sunday, which happened to occur at the same time as a red shirt rally, I was struck again by how satisfying it is to work with these incredibly smart, enthusiastic, and profoundly musical kids.  It seemed to matter little that the world outside might be collapsing around us.  Well, luckily, it didn't actually collapse.   Mozart was filling my senses.  At that moment, an SMS came from a friend.  "Facebook has been blocked by the government!" it said.  I checked my Facebook on my phone.  It was fine.  My friend's was not, though it shortly came back again.  Why his and not mine?

I wasn't very thrilled that our government recently bowed to pressure from the Vietnamese and prevented a presentation from occurring at the Foreign Correspondence Club ... a place where only weeks before I, Sumet, Senator Kraisak and others had had so delightfully anarchic a free exchange of views.

It seems that on the one hand, free speech has increased to the level that people were allowed to exercise it for months in the most disruptive possible way, by taking over public spaces and setting off explosives ... a level of tolerance of free speech unlikely to be acceptable to the west ... while at the same time, little annoying Big-Brother-like intrusions are occurring, such as websites randomly getting blocked and unblocked, perhaps due to overzealous minor bureaucrats with nothing to do.

Greg Glachant of BK magazine called to ask me whether I would still claim that today, I feel "more free" than I did during the days of the Thaksin administration.  I had to think about that for a while but on the whole, I believe that answer still to be yes ... with several "buts" attached.

The day after tomorrow, Bruce and I will perform another episode of AVATAR - No. VII - at the BACC.  Let's hope the air conditioning stays on.  Meanwhile, Trisdee, having, in his inaugural blog, painted Bundit as the Milli Vanilli of  classical music, leaves behind the devastation in his wake in order to conduct Monteverdi's ORFEO in Amsterdam ... with Pierre Audi directing ... which will definitely be a staggering performance.  Last night, however, he once again played the viola with the kids of the Sinfonietta.  Trisdee's blog was read by over 6,000 people in a single day.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

P.T. Bundit

Haven't been on here for a while, but it's actually been one of the more eventful fortnights around here.  Yesterday, for instance, there was a redshirt rally in Bangkok where they had no stashed explosives, didn't burn down any shopping malls, and even curbed much of the rhetoric.  It was indeed the very kind of rally that should have been going on earlier this year.

The concert featured Trisdee conducting and playing Mozart with the Sinfonietta, which is an orchestra I've created six months ago that consists only of kids.  I say kids but there's an age limit of 25 which means that Trisdee, jet-setting conductor that he is these days, can participate without even being a "guest adult" - as he is only 24.  I haven't enjoyed a Mozart concerto this much in a decade.  Not that the kids didn't have their share of wrong notes, but the performance was authentically Mozart in a way you rarely hear even in Europe.

A couple of days ago Trisdee brought something to my attention which I found pretty staggering.  He's gone on to talk about it on Facebook, which has led to Veena of The Nation writing an expose which, I believe, is coming out in tomorrow's paper. Although his revelations are about a specific artist and a specific instance of cultural merchandising, he has brought to light a serious issue which artists in Thailand need to deal with if Thailand is to become part of the international cultural mainstream.

What this product is is a CD, in a series of CDs produced by Thailand's well-known music celebrity Bundit Ungrangsee.  The series is called "smart music" and it's basically classical music for the masses, classical music to "make you smarter" ... harmless enough, perhaps even beneficial.

The CD shows Bundit conducting some Europeans on the cover - a striking photo.  There are also pictures of Bundit on the back.  When you open the CD album, there's a huge bio of Bundit which rather oddly claims that he is a National Artist (he isn't.) The CD itself has a full-color screen of Bundiit conducting.   Bundit's name is everywhere, and it would be perfectly clear to any casual observer that this is a CD of music conducted by Bundit.   However, when you take the CD out, through the clear plastic packaging some small print is vaguely visible.  You can't read it because the CD hub covers the strategic portions, so you actually have to remove the paper insert from the CD shell.  At this point you will finally be able to read the small print, which states that all the tracks are from "" and are conducted by one Dr. Salmon.  (You can license the music yourself for $37 a track).

Depending on his licensing agreement, this probably isn't illegal.  But making it so that the casual buyer would naturally assume that Bundit is the conductor, and cannot discover the actual identity without first purchasing the disk, unsealing it, and then pulling out a well-concealed piece of information from a hidden part of the packaging, is almost certainly unethical.

Now, Trisdee is one of the few people in Thailand who could really expose this, because he is the only Thai conductor who is clearly and unequivocally more well known internationally than Bundit.  This can be proved simply by googling the two of them; Trisdee has about 49,000 English-language entries, while Bundit has about 31,000 (as of 2 am today).  Trisdee has conducted such well known orchestras as the Royal Scottish and is about to conduct the RAI Orchestra.  He is represented by Columbia Artists, whose other conducting clients include James Levine, Seiji Ozawa, Colin Davis, and Michael Tilson Thomas.  Credible, influential journals like London's Opera have called him a genius.   Does this make Trisdee "world class", a claim which Bundit's PR machinery frequently makes for himself?  I'm afraid not.  But he's also fifteen years younger than Bundit and already well established in Europe.

Trisdee's revelations have caused a bit of a sensation in the insular world of classical music in Thailand, including a response from Mr. World Class himself in which he states that he consulted the Vice President of Sony in New York on all this and was told that famous U.S. and European "do it all the time."  If that is the case, I haven't found one example in the 2,000 CDs in my collection.

When I first learned about this from Trisdee, my first inclination was to return my Silpathorn Award.  I felt that the honor had been debased and all of us Silpathorn Artists were besmirched by the scandal.  It's just as well I was talked out of it because I see now that the Kittikhuns (the four Silpathorns who have received the senior "Distinguished Silptahorn" status) have an important mission.

It's easy to become self-righteous about Bundit's behavior, but that would be wrong.  He couldn't have thought he could get away with it if we didn't live in a society that currently has not yet developed clear ethical standards for cultural merchandising.

In 1997, I came back to Thailand to direct a new ballet which I had composed.  The entire concept, all the music, and the direction of the piece were all mine, but the organizers didn't even put my name on the poster.  When I objected, they told me that "in Thailand we always do things this way."  When I insisted on this simple thing that is a basic right of every creative artist, they thought I was a madman.  This is how I have acquired my reputation for making unreasonable demands.

I often see translations of well-known novels on the stands here.  Sometimes the name of the translator is in huge letters, while the actual author's name is occasionally not even on the cover.  It is also common to adapt the works of others without giving any credit, let alone paying royalties.

I wrote to the director of the Office for Contemporary Art and Culture, K Prisna, that Trisdee's discovery had caused me to think about all sorts of other cases in Thailand where someone else's product is packaged in such a way as to appear to be originated by the packager.   She wrote back and said, "many visual artists also face the problem of fraud works in the market."  She welcomed the idea that the Silpathorn Kittikhun Artists might sit down and draw up some sensible, common-sense guidelines.  Things that seem obvious, but no one has actually articulated clearly in this country - like "the author's name should be bigger than the translator's".

It is clear that such guidelines need to happen fast.  Because Thailand no longer has the excuse of being some distant Shangri-La, isolated from the world, where the rules do not really apply.  What we do here is seen, reviewed, and discussed around the world, and anomalies such as what Trisdee has uncovered put the entire country in a bad light.

As for P.T. Barnum's adage about "fooling all of the people all of the time," it appears that Trisdee's pretty hard to fool.  He's delving more deeply and promising even more startling revelations.  Indeed, he is starting a new blog soon, which I am sure will be a vastly entertaining addition to the blogosphere.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Making History Unawares

Today was the first rehearsal for our concert next week and I assumed that the Tchaikovsky concerto would be very difficult as it's got a lot of rubato. I assumed that Brahms 3 would be a breeze because after all, every knows Brahms 3.  It's only one of the most famous symphonies in the whole world.

To my surprise, they had little trouble with the Tchaikovsky.  But the opening of Brahms 3 was an astonishing shambles.  It dawned on me that the orchestra was sight reading music that they had never heard in their lives.  After a few attempts, they began to grasp it very quickly but the first 15 minutes were terrifying....

To someone who grew up completely drenched in the classical repertoire this was a revelation.  The members of the orchestra started saying to me, "Yes ... it's true.  We've played Brahms 1,2, and 4 many times.  But not 3."  They started racking their collective brains.  No one, not even the oldest members who have been around since classical music started being played in Thailand ... could recall ANY instance of ANY Thai orchestra performing this symphony.

I am scheduling some orchestra overtime so that they can really come to grips with this work.  But it seems that, without meaning to, the Siam Philharmonic is again making history.  When we do the Mahler symphonies, we know very well that we are invading new territory.  This was meant to be a concert of very familiar romantic works which would not tax the orchestra too much after the strenuous work of Mahler 3.

To explore a great classic through the eyes of people who have never played or heard it before is an incredible privilege.  I feel blessed that the Muses have given me this opportunity.  It may not be a technically perfect performance on Wednesday but I am sure the "Spielfreude" will be very powerful.

I sincerely hope that all of you will come to the concert (Wednesday night, 8 pm, Thailand Cultural Center).