Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Special Sneak Preview for Readers of the blog only!!

Yes ... readers of this blog may watch the entire opera Mae Naak by clicking on this unlisted youtube link.  Thanks so much for all your support.

This is not going to be the final version of the production but it is provided so that my friends and readers can enjoy an opera they wouldn't otherwise be able to see without traveling to Europe ... or London ...

And now ... for tickets to the London premiere ... go to this website:

For Opera Siam information in general ... go here....

Monday, August 29, 2011

Thailand in Miniature: The Music Scene

The classical music scene in Thailand is a perfect microcosm of the political miasma that reigns in this country, and it is instructive to look at both.  From Mahidol we can learn many lessons about the beast that gnaws at the heart of this country ... though I must say that we will learn very little about music.

The can of worms that is the College of Music, Mahidol, was opened very very gingerly by me a few days ago ... not because one wants to upset any oxcarts, but because it is good to acknowledge publicly that a can of worms exists.

Since that day we now read that pupils and alumni of the school are madly petitioning in the good doctor's defense, which goes to prove what I was saying before: that Dr. Sugree's detractors and his supporters are equally vocal (though the latter clearly have a lot more money.)

All this is essentially the Thaksin story in miniature: great ideas, persuasive salesmanship, amazing showmanship, powerful personality on the one hand, and vacuous intellect, blatant disinformation, megalomania, and falling for one's own hype on the either.

And in both stories there are elements of hope as well as horror.  Buried within Thaksin's highhanded authoritarianism, disregard for human rights and self-serving corruption were many good things, best of all the seed of an idea that this could one day be a land of equal opportunity and fairness in which the government serves the governed, instead of raping them.

And concealed within Sugree's curious fiefdom are similar grand hopes, such as the idea that Thailand could one day have a music conservatory that churns out Trisdees and Ekachais in every new crop of students.

I have to admit that when I read the news of Sugree's resignation, I composed an email which I intended to send to the president of Mahidol.  In this letter, I suggested that it might be time for Mahidol to ascend to the next level and that they might want to talk to me about Sugree's job.

After I wrote this letter, I didn't send it, because I realized that if I ever considered such a post I'd have to give up my entire life: my composing and literary career, and my stewardship of the opera, the philharmonic, and the sinfonietta.  I have managed to put together this country's flagship opera company, this country's most internationally reviewed symphony orchestra, and this country's most forward-looking youth orchestra with virtually no money, little government support, while suffering constant attacks and attempts at sabotage by various Salieri-like figures.  Would I do a better job if I suddenly had all the resources that Sugree has at my disposal, or would it just be a distraction from the vision?  In the end, I thought better of it.  Manipulating bureaucracies is not something I do well.  

However, a rumor that I had written this letter did get out and I've received numerous messages telling me to go for it.  The messages are not only very very pushy but are full of vitriol about the infamous Dr. Sugree.  Here is one example, from one of the most influential figures in Thailand's classical music scene, a person closely connected to the royal household: "But I do hate the thought of his poisoning the newly-created Thai musical world though.  He is not just mediocre, he can be positively, evilly corrupting their minds and distort their views"

Nevertheless, I am resisting the urge.  I do have a Messiah complex, but it is not so bad that I would be willing to actually endure crucifixion.   Fantasizing about being crucified is about as far as I'll go. 

In fact, here's the link so you can sign up for the pro-Sugree petition yourself.  As with countries, so with educational institutions: people tend to get the kind of government they deserve.


Now that I have reassured myself that it can't be anything other than a rhetorical statement, I might end up sending the letter after all.  What harm can it do?  Except, of course, to myself.  And I do have that Messiah complex to feed.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Saint or Demon?

I read in the paper last night that Dr. Sugree has tendered his resignation as director of Mahidol's College of Music.  I do not believe everything I read in the paper, and it is certainly conceivable that this is not a "real" resignation but some kind of calculated gesture.  However, the music scene is awash with speculation.  

After ten years, it is perhaps time for an honest appraisal of the pros and cons of it all.  I joked on Facebook about how Steve Jobs and Sugree should simply change places, but maybe it's actually not a bad idea!

The rumors of Sugree's unethical behavior, corruption, and malfeasance are legion but I am not here to discuss rumors.  However, he is clearly an extremely polarizing figure and there are equal numbers of people who consider him a saint and to be the devil incarnate.  An examination of who constitutes those numbers, however, shows an interesting trend: the members of the "devil incarnate" camp have a tendency to include this country's greatest musical and creative minds, and that such people seem conspicuously absent amongst the "saint" crowd.

I for one had extremely negative experiences as "composer in residence" in Mahidol ten years ago.  I won't rehash those war stories here because it is all going to appear in Book 3 of my memoirs and I can promise it will be very juicy.  Right now, however, I am still working on Book 1!

There is certainly a case to be made that this person raised awareness of classical music, popularized music education, and directed huge amounts of public money towards a hitherto neglected arena.  There is also a case to be made for his activities being the single most destructive element in the classical music scene in this country, obstructing promising careers and hiding mediocrity behind impressive buildings.  I honestly believe that both points of view have elements of truth.

I recently was asked to give some advice to the newly created Galyani Vadhana Institute and I explained my theory on how we can finally have a proper music conservatory in this country that can consistently turn out great musicians such as Trisdee na Patalung and Ekachai Maskulrat - the two finest Thai musicians of their generation and both people who had to reject the Mahidol mindset in order to forge real international careers.

I think there are three stages to the creation of a great conservatory from scratch.  First, you must hire the finest, most inspiring teachers you can.  You must use the fact that you have these teachers to get to stage two: the best teachers will attract the best students.  Only then, when the human content of your conservatory is optimum, should you worry about building fine buildings and impressive halls. In other words, a great conservatory starts with great people, not with great buildings.

Although I did not add two and two at the time, it's clear that my philosophy is the polar opposite of that which motivated the Mahidol College of Music.  In 2001, when I first went there, it was all about the building program.  The college was being "grown" in the opposite order from my theory, meaning that it would be very attractive to bureaucrats and bean counters. but that the core value of a conservatory— the art itself — would take third place.  

I make no comment about the validity of the opposing theories because it is perfectly clear that the theory I do not subscribe to has yielded the richest, biggest and most income-producing music school in the country.  That is an admirable result for which, without any irony at all, I must salute Dr. Sugree Charoensuk.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Not An Open Letter to the Incoming Prime Minister

Nah, it's not yet time to write one of my notorious open letters which invariably invoke scathing criticism from all sides of the political spectrum for their evenhandedness, use of reason and logic, bicultural comprehension, and long view of history.

I'm still guardedly optimistic about the future, more pleased than not about the prospect of a female prime minister, and more wary than not about the resumption of "politics as usual" in the near future.  Of course, by a strict interpretation of the constitution, the accusation that Yingluck has been assisted throughout her campaign by a banned politician comes with evidence seen by all, from call-ins to press interviews given by her brother.  Therefore the question of whether the prime minister in waiting will be red or yellow carded isn't actually about whether she cheated or not, but about whether the EC will have the guts to actually make a ruling based on what it sees rather than what it fears.  If there is a similar case for Abhisit having cheated, we haven't really seen much public evidence, but corruption is so endemic that it would not really surprise people.  A prominent member of the yellow shirts did tell that "dirty work was afoot" but wasn't very specific.

I was thrilled that upper-level members of both extremes of the political spectrum came to the premiere of the new production of my opera "Mae Naak", perhaps an indication that burning down shopping malls and seizing airports is not really what Thailand is all about.

However, an article by the very perceptive film critic, Kong Rithdee, in the Bangkok Post, did give me a bit of a start when it suggested a (perhaps fantasy) scenario of Chuwit becoming Minister of Culture.

Chuwit, a wildly popular figure especially amongst the young, ran a hilarious and high-profile campaign which ended up netting him five members of parliament despite the campaign being played for laughs.  This is as much a measure of people's apathy and disillusionment with politics as it is of any political acumen.

In a later article by Kong Rithdee, he gives the incoming minister of culture all sorts of trenchant and perceptive advice.

I love the fact that a ministry of culture finally exists thanks to the lobbying efforts of so many people including such friends of mine as (then) Sen Kraisak, but I do wish the ministry of culture would move more quickly towards actually dealing with culture as that word is generally understood in the world. After all, our culture is one of our biggest selling points.  Not just the "high culture" of temples and traditional art, but also the "low culture" of transvestite stage shows and wild shopping malls.  All of this is culture.  Whether it's good or bad is another issue altogether and "culture" and "morality" are really quite separate items.  Legislating song lyrics or hemlines is not an appropriate function for a ministry of culture at all; it might more properly belong to a ministry of morality, or a ministry of uniformity, or even a ministry of zombies and robotics.  Culture and morality are not necessarily bedfellows and in fact they may often be at odds.  (Or is it just that in my past life I was Minister of Culture in Sodom and Gomorrah?)

Why This Dispute Won't End Quickly

I present this series of maps to explain to my friends overseas why a tiny triangle of land on the edge of a cliff seems to have such earth-shattering importance for the Thai and the Cambodian peoples.  The first map is from the 12th century.  The Khmers are in red, the Thais are completely absent.  In the next two maps, separated by a couple of centuries each, you see that the red is shrinking.  There are many different colored bits and most of them are different city-states controlled by Thai-speaking peoples (using the term loosely to mean all the main branches of the Tai language family).  Then comes the fourth map, 1809: the purple area, almost identical to the red area of seven centuries earlier, is Siam.  None of present Cambodia is under Khmer control at all.  Then comes an 1886 map.  The yellow part is Siam.   

And now comes 1873.  The French and British have made a grab for territory formerly under Siamese suzerainty.  And finally, in this 1873 map, there reappears something called "Cambodia" - a central hub for the Khmer-speaking peoples.  It's the purple bit.  Around 1904, more gets grabbed and the territory now known as Cambodia becomes more or less the shape it is today.

It is this hub, an administrative division of the French Empire, that will eventually become an independent country and a repository for the the dreams, hopes, history and identity that calls itself Khmer.

And the rump of what was once the Siamese Empire is now the repository of those same dreams, hopes, history and identity for the ethnos that calls itself Thai.

In reality, the DNA of those who built those two empires has long since mingled and every person who was born here doubtless carries some DNA of both.  The people who built the temple on the cliff have been dead for centuries and no matter what language they spoke, it is almost certain that their descendants live on both sides of the disputed border.

I think that the best avenue of healing would be to start by acknowledging the trauma wreaked by the colonial powers in this region.  Then, moving back through time, people can begin slowly to understand and forgive the past.  Memories are long around here, but they are also flawed, and too severely distorted by zealots.  Would it be wonderful to move on and get this behind us?  No doubt.  Will that happen?  Doubtful.

A thousand years and an entire peninsula is being fought over by proxy with this tiny piece of land.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


I haven't blogged for a month but it's not out of laziness; there's endless rehearsals, concerts, operas, and lengthy admin meetings and by the time I get home each night I am a zombie, a condition assuages only by sleep and the odd Zynga game.

In a few weeks, our entire team of somewhere around 75 people goes to England.  There are a lot of things to prepare in order to perform Mae Naak in London, from orchestra rehearsals to placating the spirits.  One of the most noticeable things about how we do things in Thailand is chaos, but it's not really chaos.  It's actually heterophony.

Heterophony is the organizing principle of classical Thai music and it involves everyone in an orchestra simultaneously improvising on the same melody.  Each person does his own thing and the melody somehow emerges even though everyone appears to be going in a different direction.  It's the secret of how things seem to work in this country when they simultaneously appear not to be working.

So, we are in chaos now and yet the pattern is beginning to emerge.

Meanwhile, I was invited to a cybergeeks' panel.  One can in fact watch the entire thing in youtube I understand.  Here's the beginning of the ten-part series.

One of the oddest things about this was to compare it to a panel at a science fiction convention.  Of course in my previous incarnation as an SF writer I did so many of those that I developed certain skills to a degree, but I've never had to do it in Thai before.  And there was one very different thing about it.  Although this panel (which was webcast) was about "the future", the panelists by and large, and the audience in particular, didn't seem much interested in what I think of as "the future" ... 10, 50, 100, 1000 years from now.  They wanted to know what the next Intel chip was going to be like (and the CEO of Intel Thailand was there to tell them.)

Issues that form the meat of such panels at any regional SF convention, like the social consequences of virtual reality, didn't really hold their interest that much.   Had the panel consisted of the likes of Gardner Dozois, it would have been a lot wilder.

And yet this did make me reflect on a far-reaching implication.  Is it possible that young people here are simply not encouraged to extrapolate?  The idea of extrapolation, familiar to every science fiction fan, is about taking one element, often a small one, and going as far as you can with it in a huge leap into the chaotic hyperspace that is imagination.  Much crap is conceived by extrapolation, but it is also the birthplace of most of the important ideas that have driven civilization forward.

I've met a lot of young people here in the course of our work in music and also in our "Bach to the future" series of science and music camps where some of the most talented kids from divergent intellectual worlds are thrown together to see what sparks will fly.  So I know that this country does not suffer from any lack of brilliant, creative individuals.  There's also an abundance of self-help books around Bangkok bookstores about how to "turn your child into a genius." However there don't seem to be that many books on "how to teach your child to think."

I'd say that this actually should be the biggest item on the national agenda.  A complete overhaul of education towards an emphasis on "how to think" would improve the country in countless ways - including putting an halt to the various partisan "mobs" of all colors that invade Bangkok from time to time.  How could changing the educational system end political strife?  You'd have to extrapolate to find out.