Thursday, December 29, 2011

My Birthday Address to the World

Today will mark my 30th year as a 29-year-old.  Next year, I will probably drop the pretense of youth completely; five cycles is a momentous time in the Buddhist world view, and perhaps will finally be the time to grow up.

This birthday is in some ways a low point in my existence, in others a definite perihelion.

The low points: for all intents and purposes, I'm bankrupt.  The opera, which has been at the heart of my struggle for culture in the region, has been bled dry.  Opportunity seekers have flatlined the golden goose, and artists who owe their careers to what we did for them are hemorrhaging away.  I begin the 60th year of my existence much as I began when I came back to Thailand ten years ago ... empty-handed.

For the first time in decades, my Christmas tree stands covered with lights and mementoes from friends living and dead ... and without a single present at its base, because no one has had time to buy any, or money for that matter.  We've all been too busy battling various incarnations of darkness.  Indeed I've officially announced that my household will delay Christmas to Epiphany, the last day of Christmas, January 6 ... perhaps it's even more appropriate as the day the wise men finally arrive and give their gifts.  Wise men are few and far between these days and if they don't show up by January 6, I'll understand.

My suffering is but a pale shadow of what the city and the country around me have endured this year.  Natural disasters, weird governance, and as the year ends, a panicked attempt by extremists to turn our Buddhist, Middle Way world into a Manichaean warzone.

Yet this dark moment in my life is also a moment of supreme optimism.  It is like the moment of maximum tension in the development section of a sonata, because it is at that moment that you finally beginning to realize that you will end up coming home.

This year, my music had artistic triumphs in London and California.  This year my adopted son made a major breakthrough as a composer.  This year Trisdee became a national celebrity as people in Thailand started to realize his international credits are "the real thing".  This year I saw my adopted son Johnny in California, his natural habitat, for the first time in a decade.  This year I stood in my two other "homes" - Europe and America - and tried to assimilate the traumas and triumphs of each - and realized that my three cultures are so deep inside me that they cannot be unravelled.

This was also the year in which the orchestra of young people I built up made incredible strides, played impressive performances of real symphonies, made a CD, and was accepted into competition in Vienna. Of course I still have to raise the approximately 5 million baht it will take to get 50 young musicians to Europe but still, this is an amazing step for young serious Thai classical musicians.

It was the year in which I finally came to terms with the darkness and light of my five years at Eton, and in which the school invited me to compose a new opera for the amazing resources they have ... which will bring to fruition a process which really started at the school, where I made my first attempts to compose an opera more than forty years ago.

We are inching towards Epiphany now ... but there are still no Christmas presents and I am still wondering how I will survive the next few days.

I still believe in the mythic view of the universe: the hero's journey, the war between the dark and the light, and that my purpose in life is to rescue princesses from dragons, though the princesses come in more and more outlandish shapes as I grow older.  In myths, the fate of the entire universe always ends up resting on the shoulders of one man. This is true whether the myth is Christianity, Batman, or Heracles.  One is told often enough that reality "isn't like that" but I seem to recall that when I was 10 years old, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the total destruction of the human race did appear to hang on one person's decision.  Is is perhaps supremely arrogant for us to believe that as individuals, we have the ability to change the world.  Nevertheless, without such beliefs, the world would never have changed.

I do begin my Fifth Cycle Year at a particularly dark moment.  In 2011 I pushed the envelope very very hard.  The envelope appears to be torn, and I don't know how to mend it yet.

But there is a reason that we celebrate Christmas, the rebirth of light, on the darkest night of the year.  There is a reason that angels visit us only when we have reached the bottom of the bottomless pit.

Epiphany comes on Friday.

Oh and here is the link to where The Nation has named me on of Thailand's international top 40....

Somtow makes Thailand's top 40....

Friday, December 23, 2011

Requiem for the Mother of Songs

After three years I finally completed work on my REQUIEM FOR THE MOTHER OF SONGS, written in memory of HRH Princess Princess Galyani Vadhana, and yesterday the Department of Cultural Promotions at the Ministry of Culture agreed to co-host the world premiere at the Thailand Cultural Center. This work requires over 400 performers, is about 75 minutes long and is I believe the first setting of an entire Latin liturgy by a Thai composer; it's probably also one of the biggest concert works composed by a Thai in scale and length. However I hope it will be appreciated for its moments of inner stillness and intimacy as well as its huge gestures. I'm working now to cast the seven soloists. Festa Musicale in the Czech Republic is contributing over 100 choristers to join the vocal forces in Thailand. I'll soon be sending out a letter to choirs and university music departments to ask for their cooperation. 

The initial inspiration for this work came to me in a dream in which I saw a vision of the princess, who devoted her life to classical music in Thailand. I call her the patron saint of classical music in this country.

I thought the work would be done in time for a memorial event shortly after Her Royal Highness's passing, but the piece grew and grew and became a compendium of my life's work, using all of the techniques I learned over the 50 years in which I've been composing and performing my work. It also attempts to find solutions to the central riddle of my cultural identity by forging a link between the Thai and western sensibilities. So for the first time I'm integrating my post-serial past, my post-romantic present, and my roots in Southeast Asian musical dialectic.

I hope that putting together this production, which will be a climactic moment in my life's journey, will also be a path toward conciliation and a way in which many disparate elements of our musical communities can come together. 

Since the princess passed away, there has been a kind of strange darkness in our music communities — people unable to find their way, arguing over trivialities. I hope with this work to find the doorway in the labyrinth, to help us find our collective way back to the light.

My Requiem has been the subject of rumor (and even attempts to hijack it by slapping together other requiems) for many years. But now the score is a physical reality and a vocal score will soon be available for downloading.

I hope my friends will all join with me to make this tribute to HRH Princess Galyani an event to remember.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

To All Extremists

Rhetoric is ratcheting. A big-time general and a big-time parliamentary bigwig have both stated publicly that those who dislike the law should leave the country.  Now, I never realized that "disliking" something was in fact illegal.  In fact, "sinning in one's heart" may or may not be offensive to God, but laws against thinking are neither viable nor enforceable.

Acting on one's thoughts in another matter.  But in between the total freedom of thought and the constrained freedom of action, there is an area which seems quite murky, and that is speech.  While I still can, I would like to use my rapidly declining freedom to address the extremists of every color who seem to want to hijack our national discourse.

I would like to appeal to the ultra-extremists of both stripes in this country.  Both of you are strident but minuscule minorities in a country in which most people truly believe in the Middle Way, which is the very core of Buddhist philosophy.

To the ultra-royalists who would enforce extreme penalties for the slightest infractions of the letter of the law, completely ignoring the purpose for which that law was created, I would say this:

You may legislate obedience, but never love.  We live in a country in which a genuine and almost limitless love for their revered institutions exists in the vast majority of the public.  This love did not come into being because of any law.  Your desire to enforce that love, however good your intentions are, has the potential to gnaw away at the very thing you want to preserve.

No one will dispute your desire to protect the things which most people in this country fervently believe in.  No one will mind if genuine threats or attacks are severely punished.

But your Orwellian idea of putting an electronic spy in every home and of inflicting major penalties for dubious. politically trumped up, or ill-substantiated infractions is an idea that will clearly have the opposite effect from the one you intend.

Please take a look at the history of Siam and remind yourself that our monarchs have often been at the forefront of progressive thinking.  Remember that it was King Chulalongkorn who abolished compulsory prostration.  And remember most of all the content of our present king's birthday speech in 2005.  The speech showed that he is a true visionary and really sees the big picture.

If you truly love your king, please listen to him, and have the courage to implement his wise and far-seeing advice.

Otherwise, you might want to move to country that more closely approximates your view of how things should be run.  I refer of course to North Korea.

To those extremists on the other side, the ultra-revolutionaries who would sweep away everything we hold dear and substitute a completely egalitarian society ... those extremists whom the other extremists see on every street corner, but which I suspect are relatively rare ... I would say this.  Get real.  It doesn't work.  History has shown us over and over again that it doesn't work.

There have been a number of populist revolutions against monarchic systems — against Louis XVI and the Czar of Russia and so on.  In every case, well meaning ideas that sounded wonderful when expounded by philosophers foundered on the realities of human nature.  Such revolutions resulted, not in utopia, but in reigns of terror in which nasty dictators seized power and bloodbaths ensued.

On the other hand, the constitutional monarchies of Western Europe, which took a lot of time to develop, have emerged as some of the more successful democracies in our history.

If your desire is a more perfect democracy, I implore you to work within the democratic process.  Otherwise, you might want to move to a country which more closely resembles the kind of place that Thailand would be if you were actually to have your way and sweep everything aside.  I refer, of course, to North Korea.

As I have said before, the Middle Way is the cornerstone of Buddhist philosophy.  When I look around me, I see that most people here have an enduring love for our institutions, and a distaste for extreme positions.  I agree with the government that excessive discussions of LM reform and/or bomb threats are detrimental to tourism and to the country's international image.  I myself am hosting hundreds of choristers from Europe in July, who are flying here at their own expense in order to enjoy our country and to have a good time collaborating with our artists.  Some have expressed worry.  I've had to do a lot of damage control, reassuring people that this is still the lush, friendly paradise of their fantasies.

The path to reconciliation is through the center of the jungle ... sneaking around the issues is not a short cut.  To find the light we must face, acknowledge, and forgive our own inner darkness.

The extremists of both sides have one thing in common.  If we were actually to implement their plan of action in full, there would be no need for them to move to North Korea.  This country would be North Korea.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Johnny Spencer - America's "Ah Kong"?

There's been much talk in Thai circles about Johnny Spencer, a white supremacist recently prosecuted in Lousville, Kentucky for publishing a poem on the internet that "threatens to assassinate President Obama."

I read the poem.  The guy's a sleazebag.  Yet, though I myself, as one of those non-Anglo-Saxon non-whitebread  U.S. immigrants that have polluted the purity of his utopia, might well be the object of Johnny's hatred, or in his ideal universe be at the receiving end of his bullet, I am troubled by this prosecution.  I too have written poems and they have often been about issues that mean something in the real world.  I hope I'm a better poet than Johnny, but I must acknowledge that even a lousy poet must have some kind of crippled muse.  But what I believe is that while nations have a certain right to deal with threats, attempts to destabilize, and verbal incitements to social chaos, they should not be allowed to fetter the imagination.  Crimethink shouldn't be a crime.

Mr. Spencer, it seems, decided to drop his first amendment-based defense of this case and simply to plead guilty.  That is a pity because a supreme court decision on this would really show us the real American of 2011.  And that would be a weathervane for our whole world, which, for some time now, has been drifting away from enlightenment.

Judge Whalin had ruled earlier that this poem did not fall under the protections of the first amendment because an "average citizen" could clearly view it as a threat to the president.  As an "average citizen" myself, and one who voted for Obama, and will almost certainly do so again, I have to admit that I did not "clearly" see a threat in that poem.  I saw a troubled mind, a sick fantasy, someone in need of psychiatric counselling.

Which brings us to the parallels that are being seen in the Ah Kong situation.  Those parallels do exist, but is also instructive to look at the differences.  


• violence has occurred.  Mr. Spencer didn't shoot a congressman, plant a bomb in Oklahoma City, or massacre a bunch of Norwegian students.  Ah Kong did not lob hand grenades in Rajprasong.  But these allegations of hate speech are happening in a time when people are panicking and ready for scapegoats.

• conspiracy theories abound and infect every side in the discussion.

• an issue of freedom of expression has come head to head with the need to protect a head of state and what are perceived as core societal values.


• What Mr. Spencer wrote is out there for everyone to see and judge.  No one except the court has seen the content in question in the Ah Kong case, leading everyone to speculate that this content fits exactly their own theory of the situation.

• Mr. Spencer has admitted writing the poem, and apologized to the FBI about the implied threat, whereas outside observers have so far not been convinced that this old granddad did anything at all.


Are the critics of the U.S. right to bring up this case as an example of American hypocrisy?  Well, yes, comparisons are absolutely fair game and there is plenty of hypocrisy to go around — the U.S. is a democracy in which the Supreme Court and a few "hanging chads" preempted an election, a country that condemns "cruel and unusual punishment" while happily torturing people off-shore, and so on.  Anyone who thinks America is perfect is blind.  

But the reality is that the comparison doesn't entirely fit.  It fails the "average citizen" test.  I don't see any  concerned average citizens clamoring to release or condemn Johnny Spencer.  Johnny has elicited mostly apathy in the U.S., whereas this Ah Kong case is argued about with incredible passion — a passion fueled largely by rumor, since even the recent public statement by a court spokesperson did not actually reveal any facts; it merely stated the opinions of the judges as though they were facts.  Alas, Thailand has shifted away from the paternalistic mind-set.  Kids don't always do what they're told.  They do grow up despite one's attempts to infantilize them and keep them in the fold.  All government officials need to realize that our taxes pay their salaries, and that they work for us — we don't work for them.

It is possible that if all the facts were actually laid before the eyes of the "average citizen" that the passion would be abated somewhat?  Is it possible that one day those who run this country might trust its citizens to think for themselves, and trust that they may hold a variety of opinions and yet still coexist?


But now ... back to the issue of fantasy.   Let's not talk about bad poetry but instead about great art.  I think that the following quote from the prominent science fiction writer Yevgeny Zamyatin is absolutely appropriate to our times:

True literature can exist only where it is created, not by diligent and trustworthy functionaries, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics.

Insofar as Johnny Spencer took responsibility for his own words, and accepted the real world consequences of his dreaming, he must be allowed, in his own way, the stature of an artist.  A crap artist to be sure, but an artist all the same.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Thailand's Achilles Heel

I began this blog on the 6th of December and haven't reedited the opening to match the actual date.  I would like to write something safe, optimistic, and forward-looking, but I find that all I can produce is ambiguity.  Within all this, perhaps, we can find a few nuggets of hope.

Yesterday was the 84th birthday of the King of Thailand.   To Thais, the Seventh Cycle is a major milestone, a confluence of two magical numbers — the twelve-year cycle of the Asian zodiac and the mystical seven.   Every numerological resonance of felicity, fortune, and prosperity is implied in the confluence of those two numbers with the number 9 (as in King Rama IX) which for Thai people, owing to a linguistic coincidence, also represents the word for "progress" or "a step" — meaning forwards.

Yet this day of rejoicing, which Thailand celebrates in a sense as its own birthday as well as the birthday of its monarch,  has come at a time of turbulence in our society.  It is a time when our national and cultural identity is uncertain and when idealogues of many colors are trying to hijack the agenda.  Many hide their true natures under the generic, knee-jerk-generating themes of democracy, love of country, national pride, love of our king, and so on, but in fact all of the above do not preclude us living in a viable twenty-first century pluralistic society.

It has been a time of great personal darkness.  I've returned from my first visits to the UK and the USA in years (in one case, decades.)  In London and in California, I was compelled to face the fact that I have a powerful sense of belonging to both those cultures and for the first time since my ten-year sojourn in Thailand I have been torn.  I believe I'm experiencing a full blown version of those identity crises to which artists are particularly prone, and indeed which often form the very core of our creative impulse.

My personal identity problem however, is a pale echo of the crisis this entire country is facing.  I think this country goes through one of these crises about every thirty years.

Instead of worrying about extremists like Mallika or her counterparts on the other side, those radical revolutionaries who want to burn down everything, I think it is worth considering what an average, thinking person in Thailand probably feels.

I think the average person here has great veneration for Thailand's institutions and would strongly want to resist any attempts to destabilize or overthrow them.  This hypothetical average Thai person feels, I am sure, that his very identity as a Thai is inextricably woven into a certain cultural fabric and that Thailand's institutions are essential to that fabric.  Therefore I feel, along with the average, non-extremist citizen, a great deal of love for this entire system and tend to want to overlook any peccadillos.

I also think that that same average person feels very uncomfortable at the idea that a cancer-ridden old man would be sentenced to twenty years in prison on evidence that is, let's face it, rather flimsy, after being allowed to mount a pathetic defense.  Thus, again, as an average, non-extremist citizen, I am alarmed that such a thing could happen in this country, a country which most people living here view as a relatively free and open society.

Maybe the evidence isn't flimsy, but we'll never know, because our paternalistic system deems us not responsible enough to see the evidence and make up our own minds.

As an average citizen, I am alarmed as well at the warlike noises being made by legal societies and by government officials about the need for even more spying on our electronic lives.  It looks very frightening and to an outsider it must look like we are rapidly descending into a North-Korea like madness.  But read between the lines and it ain't necessarily so.

You see, amid all this censorial rhetoric, which I believe to be largely a posture of self-defense, there seems to a hidden a statement which in its way is utterly revolutionary, and I'll quote the Bangkok Post's reportage on this which states that a certain committee has made the following statement:

"wrongdoers should be separated into two groups: those with an intent to topple the monarchy and those who act with ignorance.  The former should be prosecuted according to law while the latter encouraged to have a better understanding."
It's buried pretty deep in there, and the rest of it is all very confrontational, but this statement is actually telling us what the average citizen wants to hear.
Because the average citizen would support fully and vigorously the suppression of actual, serious attacks against Thailand's sacred institutions.  And that is the same average citizen who is appalled when the law is used against those who have no such intentions, who simply say or do something that pushes the buttons of some over-zealous whistle-blower.
If the law were in fact to be applied according to its actual intent, and not according to some tenuous interpretation that extends to things that do not remotely threaten our institutions, there would be no need to rewrite or reform it.  There is simply a need to clarify the intent and narrow down its application to cases that genuinely threaten our national security.  However, if anyone is going to be able to interpret it any way they want, to misuse it for political gain, or to try to take out an enemy, our average citizen will not be happy.
My optimistic assessment is that underneath it all, there does seem to be someone asking for common sense to prevail.  And to be honest, once common sense prevails, it'll all be over.  

An hour after posting the above, I saw the photoshopped image of Ambassador Kenney's decapitated head on the internet.  This kind of thing can only damage the cause espoused by its perpetrators.  It is precisely the kind of thing that "average citizens" find offensive.  It certainly tempers the optimism I felt after finding the nugget of hope in our official pronouncements earlier today.  In such moments I fear that national reconciliation is slipping away even as some of us try so hard to understand all points of view.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Last week, my dear mama told me that no less a figure than the leader of this country had attacked me as a crypto-yellow-shirt on the red shirt channel.  I said in this blog that I had no proof of such a thing, though of course I found it flattering.  However, my sister has sent me the video in question and my attacker is a far lesser being than the prime minister.

Nevertheless, what it proves to me is that everything one says is liable to massive misinterpretation, distortion, and regurgitation in another form.  This is one of the exciting things about our evolving open society....

Saturday, December 3, 2011


I had a wild day yesterday because I went to Nation TV to do a show about Steve Jobs.  Not that I knew him personally, but I guess they wanted me to talk about the mystery of creativity.  They are doing a ten-part documentary about him for Nation TV which included a highly entertaining panel discussion plus a session of sound-bites.

While at the Nation, I bumped into a number of journalists who have all been (to one degree or another) outraged by the Mallika scandal, but I had already decided not to pour more fuel on the flames because, after all, isn't this woman bound to self-destruct after a while?  And if the democratic party chooses not to follow my sensible advance, won't it only have itself to blame if it becomes collateral damage to Mallika's spectacular political self-immolation?

The people at Nation-TV said to me, "Let it go ... there are real issues to be discussed.  Issues such as corruption, the weird machinations behind the Thaksin 'pardon', the increasing tendency for people to abuse lèse-majésté laws for their own political gain, a serious discussion of whether Yingluck's regime is actually doing the things we all hoped it would do ... these are real issues whereas the mouthings off of a madwoman are not.

Still, they also told me things that got me rather irritated.  For instance, someone working in the offices of the party's upper echelons told me that Mallika's has dreamed up a conspiracy theory in which this "evil red shirt reporter" ghost-wrote my blog and hoodwinked my innocent self into being part of a huge "red shirt plot."  This is an amazing idea for two reasons: that particular reporter's personal ideology, which he has the professional courtesy of leaving out of his reportage, is in fact that of a centrist democrat.  I never even met this reporter in my life until yesterday when I ran into him at the paper's headquarters.  The second reason is that the idea I would need to have someone ghost-write something for me in English, is patently absurd and shows that the woman hasn't bothered to figure out who anyone is before shooting her mouth off.

But taking the cake is the fact that Mallika, after being confronted with her unethical behaviour by her bosses, reportedly went on another witch-hunt the next morning, filing a police report to try to have the satirist tweeter, NotMallikaBoon, arrested for satirizing her.  I don't know whether it was under Thailand's "criminal libel" statutes or whether she was alleging something even more outlandish like "identity theft" - but she clearly thinks what was done to her is illegal, or ought to be.  I don't know why it would be impersonation, unless K. Mallika doesn't understand the word "not".

Now, the use of satire as political commentary has a venerable history.  Aristophanes lampooned Socrates, but I haven't ever heard of Socrates trying to have him arrested.  I don't recall Tina Fey being served with a warrant for imitating Sarah Palin.  If you are in the public eye or are a "public personality" in anyway, you must accept that the public is not unanimously going to like you.  Ridicule is indeed an important part of "being famous" and indeed celebrities are judged harshly if they do not accept satire with equanimity.

Khun Mallika is has professed admiration for China, for that country's ability to shut off Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube.  (Mind you, I was in China for a week and had no trouble accessing any of those services form my hotel room.)  Perhaps she also admires China's ability to imprison dissidents and send people to reeducation camps.  Thailand is behind China in many, many ways, but not in the matter of intellectual freedom.  And all citizens, red, yellow, or chartreuse, need to resist the idea that we should slide further backward.  It is patently not her party's policy to curtail anyone's freedoms to that extent, and her actions therefore make her a traitor.

Well, let's leave it at that.  The woman is not a worthy adversary.

What else has been going on, apart from my endless depression about the state of the country, the opera, and my personal life in general?  For these weightier matters, please give me another day or so....