End of an Era

I was saddened to learn earlier today that Thanat Khoman has died. He was 102 years old. Our kids’ quartet had just played a concert in his home to celebrate his birthday and only a week or so I gave Woody, his son, the video so that he would be able to play it for his father...

When I learned of his death, I was sitting with one of students and when I read the message, my student asked me who this man was. It just shows you how little history they teach.

I can’t remember a time when this man was not in our lives and the lives of my family. As a child, I was always frightened of the guard at the gate of his house. He had a sunburned and weatherbeaten face, and I thought that he resembled one of those Indian chiefs in a cowboy movie ... like Chief Dan George. My earliest memory of Khun Thanat’s house was my fear of the man who opened the gate to let in our car.

It is my incredible fortune to have been a fly on the wall at some very major historical events. For instance, there was this meeting of all the Southeast Asian foreign ministers ... they were going to sign the ASEAN treaty. By day these ministers were all banging out the treaty while their wives were being entertained by Khunying Molee and my mother (my Dad was Khun Thanat’s right hand man at the time). I remember being hovered over by these very important ladies and taking barge trips along the canals … and at one particularly important lunch, when they suddenly discovered they were thirteen at table, and they were worried about bad luck, they summoned me from the kitchen to share the lunch. Maybe if I hadn’t sat there to avert the ill omen, the ASEAN treaty would never have gone through! However, of course I was too young to know that the events around me were of such import!

As I grew older Khun Thanat never stopped being like a very beloved uncle to me. Whenever I was home for the school holidays, he would always summon me and ask me to do a fake Indian accent, which he found quite hilarious. The last time I had a coherent conversation with him, I ran into him in the Erawan Hotel where he had gone for a dim sum buffet. He called out to me and said, “Hey ... you’re the kid who can do the funny Indian accent.” He was in his nineties. I couldn’t believe he could still remember that.

This man has had an extraordinary life, the kind of life that is the stuff of huge, picaresque novels. When he was a young teenager, Thailand was still an absolute monarchy. Thanat played a crucial role in dragging Thailand into the modern age. His life spanned both World Wars and the Cold War and he was a key shaper of Thailand’s alignment with the U.S. He was a mastermind behind the creation of ASEAN. He ran the foreign ministry as a meritocracy, promoting highly qualified people like my father and ignoring the complaints of those who felt that their seniority entitled them to better treatment. He once literally saved my father’s life, when certain political enemies wanted a human sacrifice after they ignored my father’s legally accurate but politically unpalatable warnings about international law. Our family therefore owes him far more than we can ever say.

However, I really think of him mostly as a gentle, generous, and profoundly intelligent avuncular figure, and his son is one of the only people from that far back in my school days whom I still talk to on a regular basis. Today I promised Woody I would put on a memorial concert. I hope that our friends will come to it, and we will remember him together.

The photo above was taken 55 years ago and shows him in Bayreuth. Wieland Wagner is standing behind him. This was during the King and Queen’s state visit to Germany....

I find your lack of faith disturbing

So, 38 years ago, the same month that my first published science fiction story appeared in the semiprozine Unearth, I watched Star Wars on the opening day with several dozen members of the Washington Science Fiction Association. People cheered and screamed and clapped all through the show. Leaving the theatre, we all knew what had witnessed the birth of a new mythology.

A few years later, I sat at a table at the Hugo Awards ceremony. At the next table sat Gary Kurtz, producer of The Empire Strikes Back. We all applauded loudly at his expected win. I did not expect to win because before the banquet started, Robert L. Forward had already commiserated with me about my losing the Campbell Award to him. I therefore had not even bothered to dress up. Imagine then my amazement when Somtow and the Star Wars franchise were both winners that night.

It can be seen that this series of movies has always put in an appearance at key moments in my career. When I returned to Bangkok in late 1977 to try to realize my youthful ambition of “revolutionizing all art” in Thailand, I came to a Star Wars-free world because the Thai film industry was having a protracted fight with the government, who wanted to encourage the local film biz by charging an outrageous tax on foreign films. In Manila, giving a concert, Bruce Gaston and I snuck away one afternoon to see Star Wars in a dreary suburban theatre, turning down our taxi driver’s offer to provide nubile women for the evening. I surprised Bruce a bit by being able to recite the entire dialogue along with the film.

I didn’t care for the third film much; the first of the prequels was okay, exciting sort of, but I didn’t even bother to watch Nos. 2 and 3 in the theatre. When I finally got around to catching them on video, I found them decidedly dull. But today, driven by a trailer that managed to revive all those decades-old emotions, I dropped everything to take my son to a sneak preview of No. 7. Everyone’s already saying it’s the first good one since The Empire Strikes Back, and that’s pretty much true, so I don’t need to review it. Though I will.

The explosion of the Star Wars mythos into our collective consciousness was transformative. There are the things that everyone talks about, such as the way the universe looked used and dirty for the first time, or the Joseph Campbell wholesale plot borrowing, the deadpan wit. And of course how Star Wars dragged the nerdy world of science fiction fandom into the bright (and unforgiving) light of the mainstream. Also seriously discussed in the SF world was how science fiction film had caught up with 1930s space opera (this became even more explicit after Leigh Brackett was brought in as a writer) ... and the hope that perhaps one day science fiction film would manage to reach the 1950s and even 1960s ... which now, with series like The Man in the High Castle, is happening right on that same 50-year-delay schedule.

Less talked about perhaps was the way in which Star Wars heralded a full scale invasion of Asian sensibilities into American culture, for Star Wars was of course almost a scene by scene remake of Kurosawa’s film The Hidden Fortress, and what is “the force” if not some Zenlike thing, and who is Yoda if not some kind of Shaolin master, and so on.

The darkness of Empire deepened the mythos; the silliness of Return broadened it and lowered its denominator. Despite the strident toy-selling of Return and the aw-shucks revelations about Darth Vader’s “heart of gold,” the trilogy as a whole was one of the most important icons of the culture of the second half of the twentieth century.

The same couldn’t really be said of the prequel trilogy. Binge watching it on blu-ray is kind of fun, only because the “real” trilogy leaves one wanting so much more. Indeed we found those films’ “lack of faith disturbing” in their inability to trust the vision, and go instead with size, effects, and spectacle. It took a seventh film, made without the original visionary, to return us to the original vision.

But we who saw that first film 29 or 100 times, who memorized the dialogue, are a lot older now. Those ten year olds have had lives and loves. Some have even read Joseph Campbell and understand the tricks. We are jaded and we are tired, but The Force Awakens does have the ability to function as a sort of emotional Viagra for the child within.

Yet it’s impossible to watch it with quite the sense of wonder that one had then, and J.J. Abrams knows this; what he has directed is as much reboot as it is invention. Every button is pushed — even the controversial Kessel Run one. (We all really know that “the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs” was a huge science gaffe, but later Lucas tried to finesse it by claiming a level of irony that is not at all apparent no matter how many times you view the clip. Actually the savvy science fiction audience in the 1977 opening I went to booed raucously at the parsec boo-boo. ) Abrams not only brings back the infamous line, but riffs off it. There’s other infamous resurrected lines, too, and a few new ones that will become infamous over time.

As for the plot, it’s essentially the same as A New Hope, except with a black dude and a way cute female warrior instead of a bunch of white guys. There’s a sort of Mega-Death Star that uses entire suns as fuel, except we never quite learn why when the sun goes out, the temperature on the planet doesn’t drop to around absolute zero and why everyone’s still breathing. But then no one cared about spaceships thundering through the vacuum of space either, or fighter pilots using atmospheric banking maneuvers when there’s no atmosphere. It’s just part and parsec of the fun.

The mellowing of the audience and the filmmakers showed right in the first few seconds of the film. The familiar fanfare sounds, and just before the big theme starts up, on that final triplet of the fanfare, we get something I don’t remember hearing before ... a rallentando. It’s an almost imperceptible touch of espressivo in the music but to a musician it immediately tells us that this intense cup of java is going to be sipped through the whipped cream of nostalgia.

The cream on top lards every loving reference to the first trilogy. The prequel trilogy is pretty much ignored. Thank God those pesky midichlorians are never mentioned. Once we learn that Luke Skywalker has been missing for decades and that the standard mcguffin stored in a cute bot is a map to his location, we pretty much figure out that this will be a family saga and that there will be descendants. It doesn’t take long to figure out who is descended from who, though one mystery is left hanging — hopefully we will be surprised in the next part, but I doubt it.

For the emotional climax of the film, our storytellers choose a variant of the “I am your father” scene from Empire. Joseph Campbell and the blueprints left by the previous stories lead us to expect exactly what does in fact happen, but it’s well done nonetheless, even tear-jerking. Indeed, the new villain, the Darth Vader successor, is nuanced, very much of our time. He’s petulant, cruel, and dashingly handsome — a very effective new mix of elements. Harrison Ford is the only original actor whose return is more than a cameo and his presence lends a kind of authenticity to the entire piece.

In the 70s, diversity in casting meant giving a few lines to aliens, but that’s not enough in 2015. It’s refreshing and satisfying to see the “Luke” position in the plotline taken by a woman (Daisy Ridley) and to have the turncoat stormtrooper seen as black man. One might hope for, say, a gay couple as military leaders in the next installment, but that’s maybe too much to ask for. A bounty hunter with a Scottish accent was pretty amusing, as well. (Was it Scottish? It went by so quickly, and giant octopuses were running around eating people so I soon forgot him.)

Okay, so not a single surprise in the whole movie, really, except the surprise that the team got away with it. It really did feel like Star Wars. I felt like a kid again. Well, a very analytical, over-intellectual kid to be sure, who couldn’t help analyzing each moment for its Jungian overtones, but as much of a kid as one can still feel like at my age.

Let’s hope the “special edition” doesn’t ruin it....

Why the Eroica Symphony is So Important

from the opening concert of the 6th Season of Thailand's much-loved youth orchestra the Siam Sinfonietta.

It’s been called the most influential work in the history of music. I would like to give you some of the reasons. The Siam Sinfonietta, our youth orchestra, is opening its Sixth Season with this symphony. I hope everyone who reads this will come. It’s a free concert, so you have nothing to lose.

There are many bigger works than the Eroica. Beethoven himself also wrote the monumental Ninth, and if you’re talking monumental there’s always Mahler 8. In an earlier era, the Bach B minor mass is iconic, too. But the Eroica draws a line in the sand not just for music, but for all western art.

Before the Eroica Symphony, artists were servants whose worked served to glorify a patron. It could be a King, a rich banker like the Medici family, or even God himself, but the point is that what artists did was attached to something, was an adjunct, a decoration. The Eroica Symphony does not revolve around its patron — or even around Napoleon, who originally inspired it. It is the first music to be an end in itself, the first work of art to herald a new kind of hierarchy in which the artist, not the lord of the manor, is at the center of the universe.

The first performance of the Eroica was in a nobleman’s house. Its audience was baffled and bewildered. Some said that a piece this long, this difficult, and this complicated couldn’t possibly really be music. The first movement alone was as long as many symphonies of its time, and it is relentless, battering the senses with wave upon wave of vehement passion. The second movement is a gutwrenching funeral march in which you can hear the germ of every funeral march in every Mahler symphony … and of Siegfried’s funeral march … and of every funeral march that had not yet been composed in 1804. The word scherzo means a joke, but the third movement isn’t that funny — it’s a careening roller coaster ride interrupted by a hunting scene. And the Finale — in those days a Finale was supposed to bring a symphony to a close with something light and frothy, but instead we have a huge set of variations that runs an entire gamut of emotion.

Teaching the Eroica Symphony to a bunch of 12-24 year olds has been a rollercoaster as well, especially here in Thailand where the stylistic techniques of the classical period are not often taught. We are getting there — this is the first concert of the season with many new faces in the orchestra, some of whom probably didn’t quite know what they were getting into when they signed up for this very intense ensemble. I hope you will hear a Beethoven you don’t hear too often in this country. We will see — there is still some rehearsal time left.

I’d like to close by pointing out the special relevance of this work to this exact and place. You see, culturally, we are at a similar point to where Beethoven stood in Europe in 1804. The arts in Thailand are emerging from a perception that they are decorative, that they exist to enhance the barami of a patron, that art is something that flows downward from a court or a cultural ministry — to a whole new way of looking at art — to the idea that art is supposed to say important things, to teach us who we are. In a sense, we are looking for our own Eroica Symphony, for a work that will definitively revolutionize our perception of what art is.

And so we come to the figure of Napoleon, who plays such an important role in this work. It is said that Beethoven was inspired by Napoleon, the heroic liberator, to compose this work, and that when he learned that Napoleon had crowned himself emperor, he tore up the dedication page, shouting “So he too is mortal after all.”

Haven’t many of us in Thailand recently had a similar experience? No, I am not really saying that Thaksin is Napoleon. Just pointing out that we’ve all felt what Beethoven felt, with one idolized person or another — someone we thought might save the universe turning out to be “mortal after all.”

It may just be that the Eroica Symphony is a more accurate mirror of our world here than of twenty-first century Europe.

To find out, here’s a link to get a free ticket: https://goo.gl/XUDgsG

Please tell all your friends as well. And here is the Facebook Event:


Suryadhep Music Sala, Rangsit — Siam Sinfonietta — Copland Fanfare for the Common Man, Prokofiev Love of Three Oranges Suite, and Beethoven Symphony No. 3 in E flat, “Eroica” 7:30 pm. Thursday, October 15, 2015.