A Speck of Dust in the Wind of Time

In the rain....

In the rain....

A week has gone by since I was asked to put together one of the biggest “sing-ins” in history — the massed performance of our Royal Anthem in front of the Grand Palace last Saturday. I’ve been asked a lot about what it was like, how it felt, how is it even possible to “conduct” a quarter of a million people. Indeed, when I saw all the cameras and the “cast of thousands,” I immediately christened HSH Prince Chatri Chalerm “Cecil B. De Mui” … and he deserves all our thanks and more, because his vision whipped it all together.

I lived in Hollywood for several decades, and I do understand the ego rush that could come from having a hundred-foot crane on a dolly swooping down from the sky and swivelling to a stop right next to one’s face in the midst of a powerful moment of emoting. And as a conductor, I do understand the power surge of lifting one’s arm and eliciting a thunderous chord from a vast ensemble.

Rehearsing in Korat

And yet, for all its cinematic spectacle, this was not that kind of event, in the end. A film was being made, but we were not there to make a film.

I would like to say something about what I think this moment means to me, to all of us who participated. Because I think this was more than a whole lot of people singing a song, and more than the creation of an epic music video. I think that this may come to be seen as the moment when Thailand began to see herself as one again, when this country began to heal.

Many things have divided us, and the divisions have become bitter. But if there is a single thread that has tied together all our lives in this country, that has connected all the dots of our fractious past, it has always been the special relationship between King Rama IX and the people of Thailand.

There are, in my experience, a minimum of three “Thailands”. One is the Siam of the Hollywood imagination, exemplified in the quaintly racist fantasy of The King and I. Another Thailand is, equally, a fantasy: the Thailand that drives the narrative that many international journalists love — a Thailand fueled exclusively by class struggle or color-coded factions. Then there is the Thailand that we actually live in. It is a country not perfect, but aware of its problems and striving to improve; a country that has come amazingly far in a short time, from an agrarian third world nation to a powerhouse, a journey that has been undertaken not without some terrible deals with the dark side; a country that has yet so much further to go; a country that has chosen to vest its collective sense of identity in the person of a mild-mannered monarch with a massive intellect and a mighty heart. It is a good country, but it is a wounded country.

But when the first note of my arrangement of the Royal Anthem sounded, it was more than just a musical unison, more than just a quarter of a million people all producing the same note. At that moment, many people felt a cold wind arise and blow over their heads. Some stated firmly that it was a supernatural wind, others that it was just the goosebumps, the power of the shared emotion.

But it was also the wind of history, and I and the musicians and the choristers and the crowd and the millions who watched live on television were all motes of dust in that great tempest. In the end it was not how “big” the moment made me feel, but how small.

A few days later we were invited to the town of Korat, and if anything the experience was even more powerful. The rain lashed down as a crowd estimated at 200,000 by the Korat authorities came together. I could barely conduct the music through my tears. In about a week we will repeat the anthem in Yala and to me this is particularly significant because our King is the protector of all religions, Islam as well as Buddhism.

Music can be a powerful metaphor for nationhood. When you perform a piece of music with other people, it is not just about playing well. It is even more important to listen well. A symphony is greater than the sum of what the individuals musicians play. What holds it together is that we listen to one another. And in listening, we become one. What holds true for the symphony also holds true as a life lesson. It is definitely true in the political arena. Too many people have spoken without listening. When we make music, we cannot do this. Our art comes from listening.

A quarter of a million people could not all see the conductor’s beat, no matter how grandiose the gestures. They were forced to listen to one another. And they did. They could feel each other’s heartbeat. They came together and they were one.

On Saturday, children from our music program in the slums of Klong Toey sang side by side with the granddaughter of His Majesty the King. This is a Thailand we may dream of. This is a Thailand that may come to pass, if in our grief we begin to hear the voices of those who share our overwhelming bereavement.

You see, grief counsellors cannot heal us. Psychiatrists cannot heal us. And most certainly, politicians cannot heal us. We must heal ourselves. We must prepare for a long journey. And listening to one another is the first step.

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....