A Conversation with Ken Smith, Author of Fate! Luck! Chance!
[Ed. Note: Ken Smith is no stranger to readers of NewMusicBox. Author of the first article ever published here nearly 10 years ago, a massive HyperHistory of composer-led ensembles, he later returned in the early years of this web magazine to write about music and politics as well as the first musical responses following the events of September 11, 2001. But over the past five years he has spent most of his time in Hong Kong and Mainland China exploring entirely different musical landscapes. His new book about the making of a contemporary American opera inspired by Chinese themes, The Bonesetter's Daughter, featuring music by Stewart Wallace and a libretto by Amy Tan based on her novel, returns Ken to our ongoing discussion of contemporary American music.]
Frank J. Oteri: There have been quite a few books written about individual albums—e.g. Ashley Kahn’s books about Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme, or Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, and there are also a couple of recent books about specific musicals—Tim Carter’s book on Oklahoma! for Yale and Bruce D. McClung’s excellent Lady in the Dark – Biography of a Musical, published by Oxford University Press. But all of these books were written many years after the fact. To the best of my knowledge, your book is the first book about a major new work that has appeared concurrently with the work’s premiere. How were you able to convince a publisher to let you write about an unknown entity?
Ken Smith: It all started because Stewart Wallace knew the owner of Chronicle Books and the two of them started brainstorming even before the Chronicle editorial department or I entered the picture. Chronicle is very hands-on in developing projects in-house, I discovered. From there, it turned out that the editorial director had published Amy Tan’s first story, and that Chronicle had published an earlier coffee-table book on the San Francisco Opera. It became very much a neighborhood block party.
Frank J. Oteri: Of course, since your book was written before the premiere, it’s missing a few key components to the story: photos from the production, the reception history—reviews, rebuttals, etc. But the inclusion of these elements would have led to a very different book. Was this book intended for the hear and now and might these other elements be incorporated into subsequent editions of the book?
Ken Smith: At the very least, a future edition would need an epilogue about the production process, which I can tell you was long and grueling, with just as much drama as the story on stage. I’m happy to say that the libretto as performed remained remarkably close to the document we included in the book, although at times in rehearsal I was holding my breath. At various points, Chen Shi-Zheng and Stephen Sloane had suggested some aggressive cuts that would’ve eliminated several key elements that Amy and Stewart had discussed at great length in the book. Fortunately, very few of those suggestions made sense on both a musical and dramatic level, so my advance account-not just the libretto but the discussions of how specific scenes came out the way they did-still remains valid. The other crucial element for future editions would be a document of the opera itself, either an audio or video recording, and at this point that remains entirely up to the cooperation of the San Francisco Opera.
Frank J. Oteri: I wanted to talk with you a bit about the format of the book, which is somewhat unusual. The only really substantive prose narrative is your introduction. There are a ton of photos and a complete libretto as well, but the centerpiece of the book is a series of recreations of behind-the-scenes talks with the major players involved in bringing this work to life. What made you decide to present the material this way?
Ken Smith: This was largely what I meant by Chronicle developing books in-house. Keep in mind, the time between my flying out to San Francisco for my first meeting with the publisher and my holding the finished book in my hands was 53 weeks. There were decisions based on the material we already had on hand, as well as practical manufacturing concerns. Several of the conversations in the book, at least the skeleton of them, had already taken place, often over meals or in the back of a bus. Also, when Stewart first started the ball rolling, he was still excited about our time in China and the book was shaping up more as a travel account. When the Chronicle production staff weighed in, we all realized that printing a photo-driven book, which would usually be done in China or Italy, would add another six weeks to the schedule and miss the opera’s run entirely. That’s when the text suddenly became the key focus, and the libretto-which was originally intended as a separate insert-became a central part of the book itself.
Frank J. Oteri: It’s interesting that these talks are not just with Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan-the composer and librettist for The Bonesetter’s Daughter, but also the stage director, the principal singers, the presenter, and the patron who made this project happen through sheer force of will. Even Wallace’s frequent collaborator, librettist Michael Korie who briefly worked on the project, makes an appearance. Normally many of the people on the sidelines are overlooked when examining the creative process. By including the muses and catalysts for this project, you are saying something that all too often remains unsaid about the creative process for a work that’s on this grand a scale-it’s really a group process. Is this what you were trying to convey by featuring this back story? How does telling the real story about how an opera gets made demystify the myths about the all-powerful composer who seems to channel an almost divine inspiration?
Ken Smith: What can I say? I love Rashomon. Fortunately, this approach happened to work well with Stewart and Amy, both of whom have large enough egos that they’re comfortable sharing the credit. This is not a paradox with them. They’re both self-aware enough to realize that if they’d stayed at home and collaborated by email Bonesetter’s Daughter would’ve been a much different show. As far as de-mystifying opera, Amy is actually the perfect foil. She’s obviously perceptive, obviously knowledgeable about music as a listener and amateur performer, yet as far as its creation is concerned, she’s an Innocent Abroad. She’s confident enough to ask the really basic questions that other intelligent novices would ask a composer only when no one else is around. As far as Stewart is concerned, there’s nothing mystical about his composition process at all. Many composers acknowledge the performers who help them articulate their musical ideas; Stewart hauls them into the spotlight with him. There’s probably an element of self-protection involved. Certainly a project like Bonesetter invites potential accusations of misappropriating another culture. But really, with Stewart the whole composition process is a collaborative effort, and he likes large parties.
Frank J. Oteri: I imagine such a book could be written about almost any opera or other important musical composition. What else might benefit from such a treatment?
Ken Smith: Just about any major collaborative composition could benefit from this kind of in-depth account. The question is, would anybody read it? When I saw the way the people at Chronicle started becoming interested in the opera simply because of Amy’s involvement, I knew we were onto something. Let’s face it, there are only a handful of writers in America with the kind of fan base that would bring musical civilians into the world of contemporary opera.
Frank J. Oteri: Of course, part of the excitement is learning how this work transformed from a best-selling novel by a famous writer into an opera with a libretto by that same writer who had never worked in opera before in collaboration with a composer who has had a great deal of experience in opera but is not yet a household name. Is this bizarre dynamic between the two creators what initially drew you into the project? There are few precedents for this; the only other work like this I can think of is Margaret Garner by Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison.
Ken Smith: I will say that, after hearing horror stories of other collaborators, Stewart and Amy are almost ridiculously compatible both personally and professionally. They have similar priorities—in life and art—about what to pay attention to, and what to disregard. Amy’s working process as a writer is actually quite musical, while Stewart himself is particularly verbal. And rather than stepping on each others’ toes, this has led to a mutual respect for the other person’s role in the collaboration, as well as a mutual critical perspective that keeps both sides “on message” as far as the finished product is concerned. What really attracted me, though—and I was never able to mention this directly in the book—is that this Asian-American novelist was the one who almost single-handedly wrested the “American immigrant” novel away from Jewish writers and broadened the dialogue, while this Jewish composer started writing for traditional instruments that were once, so to speak, solely a province of China. I found that balance fascinating.
Frank J. Oteri: The story of how the Bonesetter’s Daughter evolved from a novel into an opera was also clearly your story to tell, since in some ways the story of how this opera evolved is your own personal story. It involves the woman you would eventually marry, Joanna Lee, who was something of a midwife to the project, as well as your own immersion into the world of Chinese culture as a foreigner. How were you able to keep a level of objectivity in your account of this? Is such objectivity even desirable for a book of this type?
Ken Smith: First of all, there’s no such thing as objectivity, only fairness. There’s no way anyone can write from anything other than his or her perspective, and the richer and more prepared that perspective is going in, the more interesting the result will probably be. I entered this project while I was more or less on a sabbatical from writing. Joanna and I were merely taking Stewart and Amy around to listen to music in China and meet some of the performers we knew. Stewart kept bugging me about documenting the project, but I had a number of problems, not least of which was finding a perspective for a story that was still very much in progress. But you’re right. This was very much my story. Before I started writing about music I worked at Random House, back when Amy was just a promising Bay Area writer and not yet a publishing phenomenon. I’d spent a week with Stewart and Michael Korie in rehearsals for Hopper’s Wife in 1998. I remember Chen Shi-Zheng back when he was still singing Tan Dun and Meredith Monk, and watched him work in rehearsals reconstructing his banned production of Peony Pavilion for Lincoln Center. Once I started writing about Bonesetter, I discovered my perspective was already pretty clear.
Frank J. Oteri: Of course one of the reasons this book is so effective is because you had an inside track to this story from day one, which is rather an unusual paradigm for a music journalist. In the previous generation, a journalist was supposed to be relegated to the role of outsider and anything else was considered inappropriate, if not unethical. It’s instructive to point out that most music journalists who maintain this wall have little training in actual journalism and that you have a degree in journalism. Why do some people in music journalism still insist on keeping up the walls between artists and the people who write about them? By keeping up the walls, what are they missing?
Ken Smith: It was pretty funny reading the Bonesetter reviews. It’s amazing how few critics do their homework. One prominent critic largely cut-and-pasted my fact sheet from the press kit into his review, so at least his background was right. Joshua Kosman had seen the dress rehearsal, and his review of opening night was ecstatic. I don’t think Stewart’s mother would’ve written a more favorable review. Josh probably measured the distance they’d come between rehearsal and the opening and extrapolated that for subsequent performances-and I think he was largely correct. His review was certainly the most knowledgeable, if a bit over-the-top for the actual performance at hand. On the other hand, the critic from the Financial Times-my own newspaper!-kept his distance and as a result didn’t even report the names of the characters and cast members accurately. Most of the others fell someplace in-between, though perhaps the most frequent mistake I saw was getting a few words from the director or composer or librettist beforehand and thinking that was the whole backstory.
That journalistic wall you talk about has some legitimate reasons. Virgil Thomson, for all his brilliant prose, didn’t do the critical profession much good as far as conflicts of interest are concerned. Later the entire journalistic profession became enmeshed in a fetish of objectivity after Watergate proved that the Kennedy-era chumminess between reporters and their subjects was not in the public good. One of our worst problems, though, is that critics have rarely considered themselves “journalists.” I remember one professional gathering where a colleague publicly said, “I hope that I never write a column that makes someone think I went to journalism school.” I had to bite my tongue from saying “I hope no one reads my writing and thinks I went to a conservatory.” If you write for a newspaper, you’re a journalist, and you isolate yourself from the profession at your own peril, as many of our colleagues are finding out now.
The funny thing about this-and one reason I was so hesitant to write about the project-was that, by the standards of every magazine I’ve written for, I would’ve been disqualified from writing about Bonesetter because of a conflict of interest. The only possible choice, really, was to write a book. And once the book was published, I’d become “an expert,” not just a reporter who’d become part of the story. I was asked to write a piece for Opera magazine in England as a result.
Frank J. Oteri: As long as we are talking about full disclosure, I too have had an inside track into this process. You’re a close friend whom I’ve known for almost 15 years and I’ve traveled to several countries with you, including China during one of the trips mentioned in this book. But to my mind, my having been there gives me an understanding of this project as well as the nature of your involvement in it and knowing all of this information first-hand helped me prepare to talk with you about it. In the era of eye-witness bloggers and “indie-cred,” this seems to be the new paradigm for a lot of journalists. Putting this back into the context of your book, it’s difficult to imagine an outsider be able to write such a book.
Ken Smith: I won’t argue. Even when you don’t show off “insider-ness,” it informs every question and how you frame the response. Just listen to the kind of questions you ask me. We’re definitely entering a different age of documentation. When people used to ask me about ethical boundaries, I used to say, “I have no ethics.” I meant that, as a freelancer, I was largely bound by the standards of whatever publication I was writing for at the time, and there’s a considerable gap between the standards in England—which, frankly, did not undergo our Watergate-era navel gazing—and those in the United States. If I had to define my own standards for the new era, I’d start with (1) get the facts right, and (2) be honest in your perspective and give your readers just enough information about yourself to determine for themselves whether or not your view is trustworthy.
Frank J. Oteri: In your first chapter, I enjoyed the way you explained your confluence of interest: your reference to the music critic who described the process of so-called objective criticism as “coming onto the field of battle after the battle is over and shooting the wounded.” In an era where contemporary opera is pretty much marginalized in mainstream society, certainly a different approach is required. How could advocational tools such as this book make people more aware of new work?
Ken Smith: First, let’s give due credit for that quote to William Littler, longtime music critic for the Toronto Star. He cribbed it from Hemingway’s view of war correspondents, but that’s hardly shameful in my book. Much of my own approach to writing about music has been influenced by writers like Michael Lewis, Thomas Friedman and Calvin Trillin. My voice would be unremarkable on the business or sports section, but it used to stand out in the arts pages.
One of the downfalls of mainstream media is that newspapers and television networks, in their efforts to reach the broadest possible audiences, has no clue anymore who their audience really is. Ten years ago, my strength as a writer for Time Out New York was that I was precisely in the Time Out demographic. Now I write for Financial Times, and even though I don’t run a Fortune 500 company, I do regularly pick up that newspaper in airline lounges. I want to know about significant events around the world that I wasn’t necessarily in town to see. So in effect, I’m still writing for myself. I’m never sure how to reach out to some vague, undefined readership. But I can write for people I know. All I need to find the best platform to reach them.
Frank J. Oteri: We haven’t yet talked about the fact that immersing yourself into a project this deeply requires more time than most people bring to journalistic projects. How can people write with an insider’s knowledge and still meet deadlines?
Ken Smith: Ah yes, deadlines. Bane of my existence. It’s enough to make a person reconsider journalism. I’ve been very much inspired over the years by people like Joe Horowitz and John Rockwell, who jump over that journalistic wall we talked about. Some people can review or annotate only so many concerts organized by someone else before they have to put together their own. Deep down, we’re all like Nick Hornby’s protagonist in High Fidelity, making mix tapes of our favorite songs for our friends. The medium is optional.
Perhaps the key thing about working in China is that, clichés notwithstanding, the frontier spirit is alive and well. In real terms, this means that there’s a great hunger for new things across the board, and not so much expertise in how to provide them. I’ve been hauled into filmmakers’ studios to consult on soundtracks. With no previous record company experience—other than having listened to a few thousand CDs professionally—I’ve become co-music director of a series of minority village music, the publisher of which has since become the head of an entire provincial museum concern in Guizhou province as a result. The advantage of all of this is that, as far as deadlines are concerned, whenever I write something these days, odds are I don’t have to start my research from scratch.
Frank J. Oteri: So dare I ask what your encore to this will be?
Ken Smith: My most immediate project is a collection of my writings from the past 15 years on Western music in China and Chinese music in the West, which is being published by Joint Publishing in Beijing sometime around Chinese New Year. I’ve also been contemplating a couple of larger projects that have nothing to do with music, including a history of Chinese drinking culture. But as far as books are concerned, I’ll have to find something that can maintain my interest and momentum long term. Not long ago, we were sitting in early creative meetings for a Broadway musical about the life of Bruce Lee, which so far at least falls somewhat into our Bonesetter formula. We’d taken David Henry Hwang on research trips in Hong Kong, and the composer David Yazbek was attracted by much of the same music that inspired Stewart. The creative enthusiasm in the room was running high, and at one point Joanna turned to me and started saying, “Somebody needs to write about this….” I immediately cut her off. I’ve already done that.