Shops and skyscrapers on a street in Bangkok.
Experiencing Influences

Experiencing Influences

It’s difficult to say specifically how living in Thailand has influenced my own music, but I have noticed some significant changes.   I think learning the language has significantly challenged my mind to connect with what I hear in new ways, and in doing so I constantly figure out how to make sounds that communicate and speak clearly.  Beyond the musical content of a moment, this preference for clarity—and experiencing clarity as a necessity—is something that tailored and tempered my music.  Teaching has helped me re-visit some orchestral classics that I’ve now fallen in love with all over again.  Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Haydn, and Beethoven have really piqued my musical interest lately.  Having to re-examine the content of their pieces and explain, in detail, why they are special and meaningful within the repertoire has illuminated a deeper appreciation for the beauty of the ideas.  Since moving here, I’ve even composed two orchestral pieces, both of which have been performed by the local orchestra.

Even though I’m more musically active than I have ever been, I feel more relaxed.

Even though I’m more musically active than I have ever been, I feel more relaxed.  Living in Thailand offers me a simpler way of life than I had in America, and this simplicity has helped my composing and imagination grow into the spaces that used to be exhausted keeping up with a fast-paced life.  The day moves much more slowly and, for many reasons, everything just takes more time to do here.  This unrushed pace is something that has helped me relax and feel time.  Through this relaxation, I have become much more productive.  Happiness is an important cultural concept in Thailand that accompanies ideas about the importance of relaxation for personal and community health.  Tasks that might be considered simple and quick back home require more intricate planning here and are difficult to complete the same way.  So instead of prioritizing a large number of things to accomplish each week, I am more focused on doing fewer tasks and planning ahead more thoroughly.  Being freely able to enjoy and explore what is around me has led my creativity forward very naturally into longer-lasting ideas that seek to continue the experience of that joy.  From this, I’ve also become more interested in trying to create more positive musical experiences and messages than I had thought of before.

Another aspect that has influenced my music is the intensity and complexity of the city. This influenced how I consider harmony and sound.  A palette of disparate sensations—particularly of sounds and colors—that might be felt as a contrast became harmonious in Thailand.  Different sensations collide with each other constantly and the city cannot be described without the idea of interplay and disparate but harmonious juxtapositions: ancient and modern architecture; mismatched sights and smells; rivers, roads, and languages interact and jumble together into an intense blend of sensations that is ever-changing.  In Thai food, there are five main flavors. These flavors are balanced in a dish through their careful interplay with each other and can be made to complement each other in a streamlined way or can be made to have a finished balance by not blending together at all.  I really like this idea.

People eating at tables outside on a street in Bangkok.

Over the course of my time here, several collaborations, with artists back in the United States and elsewhere, have been very meaningful because they built common ground between across great distances.  I make an effort to stay connected and expand the relationships I have while I also build new ones.  Working with visual artists and musicians has opened doors to new performance spaces, particularly when living so far away.  It’s not easy or convenient to connect, but it is not at all insurmountable.  The sensibilities bringing these projects together are often a great place for collaborations to start.  Often, new creative territory becomes real through exploring the dynamics of managing this, and the juxtaposition of the two environments creates a helpful alternative space already rich with an interesting mix of concepts.  Some of my most meaningful experiences here are days when I meet a new person during travel and we link up to better explore the city by combining our skills and what information we know. International collaborations are very much like this, and some of my favorite collaborative projects over the past years have been directly about how to comprehend and express the dynamics of this big space between creative partners.

A recent work for electronic playback and video is one such project.  Created in collaboration with Cynthia Pachikara, Vertical Horizon(tal), directly addresses different experiences of space.  Layers of video images, each representing a different axis (vertical, horizontal) are projected independently onto one picture plane where the images are stacked and their light and colors are combined together.  As the viewer moves through the combined projections they will naturally block the light from one of the three layers of projected images and create a shadow impression of their body on the screen. The other layers of images embedded then begin to appear inside this shadow.  The music is a combination of sounds that were built to be in a direct relationship with the structure of the images—airplane control tower recordings, instrumental sounds, noises from various transportation vehicles, birds, stable objects, and shimmering sounds each contribute towards the representation of a physical location that is difficult to identify because it is often at odds with other layers of images and sound that help reveal location.  The key element is the body of the viewer (as a screen and receiver) moving through and changing the image.

Having been away so long, new music in contemporary concerts is very fresh to my ear.

Teaching and connecting with both the local community and the visiting international artist scene has helped open my mind towards different ways of thinking about music and various details about the instrumental and orchestral repertoire (and music theory) that I had not been exposed to before.  Connecting these ideas together in composing and teaching has influenced my music and the way I think about communicating the musical content of the repertoire.  This has also helped me understand more about how I can help to continue to facilitate opportunities for contemporary performances.  Throughout this journey, staying in contact with America has been very important to me.  I realize many of my ideas about music are strongly connected to American culture and pedagogy.  Each time I come back to the United States, I love to attend concerts and conferences to hear new music and cull more resources.  As I travel back and forth, I rediscover sounds that are distinct to the American musical landscape.  Having been away so long, new music in contemporary concerts is very fresh to my ear.  It’s very invigorating to reencounter my favorite contemporary composers in live performances of their music.

When I reflect back on American music and think about the sounds I heard when I was growing up, I think about rhythm.  The strong surging pulse with clear beats and driving rhythms is something I now see in a new light.  When I was composing one of my orchestra pieces, I tried to align with this feature of American music more freely than I had before.

A monk walking down a street in Bangkok.

Living in a predominantly Buddhist culture has affected my approach to working with other musicians.  One idea of Buddhism is becoming aware of the inner-connections of everyday moments and the gratitude that comes from taking a moment to consider connections to each other.  For example, the desk I’m sitting at is something that has been made by someone.  Someone has given his or her time to do this and thinking about that cultivates gratitude. When I think about how many people have contributed in some way to making what is around me, I really appreciate the act and the object more fully.  As a result, I’ve become more aware of how this idea can appear in music.   Traditionally, it’s historically normal to find examples of composers who have been represented as isolated in their own world, but I find the reality of composing is much different.  The joy of sharing music with people influences the creative experience, too. Being receptive to ideas, absorbing them and acknowledging the community effort that makes contemporary music happen—instead of feeling like the victim of a lonely curse—can be transformative.  Moving away from the uniqueness of individuality and isolation towards becoming part of a larger community is something that has created many access points into contemporary music for both others and myself.  I like helping to make musical events happen so that they can be enjoyed – increasing the health of the participants and community with inclusive opportunities and outlooks.  These access points into music, both inside and outside of the music community, are necessary for musicians to be able to be heard and appreciated, and for the wide variety of perspectives within the field to be nurtured and maintained.

Moving away from individuality and isolation has created many access points into contemporary music for both others and myself.

In conclusion, the influences of moving into a new country with a completely different culture, working as the chair of composition and theory, taking my students and traveling to different countries as a guest of other universities and musical events, the sound of the language and learning to speak it properly, sharing music with guests from abroad and the impact of understanding other histories has enriched me as a person and added depth to my way of writing music.  My outlook has grown so much from embracing these experiences and I wish to share them and continue along this path of exploration and experiences.

An aerial view of Bangkok showing skyscrapers on both sides of a river.

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NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

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