Author: Judy Bozone

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.

Music at the Root of Language

Because I am in a different culture, I am learning just as much information as I am teaching. I chair the department at Mahidol University’s College of Music in Bangkok where I teach a wide variety of lecture courses—form and analysis, orchestration, 20th century music, electronic music, music theory—as well as private lessons in composition. As a teacher, I want to help people make new music. In Thailand, teachers are very highly respected by students and the relationships between students and teachers are generally more formal than in the United States. All of the courses are taught in English, but coming from an area with a different education system required some careful thought on my part about what information may be needed and how best to communicate it.

In lecture courses, the instructor is the main path to internalizing information and learning more about resources. I typically found that my resources are coming from, and represent, a specific perspective about music—one that is very important and from the United States. As a teacher, I would wonder how (even if) I could balance these perspectives, or tailor them, within the class in order to better accommodate growth within this specific environment. Generally, there is a pattern of favoring Romantic music as well as other music—like rock and jazz—that are openly communicative in content but also have a comfortable and lush sound world. One result from encountering this has been to move closer towards the center of the canon and to try to think about where that might be. If I were teaching in the States, it would be reasonable to rely on that knowledge base and continue to move away from the center. But in this environment, articulating and re-articulating the pathways taken by Western musicians helps create continuity around—and from—a more middle area. I’m able to speak to experiences and the ideas and techniques often found in this music much more clearly than I can speak about other kinds of music.

What has informed my music teaching here the most has been the very gradual process of learning to speak Thai and the cultural awareness that has resulted from that. Beyond this learning process, knowing more about the culture of my students has also helped me become a better teacher. As I mentioned in an earlier post, living outside your home country can result in many challenges. When comprehension is not automatic, everything that needs to be understood is something that has to be assessed as such and then re-acquired. Being able to speak in daily life was important to me from the beginning, so I spent the first two years choosing and learning to say phrases correctly. With each new word or phrase, new doors opened and points of conversational access increased.

Learning the Thai Language

Over the course of the first year, the learning curve for new skills was quite steep. During the second year, I focused on developing a larger vocabulary to increase access to details. Although all courses are taught in English at the university, Thai is more regularly spoken in my life outside the college. The Thai language has had a strong impact on me. Having to learn to speak a different language has helped me re-consider which words to use and has made listening a high priority.

When the understanding of speech is not automatic, one has to rely heavily on the ear to repeat sounds, words, etc., exactly as they are heard. In many ways, I found this process to be very musical, and I have approached the language from a musical point of view. Observing and understanding words helps facilitate communication: What types of words are being used? What words shift to new speaker? What is the tone of the conversation? In the Thai language, words have a very beautiful sound because of the high content of shaped vowels. Words that are not smooth would not be used regularly and the direct words “I” and “you” are often avoided in conversational speaking. The side effect of learning what I do know of the Thai language has also helped me a great deal to be able to develop cultural navigation skills.

Thai is very melodic. It is a tonal language with five tones where the shapes of the tones (mid, low, falling, high, and rising) occur on the vowel sounds, making audible melodies. These five tones are just as important to the meaning and expression of the word as any vowel or consonant. In English, changes in a tone and the sound of a word are used for expression, but in Thai, different tones are different words. Mistakes in pronunciation result in confusion and unintended, but hilariously silly, meanings. Over time, I discovered that as a native English speaker, my speech was very sonically expressive; it was very full of sounds not related to the word. I would emphasize certain words to change their meaning within the context of a sentence. I also discovered that my speech was riddled with and by idioms; the amount of these idioms hidden throughout concepts was genuinely surprising. In learning to speak Thai, I had to be very mindful not to let the meaning of what I was saying result in expressions of sound that could unintentionally distort the tones of my speech and the meaning of my words.

There was a linguistic turning point after about two and half years here. I was in a taxi and had often used the phrase “mai khao jai” or “I don’t understand” to indicate I had reached a vocabulary limit in the conversation and would be unable to continue. (Thinking that “I don’t understand” implied “I don’t understand what you are saying.”) At the time, it was frustrating because it wasn’t true. I comprehended the questions, but just did not have the vocabulary to respond. Because of this taxi ride, I chose to learn the phrase “I understand but I don’t know.” And “I understand but I don’t know how to speak” (thinking that these phrases might clarify a vocabulary limit not a mental limit). Surprisingly, when I began using this phrase instead, people understood I had reached a vocabulary limit and would teach me by continuing to speak or by beginning to explain more words that surrounded the concept of the word where I had gotten lost.

Learning a new word completely changes what you have access to.

One of the things that becomes very clear as new words and skills are learned is the impact new skills can make. Learning a new word completely changes what you have access to. When new ideas are applied, things can really open up. I have learned most of my Thai from the people around me and, in return, teach English words. This experience is very common. I practice using a new word in a sentence and teach the English version of that same word.

Finding Ways to Adapt the English Language

Not all cultural concepts found in English translate outside of English well. Through teaching, particularly in private lessons, I have realized that as a native speaker my speech contains many idioms unique to English that affect the ease of comprehension. There are so many! “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is one of my favorite creative examples of this. I also realized that, as a native speaker, I emphasize certain words to change their meaning within the context of a sentence, resulting in a distorted idea for the listener. Sarcasm, although very common for native speakers, is not effective for transferring information. Spoken humor often experiences a similar fate. So when I teach, in response to becoming aware of these idiosyncrasies of English combined with the melodic, fluid nature of the Thai language, I try to keep an even tone of voice. It sounds simple, but many good things have come from it.

Sarcasm is not effective for transferring information.

English’s strong skeletal grammar tends to hold intent well through many different pronunciations. (If a word is spoken incorrectly, its meaning is often still understood.) Overall English also has a high capacity for precision with various amounts of decorative words. English is very clear. Although English is also a difficult language, especially when written, the precision and clarity of grammar beyond pronunciation is one of the reasons it is relied upon as a common go-to language between multiple speakers. However, it is also common that the clarity of the English language can result in essential losses of sentiment and meaning of expressions from other languages. In written English, letters are used to make words that explain ideas in a row. But in some languages, letters and words have symbols in every direction, much like music. (The poet E.E. Cummings is a great example of someone using English in this way.) This feature makes space for symbols and letters to effect each other in a more nonlinear way.

Student musicians rehearsing at Mahidol University’s College of Music

The Language of Music

My approach to teaching now is more multi-lingual with music at the root. Clarity has become a primary tool for doing this and remaining focused on a practical approach built for clear responses to the ideas and materials found in the class are central to understanding the effectiveness of that clarity. I often focus on cultivating a firm grasp of the fundamental ideas that concern the vocabularies of the music at hand. In both music and language, listening for, seeing, and finding patterns is critical. Some patterns are easier to hear and some are easier to see.

In both music and language, listening for, seeing, and finding patterns is critical.

Although abstract concepts found in music can be difficult to articulate verbally, they can be made more accessible by examples where the abstraction is seen in a clear way—like in a diagram, flow chart, card series, or score. Many times, I will talk about how abstractions are easy to experience by looking through the lens of a camera. When doing this, it’s clear to see many similarities that relate to musical thinking. I can move through the depth of an image by focusing on something very close, something found in the middle, or something that is very far away. I can blur everything, or blur just a little bit. I can put an image in full focus or focus on just a small point. I can let all, or some, of the light into the image and change the colors. In cameras, I can capture one image at a time, but I can choose to combine many images into one image later. Once I capture an image, it lives in the camera even though I leave the place where I took the picture. One picture can be made and remade many times (and so on).

The students here ask such wonderful questions about composition, and I like to give as much information as possible. Beyond focusing on the music created for the week, in response to questions, I have often found that answers are sometimes best articulated through the process of solving a different problem that can help explain and inform the how, why, and what. Notation is great example of this. Notation exercises have been very useful additions to composition lessons. Practicing a wide variety of essential techniques (away from the piece they are composing and not a theory assignment) can inform future choices that will require detail and strengthen mental flexibility.

Beyond practical concerns, another aspect of teaching composition is how to constructively approach creativity. It can be difficult to make space for creative ideas and experiences. This is something I change around from semester to semester, but the general idea is to exit your routine on purpose, “shock the system” and document the experience somehow. A straightforward example of creativity practice is taking a different mode of transportation to the places you need to be for one week. If you drive a car normally, take a bike or a bus or ride with a friend instead. Take photos of what you see during the experience, take a video, or write words while it’s happening. See what happens. A change of pace can also help keep the mind more alert and taking a different path will result in different experiences. There may or may not be clear outcomes here, such as a completed pieces of music, but healthy creativity is a long-term part of being a composer. In returning to the music at hand during the week, I will often recommend a series of reasonable choices for students to consider until they find a good fit.

I teach music and learn about Thailand, and the students teach Thailand and learn about the music.

Being able to experience the clear side effects of learning so many new skills myself—from language to locations—has really encouraged me to develop my teaching towards a focus on responsive results, practice, and expanding chances for experience. I became much more aware of the pace and paths of learning because the learning process requires observations, considerations, implementation, observation of efficacy, and then adjustments. This is an experience my students and I both share even though the topics are different. I teach music and learn about Thailand, and the students teach Thailand and learn about the music.

Making Music in Thailand

In Thailand, it is a very exciting time to be a composer because there is a lot of space for development.  There have been several influential composers here, but contemporary music is still a relatively new idea. For many composers in the younger generation, it is a new career path.  Individual arts entrepreneurship is somewhat more difficult in an environment that so highly values the community.  But there are many avenues for music making here, ranging from organized local contemporary music initiatives to interacting with visiting musicians as well as with practitioners of traditional Thai music—a very rich music scene that is unique to this country.

In Thailand, contemporary music is still a relatively new idea.

Our largest contemporary music event of the year is the Thailand International Composition Festival (TICF).  This festival has been in place for nearly ten years and is the highlight of the season for composers.  Guests have included John Corigliano, Aaron Jay Kernis, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Bright Sheng, Augusta Read Thomas, Mathew Rosenblum, Ken Ueno, Federico Garcia-de Castro, Paul Dooley, and many others.  Each year, the energy of the field is refreshed, reinvigorated, and energized from these visits.  During this week-long event, curious composers, musicians, and students are able to attend lectures as well as a concert series featuring music by the guests performed by both local musicians and visiting chamber groups. Contemporary composers and performers from Thailand are also featured here throughout the week.

Mark Adamo, John Corigliano, Aaron Jay Kernis, Judy Bozone, and others on stage in front of the musicians performing at the 2016 Thailand International Music Festival

Some prominent visiting composers and a few local ones pose for a group photo at last year’s Thailand International Music Festival

Alongside these performance opportunities, a competition for young composers also takes place. As time allows, group lessons are scheduled at the college for both local students and student exchange composers as well as for the competition finalists.  During this time, the young composers are able to learn a great deal from observing and getting to know the visitors and interacting with the faculty at the school.  For the students, the opportunity to learn from these composers is immeasurable.

Much of the music developed for this festival has continued to travel to places outside of Thailand.  Local groups, as well as visiting performers and ensembles, will often peruse the music for future programs that are still in the development stages and often export the music on an international tour. I’ve personally had pieces that had been part of TICF continue on to other conferences in Asia, America, and Europe.

Another opportunity for composers in Thailand is the Young Thai Artist Award, an annual prize for which only Thai citizens are eligible.  This award recognizes young artists in the fields of composition, painting, sculpture, film, literature, and photography.  After the competition portion, the winners of each area of concentration are sent, along with the adjudicators, to a European city known for its contributions to the arts.  Each year, a new theme is chosen to showcase a different creative goal for the project.  Last year, we explored Austria and the paintings of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.  As the organizer for musical composition, I was able to give a lecture to the group about the music of Mozart while we were touring his childhood home (which was really fun).  Each year, a new theme is chosen to showcase a different creative goal for the project.

A group photo of the winners of the 2016 Young Thai Artist Award

In Austria with the winners of the 2016 Young Thai Artist Award

Traveling musicians are very open to participating in local activities.

But Thai composers don’t need to travel abroad to be able to interact with a wide range of international musicians.  Many traveling musicians choose to stop and perform in Bangkok along their way to other countries and often collaborate with local groups here. One of my favorite aspects of this high influx of performances has been being exposed to pieces that are not often performed at home, like the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra and his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra which Martin Jaggi, a cellist and composer from Zurich, performed with the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra.  Our musical activities at Mahidol University’s College of Music, where I teach, are frequently built around these guests. For example, Martin was invited to give a master class demonstrating performing techniques. I additionally asked my students to compose solo cello pieces and he generously read through them.  There are so many instances of this generosity from visiting performers and conductors who make efforts to reach out to composers about different aspects of craft.  Generally, traveling musicians are very open to participating in local activities that allow for much more purposeful outreach, concertizing, and teaching. As visitors come and go, there are a great deal of these opportunities.

But there are also opportunities to work with another group of musicians who perform a repertoire that has survived for centuries—the practitioners of Thai traditional music. The chance to hear this music is a daily event here. Each morning and evening, practice sessions line the boardwalk of the canal near the college. I first became involved with traditional music just through my own curiosity as a listener. I was genuinely in awe of the sounds of the instruments I was hearing and the skill level of the young performers. I then started taking lessons myself. I have since been asked to adjudicate a Thai music competition.

The chance to hear Thai traditional music is a daily event here.

Thai traditional music is often played to celebrate an occasion or highlight a significant event. Performances are coded, both sonically and structurally, with layers of meaning. Generally, Thai performances typically feature melodies that are well known to the audience but, as in jazz and folk, there are expressive changes to those melodies. The way the melody is treated will highlight the skill of the performer.  Changes occur very gradually but there isn’t a strict approach to repetition or cycles beyond maintaining melodic or harmonic phrases.  Through a steady tempo, climaxes are often very rhythmic and the music can be quite subtle.  There are standard formal ensembles for different occasions, but performances on ranad (a wooden xylophone), kong wong yai (a set of 16 gongs on a circular rack), khim (a hammered dulcimer with two bridges), and saw ou (a mellow toned string instrument made from coconut shell and cowhide) are very common.  Thai music is traditionally taught by rote, without the use of music notation, so musicians will spend many hours working to remember the performance techniques given from their teacher.  Nowadays, however, many traditional musicians are college educated and have learned to read musical scores in their music theory courses.

An outdoor rehearsal session of Thai traditional music.

An outdoor rehearsal session of Thai traditional music.

As part of my composition studio, I encourage my students to utilize these Thai traditional instruments and musicians in a contemporary music setting at least once a year.  With the influx of Western instruments, I am also interested in helping students stay connected to the music that is already here and that continues to be played here.  By doing this, we have been able to establish projects that link Thai traditional music, composition, and chamber music into annual concerts (and occasionally international performances).

But composing for this group of instruments does require some special considerations.  They generally take more time and require being immersed into a person to person composing process. There is a formality in learning how to write for and play in these ensembles that is essential to preserving the spirit of the music.  Much of the music remains in the air, hands, and ears until performance dates come closer (which is major aspect of rote technique). Often what gets written on the page is merely a mnemonic for the musician rather than a completely detailed part.  Through working together, we are able to understand what notations are useful, mostly through trial and error.

When combining Thai traditional and Western instruments together in an ensemble, generally string ensembles have been the most suitable for these collaborative projects (for reasons of volume and tuning).  The differences in tuning between the traditional instruments and Western instruments can create fun harmonies for students to work with.  Some composers have also chosen to include Thai shadow puppets or Nang Yai (another traditional art form) into their work.

All in all, the opportunities for composition here are very fruitful. The wide variety of ensembles and guest musicians bring new ways of thinking that are very refreshing. Each of these experiences shines light on contemporary music for the future and the many ways it can develop.

Bozone and a traditional Thai instrumentalists sitting in front of a group of traditional Thai instruments.

Follow the Music

When the phone rang four years ago, I was asked if I would be interested in moving to Bangkok, Thailand to teach music theory and composition.  I said yes. It was one of those moments in life when one embraces the possibilities, even without knowing what will happen.  I can admit that, due to my patchy-at-best understanding of global geography, it was not too long after the phone call ended that I decided to look again, this time more carefully, at my map of the world to find out where exactly I was going before a celebratory trip to the bookstore.  Even though I did not know precisely where I was going, I had to honor the important rule of my life: follow the music.

Following the music had been the story of my life up to that point. Years before the phone rang, in the senior year of my undergraduate studies, this rule helped guide me through a decision to move my concentration away from voice (an area that had previously defined my musicianship) towards composition. While I was transitioning towards becoming a composer, it was tremendously unclear what would happen. I had invested so much time and attention into singing that composition really came to me as a surprise. Thankfully, I had a very supportive group of teachers in both voice and composition who encouraged and inspired the process.  Although it was difficult at the time, this change towards making music in a new-to-me way led to being able to learn more. In order to follow the music, I have moved more times than I can count—along a general path from my home in Texas through Michigan and then on to Bangkok. Through so many changes, music has always been what has held it all together.

Ironically, the steadiness and predictability I sought became available to me only through a great dislocation.

Before the phone call, I had been considering two things. One was the potential to enrich my composing by pursuing new experiences, and the other was my desire to teach and interact with musicians.  After finishing my degrees, I had been teaching private lessons and working a day job while I composed in my free time, but I found that much of my time was actually being used in the drives commuting back and forth from one area to another.  I enjoyed having writing time and teaching students, but did find the day job difficult.  The chance to work abroad would allow me to consolidate my work into one place. I liked the steadiness of the idea. I did not know at that point how long I would be interested in living there or how long I would even be able to last overseas, but a steady life was something I wanted for myself. Ironically, the steadiness and predictability I sought became available to me only through a great dislocation. As I packed my bags, I did feel scared to be leaving but was more excited about the possibilities that might come as a result.

A twilight view of Mahidol University.

With a time zone thirteen hours ahead of my home, the sprawling capital city of Thailand is strategically located on what, geographically and culturally, seems to be the other side of the Earth! Bangkok is an intense collage of colors, sights, and sounds. Downtown the whole city buzzes, temples glitter with mirrored tiles (even in the moonlight!), taxis and tuk-tuks line the street beside outdoor markets and cranes loom overhead. Food stalls are tightly packed with families and friends enjoying fresh meals. Boats chug and swoop along the Chao Praya River, the city’s oldest expressway. I had travelled quite frequently prior to moving to Thailand but had never stayed anywhere internationally longer than a week or two. Life as an expatriate is a completely different experience than just passing through as a tourist. Unlike a temporary visit, successfully living abroad requires a gradual and pragmatic approach towards adaptation. By investing my time and musicianship here, Bangkok has become my home.

Nevertheless, navigating this new terrain demanded focus and dedication. When I arrived, I did not even know how to greet people properly. During the course of my daily walks those first days, I waved and smiled back at every smile I received, something that I only know now was completely inappropriate. (My well-intended waves looked alarming. The smile was okay, though.) In the first weeks, the priorities were very basic: find a place to live, get a telephone, get a handle on what is happening with Wi-Fi, successfully get a taxi, try to go somewhere specific on purpose, see what happens. In the beginning, it took a great deal of patience to observe what needed to be learned and to follow through. Each day required a high level of attention and intention. Research done beforehand had warned of the possibilities of initially experiencing culture shock; this can happen when days (weeks and months) go by without the personal ability to complete a task with accuracy. I did not want this to happen to me.

Soon enough I met with other international colleagues at the College of Music at Mahidol University (where I would soon begin working) and listened carefully to a much-needed flood of instructions regarding the skills I would need to learn. The learning curve was quite steep at first.  When you are moving to a new country, it can be difficult to anticipate some of the side effects that can result from needing to re-learn how to do what in the past have been simple tasks. That said, gradually moving towards a more complete set of geographic and cultural navigation skills is very important. This process has been very revealing for me and is one of my favorite aspects of deciding to come here—I’m so glad I did. The joy that living here brings is something I had never experienced before either. Even though I was quick to pick up the hand technique for a proper wai greeting that normally accompanies a verbal hello, over these past years I’ve still been continuing to develop my wai, making sure to be mindful that my elbows don’t stick out so much.

A frieze of musician playing a baritone saxophone outside the Mahidol University music department.

My activities here are centered around music-making—something which has always felt like home to me.  As chair of the composition and theory department I interact with the creative and administrative aspects of musical teaching and development. My goal here is to make more space for composition and creativity for the next generation to enjoy. I teach a studio of composers as well as a wide variety of lecture courses ranging from music theory, orchestration, form and analysis, electronic music, and 20th century literature, as well as help organize new music events for young composers such as the Young Thai Artist Award and the Thailand International Composition Festival. Most of my free time is spent exploring Bangkok and the surrounding areas.  When I am not composing or teaching, I particularly enjoy walking through the city while I practice using my language skills to find local recommendations.  My favorite activities are touring the many street markets, taking photos, relaxing with a Thai massage and visiting the Buddhist temples in and around the area.

Following the music took me far away, but has also guided me towards the music I was called to discover.

Following the music took me far away, but has also guided me towards the music I was called to discover.  Taking a path open to possibility can lead to enriched depths of craftsmanship, creativity, comprehension, performance, and perspective in deeply meaningful ways. As I will discuss in later posts, the impact of living in the collage of sensations Bangkok has to offer has gradually come to influence my music. Similarly, my own process of learning and the growing awareness of how to cultivate development would come to inform how I approach teaching and learning. In the next article in this series, I will talk more about the variety of options available for musicians abroad, Thai traditional music, and the appetite for contemporary music within the region.

Judy Bozone

Judy Bozone’s music is as eclectic and vivid as the composer herself. She is currently chair of the composition and theory department at Mahidol University’s College of Music and enjoys following her love of music while reaching out for new experiences.