Tag: composers abroad

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.