The kingdom has come a long way since the days when Western classical music was accessible to a small section of society. Today, classical chef d’eouvres are widely appreciated and recognised for their refined complexities and richness. Not only has the number of classical music enthusiasts grown, but Thailand now boasts a handful of musical prodigies who have helped shape the country’s classical music scene. We speak to three of them for an insightful glimpse into their illustrious journeys in the world of music.
Among the country’s musical geniuses is the distinguished award-winning novelist and composer Somtow Sucharitkul. If you are not familiar with his name, you will perhaps remember the man who so passionately led the massed singing of the royal anthem in commemoration of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016.
His interest in music flourished at a young age but his first encounter with classical compositions wasn’t one many people can claim to have experienced. When you receive a record player and a set of children’s LPs as a gift from your parents at the age of eight, with specific instructions to not touch their records stocked away on the top shelf, the chances are that that’s exactly what you will do.
“I waited for everyone to be out of the house before I climbed onto whatever I could find to access that shelf,” he laughs. “As it turns out, they were all classical songs. One of the strangest thing about this incident was that the first pieces I played all sounded like I had heard them before even though I hadn’t. It was almost as though they were evoking some existence that I had in an alternate universe. That experience was so overwhelming it sort of set my life off in a specific direction as it were.”
As a boy Somtow often hummed but he soon came to realise that what those around him could hear was entirely different to what was resounding ever so vibrantly in his head. “In my mind, I could hear not only the melody but also the entire harmonic orchestral accompaniment and because it was so vivid, I thought I was actually singing the whole thing,” he explains. By the age of 10, scribbling notes on sheets of paper on which he drew a series of staves, Somtow was already attempting to compose his first opera. “Because I was so young and didn’t believe anything was impossible, the opera turned out to be an adaptation of Goethe’s waltz,” he laughs. “I didn’t get a long way past the fourth or fifth bar before I realised I was technically unable to do it.”
One might think that for someone so enthralled in the world of music at such a young age and experiencing multiple manifestations of musical ingenuity, making a career from music would be a certainty. But Somtow’s path to becoming an internationally recognised composer was marked with moments of doubt. As a student his interests were torn between writing and music. “Whenever I was deeply involved in one thing, I was also strongly drawn to the other.” But an invitation to Kyoto to be the Thai representative at an Asian composers festival when he was 21 years old led him to a degree in music. “That was the first time I became convinced I should do music,” he says.
After graduating from Cambridge with a double degree in English literature and music, Somtow returned to Thailand and with friends Bruce Gaston and Danu Huntrakul set out on a musical journey determined to revolutionalise contemporary music in Thailand. This entailed a never-done-before incorporation of ancient traditional Thai instruments with contemporary music. “This was back in the 70s,” says Somtow.
“Though it was an immense turning point for contemporary music it was immensely unpopular.” As a result, each went their separate ways. Somtow emigrated to LA, shifted career path and prospered as a writer, earning the prestigious World Fantasy Award. It was not until the late 1990s that he returned to Thailand and reinvented himself as an Asian neo-Romantic composer of operas.
Within five years, he was internationally hailed as the man responsible for turning Bangkok into an operatic hub of Southeast Asia. Among his works are Madana, Mae Naak, Ayodhya and The Silent Prince. “I realised there was a thirst for something in the cultural scene here though I wasn’t quite sure what it was. I figured I would be more useful here doing this than living well in LA but not being that relevant.” To this end, he founded the Siam Opera. “Because there was no infrastructure at the time for an opera company, I created the Siam Philharmonic Orchestra as a support system. I then founded a youth orchestra, the Siam Sinfonietta.”
It would take a book to list the compositions and operas this man has crafted. “I haven’t kept a running log but I have composed at least a dozen operas,” he says. “And written around 60 books.” Fan of the classical or not, one cannot deny Somtow’s talent and contribution to the artistic scene here. After all, his Siam Philharmonic mounted the first complete Mahler cycle in the region. This is perhaps why he also feels a close connection to the German composer. “His work speaks very profoundly to me,” he says. “His quote about being ‘homeless three times’ resonates with me because I grew up in a bi-cultural environment myself.” That said, his favourite composer is Mozart.
According to Somtow, his life in music has been a long journey of self-discovery. “In a way it’s still on-going,” he muses. Now in his 60s, he is still receiving awards here and there, the latest being the 2017 European Cultural Achievement Award. Currently, he is finishing what could be considered as one of the world’s greatest works in opera, a 10-opera cycle entitled Dasjati—The Ten Lives of the Buddha. He says that what began in 1977, once completed, will be the largest integrated music work in the history of classical music.