Month: October 2007

Good? Bad? Ugly?

So did legendary Italian film composer Ennio Morricone get dissed in Korea or not? Morricone was in the country last week to be honored at the Pusan International Film Festival this week, but left early—depending on who you read, this was either all according to plan, due to an unprecedented mid-festival typhoon, or because of an unforgivable breach of etiquette. From the Seoul Times:

As part of opening night, Ennio Morricone was supposed have been honored with a ceremonial hand printing, but the inclement weather kept the legendary composer indoors and the presenting ceremony private.

But the Korea Times first reported this:

Afterward, the private opening party at the garden of Paradise Hotel greeted the stars and celebrities. Morricone, who was planning on topping the late-night event with the festival’s first hand-printing ceremony, was unable to do so due to fatigue.

(The “hand-printing” ceremony is a festival honoree tradition, kind of like the way stars have left their imprint in the sidewalk outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater.) The same paper later expanded on that report:

Ennio Morricone, the 79-year-old legendary Italian composer and conductor, was one of the important guests at Thursday’s opening ceremony. But the maestro of film music and his wife were left unattended and unescorted at Thursday’s opening ceremony.

Rumors went even further:

The most contested talk of the town was the alleged mistreatment and early departure of Ennio Morricone, the world-renowned maker of timeless scores from “Cinema Paradiso.” With the sudden arrival of three contending presidential candidates, Morricone’s red carpet entrance was pushed back during the opening ceremony. The 79-year-old composer had to remain standing for a very long time, and local media reports suggest that the festival staff did not treat him with respect.

Morricone did not show up for the hand-printing ceremony later on that evening. PIFF organizers, on the other hand, maintain that he left the country according to plan.

But the Hollywood Reporter says it’s tabloid exaggeration:

However, the Korean press, especially the mercurial online variety, turned on PIFF this year, showering the festival with a barrage of complaints: Guest Ennio Morricone left the festival in an angry huff (false), a press conference for Lee Myung-se’s “M” was far too crowded (true), a beachfront pavilion leaked (true, but there was a typhoon at the time).

The Reporter‘s reporter, Mark Russell, went into more detail on his blog:

Okay, the truth about Morricone, as far as I know. Morricone led a concert in Seoul on Wednesday (Oct. 3) night. He flew down to Busan on Thursday and, despite feeling ill (the dude is 80), he agreed to show up to the opening ceremonies, at least briefly. Morricone was picked up at the airport by one of PIFF’s programmers (sadly, without a translator) and driven to his hotel.

Then he was taken to the opening ceremonies. There was a little disorganization backstage for a few minutes because of the politicians who wanted to attend (particularly Lee Myung-bak, who was quite late). PIFF organizers said it was about 5 minutes, while another person I talked to estimated it was longer. Morricone and his wife were then introduced and led to their seats.

After a few minutes, because he was feeling ill, Morricone went back to his hotel and skipped the opening party. He left early the next day, as scheduled.

No idea where the rumor started that he felt mistreated by PIFF. After all, he did the hand printing. If he was so angry, why would he have done that? There is absolutely no proof that anything bad happened (besides the delay at the opening ceremonies). Just a lot of silly gossip.

My guess is that Morricone would be too classy a guy to confirm whether he was disrespected or not. PIFF is one of the biggest film festivals in Asia, by the way, and swarming with journalists. Backlash? Spin? Or did the organizers really abandon their guest of honor?

Key indicators

Today’s starting point is this Bloomberg News report on the efforts of the French piano manufacturer Pleyel to reposition themselves as a maker of high-end concert instruments in response to Japanese and Chinese competition. The article doesn’t really get into the most interesting aspect of that move, namely, keeping the traditional Pleyel sound (which, based on the last paragraph, it seems they’re trying to do). The ubiquitously standard piano action and timbre of the modern world, what everything gets compared to, is that of a Steinway—a fluid, precise touch combined with a bright, penetrating sound. Pleyels historically have had a lighter touch and a much more limpid, transparent sound. The frequent combination of thick, busy textures with seemingly impossibly low dynamic levels in some pieces of Chopin or Debussy, for example, make much more sense when you know that both composers favored Pleyels.

Keeping that traditional sound is a bold move because it’s the reason Pleyels have become comparatively scarce. Steinways are standard because they’re engineered specifically for a consistent sound that can both fill up a big hall and cut through an orchestra. Pleyels were made primarily for smaller halls and, especially, salons, where its intimate shading could be best appreciated. The company is apparently betting that by highlighting their instruments’ idiosyncratically individual timbre, they can generate enough interest to support only their highest-quality models—the article reports that they’re discontinuing manufacture of uprights, presumably a higher-volume but also less marked-up product. That’s a direct response to competition—the cheapest Pleyel upright has been retailing for around 7,500 Euros; a Chinese-made piano costs only one-fifth as much. But whether there’s a long-tail-type niche for 100,000-Euro grand pianos is, putting it mildly, a bit of a risk.

A scaled-up Pleyel would probably put out enough sound to fill up a large space—after all, even the mighty Bösendorfer 290 Imperial, which does fine in multiple-thousand-seat houses, actually has a somewhat more delicate sound than a Steinway “D”: all that bulk and those extra strings make for a deeper, more sustained tone, not a louder one. But given the premium put on rehearsal time, especially in the United States, there’s the danger that getting used to a non-Steinway sound might be considered one too many adjustments for soloists and orchestras.

I hope Pleyel can make a go of it—I love the sound, myself. If I ever have piles of money, my instrument of choice will be an antique Pleyel. (Although getting such instruments into the US can be a problem: in the past, the ivory keys have run afoul of anti-poaching import restrictions. New Pleyels get around this by using, no kidding, fossilized woolly mammoth tusks.) But you can look at pianos as an object lesson in how globalization, for all its benefits, homogenizes manufacturing. The cheap instruments coming out of China and Japan tend to emulate the Steinway sound; other styles are endangered. Bechsteins, for example, are still made in Germany, for the time being, but the company is now owned by the Korean conglomerate Samick, which makes most of its instruments in Asia (they’ve also taken over the Knabe and Sohmer names, among others); the Bloomberg article mentions in passing that Bösendorfer is for sale, which I wasn’t aware of, but would mark the third change of hands for that company in the past decade.

The question is whether it’s homogenizing music as well. Has the reduction of the idea of what a piano sounds like to, for the most part, one particular timbre similarly impoverished the way composers write for the instrument? Would Chopin and Debussy have come up with the textures and harmonies they did if they were working with a modern Steinway? I can’t think of another instrument that’s become as one-size-fits-all as the modern concert grand.

The history of an instrument is usually presented as an evolutionary chain: viol consorts turning into the modern string section, recorders becoming transverse wooden flutes becoming their contemporary metal counterparts, and so on. It’s like that classic illustration from grade-school biology textbooks showing the step-by-step genealogy of the horse. But that particular pattern—a chain of improvements leading up to a single, modern epitome—is actually something of an evolutionary failure. Truly successful biological lineages are the ones that branch out into endless variety. There’s an argument to be made that the real descendant of the piano is the keyboard synthesizer, with its limitless timbral possibilities, and that the mechanical piano is just an atavism anyways. Still, I’d feel better about the family dynamic if all the siblings but one weren’t hanging on by a thread.

Let’s play our wedding march

From the dusty files of the Soho the Dog music library: Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. With added lyrics. And arranged for Hawaiian guitar. (Click to enlarge.)

Posted in honor of my lovely wife, in celebration of another year, and with the happy expectation of many more.


By now, everyone in the opera world has absorbed the news that Charles Wuorinen is working on an opera based on Brokeback Mountain. I was less skeptical about this idea than some—I thought some of the best, most startling parts of the last Wuorinen piece I heard, his 8th Symphony (“Theologoumena”), were the most delicate moments—and I just make it a rule to try and reserve judgment on any piece until I actually hear it. (I’ve been surprised, pleasantly and unpleasantly, far too many times.)

But then I read that David Carlson (whose Anna Karenina was premiered in St. Louis last season) was working on an adaptation of On the Waterfront (scroll down to the bottom) and I started to think about Wuorninen’s efforts as part of a mini-trend of film-based operas: William Bolcom already saw the premiere of A Wedding, based on the Robert Altman film; Poul Ruders is composing a version of Lars von Trier’s Dancer In the Dark; Howard Shore is mutating David Cronenberg’s The Fly.

On the face of it, this might not seem like news: opera has always plundered other art forms for subjects and plots, far more often, in fact, that it’s generated them itself. But cribbing from film changes the dynamic in a fundamental way. The previous motherlodes of operatic adaptation—theater and literature—are both re-creative media. Plays require live interpretation by actors and directors, with the varying personnel producing equally varied versions of the source material, while literature is dependent on the creative complicity of the reader—everyone who cracks the cover is his or her own producer/director, on the stage of imagination. But film, with its complete Gesamkunstwerk of word, image, sound, and editing, crowds out the possibility of dramatic (though not necessarily semiotic) re-interpretation.

More crucially, I think, duplication and distribution of film universalizes the public image of a particular movie in a way that doesn’t happen with plays or novels, no matter how popular. Take On the Waterfront, a movie that’s burned its way into our collective artistic memory in a remarkably specific way: even people who haven’t seen the movie already have Brando in their head ruminating how he coulda been a contender. Same with Brokeback Mountain: the notoriety (and countless parodies) have created a particular mental image and memory of that story for almost everybody.

It’s not that operagoers will be coming into the show with a pre-existing, personal interpretation of the story they’re about to see—that happens with any adaptation—but that the pre-existing interpretation will be the same one across the board. Everyone will be comparing it to the same experience: a formidable challenge for anyone wanting to translate the material. I could see how Bolcom sould get away with it: The Wedding is something of a cult film—how many people have actually seen it? Or even had heard of it before the opera came out? Far fewer than Brokeback Mountain or The Fly, I’d bet. But with a popular movie, something that immediately latches onto the zeitgeist, I would think that the universality of the filmgoing experience puts the opera at a disadvantage. My sense is that the bar will either be set too high—anything less than an utterly convincing and completely contrasting illumination of the story will be a failure—or too low—simply not alienating the audience’s existent relationship to the material will be sufficient success (you’re terrific if you’re even good, in other words). Either way, there’s a danger of shrinking the artistic space for opera to work its own, idiosyncratic magic.

Shadow play

A trope we’ve cantillated more than once in this space is the notion that a piece of music takes on a life of its own and makes its own way in the world as soon as the composer puts the finishing touches on it. Here’s a rather extreme instance of that.

The song in question is called “Genjer-Genjer,” and it was widely popular in Indonesia in the 1950s and 60s. It was written in 1943 by Muhammad Arif, supposedly inspired by, and describing, his wife’s soup-making; genjer is a leafy green vegetable, regarded by many cultures as a weed, but cultivated for animal and human consumption in Java. The song became something of a standard in Indonesia—go here to listen to one of the best-known versions, by the Indonesian pop star Bing Slamet (1927-1974).

To understand what happened to this song requires descending into one of the murkiest swamps of 20th-century history, the failed Indonesian coup of 1965. In Indonesia, “1965” and, more specifically, “30 September” carry much the same kind of resonance and overtones that “9/11” does in the United States, but even after forty years, historians are still trying to untangle the various stories, accusations, and justifications surrounding the event. On September 30, 1965, a number of Indonesian army officers kidnapped and assassinated six army generals. Calling themselves the “Group of September 30” (usually abbreviated to G-30-S, or Gestapu, in its Indonesian acronym), the officers claimed that they had taken their action pre-emptively, against a right-wing “Council of Generals” that were themselves plotting to overthrow Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president.

Sukarno had been in power since the country won its independence from the Netherlands in 1945. In the late 50s and early 60s, he had effectively used his widespread popularity and his fiery, frequently anti-American rhetoric to position himself as a triangulation between the formidable, deeply right-wing army leadership and the increasingly powerful PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party.

One of the enduring arguments about the G-30-S coup is whether the PKI had any hand in it, and if so, how much. By 1965, the PKI claimed some 27 million members—the largest such party in any non-communist nation—but had been effectively stifled from increasing their legislative power by parliamentary maneuvers, including Sukarno’s appointment as president-for-life. On the other hand, Sukarno, attentive to the political winds, had been increasingly adopting a populist, anti-imperialist stance in tune with the PKI. While evidence does point to knowledge and abetment of the coup by certain high-ranking PKI leaders, there’s little to support the idea of a conscious party instigation.

The coup collapsed within a day or so, partially due to poor planning on the part of the plotters, and partially because another general, Suharto, moved swiftly to crush the rebellion. Suharto’s role in the coup has been the subject of much debate. Almost certainly he knew of it beforehand, and he was not on the list of of generals to be captured, leading many to suggest that he feigned sympathy with the G-30-S, only to ruthlessly turn on them, and the PKI, as an opportunity to seize power himself. It worked—Suharto had pushed aside Sukarno completely by 1967, and remained in authoritarian power until he was forced to step down in 1998.

The theories behind the 1965 coup fall roughly into four groups:

1. The G-30-S were the driving force. These theories take the plotters at their word: the coup was an attempt to prevent a right-wing overthrow of Sukarno. The PKI’s involvement was either non-existent or, at best, limited to the tacit support of a few PKI officials, without explicit party approval—given the growth of the PKI, the argument goes, the party would have had little reason to disturb the status quo. This analysis was earliest and most famously proposed by scholars Benedict Anderson and Ruth McVey in their informal 1966 paper.

2. Suharto was the driving force, as part of a conspiracy to discredit the PKI. In this scenario, Suharto is an Iago-like figure, slyly goading the plotters into carrying out a coup that he knows will fail, leaving him well-placed to take power himself and blame the coup on the PKI. Proponents of this theory point to how comparatively well-organized Suharto’s supposedly spontaneous response was, and how conveniently the events fomented later anti-PKI propaganda (see below). More conspiratorial-minded variants include CIA support and involvement. A good summary of this version of the theory can be found in Peter Dale Scott’s 1985 paper.

3. Certain elements of the PKI recruited and supported the G-30-S, only to be caught off-guard by Suharto’s ruthless response. This theory has arisen from attempts to sort through much of the testimony of alleged G-30-S and PKI plotters, with their varying states of reliability. It argues that the “Council of Generals” was, at the very least, actively positioning themselves to crush the PKI upon the death of Sukarno, who had in 1965 been in ill-health for some time. Rather than take their chances on the defensive in such a situation, a few PKI higher-ups formulated the plan to kidnap the generals, and actively recruited army officers to carry out the operation. John Roosa explains this theory best in his book Pretext for Mass Murder.

4. The PKI, as a party, was behind the coup, in an effort to seize power against the democratic will of the Indonesian people. This has been more or less the official government line since Suharto took power.

It’s important to have a sense of the complex uncertainty surrounding the actual events of 1965 in order to appreciate the brazen nature of Suharto’s subsequent exploitation of them. It would appear that the intent was to kidnap the generals and then present them to Sukarno for prosecution, but the plotters botched the job—three of them were killed in their homes, and when the rest were brought to Jakarta’s Halim Air Force base, it was decided to abandon the kidnap plan, and the other three generals were executed. (A seventh general escaped when his aide was mistakenly captured and killed in his place.) All seven corpses were thrown down a well.

The retrieval of the bodies and their subsequent reburial was a public relations triumph for Suharto, who personally supervised the recovery at the well under the eyes of photographers and television cameras. But government-fomented rumors sprung up almost immediately that put a far more grisly spin on the generals’ fate—and, in the process, “Genjer-Genjer.”

The rumors concerned the Gerakan Wanita Indonesia (Indonesian Women’s Movement), better-known by its acronym Gerwani. The organization, under the umbrella of the PKI, advocated for female rights and empowerment, aiming for women to have a full share in Indonesia’s revolution. According to reports that began to surface soon after the coup was put down, the generals, prior to their execution, had been tortured by Gerwani members who had been specifically trained and brought to the base for that very purpose. The women allegedly slashed the generals’ genitals with razor blades, gouged out their eyes, and then watched them bleed to death as they danced naked around them (the reports specified a traditional Indonesian dance, the “Dance of the Fragrant Flowers”) in a sexual, sadistic orgy.

The stories were complete fiction, as Benedict Anderson demonstrated from unpublished autopsy reports. And it seems almost unfathomable that such a ludicrously lurid tale could actually be taken seriously. But the Dutch scholar Saskia Wieringa has pointed out how threatening female empowerment would have seemed to highly patriarchal Indonesian society—a lethal, unleashed feminine sexuality would have been regarded as an all-too-potent threat. The perceived size of that threat can be seen in the astonishingly bloody reprisals that followed.

In the months following the coup, it’s estimated that between 500,000 and one million Indonesians were killed in a cataclysm of violence. The merest hint of PKI sympathy was enough to warrant summary execution by roving bands of vigilantes. The country’s anti-Communist Muslims proclained a jihad; Suharto, for all practical purposes running the government, did nothing to restrain the bloodshed. (Nor did the United States; the CIA even supplied death lists to the army, as journalist Kathy Kadane has reported.)

One of those hints of PKI involvement, as it turns out, was “Genjer-Genjer.” The song had become associated with Gerwani members in less violent times; the composer, Arif, had hailed from the PKI-friendly Banyuwangi region, and had been a member of LEKRA, the PKI’s cultural committee. That hadn’t prevented the song from becoming an apolitical hit—now, though, it became a stigma. A typical story:

Sumilah, then aged fourteen, was arrested on 19 November 1965, and was to spend fourteen years in detention, much of the time at the Plantungan prison camp in Kendal, Central Java. She had no idea why she has been picked up along with 47 others but thinks it was because she was fond of singing “Genjer-Genjer.” Later it turned out that it was a case of mistaken identity; she had been mistaken for her mother who was active in a teachers’ organisation. When her mother was captured, this didn’t lead to Sumilah’s release. As fate would have it, she spent fourteen years in detention while her mother spent “only” four years. Sumilah describes how during her incarceration in a women’s prison, she was lacerated with a knife, whipped and burnt with cigarettes on her naked body.

Not long after the bogus Gerwani stories appeared, a parody of “Genjer-Genjer” began to circulate, with the lyrics altered (Jendral-Jendral, “general-general”) to incorporate details of the supposed torture. The source of the parody is unclear, but the government used it as a pretext to ban the song outright. Nevertheless, it would make one more notorious appearance.

In 1984, the government-produced propaganda film Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (“The Treason of the G-30-S/PKI”) was released. Directed by Arifin C. Noor, the four-and-a-half-hour epic recreation of the government’s mythical version of the coup became required viewing for Indonesians. Schoolchildren were bused to periodic screenings; the film was shown on television every September 30th. The tale of the generals’ torture was re-enacted in prolonged, graphic detail, while the celluloid Gerwani, of course, did the “Dance of the Fragrant Flowers.” The music chosen to accompany their frenzy? “Genjer-Genjer.” A song about soup had thus come to symbolize the country’s greatest and most enduring trauma.

Suharto has been gone for nearly a decade, but the old myths die hard. Attempts to set up South-Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation commissions surrounding the 1965 genocide have so far come to naught, and long after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the majority of its satellites, “PKI” still remains a powerful slander in Indonesian politics. This past week, the Jakarta Post, on the anniversary of the coup, tracked down Muhammad Arif’s son.

“People attacked our home in Tumenggungan area in Banyuwangi city. They set fire to the house and everything there,” said Sinar, who was 11-years-old when the incident took place.

Muhammad fled with other PKI and Lekra members but was captured.
“From that point on, my father’s fate is unknown,” Sinar said.

But Sinar reveres his father as the family’s hero. He said the original song lyrics, which are considered taboo even today, have been safeguarded.

“For me, these books are [a part of] my family’s history, which should be safeguarded so my grandchildren will know what really happened,” he said.

One hopes with him: “what really happened” has been far too elusive a target in this story.

It’s a coincidence, but on reflection, this makes an appropriate post for Blogging for Burma Day.