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with the SUN VALLEY VIRTUAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Imaginary Records IMX-009
CD only, U.S. list $16.98
Want to order with a credit card? Go to half.com! Otherwise, please see catalog page for ordering information
To check out some photos of the cast, read a synopsis of the ballet, find out more about the creation of "Kaki," and learn more about the slightly twisted author of the book and the bizarre relationship he has with the composer of the score, point & click here.
the composer and his orchestra
Below is the text of the first review to see print, from the BANGKOK POST of 22 July 97.
The reviewer is Ung-aang Talay.
Somtow takes advantage of scoring opportunity
"Kaki" sparkles with exotic colours, and--the true test--it works as absolute music.
This new CD, which contains almost all of the music--73 minutes of it--for Somtow Sucharitkul's ballet KAKI (to be premiered in Bangkok later this week), caught me completely off-guard.
I had seen scores for earlier pieces of Somtow's like A CACHE OF WATERS, in which the devices developed by the post-WWII European avant-garde to produce unearthly sounds had been given a thorough workout. They had seemed to me to be more notable for their great technical fluency than for their actual substance. Then, a couple of months ago, I had heard that in KAKI the composer had opted for an accessible style, full of melodies that the audience would be able to whistle on the way home. Moist, Russian-style Romanticism was to be fused with Asian ethnic music--played on traditional instruments--from Indonesia, India, and Japan.
This has always seemed to me a dangerous route for a composer to take. Those stews of far-flung styles that have nothing to do with each other cooked up in the super-dubious name of "Postmodernism" almost never work for at least one pair of ears, and the continent-hopping perpetrated by the World Music crowd seems to me to score far fewer hits than misses.
But Somtow's KAKI works, and it's delightful, often beautiful. The melodic ideas are fresh, the "scoring" sparkles with exotic colours, and--the true test--it works as absolute music. Like all good ballet scores, it sustains interest on its own outside of the theatre, and gets better with each listening.
The quotation marks around the word scoring are there because KAKI was realised electronically. The Sun Valley Virtual Symphony Orchestra consists of a sampler and a computer used with great virtuosity by composer Somtow. The score, according to the notes to the CD, "uses not only a large symphony orchestra but also an almost endless array of ethnic instruments--gamelan ensembles, a sitar and tamburas, Japanese gagaku instruments--a score largely possible because it was performed entirely by the composer himself with a "virtual symphony orchestra"--one composed of digitally sampled musical instruments, painstakingly recorded one at a time into a computer."
Whatever the medium, the music is packed with wit and is unified by a fertile creative imagination that is at home in all of these styles. The familiar KAKI story, with its strong erotic elements, easily accomodates the plush western Romanticism that Somtow uses to provide a grand sonic backdrop to the dramatic interaction of the instrumental soloists. Yet when there is a transition between two radically different styles, you feel no jolt. There are dozens of examples, but try track 3, where an Indian raga for flute suddenly finds itself in Ravel territory, with music that momentarily suggests that "Nocturne" section of DAPHNIS ET CHLOE, before moving on to vaguely Stravinskian trumpet fanfares.
In the notes to the CD, it is explained that Somtow uses a system of leitmotifs to give musical identity to key characters and emotional aspects of the story. One of the most important ones is a rising semi-tone which, the notes state, "symbolises Kaki herself and the passionate yearning which she arouses in all her men." Somtow uses it eloquently, especially in the episodes, at their most striking in tracks 3 and 5, where the music languidly explores different Indian ragas. These are very beautiful indeed, especially when the rising half-tone figure is executed as a very slow glissando. There is no mistaking the sexual significance the composer attributes to it.
Readers of Somtow's fiction know how he enjoys ornamenting it with recondite references to books by various novelists and poets. These little winks at the reader often give the books a kind of humour based on irony.
KAKI, too, is packed with allusions to other composers and musical styles. The Asian styles, so essential to the drama of the ballet, are very prominent; no one can miss them. But the nudges in the direction of Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Prokofiev (very well done) and many others are there to be enjoyed by those with a knowledge of classical music.
Some of the same people may be equipped to appreciate Somtow's careful selection of scales and modes. ("Much of the score is written in the Lydian and Phrygian modes, chosen for their similarity to the Balinese pelog scale as well as certain ragas," he explains in a note.) A few of them are so naked that no degree of sophistication is needed to pick up on them. The "restlessly masculine theme," a rhythmic motif, actually, that represents the King, scored as it is here, has Leonard Bernstein written all over it.
But there is no irony this time. The music is wide open and not a single detail is served up solely for the delectation of a cotorie audience, as is sometimes the case in Somtow's stranger novels.
Synthetic music, even that constructed from sampled sounds, can all too often be a bouquet of plastic flowers: perfect in form, gorgeously coloured, but very dead. Somtow largely rescues KAKI from this feeling of embalmed perfection by deliberately introducing human "flaws." There are purposely-introduced moments of slightly imperfect ensemble, occasional quaverings of intonation in the western orchestral instruments, and other sudden intrusions of what registers on your ear as spontaneity.
If only there were some way to create realistic-sounding strings electronically. The body of strings in this recording have the fluorescent-lit sound that always gives them away on film soundtracks and pop music albums, although Somtow has managed to bring a modicum of warmth to them, perhaps by some use of artificial reverberation. One other timbre that I wish he could have warmed up a little is the one that states the theme at 1:06 of track 7--it has a straight-from-the-lab sound.
One other thing that I would expunge from the score straightaway if I could get my hands on Somtow's computer and a few of his manuals is the artificial wordless chorus that suddenly appeared, to my horror, during track 10, especially after 4:12, and during track 11. For me, this sort of choral ooo-ing and aaah-ing invariably conjures up associations of UFO- and natural disaster-infested cinematic garbage out of Hollywood.
But in general, KAKI is a piece that, at its frequent best, will bring pleasure to any listener. I can easily imagine it catching on with a large audience of listeners in the West. Here in Bangkok, copies are available at the Pia Shop on the third floor of Amarin Plaza.
majordomo's note: to be fair to an early supporter of the recording, copies are also available at the Tower Records store at the Siam Centre in Bangkok. Of course, most stores in the U.S. can order a copy for you, and diligent retailers outside the U.S. can get their distributors to order stock through Harbor Record Export of Liberty, NY USA.
Update as of September 1998: availability at the Pia Shop in Bangkok may be doubtful, but the main Tower continues to keep a nice display on hand. Maybe when the baht regains some value in relation to the dollar, the US pressing of the CD will become affordable once again...