A week has gone by since I was asked to put together one of the biggest “sing-ins” in history — the massed performance of our Royal Anthem in front of the Grand Palace last Saturday. I’ve been asked a lot about what it was like, how it felt, how is it even possible to “conduct” a quarter of a million people. Indeed, when I saw all the cameras and the “cast of thousands,” I immediately christened HSH Prince Chatri Chalerm “Cecil B. De Mui” … and he deserves all our thanks and more, because his vision whipped it all together.
I lived in Hollywood for several decades, and I do understand the ego rush that could come from having a hundred-foot crane on a dolly swooping down from the sky and swivelling to a stop right next to one’s face in the midst of a powerful moment of emoting. And as a conductor, I do understand the power surge of lifting one’s arm and eliciting a thunderous chord from a vast ensemble.
And yet, for all its cinematic spectacle, this was not that kind of event, in the end. A film was being made, but we were not there to make a film.
I would like to say something about what I think this moment means to me, to all of us who participated. Because I think this was more than a whole lot of people singing a song, and more than the creation of an epic music video. I think that this may come to be seen as the moment when Thailand began to see herself as one again, when this country began to heal.
Many things have divided us, and the divisions have become bitter. But if there is a single thread that has tied together all our lives in this country, that has connected all the dots of our fractious past, it has always been the special relationship between King Rama IX and the people of Thailand.
There are, in my experience, a minimum of three “Thailands”. One is the Siam of the Hollywood imagination, exemplified in the quaintly racist fantasy of The King and I. Another Thailand is, equally, a fantasy: the Thailand that drives the narrative that many international journalists love — a Thailand fueled exclusively by class struggle or color-coded factions. Then there is the Thailand that we actually live in. It is a country not perfect, but aware of its problems and striving to improve; a country that has come amazingly far in a short time, from an agrarian third world nation to a powerhouse, a journey that has been undertaken not without some terrible deals with the dark side; a country that has yet so much further to go; a country that has chosen to vest its collective sense of identity in the person of a mild-mannered monarch with a massive intellect and a mighty heart. It is a good country, but it is a wounded country.
But when the first note of my arrangement of the Royal Anthem sounded, it was more than just a musical unison, more than just a quarter of a million people all producing the same note. At that moment, many people felt a cold wind arise and blow over their heads. Some stated firmly that it was a supernatural wind, others that it was just the goosebumps, the power of the shared emotion.
But it was also the wind of history, and I and the musicians and the choristers and the crowd and the millions who watched live on television were all motes of dust in that great tempest. In the end it was not how “big” the moment made me feel, but how small.
A few days later we were invited to the town of Korat, and if anything the experience was even more powerful. The rain lashed down as a crowd estimated at 200,000 by the Korat authorities came together. I could barely conduct the music through my tears. In about a week we will repeat the anthem in Yala and to me this is particularly significant because our King is the protector of all religions, Islam as well as Buddhism.
Music can be a powerful metaphor for nationhood. When you perform a piece of music with other people, it is not just about playing well. It is even more important to listen well. A symphony is greater than the sum of what the individuals musicians play. What holds it together is that we listen to one another. And in listening, we become one. What holds true for the symphony also holds true as a life lesson. It is definitely true in the political arena. Too many people have spoken without listening. When we make music, we cannot do this. Our art comes from listening.
A quarter of a million people could not all see the conductor’s beat, no matter how grandiose the gestures. They were forced to listen to one another. And they did. They could feel each other’s heartbeat. They came together and they were one.
On Saturday, children from our music program in the slums of Klong Toey sang side by side with the granddaughter of His Majesty the King. This is a Thailand we may dream of. This is a Thailand that may come to pass, if in our grief we begin to hear the voices of those who share our overwhelming bereavement.
You see, grief counsellors cannot heal us. Psychiatrists cannot heal us. And most certainly, politicians cannot heal us. We must heal ourselves. We must prepare for a long journey. And listening to one another is the first step.