Thai Elephant Orchestra
In the spring of 1999, I met Richard Lair, American expatriate and cofounder of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center near Lampang in Northern Thailand. Richard, known as "Professor Elephant" in southeast Asia, hadn't visited the USA in over nineteen years. We both enjoy listening to music, and one evening after hours of Junior Kimbrough, Aretha, Maurice Ravel, and an unaccustomed dram from Scotland's fair shores, we naturally wondered whether elephants would learn to play music. Elephants are social animals and might enjoy an activity like playing music together. Orchestra performances could be incorporated in the daily show for tourists at the Conservation Center and support the Center and mahouts financially.
There was, of course, no reason to suppose that this idea could work, and lots of problems to consider. First, do elephants have any comprehension of music? Researchers at the University of Kansas used a simple food reward experiment to demonstrate the elephant's ability to distinguish simple melodies. Elephants were also capable of distinguishing fine pitch gradations, smaller than the half-steps on the piano.
Who would help us on this mad project?Linzy Emery, as the instigator of the meeting and fluent Thai speaker, was necessary. I asked the instrument builder Ken Butler, and Rory Young, my favorite long-suffering recording engineer. An artist friend, Don Ritter, who designed a 10-foot long elephant keyboard. Neil Budzinski came to take photos and help with the recording.
How can we make instruments for elephants? Here are the objectives I set for instrument design: 1. the instruments must be adapted to the elephant's anatomy, which means large instruments operated by the trunk; 2. the instruments must withstand the jungle, including heat and monsoons; 3. there should require negligible upkeep; 4. the instruments should sound Thai, because the audience is Thai, the mahouts would enjoy the music more, and the elephants have heard Thai music throughout their lives.
Together with Neepagong, director of the woodworkers at the Conservation Center, and Richard we constructed giant slit drums, large scale marimba-like instruments (renats), a single string instrument that sounds like an electric bass (the diddley bow), and several reed instruments. We made a gong from a saw blade confiscated from an illegal logging operation, and a thundersheet from scrap metal. We bought harmonicas, a mouth organ (kaen) from Issan in Northeast Thailand, small Issan bells, and appropriated a bass drum at the camp. Altogether, we tried out twenty instruments.
The mahouts told me the elephants especially enjoyed playing the renats. They took easily to the harmonica, which was the basis for the first elephant music fad: one morning I arrived in the jungle hearing the sound of harmonicas from all around, in the hills and in the river. The elephants were walking on different paths in the woods playing the harmonicas, which they hold easily in their trunk. The gong and thundersheet initially scared some elephants, but they soon adapted. The kaen worked well for sound production but the elephants couldn't hold it and needed to use the mahouts as instrument stands. The elephants didn't seem interested in the bells, theremin, or synthesizer keyboard, but would play when asked. They disliked playing the wind instruments with a large mouthpiece (i.e., trunkpiece). A mahout told me they were afraid that a snake might jump through the wind holes into their trunks!
With the exception of the theremin, we didn't reward the elephants while learning the instruments. I gave them apples and oranges after they finished performing long pieces to have them associate playing music with a good time. I don't think it's interesting to teach elephants to play prewritten human melodies. It's much more interesting to hear how they "choose to play". After teaching the elephants to play the instruments and giving some indication of how the instrument should be played for that piece, I would cue the elephant and mahout to start and stop. The mahout would encourage his animal by moving his arms in a mime of the elephant's trunk.
The notes and rhythms of the pieces were chosen completely by the elephants. One surprise is that they play variously in duple meter (straight eighth notes), triple meter (alternating quarter and eighth notes), and a dotted rhythm (dotted eighth and sixteenth). Sometimes they found motifs for a particular piece and repeated them. I cannot say why they made these choices. In these recordings outdoors in a clearing in the teak forest you can hear the mahouts encouraging the elephants, and Thai tourists who stumbled on the sessions. The Thai tourists told me that the elephants sounded as if they were performing a style of music that can be heard in the temples.
On returning to the USA, some people asked me: is this music? I propose an answer based on the Turing test, which was designed to determine if a computer possesses intelligence. Play the recording for people who don't know the identity of the performers and ask them if it's music. They may love it or beg you to stop, but I think they will say "of course it's music". I'm also confident that the elephants understand the connection between many of their actions and the sounds they produce. They don't operate the instruments randomly, but aim for where the sound is best. These results bring up new questions. Most interesting to me are those regarding volition: now that elephants have instruments they can operate, will they ever play music without us asking?
Two anecdotes might suggest a future for elephant music. The mahouts live with their elephants away from their families, in thatch roof houses mounted on stilts. They have no electricity but play music and carve wood at night while the elephants are left in the jungle to forage. The mahouts are wonderful musicians and play a kind of country string band style, heard on a "bonus track". By the end of our visit, Somneuk, Jojo's mahout and an extremely good musician, performed with the orchestra. This went over very well, and he now plans to adapt other Thai instruments for the elephants and to train Jojo in renat.
The other illustration is from Mei Kot, an 8,000 pound seventeen year old girl. She was first frightened by the gong, but around her third afternoon of performance, we couldn't get her to stop. Her mahout would take the mallet out of her trunk, but she would pick it up and continue playing. This can be heard in the delayed ending of some of the pieces. Pattidah Juttinah, in my opinion the Fritz Kreisler of elephants, sometimes would refuse to stop playing her renat. It's very hard to get her to stop if she doesn't want to! As far as engineering in the recordings, there are no overdubs or splices. Except for removing truck and human noise in a few spots, this is actually what you hear when the elephants perform.
The first twelve tracks are without any sound production by humans. The bonus tracks are less "pure" and include a piece performed by Somneuk on kaen with the elephants, a piece where three elephants played theramin and synthesizer where the synthesizer was preprogrammed, and a piece where Jojo blew on a wind instrument while Ken Butler changed the length of tube. Also included are a school children singing a song about elephants, a recording of the mahouts and drivers playing at a party, and hours of natural elephant sounds compressed to about 4 minutes. Art for all mammals!
Dave Soldier, January, 2000
1. 1:39 pm, January 14, 2000 Music for diddley bow, two renats, kaen, gong, and thundersheet (tape 11, 0:39:00) aka big piece luk kop diddley jojo kane pattidah and luk kang renats pum pua gong meikong thundersheet
2. 3:55 PM, January 12, 2000 Breeze from Kampuchea Music for three renats and gong (tape 7, 0:55:00 time) aka meditative not slated, guess LuKang, Pum pua, Pattidah, renats Jojo gong
3. 3:44 PM, January 13, 2000 Music for renat, diddley bow, bass drum, and thundersheet (tape 9, 0:45:01) (there is a slate at 43 min 55 sec) aka heavy metal 2 Pum pua bass renat Lu Kang marimba Luk Kop diddley Patitdah Jutinah, renat; MeiKot thundersheet Jojo gong (note, I use a slight phasing on the diddleybow)
4. 2:10 PM, January 13, 2000 Music for reed instrument, two renats, gong, and synthesizer (tape 8, 1:08:00) not slated: guess Mei Kot bass drum, thundersheet Luk Kop wind instrument Jo Jo synthesizer Pattidah Luk Kang renat Pum pua gong
5. 2:16 pm, January 10, 2000 Music for two renats (tape 3, 1:16:00) Pattidah Jutinah and Jojo, renats
6. 5:04 pm, January 14, 2000 Music for diddley bow, slit drums, harmonica, kaen, thundersheet, and gong (tape 12. 0:4:13) aka Count Basie Lukkop diddley Pattidah bass drum Luk Kang harmonica Jojo kaen Meikot thundersheet Pum pua gong
7. 1:59 PM, January 12, 2000 Music for pitch pipe, renat, two slit drums, and diddley bow (tape 5, 0:59:13) aka wind feature no slate again, guess Patitdah Jutinah renat; Pum Pua, diddley bow; LukKang pitch pipe LukKop diddley Jo Jo, Pum pua, gong
8. 2:43 pm, January 14, 2000 Drum Trio Percussion trio for bass drum, gong, and thunder sheet (tape 11, 1:43:00) aka percussion mix Patitdah Jutinah, bass drum: Pumpua, thundersheet, Meikot thundersheet
9. 3:03 PM, January 11, 2000 Diddley bow Music for diddleybow and two slit drums (tape 5, 0:03:11) (not slated, names mentioned, educated guess) Luk Kop diddley Pattidah, slit Jojo? slits
10. 3:04 pm, January 14, 2000 Harmonica music Music for two harmonicas, kaen, bass drum, tom-tom, gong, and diddley bow (tape 11, 1:04:00) aka harmonica piece (not slated: educated guess) luk kop harmonica and diddley bow jojo kaen pattidah bass drum luh kang harmonica pum pua gong meikong thundersheet
11. 1:31 pm, January 12, 2000 Music for three renats and slit drum (tape 5, 0:31:00) aka slit and 3 marimbas not slated: guess Luk Kop slit Pattidah, Jojo, Pum pua renats
12. 1:45 pm, January 12, 2000 Music for renat, two slit drums, gong, and thundersheet (tape 5, 0:45:40) not slated: guess LukKopLuk Kang slit Pum pua gong MeiKot thundersheet Pattidah renat Bonus tracks
13. 6:10 pm, January 14, 2000 Music by Somenuk and four elephants (tape 12 37 min) Somenuk kaen, Pattidah Jutinah bass drum, Luk Kop diddley bow, Pam Pua gong, Mei Kaht thunder sheet.
14. 4:08 pm, January 14, 2000 Trio for Theramin and Electric Keyboard (tape 12, 1:08:30) Pattidah Jutinah theramin, Luk Kop and Pum pua synthesizer
15. Big Elephant Saddle -mahouts and drivers from the Elephant Conservation Center saw (violin), singhs (plucked strings), flute, two headed drum Richard, can you get the names here?
16. Solo for Renat Somneuk, renat (tape 15, 43? Min)
17. Coltrane piece tape 9 17 min slate at 14 min Jojo slide wind instrument Lukkop kaen Pattidah harmonica
18. Thai children singing a nursery rhyme about elephants tape 11 23 min
19. Elephant vocalizations recorded in the field The Thai Elephant Orchestra Pattidah Jutinah, 7 year old female. mahout, JoJo, 8 year old male. Somneuk, mahout. Luk Kop, 17 year old female. mahout, Pum Pua, mahout, Mei Khat, male
Recorded on location by Rory Young
Assistant recording engineers Maria Banks and Neil Budzinski)
Mixed by Dave Soldier at home
Produced by Dave Soldier, Richard Lair, Rory Young, and Linzy Emery
All works published Rigglius Music, ASCAP, except Little Elephant Saddle, public domain
Elephant instruments designed by Dave Soldier, Ken Butler, Don Ritter, Richard Lair, and Neepagong,
and built with the woodworking and metalworking shops at the Elephant Conservation Center
Photography and CD design by Neil Budzinski
Thanks to Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, Anna Halberstadt, Katya Melamid, Kurt Ossenfros, Tamara Burton, Teresa Giordano, and Sakhon.
Very special thanks to Linzy Emery, who masterminded my meeting with Richard, and who wisely instigated this project so that we thought that the idea came from ourselves.
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