Sounding Circle: The Thai Elephant Orchestra

 The Thai Elephant Orchestra4 comments
10 Oct 2003 @ 10:21, by Raymond Powers

Thanks to Scott Hess for this interesting information:

"A CD of elephants in the Thai jungle playing specially designed musical instruments. The elephants improvise the music themselves. The Thai Elephant orchestra was co-founded by Richard Lair of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang and performer/composer Dave Soldier. Most of the profits will go to the Conservation Center. The CD includes a twelve page color booklet that details the project."

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A BAND WITH A LOT MORE TO OFFER THAN TALENTED TRUMPETERS
By Eric Scigliano
New York Times December 16, 2000

In the 20 years since a Syracuse zookeeper first encouraged an elephant's artistic impulses, pachyderm paintings have become fundraising fixtures at zoos. So it was probably only a matter of time before someone decided to try these highly intelligent animals out on another creative endeavor: music. Now the debut CD of the Thai Elephant Orchestra is scheduled for release this month.

The band is the brainchild of Richard Lair, an American expatriate who has worked with elephants for 23 years and written an encyclopedic United Nations study of Asia's captive elephants, and David Sulzer, a neurologist who heads Columbia University's Sulzer Laboratory and works as a composer and producer under the name Dave Soldier.

Together they organized six young pachyderm at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, a former government logging camp near the town of Lampang, where elephants now earn their keep by giving rides, demonstrating logging skills and painting pictures for tourists. Elephants are natural candidates for music-making. Their hearing is much keener than their sight, and they employ a vast range of vocalizations, many of which are heard on their CD, to be released by the New York-based Mulatta Records.

Ancient Romans and Asian mahouts, or elephant handlers, have noted elephants' ability to distinguish melodies, and today's circus elephants follow musical cues. In 1957, a German scientist, Bernard Rensch, reported in Scientific American that his test elephant could distinguish 12 musical tones and could remember simple melodies even when played on different instruments, at different pitches, timbres and meters. She still recognized the tones a year and a half later.

There have been commercial ventures, too. In the 1850's a circus elephant named Romeo cranked a hand organ while "Juliet" danced, and the Adam Forepaugh and Barnum & Bailey circuses later fielded "elephant bands." These "probably sounded like a herd of angry Buicks," said Fred Dahlinger, research director for the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis. "They were all novelty acts, characteristic of their times."

The Thai Elephant Orchestra attempts something different. Its members play sturdier versions of traditional Thai instruments -- slit drums, a gong hammered from a sawmill blade, a diddly-bow bass and xylophone-like renats -- and a thundersheet and harmonicas. Mr. Sulzer said he and Mr. Lair merely showed the elephants how to make the sounds, cued them to start and stop, and let them play as they wished. After five practice sessions, they started recording. Mr. Sulzer admits he was skeptical at first. "I thought we would just train elephants to hit something, and I would tape that and have to paste it together with other things." Instead, he recorded the performances intact, without overdubbing, in a teak grove, pausing only when outside noises intruded.

The players improvise distinct meters and melodic lines, and vary and repeat them. The results, at once meditative and deliberate, delicate and insistently thrumming, strike some Western listeners as haunting, others as monotonous. Mr. Sulzer wondered whether Prathida, a 7-year- old orchestra member whom he called "the Fritz Kreisler of elephants," would recognize dissonance. "I put one bad note in the middle of her xylophone. She avoided playing that note -- until one day she started playing it and wouldn't stop. Had she discovered dissonance, and discovered that she liked it? She outsmarted the researchers."

Mr. Lair worked out a set of hand signals for the mahouts to cue the elephants while he was conducting. He discovered that some "figured out the meaning of the signals on their own, with no teaching whatsoever." But is it music? Mr. Sulzer insists it is. "I have no doubt they're improvising -- and composing, which is the same thing," he declared. To test out the proposition, he suggested something like the Turing test of artificial intelligence: play the CD without disclosing the performers' identity and then ask listeners the question. For Mr. Lair, it's simply a matter of interpretation, as in all art: "Just as there are a lot things they don't understand about our music, I am sure there are things we will never understand about theirs."

The proceeds from the CD will go to a milk bank for orphaned elephants and a school to improve mahout training -- although Mr. Lair concedes that "profits are highly theoretical at this point." Nonetheless, Mr. Lair, who not only advises the Conservation Center but also trained the elephants for the Disney movie "Dumbo Drop," is sensitive to any charges of exploitation. Elephants should not be "incarcerated and made to do slave labor," he writes in the new CD's liner notes. With habitat vanishing and logging banned in Thailand, however, there's little alternative to tourist-camp work. At least, he says, making "gorgeous noises of their own volition" is light and pleasurable duty: "What better job than to be in the prison band?"

Mr. Lair and Mr. Sulzer are devising new instruments and seeking new talent. They say one 3-year-old has already proved a prodigy, and another elephant camp is trying to develop an orchestra. Meanwhile, a second, "easy-listening" recording, "code-named the `Schlock CD," is on the way, Mr. Lair writes, mixed to be accessible to a wider audience.


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1 Jun 2010 @ 11:23 by philipsmith @122.166.150.17 : Furniture Packages Bulgaria
Its a musical ensemble consisting of as many as sixteen elephants near Lampang in Northern Thailand this all very interesting one.....
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