Thailand is one of those cultures that truly interests me. Here’s why, their culture (much like Seattle) is underground. In reality, Thailand’s culture is not actually underground, I mean it in a more metaphorical sense.
There are so many layers to the Thailand culture and each of them pile up on each other as history continues to be formed. Thailand actually reminds me of the U.S. in that way, there is so much rich history in the United States that sometimes it’s hard to remember exactly where we came from, or what are cultural roots are.
Thailand reminds me of this because it is a progressive culture. They have pop music, they have stock markets, they enjoy spending money on entertainment and they like being on the cusp of technology. However, beneath each of these layers of Thailand’s newest additions to their culture lies very little evidence of the original culture. In order to get a glimpse of Thailand’s roots, we have to examine their classical music tradition.
“Though classical music was never popular with the masses, there is a general
tendency to think of classical traditions, such as the piphat, as representing the essence of Thainess through music.” (Miller, Shahriari pg.146)
Classical Piphat Music
The first time I heard this music I was…disoriented. There is a series of pitched drums being struck, a very nasally, bright aerophone being blown, several constant mallets being struck in the high end and to top it all off…it all sounds a little off. One might be naive to think that this music requires no talent to produce, however, I think it takes an even more talented musician to accurately replicate a performance more than once, it’s not just simply different people in the ensemble hitting things at will and at random. Though it may be hard to understand, there is a form and structure to the music. In this music it seems as if melodies are constantly overlapping and the music (in the book World Music: A Global Journey) could be considered “Organized Chaos”, in which I completely agree.
Typically in these traditional ensembles there are several elements that define this music as Traditional Thai music.
“They may include prominent wooden- or bamboo-keyed instruments played with mallets (higher and lower xylophones), circular frames of tuned metal gongs, bowed and plucked strings, flutes, double reeds, drums, and small rhythmic percussion.” (Miller, Shahriari pg.146)
In this traditional music there are three different types of ensembles that are most widely used.
1. Piphat: This ensemble is typically full of percussion (Melodic and rhythmic) and a double reed instrument (Pi)(Requires three or more melodic instruments and two rhythmic instruments, however instruments are allowed to be added.)
2. Mahori: This ensemble consists of strings & flute and also contains percussion that is melodic and rhythmic.
3. khruang sai: The focus of this ensemble is mainly on strings and flute with a small rhythmic percussion section.
“The Piphat primarily plays theater, dance drama, and ritual music, the other ensembles ordinarily play lighter, more entertaining and tuneful music.” (Miller, Shahriari pg.146)
The following is a list of instruments that are used to be played in the Piphat. As mentioned before, there needs to be three melodic instruments and two rhythmic instruments. Below are a few instruments I want to highlight that are common in Thailand traditional classic music.
An aerophone that has the timbre of an Oboe (it is an quadruple reed Oboe), very nasally and bright.
“The aerophone used in hard-mallet ensembles is a quadruple-reed oboe (aerophone) called pi, and its duty is to play a flexible, seemingly distinct, version of the same main melody. Although it works as a double reed, each half is folded, making it actually quadruple.” (Miller, Shahriari pg.147)
The next instruments I’m going to mention are the Ranat ek and the Ranat Thum. These instruments are very similar, they are both mallet based Idiophones and the pitch is determined by the width of the instrument. (Note: In a way, these instrument remind me of Marimbas because each instrument is taking on a specific frequency range of the scale)
“(Ranat ek) is a Thai musical instrument in the percussion family that consists of 22 wooden bars suspended by cords over a boat-shaped trough resonator and struck by two mallets. It is used as a leading instrument in the piphat ensemble.” (Wikipedia)
“is a low pitched xylophone used in the music of Thailand. It has 18 wooden keys, which are stretched over a boat-shaped trough resonator. Its shape looks like a ranat ek, but it is lower and wider. It is usually played in accompaniment of a ranat ek.” (Wikipedia)
Khong Wong Yai (Gong Circles)
I really like the look of this instrument, it’s such a unique perspective of using gongs, I have a feeling even Neil Pert would appreciate this instrument.
“…is a circle with gongs used in the music of Thailand. It has 16 tuned bossed gongs in a rattan frame and is played with two beaters.The player sits in the middle of the circle. It is used in the piphat ensemble to provide the skeletal melody the other instruments of the elaborate ensemble. The gongs are individually tuned with beeswax under the gongs” (Wikipedia)
This drum can be used to signal the opening of the composition and has high and low pitched heads. It’s played similarly like the bongos (or maybe even the tabla)
“It (Taphon) is barrel-shaped with two heads, and is played by the hands and fingers of both hands” (Wikipedia)
If you are interested in seeing these instruments in action, take a quick look at a couple of these videos, they are great demonstrations of ensembles.
Overall, Thailand has a rich culture that could easily be lost in the current day and age. It seems that with each passing week, the world becomes bigger and harder to comprehend all of it’s vast cultures, tradionts, sights and sounds that it has to offer. It’s hard to believe that so many events and traditions can shape our world so richly. This classical tradition of music that we looked at only scratched the never-ending surface of what this culture has to offer!
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