The Biggest Thing Out Of Thailand: An Elephant Orchestra | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

The Biggest Thing Out Of Thailand: An Elephant Orchestra

Play associated audio

The Thai Elephant Orchestra is, remarkably, just what it sounds like. At a conservation center in Thailand, made for former work animals with nowhere to go, a group of elephants has been assembled and trained to play enormous percussion instruments, holding mallets in their trunks and sometimes trumpeting along.

David Sulzer — known in the music world as Dave Soldier — is a neuroscientist at Columbia University, a composer and the co-founder of the orchestra.

"Elephants like to listen to music: If you play music they'll come over, and in the morning when the mahouts take them out of the jungle, they sing to to calm them down," Sulzer tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. "So what we came up with was, well, maybe if we made ergonomic instruments that would be easy for elephants to play — for instance, marimbas and drums that are giant — perhaps they would play music."

Among those instruments is a sort of oversized xylophone that Sulzer built in a metal shop in Lampang, using the music he heard locally as a guide.

"The idea here was to get the instruments to sound like traditional Thai instruments, and make music that sounds like Thai music," he says. "That instrument ... is using a Thai scale, a northern Thai scale. And when Thai people hear it, they say, 'Oh, that sounds like some of the music that we play in the Buddhist temples up north.'"

The Thai Elephant Orchestra has produced three albums. Sulzer says that these days, when the elephants' musicality is questioned, he has an answer ready.

"What you do is you play some of the music to your friends, to an audience," Sulzer says. "We did this once to a professional music critic from The New York Times, who got pretty upset with me afterwards. And you say, 'Who's playing? Is this music?' And they'll say, 'Of course it's music.' So far, everyone has. You ask them to guess which group it is; that particular music critic eventually said, 'I bet it's a new music group from Asia.' I said, 'You got it.'"

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

As Publishing Industry Courts China, Authors Speak Out Against Censorship

Chinese writers and publishers are being celebrated this week at BookExpo America — the industry's largest trade event in North America. Free speech advocates are supporting silenced Chinese writers.
NPR

Cod Comeback: How The North Sea Fishery Bounced Back From The Brink

A decade ago, fishermen trying to catch North Sea cod were coming up empty. Now, thanks to strict fishing rules put in place to halt the decline, this fish tale looks headed for a happy ending.
WAMU 88.5

D.C. Immigrants Remain In Shadows While Reform Hits Roadblock

The administration's appeal to lift an injunction against his executive actions on immigration reform was denied. Consequently tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the metro D.C. area will continue to live in the shadows.
NPR

FCC Chairman Wants To Help Low Income Americans Afford Broadband

Tom Wheeler proposes to reboot the Lifeline phone-access program. The plan recognizes that everyone needs to study, apply for jobs and make social connections online.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.