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Sat August 3, 2013
Music

The Biggest Thing Out Of Thailand: An Elephant Orchestra

Originally published on Thu August 8, 2013 2:01 pm

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/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Welcome back to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. It's time for some music - elephant music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: This is the Thai Elephant Orchestra. The elephants play enormous percussion instruments, holding mallets in their trunks and sometimes trumpeting along.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: The man behind this extraordinary venture is the experimental musician who goes by Dave Sulzer. He says the elephants playing this music live at a Thai conservation center near Chiang Mai where former work animals with nowhere to go stay.

DAVE SULZER: Most of these elephants were working in the logging industry, and they needed somewhere to put them. And elephants can live to be 60 years old and older, and 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 them to calm them down.

LYDEN: Those are their keepers.

SULZER: That's right. So we - 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 trumps that are giant - perhaps they would play music.

LYDEN: So let's talk about a couple of these instruments. One of them is like a xylophone, and it sounds kind of like bells. Let's listen to a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Now, this is a 6-year-old elephant named Phong. And it's so pretty. How did you build this instrument?

SULZER: Well, I built that in a metal shop in Nong Pling(ph). But the idea here was to make music that sounds like Thai music. For instance, that instrument that you just heard is using a 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.

LYDEN: Mm. It's really haunting music. Let's listen to another song. This one features, well, an - multiple instruments. An orchestral composition.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: What are we hearing?

SULZER: You're hearing 14 elephants playing on 14 different instruments - all live, no overdubs, no editing - out in the, essentially, clearing in the jungle in northern Thailand.

LYDEN: Hmm. So often, you have humans who play along with them or sing along with them. And we can hear an example of that in this piece. It's called "Invocation."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "INVOCATION")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing in foreign language)

SULZER: That's Boonyang. And Boonyang is a mahout, and he's one of the most respected mahouts for a couple of reasons. First, he's in charge of one of the largest and most badass elephants (unintelligible) Luk Kob - who can be very difficult. And the religion in that area is Buddhism, but it's very, very flavored by the traditional animist religion of northern Thailand that was there before. And this prayer that he's singing is one of those animist prayers. It is a prayer to the elephant spirit.

LYDEN: So, David Sulzer, you've released three albums with the Thai Elephant Orchestra. It's really enchanting listening. But do people say to you: It's really nice. Is this music?

We have a wonderful answer for that, and I hope some of your listeners take it to heart and give it a shot. What you do is you play some of the music to your friends or an audience. 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? You know, is this music? They'll say, of course, it's music. So far, everyone has. I mean, 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.

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: Oh, he's pretty right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: David Sulzer is a neuroscientist at Columbia - his day job. Thank you so much for joining us.

SULZER: You bet. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. Click on Programs and scroll down. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening. Have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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