About this Recording
8.223197 - THAILAND - Fong Naam, Vol. 1 (The Piphat Ensemble)

History of Siamese Classical Music Vol. 1


Concerning Fong Naam

Fong Naam is the title of an ancient melody and can be translated as “bubbles”. It is a unique insight of Thai Buddhist culture to think of art as a bubble, the transparent beauty of which is most clearly identified with a short, fleeting moment of existence—beauty that points towards impermanence as the condition of all things. Thus the mixture of very old and very new in the group’s repertoire seeks to emphasize the ever-changing nature of this ancient but still-living musical tradition.

The two co-founders of Fong Naam as it is presently structured are Bunyong Ketkhong and Bruce Gaston. Some years ago they saw the need for an orchestra and a music that attempted to counter the tendency towards compartmentalisation so prevalent in modern societies. Taking the old Confucian idea that one of the important powers of music is the ability to create unity in the hearts of men, they decided to launch an orchestra that would seek to bridge the gap, not only between Asians and Westerners, but more especially between two groups of Thai musicians with opposing views: the traditionalists, who in their zeal to preserve the old refused to allow any evolution or growth within the tradition, and the modernists who, embarrassed by their roots, sought to imitate the West exclusively. Fong Naam was thus created to transcend this schizophrenic polarity with the goal of creating music to heal the spiritual wound of “either-or-ness” and move towards a more humane cultural balance.

Bunyong Ketkhong is considered to be one of the greatest masters of the ranat (soprano xylophone). His playing has been compared to “the sound of pearls falling on a jade plate” by the Chinese leader Zhou Enlai. His compositions are noted for their highly syncopated rhythms, which cause his music to sound unusually modern in idiom. His works have achieved great popularity and many of them are now considered to be part of the standard classical repertoire.

Bruce Gaston came to Thailand some twenty years ago and began studying Thai classical music with Bunyong Ketkhong. Besides his duties as a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, he has been active as a composer and performer experimenting with music based on the combination of Thai classical instruments and compositional techniques which include electronic sounds and unorthodox approaches to the music-making process.The

Piphat in the Pre-Ayudhya Period

The Menam Basin, situated in what is now central Thailand is a natural geopolitical unit. Not only was the Basin settled by a mixture of racial populations but also its geologic contours encouraged the growth of a largely self-sufficient political order with a distinct history of its own. It is clear from such important historical documents as the Phongsawadan Nua and Praratchaphongsawadan that pre-Ayudhyan history was mostly a matter of the interaction among various “muang” or city states who vied for power before the “muang” of Ayudhya finally arose to ascendancy in the 14th and 15th centuries. Thai classical music originated in this Menam Basin though it was subsequently absorbed by Laos and Cambodia as well.

There is no documentation concerning music from this pre-Ayudhya period. The documents which refer to music in the so-called Sukhothai period preceding the Ayudhya period are now considered spurious and indeed the whole idea that Sukhothai dominated the region has been generally discounted with the possible exception of the singular reign of the brilliant warrior king Ramkhamhaeng. So we are left with practically nothing concerning music.

Though there are no primary sources from this period we can make some intelligent guesses based on the extant literature from the Ayudhya period.

One example of this kind of research has to do with the nature of the earliest form of the Piphat ensemble. Piphat is actually two words: pi means an instrument of the oboe type and phat coming from Sanskrit refers to percussion instruments. Thus instrumentation which combines the pi and percussion in various proportions is called the Piphat. The size of the original Piphat was based on Hindu theories about groupings of five. That ancient orchestra consisted of: pi, gong-circle, tapone, or two-sided drum struck with the hands, glong tat, or two-sided timpani to be struck with sticks, and ching, or small finger cymbals. The most prominent of today’s Piphat members, however, was missing: the ranat, or soprano xylophone.

The question of the use of the ranat ek in the original Five Instrument Piphat has been raised by the most famous living composer of Thai Classical music, Professor Montri Tramoj. In 1688, La Loubère, the royal envoy from the court of Louis the Fourteenth to the court of King Narai, drew a complete picture of the court orchestra in his Journals. (1) La Loubère was himself a musician and made very detailed drawings of the instruments.

All the instruments of the Five Instrument Piphat are displayed as expected with the single exception of the ranat ek (soprano xylophone). Professor Montri, who was a member of the Royal Court Piphat in the reign of H.M. King Rama VI recalls that His Majesty, a great authority on Thai performing arts, had confirmed that the Sukhothai Piphat did not use the ranat ek. Does this mean that this most central of instruments in the Thai sound world is relatively modern? Probably not. More likely, the instrument was originally a folk instrument that had not been as yet admitted to the court orchestra even in the Middle Ayudhya period. It was added to the Royal ensemble, so far as we know, only towards the beginning of the 18th century. Its addition caused a problem in that only through a certain sophistry could the sacred number of five be preserved: the ching lost its position as a fully fledged instrument and was ever after considered a means of marking time. It is not, perhaps, necessary to see this as a fall from artistic grace into the abyss of metronominity, but rather as an elevation
to the status of conductor.

In Siamese orchestration there is never any doubling of instruments, a technique much employed in the West. This is because the Thai tradition places great importance on the individual freedom of each player. Each member of the orchestra recites in his head the given melody which has been handed down from the Teacher. The joy and interest in listening to the music is to compare the various musical ideas which are concurrently evolving out of a single hidden melody, and it is for this reason that the timbres of the various instruments are designed not to create a homogeneous blend, as in the Western tradition, but rather to maintain the clarity of the instrumental line. On a deeper level, it might be said of all Thai art that clarity and lightness are the hallmarks of creative expression. In Thai music the most important feature is the establishing of a delicate polarity between the integrity of the group and the freedom of individual expression.

Chatri Overture

The term “Piphat” designates a wind and percussion orchestra, chiefly used to accompany the theatre and various sacred rituals. The Piphat Chatri is considered to be the oldest Piphat orchestra in the history of Thai music. The Piphat Chatri theatre form is derived from the Nora play of southern Thailand as well as Nang talung, a shadow puppet theater. The Piphat Chatri is often referred to as the Light Piphat because the instruments are lighter and smaller than the other Piphat ensembles. The Chatri ensemble was designed for a touring theatre (Lakorn Re) where the performers were required to change the performance venue very often.

The Overture consists of an introduction and three main sections. The introduction is further divided into three “Rua” sections. The rua event is characterised by an accelerando in the Glawng Chatri which climaxes in a Tremolo. After the third sequence a regular rhythmic pattern dominated by the Tone accompanies the melody of the Pi Nawk which always concludes with another rua passage. The steady ostinato followed by the freer cadenza-like rua form one structural unit which is repeated three times. The length of the overture is dependent upon the circumstances of the performance and the mood of the performers. This presents an interesting problem for the oboist. The Thai tendency is toward ever evolving, through-composed melodies. Thus the oboist is required to begin with the melody entitled Thep Chatri (“The Chatri Angel”), then, if required, instead of constantly repeating the same melody, which is considered to be lacking in artistic elegance, he will add on other tunes of his own choosing, and sometimes even improvise freely to fill the time needed.

Sathukarn, Tra Yapakkok and Tra Jomsri

The group of three works presented here are examples of the Na Phat category of music. Na in this context could be translated as “leading”. Phat refers to the Piphat ensemble. Thus this category of works in which the “music leads” (absolute music) is contrasted to those categories where the music merely accompanies singing or dancing. The Na Phat repertoire is considered to be of the highest musical and spiritual value in all of Thai classical music. This does not mean, however, that these works are entirely without a “program”. Indeed specific functions and gestures from the theatre are associated with this music. There is such an abstract and arbitrary relationship between the musical texture and these external cultural functions that it must be concluded that strictly musical values dominate the structure of these Na Phat pieces.

Sathukarn, for instance, is used not only as a basic pedagogical tool (it is the first song beginners must learn since it is an important compendium of the basic cells and motifs which are used throughout Thai classical music) but also it is considered as creating an atmosphere appropriate for the adoration of the Lord Buddha.

A beautiful legend defines the cultural meaning of this “Gradus ad Parnassum” of Thai music.

One day Isvara appeared in order to preside over the Brahmin celestial congress and found the heavens empty. When he discovered that all the hosts of heaven had gone to earth to listen to the wondrous preaching of the Lord Buddha he was incensed and ordered his wife and a great entourage of angels to accompany him in his descent to earth. There he found that the gods were sitting in quiet meditation under the tutelage of the Lord Buddha, and had not noticed the august advent of their master. Isvara established a theatre beside the temple in which the Lord Buddha was expounding the Dharma, and began loudly singing and playing, but the sound of this distracting music could not penetrate the concentration of the congregation. Isvara then entered the temple himself and challenged the Lord Buddha to a contest of holy hide-and-seek. The Lord Buddha accepted but stipulated that Isvara must be the first to hide. Three times did Isvara hide himself by transforming his image into a speck of dust, couching himself first among the myriad jewels ornamenting the roof of his own palace, then at the bottom of the ocean, and finally in deepest hell. All three times the Lord Buddha was able to discern Isvara’s location. Yielding reluctantly, Isvara beckoned the Lord Buddha to hide. After transforming himself likewise into the tiniest speck of dust, the Lord Buddha settled on the crown of Isvara’s head. In this way, no matter where he looked in the universe, Isvara could not see the Lord Buddha. Finally he had to admit defeat, and invited the Lord Buddha to come out of hiding. But the Lord Buddha sensed Isvara remained angry, and refused to reveal himself. Isvara’s entreaties were to no avail. Only when he called the heavenly orchestra to play Sathukarn would the Lord Buddha descend from his hiding place.

Many years later the first teacher of Thai music, having completed his duty of passing on all that was known about music to his students, retired to a solitary life of contemplation. The deeper his meditation the higher his soul would rise, until he found himself in the heavenly presence of Isvara. The teacher asked permission to hear one heavenly song, explaining that he already knew all the music of the earth. Isvara chose to give mankind Sathukarn, and his song has been reserved as a paean of homage in sacred ceremonies ever since.

The two songs following Sathukarn are examples of the Tra form. Tra Yapakkok traditionally follows Sathukarn in the great Evening Overture. It has the function of inviting various angels and gods to come down from heaven and preside over the theatrical performance for that evening.

The second Tra work, Tra Jomsri is performed by Kru (2) Boonyong Kaetkhong in the rarely heard original version. Kru Boonyong relates that the more widely known version comes from Kru Luang Bamroong Jitrjamroen who was an important teacher at the Fine Arts Department for many years. Having heard Kru Phum Bapuyavat perform Tra Jomsri just once he was able to remember the order of the structural notes (the last note of each phrase) and not having the opportunity to study with Kru Phum again had to compose for himself the melodic connections between these structural notes. Thus the melodic contour deviates considerably from the original version presented here by Kru Boonyong who was able to study the work in detail with Kru Phum.

Cherd Nawk

In the most ancient version of this work the Pi Nawk performed a solo accompanied by one Glawng Tat (Thai timpani). The work was used in connection with the so called “catching the black headed monkey” passage in the opening rituals of the Nang Yai or Giant Shadow Play.

The Nang Yai is considered to be the oldest known theatre form in Thailand. The word “Nang” refers to the large perforated leather pieces which form shadows when set up against a large cloth screen illuminated with torches. The Nang Yai may be considered to be an ancient “motion picture” and indeed in modern usage the word Nang is used by Thais when referring to the modern cinema, another medium which depends on a screen and lights.

The formal structure of the music reflects the dramatic action. The music is divided into three “catches”. These catches are the three main sections of the work. In each “catch” a white monkey is depicted as chasing and fighting with a black monkey. Individual leather representations of the two monkeys are held from below by dancers. Eventually the black monkey is “caught.” At this point a single large leather representation of the two monkeys interlocking is introduced. The steady pulse in the timpani stops and the Pi Nawk imitates the inflected speech of the white monkey who is imagined to say:

“I’ve caught you for sure
A sound beating will be your cure”.
This entire sequence of events is repeated three times.

The Great Cambodian Suite

One of the most important forms in music of the Ayudhya Period was the Reuang or Suite. These long works used for accompanying sacred Buddhist rituals and various other august occasions comprise a great reservoir of melodic invention. Composers of succeeding generations used these melodies as the basis for their compositions. Thai classical musicians even to the present day have always looked to the past for the authority to create new things. Melodies growing entirely from the fancy of the composer are extremely rare. The standard practice is to work from a cantus firmus—something which is considered to be given by the Teacher. This attitude is similar to early attitudes in the West especially with regard to sacred music. And so these reuangs hold a place in Thai Classical music not unlike the Gregorian chants of the Liber Usualis.

The Reuang is an extended Suite: a long string of songs divided into three main sections: the so-called slow songs (Phleng Cha) then the Song Mai Songs (referring to the type of rhythm pattern in the drums used to accompany the melody) and finally the fast songs (Phleng Reo).

In this Suite the Phleng Cha section consists of the following songs:

  1. The Great Cambodian Melody
  2. The Small Cambodian Melody
  3. The Middle Cambodian Melody

Then the Song Mai category:

1. Kruan Ha

And finally the Phleng Reo:

  1. The Bat Eats a Banana
  2. The Dark Maiden.

It is interesting to note that in the Phleng Cha section some of the passages are repeated transposed to other pitch levels. This “Oat Pan” technique is a characteristic feature of the reuang style.

The word Cambodian in the title does not mean that the work has been borrowed from that country. It is actually an early example of a propensity among Thai musicians to parody the melodies and rhythms of their neighbours. So prevalent is this type of parodying that it would be more accurate to think of this Cambodian style (and all the other parody styles e.g. Indian, Chinese, Burmese etc.) as modes. These “Language” modes are a combination of characteristic melodic and rhythmic formulae which the composers weave into thousands of different melodies.

Bruce Gaston

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