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8.223198 - THAILAND Fong Naam, Vol. 2: The Piphat Ensemble

History of Siamese Classical Music Vol. 2


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 compartmentalization 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 hismusic 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 serious 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 Afternoon Overture

The dictionary defines the word overture as follows:

“The sounding of music at the beginning of a performance”. This is correct as far as it goes but it is too narrow a definition since overtures are not confined to performances only. They may also be used in ceremonies and rituals which do not include performances at all such as house blessing ceremonies, birthday celebrations or before Buddhist monks begin chanting or before the ceremony of the feeding of the monks. Whenever music is employed in such rituals there must first be an overture. Therefore a better definition of the word overture might read: The first music to be played which is used to indicate the beginning of any given activity.

Not every piece of music, even though it might be the first work performed, has the characteristic of indicating the beginning of an activity. In Thai Classical. music, therefore, an overture is a specific category of musical form which has the specific function of opening an activity. According to the Thai musical system the overture category is further divided into smaller divisions with varying characteristics depending on the nature of the activity involved and the time of day. Thus we have: Morning Overture, Afternoon Overture, Evening Overture, Overtures for various types of theatrical performances, Overtures for Religious Ceremonies like that of Preaching a Sermon and so on.

Of all these forms the Evening Overture is considered to be the most basic and the most important.

As far as The Afternoon Overture is concerned, I believe it has evolved from what we might call the General Purpose Overture. This form includes just two works, Grao Ny and Cherd. It is used for any activity when either the Morning or the Evening Overture has already been performed. The Afternoon Overture, however, is generally used only before afternoon performances. Traditionally, daytime performances were divided into two parts, morning and afternoon. At noon the musicians and actors would stop in accordance with the belief that the Teacher (presiding in the hearts of the performers) had to return to heaven to attend to lsvara, the Brahmin god who is considered to be the creator of the world. There is a simpler and more practical reason, of course, and that is that the musicians and actors were hungry and needed to stop and eat lunch.
In the afternoon, before resuming the theatrical performance, the Piphat orchestra would have to play the General Purpose Overture, consisting of two works, Grao Ny and Cherd.

Gambling was very popular in the early Rattanakosin Period and gambling dens were widespread and competition among them was high. In order to attract clients, the various gambling establishments would hire theatre groups to perform adjacent to or in front of their casinos. The theatre performances would run both during the day and in the evening. When the actors and musicians stopped for lunch, the audience would go inside and gamble. At the appointed time those musicians who were not gambling would begin the overture. They might have to play for an unspecified amount of time before all the actors and musicians had returned to the stage to continue the story. This meant that the musicians had to extend Grao Ny almost indefinitely, waiting for the actors, since Cherd should not be so used: to play in order to “kill time”.

It is my belief that this need is what encouraged musicians to begin including Sacred Na Phat Pieces of the Highest Level into this Overture. It also served the dual function of giving the musicians a chance to rehearse these esoteric works which are rarely encountered in ordinary playing situations. (It is important to remember that there is no notation in Thai music so that the whole theoretical system and the use of the music is worked out in such a way as to accommodate and stimulate the memory.)

Thus while the form of the Overture was developed in the Rattanakosin Period, the Na Phat Pieces employed are considerably much older, most probably belonging to the Ayudhya Period.

The two main reasons for believing that the Afternoon Overture has evolved along the lines I have described here are:

  1. This Overture form does not begin with works which pay homage to the Patron gods of music, nor does it include music intended to invite these gods to come down from heaven to preside over the performance, which is an important feature of the Morning and Evening Overtures.
  2. There is no standardised order of the pieces. Though, in shape and content, the works employed are fixed, there are many different versions of the order in which they can be played.

I will explain the works included in the Afternoon Overture by using the order taught by several famous teachers including Khun Kru Phum Bapuyavat, Khun Kra Luang Pradit Pairoh, Khun Kru Rang Pumthongsuk, Khun Kru Petch Jannan.

1. Processional for Giants (Grao Ny Sam Ton)

2. Movement Music (Cherd)

- Chup

- La (“Farewell Song”)

- Rua or Tremolo Song

- This is a special version of the Grao melody normally used in the Evening Overture. In this version the melody is greatly extended. To this work are appended two other pieces: Music for Passing Over Waters, and the Great Tremdo Song. This latter piece is connected with showing obeisance to the patron gods of art.
- The piece used to accompany travelling over great distances. It is also the classical accompaniment for fighting on stage.
- In this context it probably can mean the act of welcoming.
- This melody marks the completion of the welcoming ceremonies.
- Another work expressing conclusion or completion. This work is often used as a sort of standard coda to “complete” Na Phat pieces of the Highest Level.

3. Music for Casting a Spell (Grabongan)

- Rua

4. Tree Planting Song (Plook Ton Mai)

- Rua

5. The Boat Song (Chai Reua)

- Rua

6. Song for Animals (Takook Rook Rohn)

- Song for Birds (Phlae)

- Rua

7. Flying Song (Hoh)

- Rua

8. Water Music (Lo)

- This work is used to accompany the casting of a magic spell, especially the transferring from one body to another. When used as part of the Afternoon Overture, it is always performed as a suite. The suite consists of the following songs:
a. Grabongan
b. Proi Kao Tok – Scattering Grains of Rice
c. Prasiti – Creating
d. Yon Sien Yon Nam – The Revenging Thorns

- Tremolo Song

- The Song for Planting Trees. There are famous passages in the theatre involving such scenes.
- This is a special version of the melody used with Na Phat works of the High Level.
- Traditionally this work was used for travelling by boat on stage. Recently, however, it has been more often used to accompany women being received at the court of a Lord.
- Once again a special version of the melody used for the High Na Phat Piece is employed.

- A song meant to accompany proceeding in a hurried manner or as one of a large group of people.
- This work is used for the movement of creatures with wings i.e. birds, Garudas, any other magical flying creatures.
- Tremolo Song.

- The Flying Song used especially for gods and angels.
- This marks the completion of the flight or the arrival of an august personage.

- This is the work used for any movement on or under the water.

- Rua

9. Hunting Song (Cherd Chan)

- La (Farewell Song)

10. Beginning a Play Wa – North Direction
- South Direction

- This marks the completion of the flight or the arrival of an august personage.

- This work is played when chasing animals. It is a song for walking a long distance and thus in the Cherd category. The inner movement of the melody is slow, perhaps depicting the nature of stalking an animal. Here is an example of a song that has nothing to do with the function of an overture, i.e. to invite the gods to preside over the activities of men.

- This marks the end of the overture.

- This marks the beginning of the theatrical performance. In this rarely heard version, the Wa melody is played in two different versions.

Montri Tramoj

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