About this Recording
8.223199 - THAILAND Fong Naam, Vol. 3: The String Ensemble
English 

A Short History of the String Ensemble in Thai Classical Music

No one knows for sure just how long the instruments of the String Ensemble have been in use in Thailand. It is most likely that the saw duang is based on the Chinese two-stringed fiddle known as the huqin and that the Siamese saw u is modelled after the Chinese huhu (er-hu). These Chinese fiddles first appear in the court of the Ming dynasty at about the time the Chinese Emperor was making official contacts with the court of Ayudhya in the late Fourteenth Century. Historical chronicles of the Ming Dynasty such as the Ming Shilu mention, among other things, a six-legged turtle presented to the Chinese court in 1370 by a Thai envoy from the court of Ayudhya.

The story of the Thai zither called the jakay is quite different. It can be traced to the Mon people who are located in Burma and with whom the Thais had early contact. It was, along with the saw duang and the saw u, a favourite instrument among the common people. So much so that the first actual document we have referring to the instruments of the string ensemble is a royal edict in the reign of King Trailok (1431-1488) forbidding the playing of these instruments in the vicinity of the royal palace. Evidently the instruments had become so popular that there was a noise pollution problem. Noteworthy too is the fact that the court felt it had jurisdiction over aural space.

The instrumentation of the String Ensemble was not standardized until quite late since these instruments were part of the folk tradition outside the formal strictures of the court orchestras. Often men played these fiddles as opposed to women who played exclusively in the royal Mahori Ensembles. (Mahori Ensembles, unlike the String Ensemble, combined melodic percussion instruments with the strings and the stringed instruments used were of a different kind from the Chinese related fiddle of the String Ensemble.)

All of this changed with a royal decree by King Rama the Fourth (1854-1864) allowing women to perform outside the palace for the first time. This meant that as the court orchestras were depleted since so many women began performing in public that men were allowed to substitute for the female musicians. And they brought with them their preferred saw duangs and saw u's. Thus these fiddles were eventually introduced into the Mahori Ensemble and the String Ensemble gradually evolved from a folk activity into a standard orchestra of the classical instrumentarium.

1. Rako Overture for String Ensemble with Javanese oboe
The form of this overture can be divided into three major sections. First, there is the melody known as Rako which was composed by Montri Tramoj in 1931. It is actually an extended variation on the old tune Rako which dates back to the Ayudhya Period. The second section features a solo on the Javanese oboe which consists of two melodies: Sarama and Plaeng. At the conclusion of this virtuoso solo the ensemble performs the third and final section by playing in various melodic and rhythmic modes which are actually parodies of the musical styles of some of Thailand's neighbours such as India, Laos, and Cambodia. The coda is marked by a return to Plaeng played on the solo Javanese oboe.

The Javanese oboe which is featured here was introduced into Thailand along with the Glawng Kaek in the Ayudhya Period. The instrument may have its origins in Persia and migrated to India and from India to Java in the Fifteenth Century with the influx of Islam. Curiously enough, Mr. Tiep Khonglaitong, the legendary master of the Thai oboe, for whom Mr. Tramoj composed this overture and who is also the father of Mr. Peep Khonglaitong who performs the work here, made the strange discovery on a trip to Java that the Javanese refer to this oboe as the Thai oboe.

The standard Ton / Ramana drum pair is replaced by the larger Glawng Kaek or Indian Drums. They are usually associated with the Javanese oboe and are used to accompany Thai boxing matches and various types of theatre performances such as the famous Javanese epic, Inao.

2. The Coachman (Saratl) for solo saw duang
The original melody dates back to the Ayudhya Period where it formed one section of the much larger suite entitled Pleng Reuang Sarati. It later became a favorite choice among singers for theatre performances.

In the mid-Nineteenth Century the great composer Phra Pradit Pairoh created an extended version of the old tune which has since become a standard solo piece in the classical repertoire. All of the instruments develop elaborate solos based upon Phra Pradit Pairoh's fertile melodic skeleton. The version presented here by Mr. Prawet Kumut, a National Artist renowned for his mastery of the string instruments and as a singer, was composed by Luang Pairoh Siang Saw.

3. Kaek Mon for Jakay solo
The title of this song gives an interesting insight into the history of Thai musical forms. The word Kaek means Indian. The word Mon refers to the Mon nation who originally resided in Burma. Since a great amount of Thai music is composed in melodic and rhythmic styles which are actually parodies of the musical styles of neighbouring cultures how are we to understand the title of this song? Is it a tune that is both Indian and Mon in flavour at the same time? For the answer we must understand the musical code used by musicians in former times. The lively group of songs which were placed at the end of the large suites called Reuangs were called Kaek songs. This was probably a reference to the rhythmic ostinato patterns in the drums which accompany this category of song and had an Indian feel about them. The word "kaek" in this context thus refers to the category of Presto songs which were tagged onto the end of the old Reuangs or suites. Often times the names of the tunes which began the suites were used to identify these Presto sections. Thus, Kaek Mon refers to the Presto melody which was formerly attached to a suite in the Mon melodic style.

The solo heard here is based on the extended variation composed by Phra Pradit Pairoh.

4. Music for the Puppet Theatre (Hoon Grabok)
The ensemble used in the Puppet Theatre is a unique variation of the String Ensemble which is used exclusively for this delicate type of performance. It is remarkable that the Thais choose to use the Saw U in a style which is so Chinese in character. Perhaps the Saw U was chosen over the more nasal Saw Duang in order to provide a tonal balance to the singer. The Chinese Puppet Theatre greatly influenced Thai concepts of puppetry and so it was deemed appropriate to fashion music with a Chinese flavour for this category of theatre performance.

5. The Lament of a Lord (Phya Kruan) for Khlui solo
The Thai flute is a simple fipple flute usually made of bamboo. There are seven finger holes on one side of the instrument and on the opposite side one thumb hole. Interestingly enough there is another membrane hole which was covered with a very thin piece of bamboo fibre or onion skin. Currently, however, tissue paper or even scotch tape is used. The flute comes in three main sizes: the smallest is called the Khlui Leep and is heard in the Rako Overture; the middle and most common size is Khlui Pieng Aw and is heard in this solo performance; the largest size is the rarely heard Khlui U. The solo is a version composed by Mr. Peeb's father, Mr. Tiep Khonglaitong and is based on an extended variation most probably composed by Phra Pradit Pairoh.

6. The Persian (Kaek Kao) composed by Luang Pradit Pairoh
This work is in the tao form and was composed by Luang Pradit Pairoh in 1930. The tao became a very popular form in the early Twentieth Century. The same basic melody is heard in three variations. Each variation is exactly half the length of the preceding variation but the proportionate length between certain structural points is preserved strictly thus resulting in a kind of telescopic variation form. Each variation is presented twice: first in a vocal rendition and then a second time in an instrumental version.


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