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8.223200 - THAILAND - Fong Naam, Vol. 4: The Piphat Sepha

A Short History of the Piphat Sepha Ensemble in Siamese Classical Music


The history of the Sepha tradition traces a long line of development from a simple melody used to tell stories to a sophisticated instrumental musical style. In its original folk form, the Sepha was only a single melody sung by one singer who would accompany himself or herself with two pairs of wood blocks while recounting a famous tale. It is said that in the earliest times many famous stories were told using this Sepha chanting style, but gradually one story came to be favoured above the rest: Khun Chang, Khun Pan. It is noteworthy that of all the great myths in Thai literature this story of Khun Chang, Khun Pan is unique in that it provides a virtual encyclopaedia of knowledge concerning the beliefs and customs of the peasants in ancient Thai society. Most other stories deal with the lives of the nobility or of the gods. It can be seen then that the earliest form of Sepha was a narrative art enjoyed by and performed for the common man.

Around the beginning of the present Rattanakosin Period about 200 years ago, the sepha chanting style changed in ways that were to be extremely significant for the evolution of Thai music in general. We find evidence that the Piphat ensemble began to be used to play an overture as an introduction to the Sepha chant. It will be remembered that the Piphat is an ensemble consisting of percussion (“phat”) and oboes (“pi”) and was associated from earliest times with sacred ceremonies and the theatre. So it was that the overture used to introduce the sepha was at first just another form of the theatre overture, the main function of which had always been to invite the gods to come down from heaven and preside over the performance and indeed enter the bodies of the performers. It is important to notice that these overtures were not listened to for their own inherent musical value but were thought of more as vehicles necessary in recreating the divine atmosphere considered essential to the ancient concept of holy theatre.

The importance of the Sepha overture lies in the metamorphosis of its form bringing about a radically new conception of the very definition of music and its role in society: the idea of music as a form of entertainment rather than a calling up of the primordial forces which are the wellspring of all creation. Gradually the old Na Phat or Sacred Songs from the theatre tradition were replaced with songs which provided an opportunity for the musicians in the orchestra to demonstrate their skills. Both the musicians and those listening became interested in instrumental music for its own sake. During the reign of King Rama the Third (1824–1851), a set order of four famous standard pieces was chosen as a showcase for this new emphasis on instrumental virtuosity.

Famous melodies were not limited simply to the sepha overture. Indeed a second important innovation in Thai music has to do with the inclusion of these well known melodies within the Sepha chant itself. The form developed in such a way that the Sepha chant could be divided up into sections which would alternate with lyric passages using various songs from the standard repertoire. The action of the story was described with the sepha chant. As with the “canzon da sonar” in the early baroque instrumental music of the West a distinctive instrumental version or “chanson to be played” came to be developed, so in the sepha style of the middle 19th Century instrumental versions of those songs used as interludes between the chanting passages became popular. Unlike the older style in which the instrumentalists would play along with the singer, in the new style the singer first presented the vocal version of the melody accompanied only by drum and ching, then the Piphat ensemble would present the same melody again in a characteristic instrumental version.

The heightened interest in instrumental music also brought about experimentation with the combination of instruments in the ensemble. The orchestra was expanded to include the Ranat Thum (alto xylophone) to form a pair with the Ranat Ek (soprano xylophone) and the Khong Wong Lek (Small Gong Circle) to form a pair with the Khong Wong Yai (Large Gong Circle). The large timpani and Tapone of the ancient Piphat were replaced with the softer Glawng Song Na (two sided drum) which was introduced to help achieve a better balance between the singer and the ensemble.

The Sepha musical tradition began to take on a new political meaning as this type of art form became popular in the numerous courts of the mid-19th century. By the reign of King Rama the Fourth (1851–1868) most courts were supporting at least one if not more highly trained orchestras. This movement away from its folk origins caused sepha music to become ever more elaborate in accordance with the taste of the noble patrons who owned the orchestras. One consequence of this “social up-grading” of the Sepha style was that the nobility began sponsoring competitions among their orchestras to see which court had the finest orchestra. Thus it was that much original composition took place in a desire to outdo rival court orchestras. The compositions took three main forms.

The first form had to do with the Sepha overture. In addition to the four set pieces mentioned above, it became fashionable to start the overture with an original composition. This custom of allowing one free form piece before proceeding to the four set pieces provided a tremendous stimulus for compositional thought. Pama Wat (track 1) is an example of such a freely composed work. It was composed by Kru Peng most probably during the reign of King Rama the Fifth (1868–1910). Today the four set pieces of the Sepha overture are no longer played but the opening original overtures have remained popular and are often heard beginning concerts and performances of various kinds. Pama Wat is divided into three basic sections performed continuously and each section is repeated twice. There is a short virtuoso fixed introduction called the Pralong Sepha after which the Pi Ny playing alone begins the actual overture.

Another popular form in 19th century Siam was composition in “third level.” This technique extended the basic melodies which were interspersed between the Sepha chant into melodies of twice the original length while always maintaining the integrity of certain structural notes. The melodic note occurring on every fourth beat was considered to be a structural note in the basic so-called second level version. In the extended third level version so much beloved of Thai composers of this era the structural note would occur every eight beats and the melodic path taken between each structural note would constitute the newly composed third level version. The great master of third level works is Phra Pradit Pairoh, the most important Siamese composer of the 19th Century .The work presented here, Tayoi Nawk (track 4) is considered one of his greatest masterpieces. It demonstrates the classic form of a third level Sepha work. It is an elaborate extension of a song from the theatre called Tayoi used to accompany characters who are wandering. The work is clearly divided into four sections. Each section is heard in its vocal form and then the instrumental version which is always repeated. But the form of the work is far subtler than it might seem on first hearing. Actually sections three and four are really asymmetrical variations on sections one and two.

The ensemble used in the performance of Tayoi Nawk is not a standard grouping and we thus refer to it as “The Special Double Piphat”. The Ranat Thum Hlek or alto metallophone has been substituted for the Small Gong Circle. This unusual instrumentation is based on the model of Luang Pradit Pairoh, the great early Twentieth Century Composer, heard in an early recording he made of Tayoi Nawk some sixty years ago.

The third form of composition conceived for court competitions was for virtuoso solo performance. Not only did an orchestra as a whole have to prove itself but each individual member would be pitted against his counterpart in the rival ensemble. Strangely enough the pieces considered appropriate for such solos were quite limited so that today there are myriad solo versions of a few standard basic melodies. Of the two solos heard here the Ranat Thum solo version of Kaek Mon (track 3) represents the regular length of most solos of this type. The Ranat Ek solo version of Grao Ny (track 2) represents the pinnacle of the solo repertoire. It is only rarely heard since it requires such stamina to perform. As is to be expected in the sepha tradition both Kaek Mon and Grao Ny are third level versions of older second level works.

Bruce Gaston

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