In Northern Thailand, near a town called Lampang, there is an orchestra. However, this is not your average orchestra, and certainly not the type that consists of gentlemen with floppy hair wearing penguin suits, oh no, certainly not. This orchestra is unique in that all of its performers are elephants.
The combination of a few drams and listening to an eclectic range of music one evening led Dave Soldier and Richard Lair, who is also known as ‘Professor Elephant’, to ask the question “If elephants can make beautiful paintings, why can’t they make music?” Initially, the response to the idea was limited, but this changed when the elephants responded and seemed to be enjoying what they were doing. Of course just like us humans, not all elephants respond to the music in the same way. Perhaps then, you might be wondering how we know elephants have any interest in the world of sound. The Mahouts, who are the trainers and the ones who take care of these domesticated elephants often play instruments or sing to them whilst walking through the jungle maintaining an essence of calm and happiness. It is their experience that tell us that they like to listen to music.
Clearly elephants are big, bold and have a beautiful demeanour, so naturally there are numerous factors to consider when designing instrumentation. After all, it’s not easy to find elephant sized instruments in your local music shop! There were four main objectives; naturally the instruments had to be adapted to the elephant’s anatomy, meaning they must be large enough and able to be operated by the trunk. Being in the tropical climate, the instruments must be able to withstand heat and monsoons. This leads us neatly into the next objective that instruments should need minimal upkeep as possible. Finally, and very culturally important, the instruments should sound Thai, because that is the music of the local people. We should also consider at this point, that the elephants have only ever been exposed to this type of music. It’s safe to say that they would have very little concept of hip-hop or drum ‘n’ bass and very unlikely to have an appreciation for them either.
The music this unique orchestra produces is serious, the intention is not to create a circus performance. However as all those who know, working with animals does have its humorous elements! Initially, the intention was to create a human sound but this has now been turned on its head allowing them to not play like humans, but play like elephants and giving them the freedom to create the sounds that they enjoy making. The intention is to not play prewritten human melodies. It isn’t interesting enough. It’s much more insightful to see how the elephants choose to play and as a result no more than three or four instruments are used at a time.
After some research, Dave and Richard discovered that elephants are capable of distinguishing fine pitch graduations, even smaller than the half-steps found on the piano. What is surprising, is how they have tendencies to play in both duple and triple metres and use dotted rhythms. It seems that these gentle giants find particular motifs and repeat them as well for that piece.
The Thai Elephant Orchestra has also been able to raise public awareness for the Thai Elephant Conservation Center through the project. It should be noted that the orchestra very rarely performs in public; however, they get to play for a few minutes a day at the conservation centre including improvisations.