Back in 1978 the Paul Winter Consort made a kind of musical history on the disc Common Ground by incorporating the calls of wolves, birds, and humpback whales into the group's material. Ancient Future upped the ante in 1981 with the interspecies recording Natural Rhythms, which found Matthew Montfort interacting live on zither with peeping Pacific tree frogs. Could collaboration with instrument-playing animals be far behind? Been there, done that, says a groundbreaking, drum-head-straining disc by Dave Soldier, Richard Lair, and various pachyderms on Thai Elephant Orchestra.
Director of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC) Richard Lair and musician/neurobiologist Dave Soldier came up with the idea of an elephant orchestra in 1999 during one of Lair's rare trips back home to the United States. Domestic Asian elephants boast massive brains, a keen sense of play, and a highly social nature, so Soldier and Lair wondered if they couldn't teach them to enjoy making communal music. Since the elephants at TECC must earn their keep entertaining tourists, the pair designed large-scale versions of traditional Thai instruments in an attempt to please the site's mostly Asian visitors. Slit drums, renat marimbas, a bass drum, kaen mouth organ, and a gong joined Western instruments including harmonicas, a string bass, a theremin, and a synthesizer.
Rather than teaching the pachyderms tunes penned by humans, Soldier decided to give them basic instruction on their respective axes and let them improvise. His compositional contribution was limited to cueing the mahout trainers to start and stop the elephant players at appropriate moments during a particular piece. The results are far less random than one might imagine and nothing like carnival chickens pecking at toy pianos for kernels of corn. Instead of bashing madly about, the elephants play rhythmically in duple meter, triple meter, and a meter of dotted eighth and sixteenth notes. Opening song "Thung Kwian Sunrise," in fact, suggests youngsters patiently practicing Thai temple instruments.
As to the artistic validity of the results, Soldier suggests you play the compositions for friends without revealing the identity of the performers and see if anyone doubts they are hearing music. I would go further and in philistine fashion raise the specter of the infamous grade-school children's artwork favorably compared to bona fide abstract paintings by gallery owners and art critics who thought schooled adults had made them. I've got LPs in my collection by avant-garde musicians David Toop, Max Eastley, and John Zorn that are far less appealing and seemingly more random than what three-ton, eighteen-year-old female elephant Phangkhawt can accomplish by swinging her trunk.
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The first twelve cuts feature elephants jamming by themselves. The last seven songs bring humans into the act, but the pachyderm pieces are more emotionally compelling. "Swing Swing Swing" showcases an elephant setting the pace on slit drum while another adds wind-chime coloration on the renat. A pitch pipe adds a wistful sigh, then a second elephant drummer counters with an uplifting bounce that sends the blues scuttling back into the nearest mouse hole. Three renats and a slit drum create a steadfast rhythm for manual labor on "Heavy Logs." Reeds carry the day as two harmonicas establish a carefree tenor on "Harmonica Music" reminiscent of Van Morrison's careless mouth-harp intro to "The Waiting Game." Pachyderm percussion and diddley bow bass lines gradually enter, lending drama that underscores the sunlit atmosphere. It's tough imagining Soldier can top the appealing strangeness of this project, though he confided to me he had plans of teaching tame birds such as canaries to play instruments scaled to their dimensions, temperaments, and talents. My first thought was that he had to be putting me on. My second thought was to start scouting pet shops for a budding prodigy.