Composer for Every Country: Thailand

One thing I am really struggling to come to grips with in the process of writing this blog is the sheer scope of European colonialism. Despite all of the talk about colonialism and de-colonization I see, I feel like awareness of the issue is limited to about a depth of “it happened, and it was bad.” I mean, it did happen, and it was bad, but it misses quite a lot, especially the global scale of it all.

In the case of Cambodia, for example, sometimes regions turned to colonial powers for protection against local aggressors. Turned out to be a bit like making a deal with the devil to save yourself from Satan. And in the case of Thailand, sometimes a region avoided direct colonization but were still strongarmed into unequal treaties. For Thailand, treaties made in the early 19th century would last almost a century until their participation in WWI on the side of the Allies allowed them the political opening to renegotiate them all. 

Today, Thailand’s population remains largely rural, with rice farming being the foundation of the economy. Theravada Buddhism is the main religion, and most of the country’s art focused either on depictions of the Buddha, either as Gautama or in various Jataka stories (stories of the Buddha’s previous lives), and depictions of the Buddhist heavens and hells. Stylistic influences come from the Mon, Sri Lanka, and China, with linear perspective being introduced in the mid-19th century by Europeans.

Musically, I am struck by the broad geographic origins of Thai instruments. The sources of instruments range from Persia and India, to China and Indonesia, no doubt owing to the region's central location on a peninsula of military and trade importance. Thailand has a strong classical music tradition, divided into several genres which use different types of orchestras. Piphat uses a small orchestra, and is the music of various ceremonial purposes and traditional theater. Krhueang Sai uses the same core instrumentation of the piphat ensembles, but adds strings, flutes, and sometimes extra drums. It is likely of Chinese origin. The last of the classical genres, Mahori, is traditionally the only ensemble in which royal women were allowed to play.

As far as folk music goes, I’ve only found reference to three main genres. Luk Thung is a genre which developed in the 20th century. I’ve seen it compared to American country music, with an emphasis on the plight of the poor and the down and out. Mor lam is mainly associated with Northern Thailand, and has close ties with music from Laos. Finally, there is kantrum, played by Khmer in Thailand. I did read that minority groups in Thailand, like Mon, Hmong, Burmese, and people of the hill tribes all continue their own musical traditions, as well, but I can’t find enough to really write about at the moment. I assme I'll come across more as I continue reading.

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The composer for today is Piyawat Louilarpprasert (b1993? I can’t find an exact date of birth), originally from Bangkok. Starting as a trombonist in his school orchestra, an injury redirected his musical interests towards composition. He first studied with Dai Fujikura in London for two years before going to Cornell University to study with Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri. As a composer, Louilarpprasert tends to focus on the experimental, combining traditional instruments with electro-acoustic creations and “non-instruments” like AC tubes. In pieces like “” (2018), you can hear how, even when he does work with ensembles like the string quartet, he still looks to find new ways of creating sounds within them.