Meet the Thai Elephant Orchestra. They’re all retired elephants who spent their lives serving the timber industry of Thailand until logging was brought to an end in an effort to save what remained of the forests.
Trouble was the elephants had nowhere to go and no means of support. Plus hunters were taking out the ones who still roamed the forests. That led to the founding of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, which includes a sanctuary and several elephant protection programs.
And the orchestra.
The orchestra is the brainchild of Richard Lair, an American who has dedicated his life to saving the elephants from potential extinction. Lair enlisted the help of neuroscientist and musician Dave Soldier. Together they built the orchestra, which consists of about a dozen pachyderms at any given time (the musicians can join or quit at any time as the mood takes them) and a part-time human brass band.
Dave Soldier rehearses and conducts the orchestra – which basically involves two hand signals: “Play” or “Stop playing.”
Sometimes the elephants take note; sometimes they don’t. And what they play is entirely up to them. Their instruments includes various kinds of percussion, along with marimba, xylophone (scaled up to elephant size) and harmonica.
The orchestra gave its first performance in 1997 with just five elephants, and released its first CD in 2001. The second CD, Elephonic Rhapsodies, involved 12 elephants and is an excellent collaboration of pachyderm and human musicians. Water Music, their third album, came out in 2011 and has 14 elephants playing largely on their own.
For those who love both elephants and Beethoven, a splendid collaboration between humans and pachyderms is their interpretation of the first movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. The composer would surely have approved of the addition of cymbals and gong in the spectacular coda to this shortened version:
Aficionados will surely then want to hear the full version:
Listen to more clips here, and let the music begin!
Lots more videos, audios, interviews and reviews here.
Wonderful. Don't miss the mp3 files. They are extraordinary.
We would be way wide of the mark if we said “isn’t that sweet, the elephants’ percussion and vocalizations sounded just like real music!” Simply put, when all the elements of music (melody, harmony, counterpoint, and so on) are present, you have music. Not something “like” music or “analogous to” music, but the genuine article.
Some human music is highly scripted (scored); some is not. This idea is really the basis of "chance" or "aleatoric" music in the human sphere. Are the elephants having what we would consider a musical experience? What fun to think about that! What if they are willfully creating patterns too complex for us to grasp??