Phleng Thai doem

 

Central Thai classical music is performed instrumentally by piphat , mahori and khrueang sai ensembles and is also used to accompany the dance-drama forms of khon (masked) and lakhon (non-masked).

 

The piphat is a mid-sized ensemble that includes ranat (‘Thai xylophone') , pi , klorng , khorng wong lek (‘small circle of gongs') and khorng wong yai (‘large circle of gongs') . Hard mallets ( mai khaeng ) are used for open air performances, and padded mallets ( mai nuam ) are used when indoors.

 

The mahori was originally an all-female ensemble and thus consisted of instruments that were considered befitting of women (for example the shrill pi was excluded). Now the mahori includes male performers and there are small and large versions of the ensemble. The ensemble is led by the ranat ek .

 

The khrueang sai ensemble combines the percussion and wind instruments of the piphat with additional stringed instruments, the latter being the meaning of khrueang sai . These added instruments include sor duang (a high-pitched two-string bowed lute), the lower pitched   sor u , the three-string jakhe (plucked zither) and sometimes the khim , or Chinese dulcimer. Khlui ( Chinese flute) and the rammana drum are also usually added. Khrueang sai will most often be encountered accompanying the stick puppet genre hun krabok . The ensemble is led by the sor duang. The table below shows which instruments are included in which ensemble.

 

Musical Instrument

Ensemble

Pluck

Bow

Strike

Blow

Krueang Sai

/

/

-

/

Piphat

-

-

/

/

Mahori (Orchestra)

/

/

/

/

 

 

According to Thai music professor Chaloemsak Phikunsri at Khon Kaen University classical composition can be divided into thang kror , thang phuen and luk lor luk khat . Thang kror melodies are supposed to be played as the composer intended and provide little room for improvisation. Some examples include ‘ Khmer sai yok', ‘Lao damnoen sai' and ‘Khaek toi mor'. Thang phuen compositions have a basic melody ( thamnorng lak ), around which the performers improvise free melodies ( thamnorng yang issara ) according to set boundaries for each instrument. Some examples include ‘ Khaek ban thit', ‘Sarathi' and ‘Khaek morn'. For luk lor luk khat compositions the ensemble is divided into high pitched instruments, such as ranat ek and sor duang , and lower pitched instruments, such as ranat thum , sor u and khorng wong yai , with the two groups playing in turn.

 

The term phleng Thai doem (‘original Thai song') refers to the large Thai classical repertory. The oldest songs, which are grouped together in suites known as rueang , date back at least to the eighteenth century and the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1351 – 1767). During the reigns of King Chulalongkorn (1868 – 1910) and King Vajiravudh (1910 – 1925) there was a dramatic increase in the number of royal (or princely) courts, mainly due to Chulalongkorn's penchant for producing offspring (he had 77 children who lived to adulthood). Many of these courts maintained musical ensembles and the associated competition between royal composers led to the formulation of the techniques of Thao composition to create new versions of old songs. Thao composition uses augmentation, diminution and the doubling of tempo to create new versions of melodies so that the original melody is unrecognisable (see Morton 1976: 182, 185). The various Princes' ensembles would try to disguise an existing song ( chan diao ) by augmenting the melody two times ( sorng chan ) or three times ( sam chan ) and when two ensembles met to perform for their princes each side would try to guess what the other was playing. This process of disguising required additional notes and so the sorng and sam chan variation often became established melodies in their own right. As a result, many of the most well known classical melodies date from the period 1880 to 1930 (see Morton, 1976: 15-16, 180-182). The end of the absolute monarchy in 1932 also put an end to the princely courts and under the new military regime royal music was discouraged in favour of a new national popular music. Many classical musicians had to move into the emerging popular music industry in order to survive. The classical background of a number of Suntharaphon musicians resulted in many Thai doem melodies being set to ballroom dance rhythms during the late 1930s and 1940s.

 

In televised and more prestigious lukthung performances, classical instruments such as ranat , khorng wong or so (Thai violin) are often added to the Western-style band, thus representing a mixing of musical traditions that has been taking place since the introduction of Western music into Thailand in the nineteenth century (see Ware, 2006: 96-119). The difficulty of combining the equidistant tuning system of classical instruments with Western harmonic forms may have contributed to the unstable tonality that exists in some early lukthung songs and may be the reason why certain lukthung songs shift between major and minor tonality in a fashion unfamiliar to Western ears (for example, ‘Dao jarat saeng' (‘shining star') sung by Kan Kaeosuphan). However, the most significant Thai classical influence on lukthung has been through the adaptation of phleng Thai doem melodies.