| CHIANG MAI, Thailand
CHIANG MAI, Thailand (Reuters Life!) - The Thai Elephant
Orchestra is about to release a third CD and, like all real
artists, the world's only non-human musical ensemble doesn't
give a thump about the critics or the charts.
The 14-member group at the Thai Elephant Conservation
Centre in Lampung, northern Thailand, plays simple woodwinds,
harmonicas, a few string instruments and drums under the
guidance of maestro Dave Soldier, the orchestra's composer and
Soldier, 51, spoke to Reuters about the project, which
involves elephants who used to work in logging from which the
beasts are now banned.
Q: What did you expect when you started with the group?
A: As far as I was concerned it was a true experiment.
Richard Lair, co-founder and Director of the Thai Elephant
Conservation Centre, didn't have any doubt that they could be
trained to hit things using a stick. But as to whether they
would make music or learn how to do it, we didn't know.
Q: Are some elephants more musical than others?
A: You could say that some of the elephants still don't
"play" an instrument. Whereas other ones will walk up and do a
solo ... There's no doubt about it, some have talent.
Q: Are there instruments they can't or won't play?
A: We got elephants to play a giant synthesizer, but the
elephants didn't really like doing it so we stopped. We also
got them a saxophone-like instrument, where somebody would
finger the notes and they would blow. They didn't really enjoy
Q: Do they really enjoy it?
A: If the elephants don't enjoy the instrument we just drop
it. Elephants are social animals so it gives them something
that's a bit of a challenge and more interesting.
Q: How do you know if they don't enjoy it?
A: They'll drop anything. They complain. You'd say "here
you know, hold the giant keyboard," and they'd be like, "ah
this is boring, I don't want to do this anymore." If you've
been round elephants I'm sure that you understand that an
elephant can be interested in a task or can say to hell with
Q: Do they memorize melodies or just jam?
A: We pretty much just tell the elephants to stop and start
playing. There might be pieces which have many different
instruments with intros and outros, and the elephants can
memorize to play melodies. They do one memorized melody two
times a day every day. But to make it more fun for the
elephants we just let them play whatever they want.
Q: Can you describe their music for the uninitiated?
A: It sounds a little like northern Thai music but of
course played very slowly. That's on purpose: some of the
instruments are actually elephant-sized versions of natural
Thai instruments. A lot of people think it sounds like
religious music. Go to here
Q: What do the critics make of it?
A: I had this poor fellow who was a music critic from the
New York Times. He spent a long time guessing. He kept saying
all these famous classical groups, like a very sophisticated
and very good group that specializes in avant-garde music
called Speculum Musicae, and Bang on a Can, a famous group
around here, and a couple of others. When I told him it was
elephants, he was very embarrassed and very upset with me. The
next day he asked to write an article about the group.
Q: They've played for the Thai Queen and been featured on
the Jon Stewart show. What does the group make of its fame?
A: The elephants, they don't give a damn. They don't read
the Billboard charts, they don't read the reviews. The
elephants don't care. They're going to keep playing the same
way that they play if you tell them they're out of tune, or if
you tell them the group isn't as good now as the previous
record, or you know, that the Singapore symphony does it
better. They just go out there and they do it the way they hear
it. They're real artists.
(Editing by Miral Fahmy)