Slow and pacific, they move in small herds, adult females ahead follow the matriarch (the elephant’ society leave the power to female); little ones between the bigger ones legs. Otherwise lonely, as often are the adult males, that do not stay in herds unless during the mating period, catching the breeze under a tree. Or calm with their trunks in puddles for water. Even splashing around like children…It’s a seductive photo that always lights the imagination of musicians. Not only because the elephant is the biggest terrestrial mammal, nor for the trunk that transforms its head in the stylized photo of a man playing sax, but also because this animal suggests together the profile of a powerful and weary being.
In the 1950s, German evolutionary biologist Bernard Rensch found that elephants can distinguish 12 tones on the musical scale and remember simple melodies, even when played on different instruments at various pitches, timbres, and meters. While researching the phenomenon a few years ago in Bankok, a radio keyboard with big keys was created. After a brief trainer’s demo with a sixty year old female elephant that could chose between 5 different radio programs, the other pachyderms were free to choose their favorite. This experiment, which lasted 7 months, showed that the preferred genre was traditional Thai music. This elephant’s preference for traditional music intrigued Dave Soldier, a.k.a. David Sulzer, a New Yorker neuroscientist who is better known as a composer and musician in a variety of genres including avant-garde, classical, and jazz. David has built traditional instruments in a pachydermic scale and after a sole trial leaves them readily available to 6 elephants between 7 and 18 years of age. Since then, these animals play fluently the gong, the vibraphone, the mouth organ and some toms, similar to the Balinese’s ones, while they flap their ears, tail and swing on the legs with moves that according to these researchers seem to evoke literally the rock n ‘roll. The concert of these “musicians” became a CD that certainly did not hit the charts, it is atonal music, pretty tough stuff, but Soldier has since started to record another CD with a more pop imprint.
The “Thai Elephant orchestra” has released three CDs, yet, and plays an abbreviated daily concert at the Conservation Center. Here below the single from the new CD and a live performance of this eccentric ensemble.