In northern Thailand, a group of 16 musicians have formed a unique orchestra. They play different types of music, from traditional Thai songs to Beethoven. They also create their own songs, and sometimes improvise in live performances. They don’t always pay attention to their conductor, though. And they’re a bit too heavy at times on the percussion instruments. But that doesn’t matter to their audiences. These musicians are elephants.
The Thai Elephant Orchestra was co-founded by David Sulzer (a.k.a Dave Soldier). He’s a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University. He’s also a composer and musician. It’s well known that elephants are intelligent animals, who like music. When the mahouts – or Thai elephant trainers – work with elephants, they sing to the big creatures to calm them down and make them happier. Sulzer thought that if he could create large instruments that would be easy for elephants to play, then maybe they would create music of their own.
To test this idea, Sulzer teamed up with Richard Lair (a.k.a. Professor Elephant), who runs an elephant conservation center in Lampang. Due to a downturn in the logging industry, the elephants were out of work. And Lair needed a way for the center to earn some extra money. So, the idea of the orchestra was born. They built giant instruments, like xylophones, marimbas, and drums. All could be played with the elephant’s trunk or with a stick held in the trunk.
Sulzer knew elephants liked music, but he imagined it would be difficult to teach them to play. “I thought that we’d have to give them a banana every time they hit it and an apple every time they made a note,” he said. “But it was nothing like that – I would play it, hand them the stick and that was it. They were playing in a few minutes.”
After that, it didn’t take long for the elephant orchestra to start pumping out the tunes. So far, these musical mammoths have recorded three albums on CD. Some of the tracks are completely improvised. Others are led by the mahouts, signaling to the elephants when to play a note on the scale.
But is it real music the elephants are playing? Or are they just big animals making a lot of noise together? To answer this, a human orchestra in New York City performed one of the elephants’ pieces live. They asked the audience to guess who the composer was. People came up with names of respected composers, like John Cage, Alan Hovhaness, Dvorak, and others. Nobody in a million years would have guessed it was a group of music-loving pachyderms from the jungle.