by Alexis Olsen
The influence of Asian traditional music and thought on Western composition has been growing for more than a century. Composers working in the hybrid space between musical practices are now a formidable presence in Western art music; their role in some traditional music contexts is more complex, particularly in nations such as Thailand that have a unique history within the wider phenomenon of globalization.
In 2013, during a short residency at Burapha University, in Bang Saen, Thailand, I began a practice-based research project, composing “Impulse Control,” for traditional pi phat ensemble, with other Thai instruments. Building on previous research, this particular compositional process fused an exploration of current trends specific to East/West hybrids, recent intercultural work by composers Chou Wen-Chung and Koji Nakano, my own Western music background training (particularly in jazz), and my experiences at Burapha University in 2013.
Intercultural composition, by its very nature, demands concessions in performance practice from all involved parties. I argue for aurally based pedagogy and transmission as an alternative to Western notation, and suggest jazz as a “parent” genre in the bicultural mix. The principal elements of this hybridity lie in juxtaposing musical archetypes: American jazz performance practices like individual and collective improvisation,‘trading 4’s’, modal harmony, and collective free improvisation; Thai archetypes like instrumental combinations reflecting three Thai ensemble types, and the tripartite thao approach to form. Mode and pitch centricity figure prominently within the context of the pre-composed and collaboratively-generated improvised moments of the hybrid composition. The form explores Thai concepts including neua phleng as a central feature framed by prior and later variations related by common structural tones, the thao approach to composing with pre-conceived melodies, sequentially increasing tempos, and the ching cycle. It also makes use of tempo fluctuation, and metric modulation between and within sections. Fundamental foci in the development of the work’s aural acumen included traditional means of transmission, such as demonstration, repetition, memorization, and improvisation; but also their resulting cultural dissonances and frictions against Western practices and concepts, suggestive of challenges to assumptions about the functional roles of music in society.