Thai Classical Singing: Its History, Musical Characteristics and Transmission

By Moro, Pamela A. | Notes, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Thai Classical Singing: Its History, Musical Characteristics and Transmission


Moro, Pamela A., Notes


Thai Classical Singing: Its History, Musical Characteristics and Transmission. By Dusadee Swangviboonpong. (SOAS Musicology Series.) Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2003. [xxiii, 232 p. ISBN 0-7546-0790-9 $94.95.] Music examples, illustrations, discography, bibliography, index.

Dusadee Swangviboonpong has made a marvelous contribution to the small but growing body of Western-language empirical scholarship devoted to the classical music of Thailand. The first serious study of Thai singing to be published in a European language, the work stands out for a number of reasons. The author himself is a practicing Thai vocalist who has cultivated his own musicianship-performing and teaching in the U.K., Europe, and the U.S.-while gaining British graduate training in ethnomusicology. As a disciple of one of Thailand's greatest twentieth-century vocalists, Careencaj Suntharawaathin, the author is in a unique position to analyze vocal music and musical theory from within the system. For technical as well as cultural and aesthetic reasons, non-Western vocal music has perhaps been neglected by ethnomusicologists, receiving neither the breadth nor depth of study that instrumental music has. At the same time, while Thailand has its own vibrant tradition of music scholarship, most Thai scholars today are also practicing musicians with neither the time nor training to carry out Western-style ethnomusicological research. Swangviboonpong's volume is sure to serve as a model for empirical study by a musician writing about his own tradition, which simultaneously speaks to a global scholarly audience.

The book is a carefully conceived and well-rounded study. The numerous tables, appendices, and editorial notes assist the reader in historical details, and summarize raw empirical data such as pitch ranges and interval analysis, categorization of repertoire, and the ever-sticky issue of Thai language romanization. At least six major volumes have been published in English on Thai music, and each author has utilized slightly different romanization systems; Swangviboonpong compiles and compares these systems, and makes a persuasive plea for consistency in future scholarship. The appendices also include several transcriptions of compositions.

The book itself illustrates the moral framework of classical musical transmission in Thailand, especially in its lovingly respectful homage to the author's teacher, Careencaj Suntharawaathin. The opening anecdote, in which the author hears his future vocal teacher for the first time, both establishes the cultural context of masterdisciple musical instruction and underscores Swangviboonpong's authority, as a student of "the most respected singer in the whole of Thailand" (p. xvii). Near the end of the book, the author includes a translation of a seminal article by the great vocalist, documenting the theory and method of singing for the tradition in which she was trained (that of master musician Phrajaa Sancdurijaang, Suntharawaathin's father). Thus the book is framed with remembrance of the teacher.

While the book is broad in scope and is clearly intended as a broad overview of its subject, there is a vivid shape to the sequence of six chapters. The opening and closing chapters emphasize cultural description. For readers unfamiliar with Thai music, these chapters will be accessible, down-to-earth introductions. Chapter 1 covers the history of Thai classical music from the earliest records in the thirteenth century through the politically charged climate of the twentieth century, especially the period immediately after 1932 when the kingdom became a constitutional monarchy and court musicians became civil servants. The final chapter discusses the teaching of Thai singing, and significantly updates previous scholarship on the teaching of Thai music. Here Swangviboonpong carefully quotes and reflects upon the works of other scholars, extending or dissenting where necessary. …

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