Assistant Professor Supeena Insee Adler has relaunched UCLA’s Music of Thailand ensemble after spending 100 hours refurbishing dilapidated Thai instruments.
David Morton, a former professor in the Music Department at UCLA, founded the ensemble in 1964 using instruments he personally acquired from Thailand. However, after Morton retired in 1985, the ensemble took an indefinite hiatus until Adler joined UCLA in 2016 as ensemble director. The ensemble, which is now open to all UCLA students and faculty, regardless of their musical background, aims to reflect the traditional structure of Thai classical Mahori music, Adler said.
“The most important thing for me is to teach (the students) that Thai music exists not only in this class, but (also) right next to us,” Adler said. “We live in California, a state with an abundance of Asian communities, and I try to tell my students that there is a community (that) appreciates what we do in the classroom.”
In 2013, ethnomusicology professor Helen Rees became Faculty Director of the World Musical Instrument Collection and appointed Adler to restore the collection of Thai instruments that Morton had left behind at UCLA. Rees witnessed much of the process alongside Adler. They tuned and cleaned the instruments together in the Schoenberg Hall, and Rees then joined the Music of Thailand Ensemble as a student.
“I got so interested in watching it… I signed up because I was insatiably curious about what the instruments looked like and what they looked like,” Rees said.
Despite its recent rebirth, the ensemble currently has 36 students and is gradually growing each year, Adler said. The course is also divided into beginner and advanced sections: for beginners, Adler expects his students to learn about eight bars of music per three hour lesson.
“I want to dispel the misconception that you have to have a background in music to learn music,” Adler said. “The learning process should never be too serious. “
The ensemble focuses specifically on mahori, a type of Thai classical music that includes percussion, strings and vocals, Adler said. Classical Thai music derives its lyrics from royal literature, as the music was traditionally played in Thai royal courts. Other lyrics come from folk stories; Adler said the stories metaphorically refer to love and sorrow, while others glorify kings and higher powers.
The music is played in unison, but with a different level of ornamentation over the dominant melody, played by the khong wong yai, a circular frame with small gongs arranged according to pitch, Rees said. The two xylophone-type instruments – the ranat ek and the ranat thum – are defined by their respective highs and lows, Adler said. Other musical instruments, like strings, play different roles.
Adler sees the different instruments working together as a family.
“If the (khong wong yai) is a providing parental figure, then you have the ranat ek in the role of the eldest son dominating the ensemble,” Adler said. “The stringed instruments come in shimmering sisters around the main melody, and the ranat thum plays the role of joker. “
The ensemble gave students the opportunity to explore musical practices outside of American culture, said Xiaorong Yuan, a graduate student in ethnomusicology. As an international student from China, she said people asked her about why she chose to focus on Thai music, which sparked conversations about the similarities Yuan saw between the Thai and Chinese music.
“Before playing in a Thai ensemble, I didn’t know Thai music and could only see it as a beginner,” Yuan said. “But I have found that when you practice long enough, you start to have fun in music and are able to cooperate with other instruments like friendships.”
Rees said Thai music has reoriented its way of thinking about rhythm and phrasing, and has greatly enriched his ability to teach Thai music to others in his own classes. The ultimate goal of the ensemble is to bring different types of music from around the world to UCLA, so that students can learn about the philosophies that inform the cultural context and the context in which music is played, a Adler said.
“I like to think that… I’m feeding a seed that will eventually sprout in a tree,” Adler said. “To me, the musical ensemble represents that tree, which provides a musical canopy (under which) people come to rest… and just love to be together.”