Thai Elephant Orchestra co-founder David Sulzer (bottom center, in red) poses with the animals and their mahouts, or keepers.
The Thai Elephant Orchestra is, remarkably, just what it sounds like. At a conservation center in Thailand, made for former work animals with nowhere to go, a group of elephants has been assembled and trained to play enormous percussion instruments, holding mallets in their trunks and sometimes trumpeting along.
David Sulzer — known in the music world as Dave Soldier — is a neuroscientist at Columbia University, a composer and the co-founder of the orchestra.
"Elephants like to listen to music: If you play music they'll come over, and in the morning when the mahouts take them out of the jungle, they sing to to calm them down," Sulzer tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. "So what we came up with was, well, maybe if we made ergonomic instruments that would be easy for elephants to play — for instance, marimbas and drums that are giant — perhaps they would play music."
Among those instruments is a sort of oversized xylophone that Sulzer built in a metal shop in Lampang, using the music he heard locally as a guide.
"The idea here was to get the instruments to sound like traditional Thai instruments, and make music that sounds like Thai music," he says. "That instrument ... is using a Thai scale, a northern Thai scale. And when Thai people hear it, they say, 'Oh, that sounds like some of the music that we play in the Buddhist temples up north.'"
The Thai Elephant Orchestra has produced three albums. Sulzer says that these days, when the elephants' musicality is questioned, he has an answer ready.
"What you do is you play some of the music to your friends, to an audience," Sulzer says. "We did this once to a professional music critic from The New York Times, who got pretty upset with me afterwards. And you say, 'Who's playing? Is this music?' And they'll say, 'Of course it's music.' So far, everyone has. You ask them to guess which group it is; that particular music critic eventually said, 'I bet it's a new music group from Asia.' I said, 'You got it.'"