Monash University
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Intonational, idiomatic, and historical factors that shape contemporary Thai fusion music

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Version 2 2019-07-03, 04:25
Version 1 2017-03-01, 23:33
posted on 2019-07-03, 04:25 authored by John GarzoliJohn Garzoli
This research project, which is based on two years of ethnomusicological fieldwork in Thailand, investigates the cultural, idiomatic, and intonational factors that have shaped Thai fusion music from the 1980’s until 2012. The common goal of the leading Thai fusion musicians discussed is to reflect their concept of ‘Thainess’ through contemporary fusion mediums that combine Thai classical and folk music with musical elements associated with jazz and other Western styles. Social and political factors, including government policies that favoured Western music, accelerated the move towards the integration of Thai and Western music-culture systems in the 20th century. Currently fusion musicians are influenced by a range of musical and social factors that contribute to the artistic and intellectual climate that places a high value on traditional Thai music and the communication of Thainess in a modern musical voice. Fusion music combines elements from different musical systems. I have attempted to clarify the complexity of this process by identifying three primary factors that must be attended to in the fusion process. They are understood through their separate analytical processes, which facilitates the delineation of the types of barriers faced by fusion musicians. The first factor is the intonational problems that arise when disparate tuning systems are combined. Naturally serious intonational problems are encountered when musical instruments tuned in the Thai heptatonic system are played together with instruments in the tempered Western tuning. I have investigated the unfinished debate over the so-called 'equidistance' of tones in the Thai scale because of the uncertainty about Thai tuning that complicates attempts to understand the role of tuning in fusion music. My research shows that those who play fixed-pitch percussion instruments on the one hand, and singers and other families of instruments on the other, adhere to different concept and practices of intonation. These varied approaches to tuning cannot be defined by a single universal theory. Thus it is incorrect to describe Thai tuning as equidistant as defined by the ideal interval of 171.429 cents. The second factor relates to the adaptation of disparate idiomatic and stylist concepts. Thai musicians who aim to preserve the ‘essence’ of Thai music must ensure that certain important idiomatic characteristics are not lost in the fusion process. I have described musical processes involved in the interpretation, embellishment, and transformation of Thai melodies and have shown that musicians can adapt their personal style and the stylistic idioms of their instrument to accommodate the Western textures that accompany them. The third factor involves the historical and cultural meanings associated with Thai music, including beliefs that certain repertoire is sacred. These beliefs influence the extent to which changes can be made to certain songs. In discussing these issues I have delineated two categories of fusion that are distinguished by the way in which musicians interpret the essence of Thai music and the approach that they take to its representation. The musicians in one category follow traditional principles that underpin Thai music that the bands in the other category consider dispensable.


Principal supervisor

Margaret Kartomi

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Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music


Doctor of Philosophy

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Faculty of Arts

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