Thai classical musicians show their instinct for survival
The new generation of Thai classical musicians see themselves torn between their economic dependence on the elites and demands for social modernization.
To mark the end of the year, the Bangkok National Orchestra has resumed concerts after a two-year hiatus due to pandemic restrictions. On the program of their first show they played Mozart, Shostakovich and original compositions by Thailand’s most famous conductor Vanich Potavanich.
This was a great relief for the 83 musicians who had a hard time surviving the crisis, as no state aid was made available to compensate for the lack of concerts.
Usually Thai musicians find it difficult to make a living. “In addition to taking music lessons, they also need to find alternative sources of income,” says Chot Buasuwan, lead violinist. For example, Chot said he opened a small cafe near the theater with a few friends.
Those who were in critical situations and had no families to support eventually threw in the towel. “Many musicians sold their instruments to survive the pandemic crisis,” says Wynn Rapeedech, director of a recording studio in the suburbs of Bangkok. It was a real heartbreak for her.
The national orchestra consists of very young musicians, most of them under 30. “This is a new generation of classical musicians that is developing and growing,” says conductor Vanich. Talented young people replacing a generation sometimes got there through nepotism widespread in the country.
You are not more conservative than the others. But at the same time they depend on the survival of the royal family, their speech is not free
“So far, in the world of classical music, it has been between aristocratic families. We had to take drastic measures to ensure that only the best musicians were selected. Auditions to select members are now being conducted blindly, “explained Vanich.
“Everyone who takes part in the audition is held behind a curtain so that the judges cannot see them. There are no names, only numbers. This is the only way to achieve real professionalism in the industry. “
In Thailand, the classical music scene has a close relationship with the aristocracy. At the end of the 19th century by King Rama VI. Introduced at the Siamese court, symphonic music is still financed to a large extent by the royal family, the country’s most important patron.
“Most concerts are organized for royal events,” said Chot. “For example, we often play at the fashion shows of Princess Sirivannavari, a fashion designer. The army, with its many military bands, is the other main source of “funding for orchestral music.”
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Elements of economic reality make life difficult for young musicians, while many support the generational upsurge that has challenged the privileges granted to the monarchy and elites in recent years. Thai students and their supporters are calling for the monarchical institution to be reformed, for constitutional changes to restrict the power of the military, and for the educational system to be overhauled.
Until October 2020, the movement gathered tens of thousands of young people in the streets of Bangkok every night, and 2021 was marked by demonstrations, some of which were violent. But the anti-Covid restrictions and the systematic arrest of student leaders have taken their toll on the mobilization.
Young orchestral musicians find themselves in an uncomfortable position, torn between their economic dependence on the elites and demands for social modernization. Basically, they agree with the rest of the youth, says Wynn.
“They are not more conservative than the others. But at the same time they depend on the survival of the royal family, their speech is not free. The financial question is all the more important in this time of the health crisis. Thai musicians have a very strong instinct for survival,” says Wynn .
With a small, embarrassed smile, Geiger Chot says: “You want to make music first, and if you have to shut up for that, you will shut up. At least for a while. We just try to do our job as musicians as well as possible and try not to think of anything else. “
But on condition of anonymity, other orchestra members dare to say more. “Sometimes when we take part in projects that are sponsored by the royals, we ask to hide our faces when there are cameras. Because we are a little ashamed and know that we are heavily criticized on social networks.”
Orchestral musicians, on the other hand, are still a long way from having developed an audience that allows them to forego aristocratic subsidies
Other styles of music have opted for their side more visibly. Morlam, a traditional form of music accompanied by string and wind instruments, has been producing violent political texts for decades. And its artists of the genre are now in jail for their commitment to students.
Thai rappers have released several hits including Prathet Gu mii (This is my country) that became the anthem of the 2020 protests, denouncing the impunity of those in power who “preach morality with a crime rate higher than the Eiffel Tower,” “eat our taxes for dessert,” and “put the Constitution on . “
But even if they take risks by criticizing the elites, the economic survival of these artists depends on the public.
Orchestral musicians, on the other hand, are still a long way from having developed an audience that allows them to forego aristocratic subsidies. The audience for classical music in Thailand is rare and old.
“We want to win a new audience, that’s vital for us,” says conductor Vanich.
With this in mind, the national orchestra plans to adapt traditional songs or even pop hits “so that the Thai people can adopt the genre”.
Only then can symphonic music expand its audience and gain artistic freedom and expression.
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