I assumed the elephant orchestra was a gimmick. But those pachyderms can play

Training an animal, Pavlov-style, to do human-designed tricks is one thing, but to have it come, voluntarily, to music practice is quite another.

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When I first heard about it, I assumed it was a gimmick; which says much about human prejudice, I suppose. Still, I like to think that my initial scepticism was founded, not on some anthropocentric impulse, but upon its precise opposite.

Of course, I know that animals make music, but an elephant orchestra, complete with drums, gongs and harmonicas? Playing pieces that humans would consider pleasing to the ear? That proposition took me back to the early nature programmes, where the animals had distinctly human personalities. The grumpy pelican. The shy hedgehog. The mischievous chimpanzee. When humans argue about whether, or to what extent, animals have feelings, what they usually mean is: do animals have human feelings? To which I think the answer is: no – and why should they?

No surprise, then, that when a friend offered to play me a CD recorded by the Elephant Orchestra of Thailand, I was as wary as I was curious.

The orchestra began as a side project of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in 1999, after Richard Lair, a zoologist and artist (who had already begun teaching elephants to paint) met the experimental composer Dave Soldier and they decided that, if elephants could enjoy making pictures, perhaps they might also enjoy making music.

That word, enjoy, makes all the difference, of course: training an animal, Pavlov-style, to do human-designed tricks is one thing, but to have it come, voluntarily, to music practice on a damp Wednesday afternoon is quite another. Still, as the music began, I was aware that I had no way of knowing whether these majestic animals were being manipulated, merely to entertain humans – though as Lair has remarked, it isn’t that easy to manipulate an orchestra of around 12 players who, together, weigh three times as much as the entire Berlin Philharmonic.

Knowing that sales of the CD would benefit the Elephant Conservation Center itself didn’t altogether dispel my suspicions. Yet, listening to the various recorded performances, I began to feel that the elephant musicians really did get a kick out of banging drums and gongs, playing a thunder sheet, or wailing on a harmonica (a sound that is beautifully wistful to the human ear, though we can only speculate as to what it expresses for an elephant). There was an energy to the playing that I like to think betokened more than just a desire to satisfy a taskmaster.

The Thai Elephant Orchestra was started to raise funds to keep the animals in decent conditions after logging was restricted in Thailand in the early 1990s – and what better story than that of a community that learns how to survive by making art? As for the music, it seemed to fall into two categories: one where it was clear that the players had been directed to approximate existing orchestral works (there is a wild performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, for example) and these performances I could take or leave. Yet where the music arose more spontaneously, where it was allowed to be just elephant music, I was enthralled.

Dave Soldier has said that, “When you hear the elephant music you’re hearing what they mean to make” – and I find that idea infinitely intriguing. How does he know this? How can I know, just by listening? The fact is that I can’t, and yet, for long moments, I felt it in the marrow of my bones, like the resonance of a gong, or the eerie call of an elephant harmonica.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game