Sounding the Center: History and Aesthetics in Thai Buddhist Performance / Edition 2

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Sounding the Center is an in-depth look at the power behind classical music and dance in Bangkok, the capital and sacred center of Buddhist Thailand. Focusing on the ritual honoring teachers of music and dance, Deborah Wong reveals a complex network of connections among kings, teachers, knowledge, and performance that underlies the classical court arts.

Drawing on her extensive fieldwork, Wong lays out the ritual in detail: the way it is enacted, the foods and objects involved, and the people who perform it, emphasizing the way the performers themselves discuss and construct aspects of the ceremony.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226905860
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2001
  • Series: Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 378
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Deborah Wong is an associate professor of music and director of the Center for Asian Pacific America at the University of California, Riverside.

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Read an Excerpt

Sounding the Center
History and Aesthetics in Thai Buddhist Performance
By Deborah Wong
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2001 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-90586-0

Chapter One
Men Who Become the Deity: The Thai Body in Performance, the Thai Body as History


I first saw the Thai ritual honoring teachers of music and dance in 1986, at the music education department of Srinakharinwirot University in Bangkok. Although at that time I was doing research about the cassette industry, I was also taking classical Thai music lessons at the university. Early in February, after I had been taking lessons for less than three months, one of the professors casually mentioned that I should make a point of coming to the department that Sunday for a special ceremony. When I asked what kind, he said, "A ceremony to offer thanks to teachers."

Imagining that the affair would be yet another university function (even after my brief time there, I was getting used to the frequent assemblies and special holidays), I tried to avoid committing myself by saying I would try to come. The next day, however, my private teacher, Professor Nikorn, told me I had to come. For one thing, he said, I had to be in the ceremony. For another, I had to play afterward because there would be special performances. Finally, he wanted me to tape record the pieces performed in the ceremony because he was going to be one of the musicians. Somewhat alarmed, I said I'd be happy to tape the event, but that it would be better if I didn't play since I had just started studying and I knew I still sounded, frankly, bad. That didn't matter, my teacher said; what was important was simply that I play.

In the days that followed, we went over and over this. I vigorously resisted (as I saw it) being put on public display, but my teacher was increasingly adamant that I perform. Not only that, but the piece I had to play was a long overture that was clearly beyond my abilities at that time. In the end, my teacher told me to come to the department at 8:30 A.M. on Sunday morning and not on any account to be late because he wanted a complete tape recording of the event. I realized that, rather than having lost control of the situation, I had never been in control of it to begin with. Several days later, my performance in the ritual was as bad as I had known it would be, but the ritual itself was a revelation. I realized I was witnessing something of fundamental importance and beauty, and I felt compelled to understand it. (See fig. 1.1.)

I have related this rather long anecdote about my first wai khruu ceremony not to portray the anthropologist as hero or to suggest that opacity and mystery were eventually replaced by discovery, because neither was the case. The wai khruu ritual (wai, "to salute," khruu, "teacher") is about the power and ability of Thai classical music and dance-drama to connect with the sacred world, and it is, as Thai musicians say, a profound matter that cannot be explicated in any simple way. It is indeed so fundamental that even I, a foreign student and rank beginner, had to participate in its celebration. Toward the end of an extended period of fieldwork in 1989, a well-known and respected ritual musician put me on the spot in front of a group of musicians, asking how I would know what was right and what was wrong when I was writing up my research. I have replayed that moment in my mind many times since then. His point was well taken, and I want to make my approach clear.

This book lays out many of the particularities of the wai khruu ceremony: the way it is enacted, the ritual foods and objects that make it efficacious, the people who perform it. Ultimately I am most interested in how Thai musicians and dancers construct and describe the ceremony in words, in writing, and, of course, in performance. These three avenues-conversation, writings about the ritual, and enactments of the ritual itself-actively construct a belief system addressing the physical connection between performance and the sacred world. It is not coincidence that this most central Thai ritual involves performance or, in fact, that all Thai ritual is performance. Thai performers act out their relation to the nonhuman realm of gods and spirits to affirm their right to and respect for the sometimes dangerous power of their arts. Finally, performers and teachers are quite articulate about these matters, so it is all the more important that I emphasize the structures and discourse that they use to frame the wai khruu ceremony. In the end, however, the heart of the wai khruu is secret and silent, and I respect the silence I encountered in more than one teacher.

In the largest sense, this book addresses the relationship between ritual and performance and the role of performed sound in Thai ritual. Ritual has been of long-standing interest to anthropologists, but I must stress that I am not drawn to what Bruce Kapferer has called "the grail-like anthropological concern with discovering a unifying definition of ritual" (1986, 191). Rather, I am interested in how Thai ritual is performance and, even more particularly, what happens in Thai rituals about performance. This double step back-the reflexivity of ritual performance about performance-is at the center of my study. Once its reflexivity became clear to me, I was pleased to find that Thai performers themselves were not surprised I had chosen the wai khruu for study-that the ritual addressed fundamental qualities of performers and performance was also clear to them.

I do not feel that the wai khruu ritual is a summing-up or an all-encompassing statement about the nature of central Thai court performance traditions. Rather than treating ritual as a series of symbolic statements through which a society talks to itself, I will look at the wai khruu ritual as what Kapferer (ibid.) calls "a complex compositional form ... revealed through the process of performance." The wai khruu ritual articulates matters of economic and institutional authority as well as deliberately esoteric, epistemological, and symbolic concerns.

Ritual as Performance

The intimate connection between expressive culture and ritual is fore-grounded in performance studies, an approach that explores the idea (to use Kapferer once more) that much ritual is performance and vice versa. This approach was first developed by Victor Turner (1974, 1982, 1986) and pursued further by Richard Schechner (1977, 1985, 1986a), Stanley Tambiah (1985), and Bruce Kapferer (1983, 1986). The methodological effects of the dramatic metaphor, where the social world is seen as a stage with actors, has been even more far-reaching, as seen in Erving Goffman's work (in which discourse and experience are discussed as social "scripts" that are then departed from or manipulated) and in Clifford Geertz's description of nineteenth-century Bali as a "theater state" (1980), in which pomp and spectacle are treated not as mere artifice, rhetoric, and illusion, but as active constructions of kingship and statehood. By drawing on anthropology, performance studies, and cultural studies, I show how a particular Thai ritual is a constitutive site for certain kinds of social authority and that Thai performers are well aware of this.

Definitions of ritual that emphasize its formal, patterned behavior abound, but Roy Rappaport (1979, 176) noted that "performance as well as formality is necessary to ritual." Tambiah focuses on the media that constitute performance, in what he calls a "working definition of ritual":

Ritual is a culturally constructed system of symbolic communication. It is constituted of patterned and ordered sequences of words and acts, often expressed in multiple media, whose content and arrangement are characterized in varying degree by formality (conventionality), stereotypy (rigidity), condensation (fusion), and redundancy (repetition). Ritual action in its constitutive features is performative in three senses: in the Austinian sense of performative, wherein saying something is also doing something as a conventional act; in the quite different sense of a staged performance that uses multiple media by which the participants experience the event intensively; and in the sense of indexical values-I derive this concept from Peirce-being attached to and inferred by actors during the performance. (1985, 128)

The key contribution of performance theory to the study of ritual is the emphasis on how ritual is created from various kinds of media, including music, dance, and the spoken word, and how each of these media structures ritual performance in specific ways. Also, the "meaning(s)" of the ritual do not stand apart from these media, just as the kings of Geertz's theater state (1980) did not stand apart from the ritual spectacle that created them. Music, dance, the sounded word, the silent word, and ephemeral substances like incense smoke and candle flame structure the wai khruu ceremony, and they punctuate and, indeed, make the ritual effective in ways that collapse the real and the symbolic.

Is the wai khruu an example of metaperformance or metaritual? The ceremony is certainly a performance about performance, but if ritual itself is performance, then the wai khruu also addresses the very nature of Thai ritual. It also foregrounds the features of performance most salient for Thais, highlighting and celebrating how music and dance not only cross the human and sacred realms but are truly performative. By this I mean that the Austinian sense of performative, "wherein saying something is also doing something," is old news to Thai musicians and dancers. Musical works and dances do not simply reflect or act out these realities, but actually make them happen. Playing certain pieces or dancing certain dances manifests divine beings and powers in the human world. When performers enact these special combinations of bodily movement and instrumental sound, the boundaries of the human and sacred realms blur. The paradox is that performance makes this happen but wouldn't be possible without it: when these boundaries shift, the persons at its axis encounter a kind of power that enables them to reenact the process again and again.

Nor is this process timeless and eternal, and in saying this I contradict Thai performers. The practice of the wai khruu ritual has certain enduring elements, but the purposes it serves in specific communities of Thai performers have changed along with its social context. In this sense, musicians have responded to their changing circumstances, and the ritual's results have new implications in the Bangkok of the late twentieth century. As Kenneth George has asserted, "thinking about ritual language and tradition as idealized and invariant structures seems less useful than examining the ways communities make and authorize 'ritual texts' for ongoing projects of interpretive and pragmatic work" (1996, 201). The pragmatic effects of making late-twentieth-century authority through the wai khruu ritual surfaced again and again in my research, though performers themselves acknowledged the differences between then and now with assertions that the more things change, the more they stay the same in the wai khruu. Still, as I address in the final chapter, the wai khruu of the late twentieth century by no means stands apart from the nation-state that helps support it; the conflicted relationship between the monarchy and state bureaucracy is embedded in its practitioners' prestige. I address these apparent contradictions and refusals by looking closely at the aesthetics and poetics of time and authority.

I realize now that my interest in the wai khruu was motivated by my long-time interest in issues of pedagogy. By "pedagogy," I mean not only teaching but also more broadly the field of relational power and control created by the transmission of knowledge. More recently, I have addressed the roles that ethnomusicologists hold in American and Thai educational systems (Wong 1999, n.d.) and the ways that critical pedagogy offers new ways of thinking about each. As an Asian American educator committed to the exploration of feminist and multicultural pedagogies, I must say that Thai performers' traditional pedagogical models lie at the opposite end of the spectrum from mine. I continue to find the logic of their system beautiful and convincing, however, and I simply accepted it on its own terms during the extended periods when I immersed myself in it as a participant. In fact, I continue to consider myself a participant in it, as the ties it creates don't dissipate over time and space. The forms of absolute authority that the system is predicated upon simply form an alternative to the pedagogical strategies I explore in the world of the American academy, but the questions posed by critical pedagogy-How are certain kinds of knowledge established and maintained as authoritative? and What's at stake politically in any given pedagogical model?-have proven useful in my thinking about the wai khruu even as they have been challenged by it and vice versa.

The people who wield ritual authority in Bangkok are (mostly) men, are regarded by other musicians as important teachers, draw on several kinds of spiritual force when conducting a ritual, and undergo a particular transformation during ritual events that is key to the spiritual and social constitution of other performers. These men are the heart and soul of this book. They are performers who create other performers. They are performers who allow the first great teacher to speak through them. They do what they do by doubling up particular kinds of performative acts in particular ritual contexts, and thereby quite literally keep Thai music and dance alive. They perform transmission in ways that are epistemologically irrevocable: they do it, so it is.

In the following chapters, I address the construction of ritual performance and the performative in some detail, but as an ethnomusicologist I am particularly concerned with Thai epistemologies of performed sound, whether music or texts read aloud. I suspect that dance enacts a bodily extension of this idea, representing a "sounding" of the body in space. But first I need to establish that knowledge, power, and performance are intensely interrelated in the Thai imagination.

Embodying the Hermit

The first teacher of music and dance directly empowers living teachers. This teacher, referred to as the "Old Father" by performers, lived in the distant past and was an ascetic, a hermit-a man so totally dedicated to knowledge and learning that he lived apart from others in the forest, the better to devote himself to his craft. He was present at one of the moments when Shiva, creator and destroyer of the universe, danced the cosmos into oblivion and then created it anew. For reasons utterly unexplained, the Old Father lived through this ultimate, cyclic destruction and wrote down all of Shiva's music and dance. This repertoire is the basis for Thai ritual music and dance, and it comes to us from the Old Father.


Excerpted from Sounding the Center by Deborah Wong Copyright © 2001 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Figures
Preface: Attending a Ritual, Thinking about Ritual
Conventions and Orthography
1. Men Who Become the Deity: The Thai Body in Performance, The Thai Body as History
2. Performing Wai Khruu Ritual
3. Knowledge and Power in Thai Culture: Teachers as Hermits
4. Sounding the Sacred
5. Inscribing the Wai Khruu Ritual: Two Written Accounts
6. Inheritance and Nationalism: The Social Construction of Wai Khruu Rituals in Bangkok
7. The Wai Khruu as a Gendered Cultural System
8. Conclusions: Thoughts on Change
A. Glossary of Terms Used
B. List of the Naa Phaat Repertoire Used in the Wai Khruu Ritual
C. The Deities of Thai Court Performance
D. Thai Instruments Mentioned in the Text
E. CD Contents
F. Guide to Commercial Recordings

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Sounding the Center is an in-depth look at the power behind classical music and dance in Bangkok, the capital and sacred center of Buddhist Thailand. Focusing on the ritual honoring teachers of music and dance, Deborah Wong reveals a complex network of connections among kings, teachers, knowledge, and performance that underlies the classical court arts.

Drawing on her extensive fieldwork, Wong lays out the ritual in detail: the way it is enacted, the foods and objects involved, and the people who perform it, emphasizing the way the performers themselves discuss and construct aspects of the ceremony. Only those who have been initiated by a master can manifest the divine in the human realm. The power held by the master musicians, Wong shows, is both ritual and social; they are not just ritual experts, they are also leaders at the government-run national conservatory. This combination of political recognition and esoteric knowledge, Wong suggests, has helped Thai classical music endure in the face of changing patronage and the challenges posed by the urban environment that supports it.
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