UCR Ph.D. Student in Ethnomusicology Receives Grant from Thai University

By March 27, 2013

Supeena Insee AdlerGraduate student Supeena Insee Adler has received a research grant from the Project of Empowering Network for International Thai Studies (ENITS), administered by the internationally renowned Institute of Thai Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, with support from the Thailand Research Fund (TRF).

ENITS grants support research and encourage graduate students in Thai studies or related disciplines who are enrolled in institutions outside Thailand.

Adler, a native of Thailand, received her M.A. in Southeast Asian Studies at UCR in 2010 and is a doctoral student in ethnomusicology in the UCR Department of Music. She conducted dissertation research in Bangkok and other provinces for eight months in 2012 and 2013. The 80,000 baht (approximately $2,700 U.S.) grant supports research for her dissertation, “Music for the Few: Nationalism and Thai Royal Authority.”

“Chulalongkorn University is similar to Harvard in prestige and standing, and their Institute of Thai Studies is authoritative,” said Deborah Wong, professor of music and Adler’s advisor. “This fellowship indicates that Supeena’s dissertation project is regarded by specialists as noteworthy.”

An ethnomusicologist and an experienced Thai classical musician, Adler is exploring an old, specialized, even esoteric music ensemble — khreuang sai pii jawa  — that is closely connected with royalty and features Thai stringed instruments and the Javanese oboe.

“Supeena has conducted close, on-the-ground ethnographic research to ascertain who now performs this profoundly circumscribed music,” Wong said. “Her broader purpose is to ask how and why such esoteric music is framed by an ideology that conflates kingship and nationalism in an environment that is intensely nostalgic for a time when the royal court was the political and cultural center of Thailand.”

Adler said the title of her dissertation, “Music for the Few,” refers to the very exclusive group of people who have participated in this traditional Thai musical ensemble.

“So far, I have found no evidence of other musicians playing this music who are not related to the great musicians or to the royal household,” Adler said. “The number of musicians with the ritual right to perform and teach it has shrunk dramatically. The repertoire is now extraordinarily small — less than 25 pieces — though some musicians claim it was much larger in the past. No new compositions have been composed for this special ensemble since it was started during King Rama VI (1910-1925). The lineage requirements for the musicians who perform it are very select precisely because it is meant to be performed only in front of the king and for funerals of great musicians who played in this ensemble, but 80 years of a constitutional monarchy and struggles over the Thai nation have both narrowed the performance contexts for the music and intensified musicians’ beliefs in its importance.

“I consider it an endangered music, in part because of the very strict custom that the only musicians able to perform are those who have direct contact with a teacher who has played in khreuang sai pii jawa, and they must have special traditional permission to perform.”

Adler gave a presentation on her research, titled “Endangered Thai Music Culture: The Current Situation of the khreuang sai pii jawa Ensemble,” at the ENITS conference, hosted by Chulalongkorn University, in July 2012. 

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