Pianist Paul Barton plays music by the river, his audience being elephants in a forest in Thailand, which even have favourite playlists
57-year-old British pianist Paul Barton’s workplace can be any musician’s dream set up. Paul plays on the bank of the river Kwai of ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ fame, nestled in the thick forests of Thailand. He runs his fingers on keys mostly under a moonlit sky or vault of heaven painted in orange dawn. A usual day at work begins with Beethoven’s Pathetique, Beethoven’s Moonlight and Chopin’s Nocturne and ends with a reprise on popular demand.
If that does not leave you green-eyed, reading about Paul’s audience surely will. Paul plays for rescued and old elephants in a sanctuary in Thailand. His crowd mostly enjoys and craves for Beethoven, Pathetique, Beethoven, Moonlight, Bach Prelude, Cesar Franck, Prelude Chorale and Fugue and Chopin Raindrop Prelude to mention a few.
“I love elephants and the idea of playing the piano to them just suggested itself. I began to wonder whether soothing music could play a part in rehabilitating elephants that have had stressful lives. Elephants are emotional animals and I am only following my instincts playing classical piano music for them,” says Paul.
It all began in 1996 when Paul visited Thailand on an adventurous trip and fell in love with old, injured and rescued jumbos housed in the Elephant World sanctuary. The idea of playing music to these elephants struck next and soon Paul was at the sanctuary with his custom-made piano to fit a trolley.
“We arrived with the piano and the mahouts brought eight elephants near me. I was sitting at the piano surrounded by huge, hungry elephants ripping up and feasting on bana grass with their trunks,” recalls Paul.
While the musician played the soothing Beethoven slow movement, a blind male elephant named Plara stood just behind the piano with a mouthful of bana grass and was chewing away. Paul recalls, as soon as the music started, Plara stopped eating and stood motionless with the long shoots of reedy grass sticking out from both sides of his mouth. Plara remianed motionless until the music was over.
According to Paul, the most evident response to music comes from dangerous bulls and blind elephants. “Romsai is one of the dangerous bulls at the sanctuary. I took a chance and played Beethoven slow movement to Romsai. The elephant listened to the classic passage and let me live too,” says Paul adding that his audiences have their favourites tunes. Any other playlist puts them off and they mostly decide to walk away.
“Romsai tended to like Beethoven, sometimes curling his trunk and holding the tip in his mouth until the piece was over. Any other piece would only drive him away,” recalls Paul.
Some say elephants can smell fear. Paul believes so. “I was wondering about this as Chaichana, a bull elephant, outstretched his trunk towards me over the piano top and sniffed around my head as I was playing. When I play music to elephants, I always feel calm and happy, and perhaps Chaichana could smell and recognize the scent of someone that liked him very much,” says Paul.
Paul feels that slow piano music calms even dangerous bulls and perhaps gentle music brings interest and comfort to blind elephants!
Transporting and moving an instrument as heavy a piano, playing around unchained bull elephants and protecting the instrument from sun and moisture are some challenges that Paul faces. “Taking a piano to the elephants in rural Kanchanaburi is difficult both financially and physically. The first piano I used I designed and made myself to fit in a taxi. Moving the piano around was very hard, especially in the heat. Moreover, because I prefer elephants unchained while I play, having a bull elephant so close is really quite something an experience. Keeping the piano dry and protected from the sun outdoors in the mountains is also challenging. Mice and lizards find their way into the piano. Each time I open the piano there is some new surprise to deal with and get the piano working again,’ says Paul.
Image Credit: Paul Barton