Bruce Gaston, American maestro of Thai music, dies at 75

Bruce Gaston, a transplanted Californian who helped revolutionize Thai classical music by injecting it with Western instruments and forms, and who became one of Thailand’s leading performers and composers, died on October 17 at his home in Bangkok. . He was 75 years old.

The cause was liver cancer, said her son, Theodore.

Together with two Thai musicians, Mr. Gaston founded Fong Nam (the name means ‘bubbles’), an ensemble that has worked to revive forgotten Thai classical pieces as well as to create modern forms, performing in concerts and in studios. recording. M. Gaston played the piano or the synthesizer among the gongs and woodwinds of a piphat percussion orchestra.

He was a prominent and respected figure in Thailand as a composer, performer and teacher. In 2009, he became the only foreigner to receive the Silpathorn Award, which recognizes artists who make notable contributions to Thai arts and culture.

“I want to find a form that transcends this polarity between East and West, between the us and the they,” he said in an interview with the New York Times in 1987. “It’s silly to talk about it. East and West now Technology has brought us all together.

Mr Gaston argued that imbibing traditional Thai music with new forms was vital for its health, but these new elements “have to come from that tradition, or you risk losing everything that reminds you of who you are. and who you were “.

Somtow Sucharitkul, a prominent Thai American writer and musician, called Mr. Gaston’s music a “new fusion” in which “traditional Thai ideas and Western structures were fluid and could blend and merge and have a distinctly Thai sensibility” .

“If anyone can claim the title of ‘He Who Lit the Revolutionary Torch'”, he wrote in The Bangkok Post, “it is Bruce Gaston”.

Mr. Gaston developed a language of composition, informed by his training in Western classical and contemporary music, that “evoked but not imitated Thai music,” said Kit Young, an American pianist, composer and artistic advisor who is the co-founder of Gitameit. Music Institute in Myanmar and who lived in Thailand for many years.

Bruce Gaston was born on March 11, 1946 in Los Angeles to Marcus and Evangelin Gaston. Her mother was a schoolteacher, her father a pastor. He graduated from the University of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master’s degree in music in 1969. He received a project deferment during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector and was assigned to the alternative service. as a teacher abroad.

Mr Gaston visited Jamaica before moving to Thailand, where he was fascinated by Thai music performed during cremation ceremonies at a temple near his home, his son said. In 1971, he developed a music studies program at Payap College in the northern city of Chiangmai.

Mr. Gaston began to experiment with the combination of Thai and Western forms and wrote an opera on Buddhist themes titled “Chu Chok” in 1976. It was performed at the Goethe Institute in Thailand and Germany in 1977 and 1978. He has performed studied in Bangkok with Boonyong Kaetkhong. , a master of ranat, an instrument similar to a xylophone.

Mr. Gaston and another musician, Jirapan Ansvananda, founded Fong Nam in 1981.

“If you want to have western influences that’s fine,” said Theodore Gaston, “but better to use it as a flavor and not as a mainstay. It’s the Fong Nam way. If you listen, you can say that it’s pretty much Thai.

Fong Nam has recorded a series of traditional music CDs for the Nimbus, Celestial Harmonies and Marco Polo labels, said John Clewley, a Bangkok-based British music teacher who writes a column called World Beat for the Bangkok Post.

Mr. Gaston became fluent in Thai and applied his talents widely – lecturing on music at Chulalongkorn University, composing for films and theatrical performances, and performing for years at a famous Bangkok brewery, the Brewery Tawan Daeng.

At first he had a thriving business with other musicians who wrote jingles for Thai TV commercials. “We sell banks, beer, all kinds of food, soft drinks, cars, perfumes, soaps and dishes,” he told The Times in 1984. “I would say we have the majority of the market in Thailand.

He married Sarapi Areemitr in 1976. She and her son survive him.

Mr. Gaston said his music aims to bridge the gaps between generations as well as between cultures.

“Sometimes we can’t understand each other, the old and the young,” he said in 1987, when he was 41 years old. He added: “By changing and discovering new forms, the old members of the orchestra have the most difficulty. There are times when the old folks play better than we ever will in the traditional style, and times when they just can’t keep up with us.

“But you just play together – that’s the most important thing,” he said. “You don’t just say, ‘Forget it’. “

Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting.

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