Music From Heaven, songs by Gen Prem Tinsulanonda arranged by Nat Yontararak. (Photos by Apipar Norapoompipat)
Gen Prem Tinsulanonda — one of the most influential figures in Thai modern history — has held many titles in his lifetime: statesman, army commander, prime minister, chief royal adviser, chairman of the Privy Council, and not to mention regent of the Kingdom of Thailand. Yet, for concert pianist and composer Nat Yontararak, the general is also an artist.
To the surprise of many, Gen Prem, who turned 98 on Aug 26, started writing music at the age of 80. Eighteen years on, he has written over 200 songs. With his permission, Nat, in 2007, started arranging some of his songs to become classical repertoires. The simplicity of the general’s tunes allowed Nat to arrange and add colourful techniques and chords according to his own interpretation.
“The songs he wrote are for singing, and when other people want to [cover] them, they just sang,” said Nat, who is considered to be one of Thailand’s pioneers in contemporary classical music. “But for us, because I have a family of pianists, I arranged the songs to become instrumental pieces.”
Nat premiered the pieces one by one over the following years to great receptions by audiences. Some songs were arranged for piano solos, piano duets, two pianos, two pianos eight-hands, and even piano harp — something different and exciting for musical audiences to see and hear. Now, with 10 pieces altogether, Nat has released Music From Heaven, an album and songbook that aims to publicise Thai songs to the West and give Thai musicians a sense of pride.
“Thai songs that are performed as concert pieces — they’re rare,” said Paranee, Nat’s daughter, who manages the family’s Sala Sudasiri Sobha concert hall. “What we’re doing is we’re making Thai repertoires more known to the world. The way my father works is that he takes Thai melodies and puts in Western aspects to make the songs accessible. There’s a mixture of Thainess and Westerness that just falls into place. And the fact that we have these songs in print, it publicises Thai songs to the West. It makes them see as well — as sometimes when we don’t have this specific culture — they don’t see us as equal. Once they see that we can do this, and we have these combinations which aren’t your average combinations like piano and harp. It’s something new that people don’t expect.”
The songbook, which has music scores for all 10 songs, English translations of General Prem’s lyrics, and even artworks accompanying each song, has so far been donated to The Juilliard School and Yale University in the US and some music schools in Singapore. The family hopes that through donations, more music books can be sent to music schools throughout Thailand and abroad.
“You asked if it would be interesting for Western audiences,” said Nat. “It’s interesting because the pieces are challenging. People want to play songs that are a challenge. These aren’t simple, and there’s something to discover. At the same time it’s something exotic that they can comprehend.”
The songs range from sweet and fun melodies like Heartbreak and Her Sweet Scent to more strenuous pieces like Born In Gratitude To Our Homeland.
For the family, it’s an opportunity for aspiring Thai musicians to play Thai music alongside Western classical music. And for Nat, it is to show his gratitude towards someone he deems an important aspect of Thai modern history as well.
“It’s interesting,” said Nat. “Because he’s had this life [that we’re used to seeing], but he has this other side of him. We get to see his humanity that we forgot and have ignored for a long time. I get to understand that human nature, whether you’re 18 or 80, you feel the same. He wrote the lyrics in his 80s but the writing is like that of a young man. No matter how old you are, your humanity doesn’t change and you can see that so clearly in his lyrics.
“I don’t know what people think when I say this, but what I am impressed by Gen Prem — other than the fact that he writes music — is that he has contributed so much to our country. His motto is ‘We are born in gratitude to our homeland’, and I am showing gratitude by doing good to the person who did good to our country.”
Nat Yontararak, left, performing Born In Gratitude To Our Homeland with his son Pana.
Nat Yontararak, left, performing Only Dreaming with his daughter Pinnaree at Sala Sudasiri Sobha concert hall.
For more information on how to help donate the Music From Heaven songbook to schools around the world, contact 02-541-8662 or 080-407-8231 firstname.lastname@example.org