May 16, 2022

Charlie Doodle

Unique Art & Entertainment

Bruce Gaston, American Maestro of Thai Music, Dies at 75

4 min read

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 Oct. 17 at his home in Bangkok. He was 75.

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

Together with two Thai musicians, Mr. Gaston founded Fong Nam, which means “bubbles,” an ensemble that worked to revive forgotten Thai classical pieces as well as to create modern forms, performing in concerts and in recording studios. Mr. Gaston played a piano or an electronic 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 honors 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 we’s and the they’s,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1987. “It’s silly to talk about East and West now. Technology has brought us all together.”

Mr. Gaston argued that infusing traditional Thai music with new forms was vital to its health, but that those new elements “must grow out of 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 back and forth and fuse and have a uniquely Thai sensibility.”

Writing in The Bangkok Post, he said, “If anyone can lay claim to the title of ‘He who lit the revolutionary torch,’ it is Bruce Gaston.”

Mr. Gaston developed a compositional language, informed by his training in Western classical and contemporary music, that “evoked but did not imitate Thai music,” said Kit Young, an American pianist, composer and artistic adviser 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. His mother was a schoolteacher, and his father was a pastor. He graduated from the University of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and earned a master’s degree in music in 1969. He received a draft deferment during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector and was assigned to alternative service as a teacher overseas.

Mr. Gaston traveled to Jamaica before moving to Thailand, where he became entranced by Thai music that was played during cremation ceremonies at a temple near his home, Theodore Gaston said. In 1971 he developed a curriculum in music at Payap College, in the northern city of Chiangmai.

Mr. Gaston began experimenting with combining Thai and Western forms and wrote an opera on Buddhist themes called “Chu Chok” in 1976. It was performed at the Goethe Institute in Thailand and in Germany during 1977-1978. He studied in Bangkok with Boonyong Kaetkhong, a master of the ranat, which is similar to a xylophone.

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

“If you want to have influences from the West, great,” his son said, “but better to use it as a flavor and not the main thing. That is the Fong Nam way. If you listen, you can tell that it’s pretty much Thai.”

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

Mr. Gaston became fluent in Thai and applied his talents widely, lecturing on music at Chulalongkorn University, composing for movies and theatrical shows and performing for years at a famous Bangkok beer hall, the Tawan Daeng Brewery.

Early on he had a thriving business with other musicians writing jingles for Thai television commercials. “We sell banks, beer, all kinds of food, soft drinks, cars, perfumes, soaps and dishes,” he told The Times in 1984. “I’d say we have the majority of the market in Thailand.”

He married Sarapi Areemitr in 1976. Along with his son, she survives him.

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

“Sometimes we can’t understand each other, the old and the young,” he said in 1987, when he was 41. He added: “In changing and discovering new forms, the old members of the orchestra have the hardest time. There are moments when the old boys play better than we ever will in the traditional style, and moments 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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