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Khaen: Notes for Composers (pdf) | khaen repertoire | khaen photos

The khaen (pronounced "can" and sometimes also transliterated as 'khene') is a bamboo free-reed mouth organ and relative of the Chinese sheng and Japanese sho. It is considered by the Lao people, who generally live in lowland Laos and Northeast Thailand, to be the predominant traditional musical instrument and symbolic of Lao identity. It is also played by some of the upland and minority ethnic groups in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Learn more about the khaen tradition in this short article for the Center for World Music.

I began research the traditional musics of Thailand in 1994, after encountering them at the Smithsonian American Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. The instruments on which I have concentrated are the khaen and the ranaat ek, the principle xylophone of the Thai classical tradition. I studied khaen with Molam Ratri Srivilai in Khon Kaen, Northeast Thailand and Jarernchai Chonpairot in Mahasarakham University, and ranaat ek with Ajarn Panya Roongruang, of Kasetsart University. I also studied music and Thai language at Wat Thai, D.C. in Washington D.C. I have taught Thai music at the Thai Buddhist Temple of San Diego, and have been a Visiting Professor at Mahasarakham University in Northeast Thailand, and I have lectured at Mahidol University and Kasetart University in Bangkok about my compositions for Thai instruments.

New Music for Khaen

I have composed solo and ensemble works for the khaen which build on the foundation of traditional techniques and musical principles and extend into the contemporary Western idiom. I have also collaborated with Marcelo Radulovich (hurdy-gurdy, post-production) as Gunther's Grass, to explore drone-based improvisation on acoustic instruments with many guest artists (hear Gunther's Grass on the CDs Never in the Future That Dawned Earlier On and Bastille Day and Other Lullabies).

In order to promote the khaen as a concert instrument and develop new repertoire, I am soliciting new works from composers. To aid composers unfamiliar with the instrument, I have prepared a brief guide which may be freely downloaded and shared. A newly revised version from August, 2009 is available now. DOWNLOAD KHAEN GUIDE FOR COMPOSERS.

Composers may also benefit from seeing other new music (compositions and improvisations) for Asian mouth organs, including the khaen, the Japanese sho, Chinese sheng, and Korean saenghwang, compiled in this youtube playlist.

The 'New Musical Geographies' Concerts

In Spring, 2011, I presented a solo khaen recital New Musical Geographies, at various locations in the U.S. The recital featured a number of works written for me, including new pieces by Jeff Herriott, David Loeb, Matthew Welch and Sidney Marquez Boquiren. I have presented versions of this recital in the U.S., Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, including at the Thailand International Composition Festival.

In November, 2017, I debuted a second New Musical Geographies recital, with new compositions by Yu Kuwabara, Vera Ivanova, H. James Harkins, Sidney Marquez Boquiren and myself, and including arrangements of Swedish folk tunes for fiddle, khaen and harp. The recital is archived on youtube.

I am planning more performances in 2019-20 with additional premieres, including a new piece by Jinhee Han that I have just posted on Youtube. If you would like to book a performance or consider writing for khaen, please contact me!

Modern repertoire for the khaen
The following are modern compositions for the khaen which I am currently performing.

Solo works

Christopher Adler, Epilogue for a Dark Day (available on the CD Epilogue for a Dark Day)
Christopher Adler, Five Cycles (watch)
Christopher Adler, Tashi Delek
Christopher Adler, Telemetry Lock
Christopher Adler, the wind blows inside (available on the CD Epilogue for a Dark Day)
Sidney Marquez Boquiren, angel music (premiered in 2007 - listen | watch)
Sidney Marquez Boquiren, Watawat (premiered in 2017 - watch)
Christopher Burns, Triangulation (premiered in 2009, recording forthcoming)
Jinhee Han, Paysage on Danube (premiered in 2019 - watch)
H. James Harkins, Late Passing (premiered in 2017 - watch)
Jeff Herriott, Patterns in Wide Space, for khaen and electronics (premiered in 2011 - listen)
Vera Ivanova, Palpable Breathing (premiered in 2017 - watch)
Yu Kuwabara, Mystische Miniatüre (premiered in 2017 - watch)
David Loeb, Emerging from the Deep Mist (premiered in 2011 - watch)
David Loeb, Karin: A Forest of Verses (available on the CD A Forest of Verses)
David Loeb, Kawagiri: Rivermist in Summer (available on the CD The Silent Waterfall)
Matthew Welch, Ulrikke (premiered in 2011)

Ensemble works

Christopher Adler, Diomedea, for khaen and harp (watch)
Christopher Adler, Three Body Problem, for khaen and cello
Christopher Adler, Three Lai, for khaen, violin, and viola (available on the CD Epilogue for a Dark Day) (watch)
Sidney Marquez Boquiren, Babaylan, for khaen, flute and cello (premiered in 2011 - listen)
Narongrit Dhamabutra, The Asian Euphony, for four Asian instruments and orchestra (premiered in 2018)
David Loeb, The Maltese Plaza in Fog, for three khaen (premiered in 2011)
David Loeb, Three Friends of Winter, for khaen, flute, guitar, cello and percussion (available on the CD A Forest of Verses)

Scores of my original compositions for khaen and recordings are available at my store

Traditional performances

Lai sootsanaen (watch)
Phuthai (watch)
Toei (watch)
Lai Lam Khonsavane (watch)



On the left is Somaun Noi Lomboon, one of the finest khaen players in Northeast Thailand, performing at his home.

Below is Changkhen Somjinda of Baan Sii Kaew, Roi Et Province, widely recognized as one of the best khaen makers. He uses traditional tools to make instruments, including the elephant leg bone in the foreground.












Christopher Adler, University of San Diego Music Program, 5998 Alcala Park, San Diego, 92110-2492

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