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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. A complete list of these works and available recording may be found below. I have written about my process of learning the tradition, creating these works, and situating these practices within a broader ethics of cross-cultural composition in a 2007 article "Reflections on Cross-Cultural Composition", in Arcana II, ed. by John Zorn, available from Tzadik.

Since 2003, I have invited other composers to write for the instrument. An up-to-date list of this repertoire from a growing list of wonderful composers around the world may be found below. This repertoire is featured on my CD series New music for khaen which now includes two releases: Triangulations: New music for khaen, volume one (2020), and Landscape Traces: New music for khaen, volume two (2023)

Here is a youtube playlist of some of my khaen performances.

My cross-cultural collaborations are featured on Episode #88 of the The World Fusion Show, hosted by Derrik Jordan, released on November 6, 2020. One additional piece may be heard on Sampler #8.

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).

Khaen Guide for Composers

To further promote the khaen as a concert instrument and develop new repertoire, I continue to soliciting new works from composers. To aid composers unfamiliar with the instrument, I have prepared a written guide which may be freely downloaded and shared. DOWNLOAD KHAEN GUIDE FOR COMPOSERS (PDF).

Also this VIDEO GUIDE is a companion to the PDF guide and includes demonstrations of all the examples and extended additional discussion.

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' and COVID-19 #STFH 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.

In February, 2023, the third recital featured the world premiere of my duo for khaen and 25-string gayageum, works from the CD Landscape Traces, the stage premiere of Sirens of the Pack Ice, and fusion arrangements of Thai and Swedish folk melodies.

During the COVID-19 period of isolation, I am presenting livestream performances of khaen music on my own #STFH house concert series and with other organizations. Archived videos of these performances may be viewed here:

solos: Three for Khaen #1, April 3, 2020 (works by Sidney Boquiren, David Loeb and Yu Kuwabara)
solos: Three for Khaen #2, April 17, 2020 (works by Jinhee Han and Jeff Herriott)
The Current: New Music Open Mic, April 28, 2020 (the wind blows inside)
solos: Three for Khaen #3, Virtual Norf Space livestream, May 13, 2020 (works by Christopher Adler, David Loeb and Vera Ivanova)
solos: Three for Khaen #4, August 13, 2020 (works by Philip Carlsen, David Loeb and Sunhee Lee)

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 | available on the CD Triangulations)
Christopher Adler, Sirens of the Pack Ice, for khaen and electronics (2023 - listen)
Christopher Adler, Tashi Delek (available on the CD Landscape Traces)
Christopher Adler, Telemetry Lock (available on the CD Triangulations)
Christopher Adler, the wind blows inside (available on the CD Epilogue for a Dark Day | watch)
Sidney Marquez Boquiren, angel music (premiered in 2007 - listen | watch)
Sidney Marquez Boquiren, Watawat (premiered in 2017 - watch | available on the CD Triangulations)
Christopher Burns, Triangulation (premiered in 2009 - available on the CD Triangulations)
Philip Carlsen, Frangipani Blossoms (watch)
Chua Zi Tao, Paddy Fields (premiered in 2022 - watch)
Peter Hager, A Seasonal Rain (premiered in 2021 - watch | available on the CD Landscape Traces)
Jinhee Han, Paysage on Danube (premiered in 2019 - watch | available on the CD Landscape Traces)
H. James Harkins, Late Passing (premiered in 2017 - watch)
Jeff Herriott, Patterns in Wide Space, for khaen and electronics (premiered in 2011 - available on the CD Triangulations)
Vera Ivanova, Mockingbird Hopscotch (premiered in 2020 - watch)
Vera Ivanova, Palpable Breathing (premiered in 2017 - watch | available on the CD Triangulations)
Yu Kuwabara, Mystische Miniatüre (premiered in 2017 - watch | (available on the CD Triangulations)
Kevin Leomo, tracing a line (available on the CD Landscape Traces)
Joogwang Lim, ... at Beaconsfield
David Loeb, An Ancient Harbor (premiered in 2020 - watch | watch | available on the CD Triangulations)
David Loeb, Autumn Green (premiered in 2020 - watch)
David Loeb, Caprices
David Loeb, Emerging from the Deep Mist (premiered in 2011 - watch | available on the CD Landscape Traces)
David Loeb, A Garden to Linger In (premiered in 2020 - watch | available on the CD Triangulations)
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)
David Loeb, The Legend of Tha Tien
Ishmael Wallace, Pipes of the Primordial (premiered in 2022 - watch)
Matthew Welch, Ulrikke (premiered in 2011)

Ensemble works

Christopher Adler, Cowries, for three khaen (available on the CD Landscape Traces)
Christopher Adler, Diomedea, for khaen and harp (watch)
Christopher Adler, K's Crossing, for haegum (or melody instrument) and khaen (watch | watch)
Christopher Adler, The Memories that Drift from Mountain Peaks, for khaen and 25-string gayageum (watch)
Christopher Adler, The Serpent's Dance, for violin and khaen (watch, (available on the CD Landscape Traces)
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)
Christopher Adler, Three Forest Characters, for shamisen, khaen, violin and cello
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)
Sunhee Lee, Maehwa Hyanggi, for khaen, geomungo, violin, viola and cello
Sunhee Lee, 2020 Suyeonjang, for geomungo, khaen and bass (watch)
Sunhee Lee, 2020 Suyeonjang, 2nd version for khaen, geomungo, viola and cello
David Loeb, The Maltese Plaza in Fog, for three khaen (available on the CD Travelogue)
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

Folk/classical arrangements

Bai Sri Suu Khwan (trad. NE Thai), for voice/erhu, viola and khaen (watch)
Mahori Isaan, for poong land instruments and violin
Lao Duang Dauk Mai auk sum Lao Phaen, for violin, khaen and Thai instruments
Sommarvalsen (Swedish folk song, by Ale Möller), for violin and khaen (watch)
Polska efter Axel Edfors (Swedish folk tune, arr. Marsden/Ottoson), for violin and khaen (watch)

Traditional performances

Bo Sai (watch)
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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