Race and Sovereignty in the Imperial Music of Siam


ACLS Fellowship Program




This book project is a history of music and colonialism in Siam after its defeat in the Franco-Siamese War (1893). At this time, Siam was an absolute monarchy in crisis over the racial and civilizational standing of its regional kingdom against encroaching European colonization across Southeast Asia. The book examines how the Siamese court strategically emulated aspects of European music into its own musical tradition to project an image of civilizational excellence. These efforts fashioned Siam as a sovereign nation with a musical culture legible to European observers, yet remaining Siamese enough to be racially distinct. The chapters address hybrid reforms in court opera as imperial spectacle and ethnological tool, the transformations in Siamese tuning theory, the invention of a developmental history for Siamese music, and the politically fraught quest to codify national song. This study shows that these practices were not subaltern efforts of anticolonial resistance, but a waning monarchy’s bid to harness the tools of European imperial power to renew its own sovereignty in a newfound global-colonial order. In this space of imperial competition, the idea of Europe looms in the Siamese imagination at once as a tangible threat and as a locus of desire.