Profession: Classical Musician and Composer
Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Your latest work, Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia, draws on the personal and collective trauma of living under the Khmer Rouge regime. How do you deal with the emotional exhaustion from revisiting the past? When I composed the requiem, I relived the feelings I had during the Khmer Rouge. It was hell on earth, but I still hold these memories closely in my heart and spirit. It is important for the requiem to be shown around the world so everyone can see that tragedy is a shared experience. For me, as a composer, I find hope in creation.
Sometimes I lose my energy. If I get too tired, I’ll just stop and do something else. Other times, I feel like I’ve won the lottery. It helps when I see audiences enjoying my work at a performance. This brings me happiness.
Art is powerful because it can heal. It can change your thinking.
After you survived the Cambodian civil war and genocide, you traveled to Russia, where you pursued a doctorate at the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory. What was it like leaving your homeland? In 1985 I received a scholarship to study in Moscow, and I lived there for almost 14 years. When I first moved, I was under the impression that Russians thought of Cambodians as people from the jungle, with no culture or civilization, when, in fact, it is the opposite. We had a great civilization, but under Pol Pot’s brutal communist rule, nobody even thought about culture. They only wanted to escape from the fighting.
I wrote many compositions, concertos, and symphonies at the Conservatory because I felt that I had lost time during the war. Memory from Darkness is a trio for piano, violin, and cello that I composed while I was a student. This music is not from the head; it is from the heart. And it is inspired by memories from my childhood, back when Cambodia was a battleground in the 1970s. It took me 6 months to complete. Today, you can hear this melody playing on the audio guide to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, a mass gravesite on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
Has Buddhism been a refuge for you? If you read the old Buddhist texts, you’ll see that the Buddha made great sacrifices. He devoted his life to looking for transcendental knowledge and resolved to throw away all of his attachments and greed. For this, I bow down to the Buddha and have profound respect for him as a great being. Up until the civil war, I went to the pagodas for ceremonies and rituals with my parents. But during the war there was no religion. People were afraid to go to the pagodas and pray.
Buddhism can be a real force for good in the world, but like all traditions, it has become denominational. With every religion, there will always be people who manipulate its original theology, become extremists, exploit belief for material gain, or use religion to justify violence and destruction. We have to serve the world by guarding against these kinds of actions. I have become more of a humanist over the years, which is why Bangsokol [its title is the name of a funeral rite], though it is rooted in Buddhism, is not religious in a strict sense. It is an act of protection, a humanitarian message for everyone—Hindus, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists.
Your compositions blend traditional Khmer music with a medley of contemporary genres—classical, opera, rock, rap, electronic, you name it. Five years ago, you built a music school in the capital for young musicians to learn the ropes. Do they enjoy your quirky approach? They are certainly never bored! You can’t eat the same sandwich every day. You’ve got to vary your diet and try new food.
Some of my young students believe that writing one song will make them rock stars. [Laughs.] It’s not easy to find students who want to devote their lives to becoming professional composers, pianists, or violinists. There are a few who are striving. At the same time, many don’t take their studies seriously and will go on to play pop music, or they are preoccupied with things that don’t have lasting value. It’s very different from my generation. We grew up under the civil war. We didn’t have smartphones or cars. This is where my resilience comes from and why my passion to become a composer runs deep.
Why is musical education important, especially for young Cambodians? For a nation to rebuild, its economy and infrastructure must grow, of course, but it also needs to grow as a culture. Though we can honor our ancient heritage, we have to develop.
In the early 2000s I teamed up with Patrick Kersalé, a French ethnomusicologist, and Keo Sonan Kavei, a Cambodian master craftsman, on a project to reconstruct an Angkorian pin harp, an instrument that was lost for centuries after the fall of the Khmer Empire. From looking at 12th-century bas-relief carvings found on the walls of Angkor Wat and the Bayon temple, we were able to recreate the harp. It was a big collaboration and tough work. After we finished, the only problem was that there weren’t any musicians who knew how to play it, or teachers who knew how to teach it. So I ended up giving harp lessons to a handful of students, all girls, and now they can play.