Classical and Contemporary Cambodian Music and Dance

From ancient stone idiophones to singing kites, Cambodian traditional music offers tons of fascinating possibilities for contemporary composers. But the music is no longer developing and now more closely resembles a museum rather than a living art. Chinary Ung hopes to change that through several initiatives he has organized there.

Written By

Jacob Sudol

What happens to a country’s rich classical music after a small group attempts to systematically destroy it?

I have wondered about the answer to this question since I read about how the Khmer Rouge tried to eradicate nearly all of traditional Cambodian culture after taking over the government of Cambodia in 1975.  Thankfully, in the face of this tragedy a number of people dedicated themselves to preserving the Cambodian classical traditions by helping artists escape Cambodia, as well as by learning, teaching, performing, and helping to develop organizations dedicated to preserving the Cambodian arts.

My mentor, Chinary Ung, is one of these people who has devoted much of his life to preserving traditional Cambodian culture.  For nearly ten years, starting in the mid-1970s, Chinary stopped composing to dedicate most of his energy to this task.  It was not until the mid-‘80s, when he was confident that classical Cambodian music was finally safe, that he began to compose again.  After this gap in composing, his compositions from the ‘80s until today all reflect his deep understanding and relationship with the music of Cambodia.

During my doctoral studies at the University of California San Diego, Chinary Ung regularly spoke to me about Cambodian and Southeast Asian music, as well as his thoughts and dreams for its future. Since graduating in 2012, I have been working with and collaborating with him on some of these projects and, recently, I have begun to regularly travel to Cambodia to help work on some of his and my own projects in the country.

I first travelled to Southeast Asia last February for the 2015 Music and Performing Arts International Festival at Burapha University in Chon Buri, Thailand.  A dear friend and another one of Chinary Ung’s former composition students, Koji Nakano, invited me to attend this festival as a guest lecturer as well as a participant in the Asian Young Musicians’ Connection activities.  For the latter, I collaborated with young Thai musicians at Burapha University on a composition for three Thai instruments, two handheld transducers, and live electronics—…spaces to listen to from within (iv)—that was performed during the festival.  During the same festival, Chinary Ung was also present as a featured composer. Chinary gave a keynote lecture and had his work, Spiral XI, performed as part of the AYMC concert.  While at Burapha University, Chinary also led a one-week composition workshop for a small group of young Thai and Cambodian composers.  Three performers prepared the young composers’ works and then presented them to a jury consisting of Chinary and guest composers from throughout the region.  Koji had helped Chinary organize this workshop as part of Chinary’s Nirmita Composers’ Institute (NCI), a mobile institute dedicated to fostering the next generation of Cambodian composers.

Right after the festival in Thailand, I joined Chinary and his wife Susan Ung in Cambodia.  Chinary had invited me to join him for this trip so that I could help him make recordings as well as join him and Susan for some important meetings about the future of music composition and new music in Cambodia.

Before continuing, I would be remiss not to mention the impressions that Thailand and Cambodia left on me.  When I arrived in Thailand, I had expected that it would be far different than anywhere else I had been.  Instead I found that what I saw of Thailand resemble a less developed Taiwan to me.  My wife, who is from Taiwan and joined me on this trip, had a similar impression.   She told me that Thailand reminded her of what Taiwan was like in the ‘80s.  Cambodia, on the other hand, was drastically different than anywhere else I had been before.  Soon after leaving the airport in Phnom Penh, I was struck by a deep disparity between the rich and poor that I had never seen before.  For example, along the streets of Phnom Penh one regularly sees slums and piles of uncollected garbage next door to gated mansions or luxury car dealerships; or across Palace or National Museum, adults and children rags mob tourists begging for money.  I don’t want to go into more details about this disparity here, but many signs of deep economic inequality that I encountered left a strong impact that continues to resonate within me to this day

The day after we arrived in Cambodia, Chinary, Susan, and I attended a concert that the Cambodian composer Him Sophy had arranged in honor of Chinary Ung’s visit.  This concert took place at the Him Sophy School of Music, a private school that Him Sophy founded.  (As an aside, because there are few government institutes for the arts in Cambodia, a number of individuals such as Sophy and Sethisak Khuon have recently founded their own schools and organizations to help with local arts education.)  The concert included performances by the only marching band in Cambodia, a student pianist, and music for a Khmer harp that Sophy had designed after a lost Cambodian instrument, as well as an outstanding performance of traditional Cambodian music featuring one of the few living masters of the roneat ek.  For the last piece of this concert, violist Susan Ung and I performed my work Vanished into the Clouds (雲隠) for viola and live electronics.  Chinary wanted us to perform this piece on the concert because it used technology and had an approach to sound that the Cambodian audience had likely never encountered before.  After the concert, it was obvious that this performance had made a strong impression on many of the audience members as a number of people spoke with Chinary about wanting to combine this new approach with traditional Cambodian music.

On our third day in Cambodia, Chinary, Susan, and I led a three-hour workshop for the members of Cambodian dance troupe Amrita Living Arts.  As Cambodian classical dance and music are traditionally combined as an art form, the Amrita staff members were eager for us to discuss how they could improve the music in their productions.  After a lengthy discussion with the staff and then the troupe members, they then showed us some videos of their previous works so that we could critique the music selections.  Although the music obviously needed more consideration or expertise, we were all struck by the very high quality of the dance work and, in particular, by how all the works meaningfully addressed Cambodian dance traditions and demonstrated thoughtful ways to move these traditions forward and make them relevant for today.

A few days later we met with a number of arts administrators from Cambodia as well as staff from the Cambodian non-governmental organization Cambodia Living Arts to discuss Chinary Ung’s plans and dreams for the Nirmita Composers Institute (NCI).  As I mentioned earlier, the main goal of NCI is to help foster the next generation of composers in Cambodia, as well as to heighten compositional activities throughout all of Southeast Asia.  In the near future, the main project for NCI will be a two-week workshop ­for young Cambodian musicians who either compose Western-based music or perform Cambodian traditional music.  The workshop will include composition and performance faculty from the USA and across Asia and will take place in July in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  The long-term hope is that this workshop will continue annually and that NCI’s activities will broaden to include many other music projects that take place throughout the year as well as throughout Southeast Asia and, eventually, the rest of the world.   One of the main reasons to work on this project is Chinary’s observation that although Cambodian traditional music has been preserved, the music is no longer developing and now more closely resembles a museum rather than a living art.  In our discussions during this meeting, many of the local Cambodians were very excited by Chinary’s project and brought up how in the last decade or so, nearly every other art form besides music has begun to pulse with new creative energy in Cambodia.  The hope among many of the people there was that the Nirmita Composers Institute and our initiative to educate and promote the work of young Cambodian composers and traditional musicians will be able to help music reach the international stage in the same way that other Cambodian art forms and artists have in recent years.

There are multiple cultural sounds in Cambodia that Chinary Ung has wanted to record for many years to use in compositions that include electronics.  As Chinary does not have very much experience with writing for electronics, he has talked about collaborating with me.  When we were in Cambodia, we thankfully had the opportunity to make some of the initial recording for these composition projects.

Two stone idiophones from the National Museum of Cambodia’s collection

Two stone idiophones from the National Museum of Cambodia’s collection.

The first sound that Chinary wanted to record was an ancient percussion instrument that he had seen a number of years before at the National Museum of Cambodia. Chinary had messaged the National Museum’s director a request to record this instrument while we were in Cambodia and, although the director did not give us a response to our request, he arranged for us to meet him in person to discuss our plans. Hopeful that we would get permission, Chinary, Susan, and I showed up early to our appointment at the National Museum with my recording equipment.  While waiting, we also tried to find the instrument that Chinary remembered but, unfortunately, couldn’t locate it.

When we met with the director he was rather enthusiastic about Chinary’s musical ideas and graciously gave us permission to record whatever we wanted to from the museum’s collection.  After we all then toured the museum’s public displays and were again unable to find the desired instrument on display, the director mentioned that they had some ancient “stone bells” in storage that might fit Chinary’s description. When we saw the objects, they were unfortunately also not what Chinary had remembered. However, after we examined and heard them, Chinary, Susan, and I agreed that they would be worth recording and might even be superior to what we had originally sought to record.

Jacob Sudol sitting at a table recording a pair of stone idiophones located underneath the table.

Recording the stone idiophones in the National Museum of Cambodia.

According to the National Museum of Cambodia’s archives, the two stone idiophones (or “stone bells”) had belonged to the museum since it first opened in 1917.  There was no information in the records about when or where the idiophones had been acquired.  Likewise, the staff and archives had no information about their age, what they were originally used for, or whether they were a part of a set of idiophones or isolated instruments.  While there, one of the staff members mentioned that archeologists had recently found a number of similar but smaller stone idiophones in the Cambodian jungle.  He also showed us photos that demonstrated the how the newly found idiophones resembled the ones in the museum’s collection; however, as Cambodia contains a lot of archeological terra nova, it’s hard to group objects together.  Although I’m not an archeologist or an ethnomusicologist, the two stone idiophones we recorded remind me of separate blades from the Chinese bianqing (編磬) or the related Korean pyeongyeong, as well as the descriptions of the lost ancient Chinese stone bells that Confucius wrote about and supposedly played.

One of the stone idiophones was originally broken in two and was recently fixed with a metal bar.  The other idiophone was unbroken and has a remarkably resonant harmonic timbre.  This unbroken idiophone also has a few low pure frequencies that sustain for a very long time after the idiophone is struck.  The timbre of both idiophones also changed significantly depending on where and how loudly I struck them.

Chinary Ung and Yos Chandara with a Cambodian singing kite.

Chinary Ung and Yos Chandara with a Cambodian singing kite. N.B. the blade and reed are attached to the top of the kite.

For over forty years, Chinary Ung had dreamt of recording the sound of Cambodian Singing Kites.  On the last day of my first trip to Cambodia, Chinary worked with the former dean of the Cambodian Royal University of the Arts, Yos Chandara, to arrange a morning where staff from the Khmer Kite Museum would fly three Cambodian singing kites for us in a dry rice field just outside of Phnom Penh.

The sound of the Cambodian singing kites comes from a blade on the kite that houses a long stiff reed that is suspended by a piece of rope on each end.  When the kite is flown, this reed makes sound by spinning at different rates.  The timbre of this reed is rather faint when the kite is flying because of how high one needs to fly the large kites to keep them in the air.  To better capture the sound of the reed, I attached a wireless microphone to the kite itself.  Thankfully, this approach worked and I was able to make very clear recordings of each of the three Cambodian singing kites.  When we were flying the kites, a local Cambodian told Chinary that in Khmer mythology, the gods are said to fly on these kites.  Following this myth, in a sense, we had just recorded what these gods hear when flying.

Since the kites were large and hard to fly, the director of the Khmer Kite Museum removed the blade with the reed from the kite and attached it to a string so that he could spin it around his head.  By doing this, he had much greater control of the tones than one could while the blade was on a flying kite.  This sound of the isolated blade is loud, beautiful, and also very musically expressive.

With gracious funding from a Fulbright East Asia Regional Travel Grant, I returned to Cambodia for a week last November.  For this trip, Amrita Living Arts had invited me to be an International Guest Expert for their Fall 2016 Contemporary Dance Platform in Phnom Penh.  The platform is a recent initiative for dance and theater that provides artists with resources and a period of time to create or refine a new work.  At the end of a platform, the new works are presented publicly.  For the Amrita platform I was invited to participate in, three dancers/choreographers from the Amrita Dance Troupe were each given six weeks to create a new work.  As the guest expert, I went to the first performances of the completed works and then gave a four-hour critique of the works as well as a four-hour workshop on new music to all the dancers/choreographers of Amrita.  Although the dancers are not trained as musicians, I was impressed by how critical, open-minded, and hungry for knowledge they all were.  I was also struck by how much they had learned and absorbed from the brief workshop Chinary, Susan, and I had had with them in February.  Likewise, I was impressed by how Amrita Artistic Director Chey Chankethya had noticed that the music has been one of the weakest components of their productions and was eager to bring in people to help the group’s members improve this.  Since this trip, I have also begun to regularly collaborate with Chey Chankethya.  For example, she has used some of my music in some of her recent dance works that have been performed in Japan and Singapore.  I am also currently discussing other ways I can collaborate with Amrita in the future.  In particular, I want to develop projects where members of Amrita and I can combine dance, music, and live interactive technologies.

While in Cambodia in November, Chinary, Susan, and I also met with staff from Cambodian Living Arts to work on organizing logistics and meet the student participants who will join the aforementioned 2016 Nirmita Composers Workshop.  While we auditioning and meeting with the workshop’s participants, I was particularly struck by how strong and musically talented the traditional Cambodian instrumentalists are.  Although the traditional musicians don’t have experience with writing their own music, I believe that they are much stronger and more creative musicians than the participants who will be studying Western-based composition at the same workshop.  Following this, I’m wondering how we can help to teach traditional Cambodian musicians to move their music forward in a manner similar to what the dancers in Amrita have done.  I’m also wondering how we will be able to help young Cambodian composers advance in ways that composers from other Asian countries such as Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, China, and Japan have.  I’m also hopeful that the young Cambodian composers who mostly write Western-based music will learn from their culture’s strong classical music tradition.  Hopefully, with many people dedicating their time and energy towards projects such as the Nirmita Composers Institute, the answers to these questions will begin to reveal themselves in the near future.

Chinary Ung working with Cambodian musicians in a village outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Chinary Ung working with Cambodian musicians in a village outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia.