Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - 7 Questions with Mr. Him Sophy


7 Questions with Mr. Him Sophy

7 Questions with Mr. Him Sophy

This month, Him Sophy, distinguished classical musician and composer, realised a life-long dream: he opened a music school in the capital. It has been a busy year for the highly respected musician who spent over a decade studying at the esteemed Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow. Throughout April and May he performed and collaborated at the Season of Cambodia festival. In May, the unveiling of the boat-like, ancient Angkorian harp, the pin, which he helped create, was played for the first time at the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA). Sophy says he feels invigorated and hopeful for music and the arts in Cambodia, particularly in the wake of the elections. Claire Knox reports.

Was setting up a music school in Cambodia something you long dreamed about?
Oh, yes. In 2003, with donations from Japanese organisations and Yamaha, I bought a beautiful grand piano – I believe it was the first in the country since the Khmer Rouge. With the shipping, the cost was about $43,000. I thought at the time: I should be teaching Cambodians how to play this glorious instrument. But I was then so busy composing my opera Where Elephants Weep, with American Broadway producer John Burt [also Cambodian Living Arts co-founder] and symphony that plans for a school were put on hold. I always felt passionate about sharing the education I received – I was a lucky one. Why keep that musical knowledge in my brain? Music is good for the soul. It is good for many things – learning languages, mathematics, memory, stress release. For me, it helped with healing.

Him Sophy with a student in his Phnom Penh studio.
Him Sophy with a student in his Phnom Penh studio. SCOTT HOWES

You spent more than a decade studying under the likes of celebrated Russian music theorist and scholar Yuri Kholopov. Was it hard to come back to Cambodia?
In Russia, they said I shouldn’t go back to Cambodia. I learned to love Russian culture. But I yearned to come back. In 1997 there was the coup [in Cambodia] and in 1998 I finished my PhD. They said it was still dangerous in Phnom Penh and I should stay in Russia. I had become very close with an Austrian diplomat – I was very poor and would eat dinner with him almost every night. His family offered to send me to Vienna – the home of classical music. I said sorry, but no. One Russian professor at the Conservatory said: “you are a composer for the world, and that includes Cambodia.” So I went back.

Did When Angels Weep, which melds traditional Khmer music with rock, rap and electronic music, signal a change in direction of your style?
I wanted the music school to be broad and progressive, like the opera. We have Japanese piano, violin and flute teachers, an American electric and acoustic guitar teacher, a specialist teacher of music technology – students can learn 21st- century mixing and sound engineering along with music theory. And we’ll have the ancient instruments, like the harp. When I composed the rock opera I wanted something uniquely Cambodian but something that symbolised moving forward. It was tough work.

We had 11 Cambodian musicians. One was my brother – he passed away from cancer during that time. He worked so hard. I like to explain progress like this: say your left foot is traditional music and your right is universal music culture. You need both to have balance.

Do you have any outstanding students?
Snguon Kavei Sereyroth – I call her Srey Ith - [the daughter of the pin’s maker], she’s just 14 and is a musical genius. But she has it in her blood. She has learnt the harp and is learning piano. She wants to be a professional, to play at the [Tchaikovsky] Conservatory and at the Sydney Opera House – and I believe that one day she will.

How accessible is classical music to most Cambodians?
It is expensive and is something that the rich can afford, at about $100 a month for tuition fees. That’s part of the reason [our offices] are by the mansions of Tuol Kork. But with a widening middle class it’s becoming easier for people.

I thought a lot about the price. I mulled over this for some time. It’d be my dream to provide free music tuition, but it’s not realistic. I’m paying teachers, bills, but I will support talented musicians, young ones with natural skills. We’ve begun scouting for them and they’ll receive a full scholarship if they maintain grade A levels.

How do you feel about the lack of spaces to perform music and other art in Cambodia?
Oh yes, that’s why I’ve got my hall above us on the top floor – we’ll be able to fit 150 people up there for performances and rehearsals.

I have not been impressed with the development of space and public space in Cambodia, also the value placed on arts. But maybe we’ve had a wake-up call.

I felt very inspired about the election, people voting for who they love – but I also pray for peace. Are young people becoming more engaged with art and self-expression? Yes, and this is good for my heart.

Are there any challenges of setting up a school and keeping younger generations engaged?
Time is a challenge. I have to compose at the same time, and it’s hard to devote time to everything. I am a composer, my sponsors are in America and they would prefer to hear my new work and my music rather than hear that I’ve opened a school in Cambodia. For me, this school is a labour of love.

I want to teach piano in the right way, have a generation of brilliant Cambodian classical, modern and traditional musicians. And instruments like the harp will live on.

MOST VIEWED

  • Hong Kong firm done buying Coke Cambodia

    Swire Coca-Cola Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hong Kong-listed Swire Pacific Ltd, on November 25 announced that it had completed the acquisition of The Coca-Cola Co’s bottling business in Cambodia, as part of its ambitions to expand into the Southeast Asian market. Swire Coca-Cola affirmed

  • Cambodia's Bokator now officially in World Heritage List

    UNESCO has officially inscribed Cambodia’s “Kun Lbokator”, commonly known as Bokator, on the World Heritage List, according to Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona in her brief report to Prime Minister Hun Sen on the night of November 29. Her report, which was

  • NagaWorld union leader arrested at airport after Australia trip

    Chhim Sithar, head of the Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees at NagaWorld integrated casino resort, was arrested on November 26 at Phnom Penh International Airport and placed in pre-trial detention after returning from a 12-day trip to Australia. Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigating Judge

  • Angkor Beer, 30 Years of Prestige and Still Counting

    Let’s celebrate 30 years of prestige with Angkor Beer. In this 2022, Angkor Beer is 30 years old and has been staying with Cambodian hearts in all circumstances. Head of core beer portfolio, EmYuthousaid, “We have been with Cambodians for three decades now. We, ANGKOR Beer, pride

  • Sub-Decree approves $30M for mine clearance

    The Cambodian government established the ‘Mine-Free Cambodia 2025 Foundation’, and released an initial budget of $30 million. Based on the progress of the foundation in 2023, 2024 and 2025, more funds will be added from the national budget and other sources. In a sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen

  • Two senior GDP officials defect to CPP

    Two senior officials of the Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP) have asked to join the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), after apparently failing to forge a political alliance in the run-up to the 2023 general election. Yang Saing Koma, chairman of the GDP board, and Lek Sothear,