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.
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.