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New composition highlights resilience of the Cambodian people

Filmmaker Rithy Panh, who directed and designed Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia.
Filmmaker Rithy Panh, who directed and designed Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia. Vann Channarong

New composition highlights resilience of the Cambodian people

Memories of the Khmer Rouge and its victims run deep in Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia, a new musical composition by two of Cambodia’s preeminent artists: critically acclaimed composer Him Sophy and internationally decorated filmmaker Rithy Panh.

Commissioned by Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), the piece is dedicated to the victims of the Pol Pot regime and will bring the Kingdom’s culture to the international stage.

Bangsokol is set to premier in Melbourne in October this year, and will travel much of the globe, with performances in New York and Paris before debuting in Phnom Penh in 2019.

Its importance was underscored by Phloeum Prim, executive director of CLA. “Bangsokol shows the resilience of the Cambodian people,” he said. “Artistry remains alive despite a genocide and an attempt to eradicate our culture.”

The production blends traditional Cambodian music, Western classical traditions and the bangsokol, part of the ceremony accompanying Buddhist funeral rites. The performance combines a film projection by Rithy Panh and an original score by Him Sophy.

Bangsokol reminds me of the suffering and trauma of my people and the separation of families during the Khmer Rouge,” said Him Savy, one of the performers.

“When I perform on stage, I put myself in a position where it is so painful that I can’t move on with the chanting and singing. But I know that if I let the pressure stop me, I will fail on stage.”

Critically acclaimed composer Him Sophy, the creator of the musical score for Bangsokol. Chenla Media
Critically acclaimed composer Him Sophy, the creator of the musical score for Bangsokol. Chenla Media

Putting together the production was intensely personal for many involved, including Sophy and Panh.“When I composed the requiem I relived the feelings I had during the Khmer Rouge times. It was hell on earth,” Sophy said.

For Panh, the production is “about the dignity for those who died”. “I cannot forget them. I live with them,” he said.The word bangsokol refers to the shroud that is used to cover the dead, which in Cambodia is also connected to rebirth.

“In the act of removing the shroud, it symbolically represents the skin of the person. It opens the opportunity to be reborn in a better place,” said Trent Walker, a scholar of Southeast Asian Buddhist music who composed the libretto.

In keeping with its international itinerary, the production is truly a global effort, with University of California – Berkeley PhD student Walker, Melbourne-based Gideon Obarzanek as stage director and New York-based Andrew Cyr as conductor.

When asked at a press conference on Thursday why the production would reach multiple continents before a Phnom Penh performance, Prim highlighted the difficulty of putting on a show in the country that incorporates elements of western classical music. He also added that the work should resonate with Cambodians living around the world, with the cities chosen to target the diaspora.

“In terms of the Western ensemble, our resources are still very limited in the country,” he said. “The CLA is now having a workshop to support training of classical musicians, so in the next two to three years we will be able to have quality musicians and a choir to be able to perform this piece.”

A previous version of this article misattributed a quote by Him Savy to Chumvan Sodhachivy.

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