PHNOM Penh can seem, at times, like a city at war with its own citizens.
Aside from the ever-present danger of being run down in the street by SUVs, anyone who dares leave their apartment can also expect to be assaulted by a barrage of noises radiating from internal combustion engines, construction sites, Khmer wedding pavilions and loudspeakers of dubious quality.
It doesn’t help that the genres of music most likely to be heard blasting out of PA systems in Phnom Penh – Asian pop music in its various-lettered permutations (K-pop, J-pop, etc-pop), hip-hop, marginal expat-rock – seem designed to overwhelm the senses and prevent fresh ideas from entering the mind.
But the miscellaneous clamour of the city has also been a rich source of creative material for David Gunn, a UK artist and electronic musician currently in Cambodia working with four local musicians to create new forms of contemporary experimental Khmer music.
The Khmer musicians, who are all in their 20s and have come up through Cambodian Living Arts programmes, play traditional instruments – tro sao (one-stringed violin), roneat aek (marimba), gong thom (big gongs) and ksae diew (one-stringed plucked instrument) – while Gunn uses a laptop computer to create electronic music using sounds collected from local sources.
“Some of the sounds are field recordings from around the city, but a lot of it is based on re-sampled Khmer instruments. The musicians played some traditional Khmer songs for me, and I would take a very short sample and rework it and bring it back to them,” Gunn said.
“The idea is to take bits of instrumentation and fragments of melody that are familiar from the Khmer source but then to transform them.”
The transformation is nothing short of dramatic. With sounds taken from a city whose cacophony can test even the steeliest of nerves, as well as from traditional Khmer songs that tend to be rigidly structured and maximal in character, the quintet has created a form of improvisational ambient music that creates space to think for both the musicians and the listeners.
Gunn, who is also teaching participatory art classes at the Royal University of Fine Arts during his stay in Cambodia, said rehearsal sessions with the musicians have been “about getting them to learn to step back a bit, take time and take space, and in a live context to not know all the answers but improvise with each other”.
Calling themselves Krom Monster, the quintet will explore the live context when they make their debut performance tonight at the French Cultural Centre in Phnom Penh. Rather than structured songs, the music will be based on musical “themes” that have been introduced during rehearsals. “We improvise around those themes. Whatever happens, happens around that,” Gunn said.
The live music will be accompanied by improvised video projections by Khmer artist Tith Kanitha, who has spent the past several weeks collecting video footage from around the city.
“During the performance I need to listen to the music,” she said. “I will be improvising along with the musicians according to my own feelings. It’s been a lot about freedom, and about doing what I’m thinking.”
Gunn explained: “The idea is for the students and musicians not to feel like they have to have everything prepared in advance, but that they have freedom to improvise as they go along.”
“All I did with Kanitha was show her how to go out on the street and find small details that interest her and shoot 30-second video segments,” he said. “From that basis, she has gone out and made a load of really nice videos about small ingredients of the city.”
This site-specificity is of paramount importance to Gunn, who is the founding director of Incidental, an arts collective based in the UK that is involved in a range of creative projects, many based around experimental electronic music
“All our work is site-specific. We do things that are related to the environment that we find ourselves in,” Gunn said. “We don’t believe in plopping an artwork somewhere where it doesn’t have a relationship to the city it occurs in.”
Krom Monster and the RUFA classes are part of Incidental’s Neak Ta project, kicked off last month with the aim of developing local capacity in digital media and participatory artwork in Phnom Penh.
“The idea of Neak Ta was very much not to impose a set of art works on people, as in saying, ‘This is what’s happening in London, you should be doing the same thing’. It has more to do with thinking about what would be a uniquely Cambodia experimental form,” Gunn said.
“The idea was to think about something that was experimental but was also rooted in the context here.”
Krom Monster performs tonight at the French Cultural Centre (#218 street 184) at 7pm. The performance is presented by Cambodian Living Arts and Incidental, with support from JAvaArts and CCF.