THE MUSIC ROOM
Him Sophy practising on a grand piano donated to the university by King Sihanouk
After 13 years in Moscow, Him Sophy has returned home as
Cambodia's first Ph.D in Musicology. Pianist and
composer, he was awarded his doctorate from the
prestigious Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory for his
thesis on "Theoretical Problems of Cambodian
Music". His compositions include The Tragedy of
Cambodia, Decline of Angkor, Meta Kampuchea, and the
ballet Apsara the Dancing Stone.
Back in cash-strapped Cambodia, Him Sophy now faces an
uncertain future. But that's nothing compared to his
past: civil war, the killing fields, Vietnamese
He describes his childhood, though, as idyllic. His
grandfather was a master of the tru-khmer, the
traditional three-stinged oboe. He played music for
weddings (pleang ka) and for spirit possession ceremonies
(pleang arak). A part time farmer, he raised his three
sons in the heartland of Khmer music, Baphnom in Prey
Veng, an ancient capital of the Funnan Empire.
Sophy's father played classical Khmer music (pin peat) at
religious ceremonies and funerals. He specialized in
percussion instruments: the roneat xylophone and the kong
tum and kong toch gongs.
The youngest of seven, Sophy grew up in a household full
of traditonal Khmer instruments. "We all played
music together," he recalls. "My father was
very strict. He sent me first to a pagoda school to learn
discipline. Later I was in a village school when the
civil war broke out. It was terrible: the bombing, the
constant fighting. We were behind the Khmer Rouge lines.
My older brothers in Phnom Penh sent for my mother, my
brother and me. With two guides we set out in a boat for
the Lon Nol lines. It took all night, but we made
In Phnom Penh, Sophy was one of 20 chosen out of 500
candidates for the Faculty of Music at the Royal
University of Fine Arts. He was only eight years old.
"I was first in my class every semester," Sophy
says. "And please, I don't mean to brag I was so far
ahead of the rest that my teachers wanted to know if I
had classical Western training before. My piano teachers,
Madame Jeorgedenos and Guy Alain Hayer, wanted me to go
study in France. But by my fourth year, Khmer Rouge
rockets were exploding in Phnom Penh."
In 1975, he was marched off to the countryside. The Khmer
Rouge murdered two of his brothers and a third, Him
Sarin, was separated from the family during the
evacuation of Phnom Penh. Sophy was 13 but big for his
age and assigned to a mobile youth brigade with older
"I thought I would die," he remembers.
"After one year, I looked like an old man: only my
knees and my head were big, everything else was wasted. I
asked the Khmer Rouge chief if I could return to my
parents in Prey Veng. He agreed and after a year with my
parents, I began to recover."
In 1979, after the Vietnamese invasion, Sothy set off on
foot to Phnom Penh with his uncle Kaeo Sngoun, now a
famous musician at the Royal Palace. The pair loaded up a
handcart with abandoned household utensils and returned
to Prey Veng. Then they turned around and made another
round trip 200 kms with the handcart. In Prey Aeng, 10kms
from Phnom Penh, Him Sothy ran into his long lost brother
on the street. Him Sarin is now another classical
musician at the Royal Palace.
In postwar Phnom Penh, Sophy's uncle landed a municipal
job at the Department of Culture and Information. Him
Sophy was appointed President of the Youth Association.
He led 400 teenagers in clean-up campaigns around the
city. He also played organ in the Youth Association Band
for banquets and Communist Party festivals. At 16, he was
the youngest in the band, the only professional who could
read music. There were still no schools but Sophy read
whatever books he could find, in Khmer, French and
English. A major influence was The Philosophy of Youth by
Khun Srum, who was killed during the Khmer Rouge regime.
"I have big fantasies for the future"
Recalls Sophy: "I read a lot and didn't play kids'
games. The Chairman of the Municipal Department of
Culture and Information saw that I was active, serious,
strict, disciplined. He wanted me to go to Hanoi to study
Marxist philosophy. But my brother persuaded me not to
go. I wasn't born to do politics, but music. That was my
speciality. I wrote to the Chairman that I didn't want to
work anymore but to go back to school. In the end, I was
accepted into the School of Fine Arts. There were no
music teachers but I studied general knowledge:
literature, philosophy, psychology, the history of music
and art. The history lessons were slanted by the
Vietnamese. They didn't want us to know that they took
our land. Our history teacher was under constant
surveillance and had to flee the country."
In 1985, aged 22, Sophy was awarded a music scholarship
"I felt free there," he comments. "There
was no Vietnamese KGB. But like all new students, I was
cold and hungry; the food was strange. I didn't know the
language. But I thought of the times under Pol Pot when I
dreamed of studying again, so I forgot the cold and the
hunger. I had read about Chopin, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven
and I thought: This is my time. I must do it. I needed to
be strong, but quiet, calm. I thought of the French
proverb: `If you want to, you can.' And the Cambodian
proverb: `If you try every day, you will get what you
Beyond physical obstacles, Sophy also faced prejudice:
"People in Russia had the idea that Cambodians were
ugly, angry all the time. They lived in the jungle and
had no culture. The Vietnamese students there were a lot
of them looked down on us. This was a big mistake."
As a leader of the Cambodian Students Association, Sophy
organized art exhibits, dance festivals and concerts of
Khmer music. He would sleep from midnight and be up again
at 6am. Other students joked there must be a lot of
vitamins where he came from but that, after a year in
Russia, he would become as tired as them.
Sophy estimates that it took him a year to learn Russian.
After three years, he had completed the usual five-year
course at the Music College of Moscow Conservatory and
moved up to the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory for
eight years of post-graduate study in composition and
musicology. He had ten compositions performed and gives
great credit to Dr Roman Ledeniev, Professor of
Composition, and Dr Yuri Ko-lopov, supervisor of his Ph.D
"Life was still difficult," he says. "The
standard of living was low. You'd live five to a room in
a dormitory: two was a luxury. Some professors thought I
would never come back to Cambodia but go to America and
prosper as a composer. They wanted me to marry a Russian
girl and become a citizen. I studied well but you can't
live on nothing. That's why I never married. I met
beautiful Russian girls, clever, sincere and nice, but I
could not marry and take a Ph.D too. I gave 95% of my
time to music; 5% to looking at girls. I had to decide:
women or music. One Russian girlfriend a violinist who
would play my compositions waited for me to ask her to
marry, but I never did. She said I'm an egotist."
He is giving the matter more thought now that he is back
in Cambodia. "Everybody asks me: when are you
getting married? I feel I'm not a full person yet. You
must be married like Adam and Eve."
Sophy returned to Phnom Penh in March 1998, for the first
time since 1992. He found a city much changed: "I'm
happy to be here. This is a democracy, though we still
have problems. There are a lot of people in Phnom Penh
now, liberty, economic change, many cars and motorcycles,
expensive clothes, good streetlights though the streets
are still dirty. I live with my brother, a civil servant,
who has a car. I regret now that back in 1979, I
didn't grab a villa for myself," he laughs.
He suffers, though, from frustrations both professional
and financial. He is a Professor of Music at Phnom Penh
University but the department is ill-equipped.
Instruments are not maintained, the school piano is out
of tune, and Sophy doesn't own one himself.
"Things are in crisis in the whole country
now," he says resignedly. "It's sad. There are
no plans. The state has no money. For now I survive by
giving private piano lessions at $10 an hour. I have 20
students, 18 foreigners. But I have big fantasies for the
Sophy taps out a piano sonata by Ravel on the handlebars of his motorbike.
Among them are a concert hall, a music school, a
recording studio and a grand synthesis of classical
Western and Cambodian music, combining instruments from
both cultures. The popular singer Him Sivon is his niece
whom he brought from the rice fields of Prey Veng to
Phnom Penh in 1982. Her sister Him Savi is a virtuoso on
the flute. He would like to create music with them. There
are also all kinds of possibilities in the fields of
ballet and dance. The talent is here, Sophy insists, but
the money is lacking. He is applying to American and
Japanese foundations and is tempted to move to the US to
do more research, especially in the field of computer
"I'm thirty-five, not so young anymore," Sophy
concludes. "I have some great ideas for Cambodia but
need finance. One thing I notice about the young
generation is the bong thom (big brother) influences from
Thailand and China. I'm not criticizing outside
influences but I think the level of music here is falling
down. I see students arrive at university in cars and
motorcycles. I used come on a bicycle. The new generation
is rich, but I don't think they study as hard as we