​Maestro | Phnom Penh Post



Publication date
02 October 1998 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : James Eckardt

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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

in Moscow.

"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


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