Prodigy’s soundtrack for the circus

The Phare circus troupe perform their new show, Sokha.
The Phare circus troupe perform their new show, Sokha. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Prodigy’s soundtrack for the circus

Learning instruments by ear came easily to musician Ly Vanthan, so it’s no surprise that when he turned to composing the score for Phare’s new show Sokha, he produced something special

By turns coldly haunting and bursting with life, quirky and slick, the score for circus troupe Phare’s show Sokha is a hypnotic melange of influences: traditional Khmer music, 1960s rock and pop, and other harder to pin down melodies. The music is as essential to the production as the performers’ dazzling acrobatics, and Phare like it so much that they have released it on CD.

Through acrobatics, art and music, Sokha recounts the experience of Khuon Det, one of Phare’s founders, as a happy childhood is shattered and he enters into the blackness of the Khmer Rouge years. Having somehow survived, he is then faced with the daunting task of rebuilding his life as well as the confidence of his new students. The score roots the audience in the show’s deep, often disturbing, emotions, not letting them go until the final note.

It is a work of such confidence and maturity that meeting the composer comes as a bit of a shock. Ly Vanthan is only 24 years old. Originally from Kampong Chhnang, he moved to Battambang 14 years ago after his father took up a position as a music teacher at Phare. Vanthan was enrolled in the arts school, where he soon showed a talent for music, learning how to play virtually any instrument by ear, just like his father had. .

Ly Vanthan.
Ly Vanthan. PETER PHOENG

“It is not surprising at all that he is such an amazing and mature composer,” said Xavier Gobin, operations manager for Phare in Siem Reap. “He has been doing this for 13 years and has really found a way to create balance that is just stunning.”

Like his father, Vanthan started out playing traditional Khmer instruments such as the xylophone and hammered dulcimer, but after a few years he learned to play Western instruments, first the classical guitar, then keyboards, bass, drums, and more recently the saxophone.

The different instruments, free from the shackles of traditions, opened up a new world of possibilities. “It was a new sensation as soon as I started,” Vanthan said. “Because these instruments were not linked to a repertoire, it really affected the way that I played and I was free to create with the melodies. I was able to adapt that then to Khmer instruments as well.”

It was during a one-year spell at the Gennevilliers Conservatory in France that Vanthan first discovered the free, improvisational styles of jazz, reggae and blues and, inspired by that freedom, started to try his hand at composition. Not formally trained in musical notation, he had to rely on his ears to guide him.

“When I create a piece, I improvise until I like it, and then I record it. That way I can play it back to the other musicians and guide them through it, too,” he said.

But while picking up an instrument comes easily to Vanthan, composing a score was a more challenging prospect.

“Composing isn’t easy,” said Vanthan. “For Sokha, it was like composing music for a film. I read the story and watched the performers practising. Then you have to go away and think and think a lot, about what it feels like, before something happens to make the music.”

Sokha is returning to Siem Reap from January 7 to January 21, and the CD will be on sale for $10 from the Phare circus sites in Siem Reap and Battambang, as well as from the Romeet Gallery in Phnom Penh. Proceeds from the sale go towards supporting Phare.

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