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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Bangsokol—Never Forget

Him Sophy composed music for Bangsokol—directed/designed by director Rithy Panh, with libretto by Trent Walker—at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House on Dec 15 & 16. Sophy answered some questions from Sarah Garvey.

Photo: Tey Tat Keng
How did the idea for doing a requiem like this come about? Was it a recent idea or is it something that you have wanted to do for a while?

After the 2008 world premiere of my opera Where Elephants Weep, I started to think of what would be my next composition. At that time, one of my dear American friends, Mr. Charley Todd, who is the co-founder of Cambodian Living Arts, came to me with an idea for a new musical work: how can we commemorate the two million Cambodian people who were killed during the civil war and during the genocidal regime of Pol Pot? Indeed, in Cambodia there hasn’t been a symphonic piece of music honoring these souls in Bangsokol.

Regarding my music compositions, I composed a piano trio (piano, violin, and cello) called Memory From Darkness in 1990 when I was a student at Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory, and in 2011 I composed another work called The First Strike, in the music cycle called O Cambodia!, with three different composers—me, from Cambodia, and two from New Zealand. 

Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia is a new symphonic music work which combines a traditional ensemble including ancient instruments such as Khmer harps and Western string orchestra along with a choir and two soloists who sing in an ancient Cambodian religious chanting style. We had the idea to create this work since after the world premiere of my opera in 2008.

Him Sophy. Photo: Chenla Media
What are the traditional and Western elements that audiences will hear in this piece?

It depends on the knowledge of the audiences—how much they know about Western and Cambodian traditional music. As a composer who was born in a traditional Cambodian music family but educated in Western classical music through my PhD, I honestly have two really great backgrounds from traditional Cambodian and Western classical music knowledge that help me to compose and create a lot of new music.

Can you tell us a bit more about the definition of “Bangsokol”? How does it relate to this work

Bangsokol is a traditional ceremony (ritual) in Buddhist religion. Most of Cambodians who believe in Buddhism organize this ritual every year, especially during the time of Phchum Bend [a 15-day Cambodian ceremony celebrating the end of Buddhist lent]. People offer food, fruit, and other needs, and pray to their ancestors and wish for people who’ve already passed away to rest in peace and calm. Meanwhile, the ritual of Bangsokol also prays for living people to be healthy, happy, and have good lives.

How did you come to collaborate with film director Rithy Panh?

I heard the name Rithy Panh a long time ago, but I had never met him. I think Rithy Panh had also heard about me. In 2014 after the Season of Cambodia in New York, Mr. Prim Phloeun (executive director of Cambodian Living Arts) came up with the idea to invite Rithy Panh to collaborate with me using Bangsokol’s music, and Mr. Phloeun asked me to create the music to accompany the old Russian film, which has no spoken text. The film is called Bolshevik. Over 15 days I worked on it, and we performed in Chaktomuk Hall and it was a really big success. At that time Mr. Rithy Panh was director of an international film festival and he liked my music that accompanied that Russian film very much. Upon the suggestion from Mr. Prim Phloeun, Rithy Panh and I agreed to collaborate on the Bangsokol project from that time in 2014 until now.

What excites you most about this piece? 

My idea is The World is Our Home.

Bangsokol comes to the Howard Gilman Opera House December 15 & 16, and great tickets are still available.

Sarah Garvey is associate director of publicity at BAM.
© 2017 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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