A Composer for Every Country: Cambodia

Cambodia entered my awareness through a very unexpected avenue. The grounds of the grand temple, Angkor Wat, was used as one of many global locales in a video game called “The Illusion of Gaia.” While the faithfulness of the reproduction is questionable for many reasons, the structure made a strong impression. Alas, the culture and history of Cambodia was not filled in during the intervening years, something which ths blog can only take the smallest of steps towards correcting.

Cambodian culture draws from several strands of Asian and European history. The oldest roots are mostly lost to time, but Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism form the first waves of preserved culture. Hinduism is oldest, with both Vishnu and Shiva being deities of worship. Mahayana Buddhism came later, around 450, and would eventually become the predominant religion of the Khmer Empire’s Angkor culture.

The imagery and monumental constructions of the Khmer Empire is probably the core of most visualizations of Cambodia. The aforementioned Angkor Wat is the largest, but it is only one of thousands of temples constructed between the empire’s founding (usually attributed to Jayavarman II in 802) and the height of the empire’s power in the 13th century. The stonemasonry is marked by both size - Angkor Wat covering about 400 square kilometers - and attention to detail.

A third cultural strand began during the Khmer Empire: Theravada Buddhism. The religion’s influence reads first as very slow then very fast. King Jayavarman VII first sent his son Tamalinda to Sri Lanka to study the new religion in 1180, and then, by the end of the 13th century, Theravada Buddhism was adopted almost wholesale across the entire empire. It would continue to be the state religion to today, with some disruption in the 20th century because of the Khmer Rouge.

The last major cultural strand came in the 19th century, when Cambodia became a protectorate of France. The decision was made when the country was under considerable pressure by both Vietnam and Siam (Thailand). Artistically, this brought European style painting, sculpture, and music into the mix. This would prove a volatile combination during the 20th century. During their rule after the Cambodian Civil War, the Khmer Rouge (the Communist Party of Kampuchea) enacted a campaign against anything and everything Western. This went alongside forced “repatriation” of all kinds of professionals, from doctors to artists, and the imprisonment and mass killings of minority groups like the Cham Muslims. In the end, between 1 and 3 million people would die in the purges and genocide.

As far as Cambodian classical music goes, there are three main genres. Pinpeat is a ceremonial genre in which an orchestra accompanies a variety of ballets, shadow puppetry, and other theater. Mohori is a genre meant for the pleasure of the ruling class, while arak is a style of music used for healing and religious purposes. Folk music includes epic storytelling (chareng chapey) and a call-and-response style (lakhon ayai). Cambodian music of all types is undergoing a revival after the Khmer Rouge’s cultural purge. Ethnomusicologist Sam-Ang Sam is a vocal proponent of Cambodian music education, and has done much work to preserve and catalog Cambodian genres and styles.

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Chinary Ung (b. 1942) came to America in 1965 to study clarinet, completing his musical education with a DMA from Columbia University in 1974. A full decade of his life was dedicated to helping resuscitate and preserve Cambodian musical culture before returning to composing in the mid-1980’s. As one might expect, his compositions reflect his Cambodian heritage, both in compositional elements and in choice of instruments. The work linked below, Spiral, is composed for violoncello, piano, and percussion and might be considered a dialogue between academic classical music and Cambodian musical culture. It won the Friedheim Award in 1989.

Chinary Ung - Spiral