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Cambodian folk sounds meet Russian satire in festival finale

Musicians from Cambodian Living Arts rehearse the tro sau, roneat ek and large gong
Musicians from Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) rehearse the tro sau, roneat ek and large gong for Sunday’s performance. Charlotte Pert

Cambodian folk sounds meet Russian satire in festival finale

Cambodian composer Him Sophy is in the finishing stages of rehearsals with eight young musicians who will this weekend accompany a black-and-white Russian film with Cambodian folk songs.

Sophy, who doesn’t know his exact age but said he is in his early fifties, has compiled excerpts of traditional music to accompany Lev Kuleshov’s 1924 film The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, which will close the Memory International Heritage Film Festival on Sunday.

The composer, who obtained his PhD in Moscow, will conduct pinpeat ensemble musicians from Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), as well as additional clarinet and piano players, at the Chaktomuk Theatre.

“As a composer I like to experiment – how can traditional Cambodian music fit together with a Western film? I think that now, in this period of globalisation, the world will integrate even more,” Sophy said during a rehearsal earlier this week.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks is a black-and-white satire of American ignorance towards the newly formed Soviet Union.

Originally, the film is silent, accompanied by Russian music. Sunday’s performance, which will run through the entirety of the film, will feature a mixture of renditions of traditional folk songs and original improvisations by the musicians.

Pinpeat is the name given to the musical ensemble that performs at ceremonies in the Royal courts and temples of Cambodia. Traditionally it consists of nine or ten instruments, but Sophy has reduced the number.

Sunday’s performance will include the xylophone-like roneat ek and roneat thung, a large gong, the two-stringed tro sau and various drums and woodwind instruments as well as the clarinet and piano.

Sophy, who plays the piano, said that he thought the piano’s chords would help the other instruments, adding: “Piano works very well in combination with other instruments. You can put it with the sound of anything and you feel more beauty.”

He added: “I think for my new work I will use piano with all instruments. This has inspired me to do so – it really is king of all instruments.”

Rong Sereyvann, 27, will be playing the piano in Sunday’s performance. He said that the musicians had to study the film very carefully to know what music was coming up and how to perform it to the best of their abilities.

“It would have been difficult but we needed somebody to lead us, so it’s good that we have Mr Him Sophy,” he said.

Sereyvann, who started learning piano at the Royal University of Fine Arts nine years ago, added: “I’ve never seen this kind of thing before – it’s good that we’re celebrating this kind of film.”

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks will be screened at Chaktomuk Theatre on Sunday at 6pm.

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