A ground-breaking composition fusing music, dance, film and vocals is gearing up to take to the international stage as a tribute to the lives lost during the Khmer Rouge and a symbol of hope for the future. Editor Marissa Carruthers goes behind the scenes to find out more.

Bangsokol: A requiem for Cambodia“Parts remind me of the suffering that happened during the Khmer Rouge; of the trauma,” says soloist Him Savy of her performance in Bangsokol. “I’m one of the survivors, and victims. I lost my beloved father when I was about five. I can’t remember what he looks like. I don’t know how he died, or even where I can find his body? This is very emotional for me.”

Savy draws on her painful past to evoke the emotion that brings her performance to life. Her feelings are mirrored by many of the other masterminds behind Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia, as they reveal details of the work of art.

Commissioned by Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) it is a first in many ways. The first collaboration between two of Cambodia’s leading artists – composer Him Sophy and Oscar-nominated film director Panh Rithy; the first time a show of this scale has seen Cambodian traditions powerfully meld with its western counterparts; the first major symphonic work to tackle the traumas of the Kingdom’s painful past.

“Today, I’m sad and happy,” says Rithy, sat on the stage of CLA’s theatre behind the National Museum in Phnom Penh. “Happy because this work is a huge achievement; sad because my older sister worked here [the National Museum] as deputy director. She died during the Khmer Rouge time. I think this will be a monument to all those who died. Most are buried in graves without a name. Maybe this is our way of remembering; maybe this is our duty?”

Blending traditional Cambodian music with Western requiem form and elements from Bangsokol – the ceremony that accompanies Buddhist funeral rites, the poignant performance is a major feat. It sees Sophy’s score performed by a six-piece ensemble of traditional Cambodian instrumentalists, a western orchestra, soloists Savy and Chhorn Sam Ath, and a chamber choir.

The music is played to a backdrop of Rithy’s film projections, which fuse archive footage from the time with surreal imagery. Stage performances are carried out by Chumvan “Belle” Sodhachivy.

Bangsokol will premiere in Melbourne in October before heading to New York and Boston in December, followed by performances throughout Europe and Asia in 2018. Its creators believe it will not only resonate with Cambodian diaspora but with others who have survived conflict.

The ultimate aim is for it to return for a performance on home turf in 2019, the 40th year anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh.

“This presents a fantastic opportunity in many ways,” says Sophy, adding they are seizing the chance to use the artwork as a platform to build up Cambodia’s creative offerings. CLA and the Royal University of Fine Arts will spend the next few years training budding young musicians to create Cambodia’s own chamber orchestra in time to perform Bangsokol when it makes its Cambodian debut.

“This was a major challenge,” adds Sophy. “We faced many challenges when we started and it was time-consuming. I had to study and experience different pieces of music and think, “How can I merge these with Cambodian classical music?” I had to try and think how a western harp would work with a Cambodian harp; it was difficult to merge traditional Cambodian instruments with western. We have no choir in Cambodia either so these were all things we had to overcome.”

Proving Bangsokol is truly a collaboration on a global scale, the libretto was written by Southeast Asian Buddhist music scholar Trent Walker, stage direction is by Melbourne-based Gideon Obarzanek and New York-based Andrew CYR is conductor. Varying orchestras will be used depending on the location, with the Taipei Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Metropolis Ensemble orchestra in New York and Boston.

“I watched my little brother and sister die slowly all those years ago,” says CLA co-founder, Arn Chorn-Pond. “That is still here with me. For me to know this will be performed across the world, makes it universal. It has a message. This means the death of my little brother and sister, and the millions of others, will not be in vein.”

However, its creators are keen to point out that while serving to remember the dead, Bangsokol also aims to help heal, deliver hope and promote peace. “Bangsokol is also something positive,” says Rithy. “It’s art celebrating the fact that life goes on. While we will never forget, we do continue to live.”

For more information on Bangsokol, visit bangsokol.cambodianlivingarts.org