A conversation with Him Sophy, creator of Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia.

By Jennifer Down.

Composer Him Sophy

It’s an unexpectedly balmy September day when I meet Him Sophy. We sit in an outdoor cafe in front of the Arts Centre in Melbourne, weeks from the world premiere of Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia at the Melbourne Festival. Every so often the gusty wind sends a flurry of golden elm leaf like snow behind him. “With a requiem, as in Mass, you wish the dead body to become good in the next life, the same as bangsokol ritual,” the composer tells me. “You remember your ancestors who have passed away. But bangsokol also gives hope to people who are still alive … It’s good to not only think about death, but also about the living.”

Sophy is, himself, the living: born in 1963, he survived the civil war and Khmer Rouge regime, then received a scholarship to the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory. He remained in Russia for 14 years, ultimately obtaining a PhD. His grandfather played Arak music (“spiritual and marriage music”) and his father pinpeat music (“religious music, only performed in pagoda and in rituals”). Sophy began studying piano under a French professor at Phnom Penh’s Royal University of Fine Arts. He considers himself lucky to have such a vast musical heritage. “I have a lot of privilege. I learnt Western music – if you want to have degree, you have to learn classical Western music – but my father and my grandfather [were] traditional musicians. It’s like two feet, yeah?” He claps his hand on his thigh. “If only traditional, you have only one foot. Only Western, it’s still only one foot.” Individually, he explains, neither is enough.

Sophy is a relaxed, unswervingly pleasant speaker, puncturing his sentences with smiles and the occasional laugh. When the conversation turns to present-day refugees, he speaks at length about the need for compassion before adding, “We need to think – if we reject them, where are they going to live? On the moon?” An incredulous bark of laughter. “Even Donald Trump is a refugee. Everyone’s a refugee.”

When I remark on his sanguine nature, he considers it. “I have … in English we call it ‘resilience’. Under the civil war, I remember being under the airplane, and the bombing. I escaped from the army.” Thudding pop music blares from the cafe’s speakers as he recalls being forced from his music studies in Phnom Penh to the countryside, where he thought he’d die. “The Khmer Rouge gave me 18 corn [kernels] for lunch.” But he survived, and after the fall of the regime he met new challenges in Russia. “I forgot about how cold, how far away from Cambodia [Moscow would be]. But because of the killing fields, all the obstacles in Cambodia that I met, it gave me energy and power to learn.” And yet he was to face more difficulty. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so, too, did the ministry of education that had funded his studies. “I stayed there for five years without money,” he says. He describes selling the books he’d acquired in the early years of his time at the conservatory; friends buying him lunch; making a chicken leg last for three meals. He asks if I’m familiar with Les Misérables, laughing afresh.

Bangsokol is not Sophy’s first international collaboration. After finishing his PhD and returning to Cambodia, he received a grant to travel to New York. It was there, on meeting an American producer, that he began work on rock operas. His acclaimed 2007 production, Where Elephants Weep, blended traditional instrumentation, a Cambodian rock band and a string quartet to tell the story of a Cambodian refugee. For him, as a composer, the future lies in rock operas and “hip-hoperas”. He hopes that through his work he can introduce music and culture to younger Cambodians, citing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton as an example of the form’s power.

Bangsokol is a multidisciplinary symphony of film, speech, dance and song. For Sophy, it represents an elegy for those lost to the genocide about 40 years ago, but, equally, a meditation on the dangers of myopia. “It’s a requiem for the world,” he says. “This composition can remind people – please do not repeat the bad story; the ideology of racism or Nazism.”

In Bangsokol, Sophy collaborated with the filmmaker Rithy Panh – also a survivor of the massacres – and a coalition of international artists and technicians, including Grammy-nominated conductor Andrew Cyr and former Chunky Move artistic director Gideon Obarzanek. Sophy is exhilarated by intercultural exchange. “We need everyone from all around the world to work together,” he says. “They bring their own experience and knowledge.”

Is it difficult when one’s work is informed by a historical narrative of trauma that also holds a deeply personal significance? Undoubtedly, but Sophy is fascinated by the possibilities offered by sharing these stories with a global audience. “Bangsokol has a very strong message about tragedy, about killing, about war, about everything that the Cambodian people have been.” It’s not just a history lesson but also a warning for the present.

Sophy has 90 minutes before his next appointment, a meeting with the creative director of the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts, Stephen Armstrong, and I feel a pulse of guilt at having to run off. I offer to walk him to the National Gallery of Victoria. Inside, Sophy takes several selfies of us, angling his phone to accommodate the stained-glass ceiling of the Great Hall. Our smiling faces, washed in light, fill the screen. He hesitates at the escalator that leads upstairs to the free collections: its downward-travelling counterpart is not visible. A pleasant gallery attendant reassures us that he’ll be able to return to the ground floor again, that the escalator is only beyond a wall. Sophy thanks her. “I just need to know how to get back here,” he laughs, “so I’m not lost.” It’s a fleeting, oddly vulnerable moment from a man who regularly traverses countries and continents with his work. He waves from the escalator, smiling all the way up.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 30, 2017 as "Requiem of hope".

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