The three contemporary works that will be performed for the first time in Cambodia Sunday night were born of a collaboration between musicians and composers from Cambodia and New Zealand.
Entitled “O Cambodia, A Memorial to Pol Pot Victims,” the concert held at Meta House will feature a small orchestra of Western and Cambodian traditional instruments.
Musicians rehearse for Sunday’s concert at Him Sophy’s music school. From left, Ashley Brown, Keo Dorivan, Keo Sophy and Him Sophy. (Siv Channa)

Premiered at the Auckland International Festival in New Zealand four years ago, this will only be the second time that Cambodian composer Him Sophy and New Zealand composers Gillian Whitehead and Jack Body will hear their Cambodia pieces performed.
Sunday’s performance will feature the same musicians who played the trio of compositions in Auckland: the NZTrio of Sarah Watkins, Justine Cormack and Ashley Brown on piano, violin and cello, respectively; and Cambodian master musicians Him Savy, Keo Dorivan, Keo Sophy as well as Him Sophy on traditional instruments. Each composition is highly personal.
Him Sophy’s work “The First Strike” is based on one of his memories of the Khmer Rouge regime, he said. A teenager at the time working in the fields from morning to night, he saw a Khmer Rouge guard savagely beating one of the workers one day.
“I was really scared,” Mr. Sophy recalls. “Later, I told a girl who was working with me. She said it was her father.
“Her family never found his body…. I still remember, so I wrote this piece I called ‘The First Strike,’” he said. During the performance, Mr. Sophy will recount the story in English while the music plays.
Composer Gillian Whitehead’s work “The River Flows On” was inspired by a Cambodian woman named Sokha, a survivor of the Pol Pot regime who became a refugee in New Zealand, she said.
On her first trip to Cambodia in the mid-2000s, Ms. Whitehead had heard people’s recollections, she said, “often terrible stories, told with real passion and anger…and there was a feeling of desolation in places where people had died: The land hadn’t healed yet.”
Composer and musician Him Sophy, right, speaks with New Zealand composer Gillian Whitehead while musician Keo Sophy plays roneat during rehearsal. (Siv Channa)

She named her piece after an ancient Cambodian prophecy, she said, “which predicts with chilling accuracy the Khmer Rouge times: ‘A shadow will fall on the land of Cambodia, there will be houses but no people, roads but no travelers.’”
Mr. Body’s work “O Cambodia” starts, he writes, with “a cry, of both anguish and hope.” An ethnomusicologist who visited the country several times in the 2000s, he incorporated into his composition the sound of the one-chord Cambodian instrument kse diev. “Its sound is beguiling,” he writes.
“But there are now very few musicians who can play this difficult instrument. In my mind, it is a metaphor for that which has been lost.”
Mr. Sophy, Ms. Whitehead and Mr. Body are major figures in contemporary music in their respective countries and abroad.
As Cambodia’s leading contemporary composer, Mr. Sophy authored the country’s first musical “Where Elephants Weep” in 2008 and the music for the Cambodian classical ballet “A Bend in the River,” which was choreographed by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and presented in New York last year.
Ms. Whitehead’s long list of awards and achievements includes receiving the New Zealand Order of Merit. Mr. Body, who initiated the “O Cambodia” project, has been artistic director of Asia-Pacific Festivals and Conferences, which featured traditional and contemporary music.
The concert at Meta House, which starts at 8 p.m., is part of the Piano Shop Concert Series organized by the ARTplus Foundation, said Anton Isserhardt, who manages the foundation.
It’s no small accomplishment to write music that respects the spirit of both Western and Cambodian traditional instruments as these three composers have succeeded in doing, he said.
“We hope that it will inspire young Cambodian composers to take risks and innovate,” he added.
vachon@cambodiadaily.com
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