A Profile of Him Sophy

By · Title Image Chenla Media · Date 11/10/2016

In the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in Singapore, a building that could easily be mistaken for the state-of-the-art hospital nearby, a workshop performance of “Bangsokol: Requiem for Cambodia,” by the composer Him Sophy was taking place. The atmosphere there was festive. Friends greeted one another; soloists on traditional Cambodian instruments, a string orchestra with percussion and harp, and a youth choir warmed up vigorously; a teenage boy couldn’t take his eyes off a slightly older, beautiful female harpist. In his introductory remarks, Sophy mentioned that this was his favorite instrument.

We heard two movements from the composition. The first, Him said, was “about God”; the last, “about heaven.” The second movement, which we didn’t hear, will include slogans from the Khmer Rouge regime. The final work will be a fully ritualized performance, featuring dancers and projections by the Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh. The music itself was mostly complete, though Sophy told me the next day that he still wanted to make final touches. “I’ll add some bars or phrases, I felt like [in places] it was too long, I might want to change them,” he said.

Him lived through the Cambodian civil war and genocide, and in his oeuvre there are many attempts to reckon with this violence and suffering. His rock opera, called “Where Elephants Weep,” tells a love story set against the background of Khmer Rouge displacement. “A Memory of Darkness,” for piano trio, plays during the audio guide to the Choeung Ek Killing fields, near Phnom Penh. “Bangsokol” is the next work to explicitly tackle the trauma of his childhood.

Him was born in 1963 in the Cambodian countryside. When I asked if he felt comfortable talking about his memories, he laughed, hesitated, and described them in short, pregnant sentences. “For example, under the Khmer Rouge, I thought I would die, because there was nothing to eat. And I was sick. There was no medication. I was very skinny. I had no energy anymore. I couldn’t walk, only 15 meters [before] I needed to stop,” he said. He slept on the ground. He knew the reality of hunger. He wore old, black clothes.

Him comes from a family of musicians. His father played sacred music in pagodas. The “Bangsokol,” however, is not meant to be religious in a strict sense, similarly to the way the term “Requiem” has, in music, become unattached from the Catholic Mass. Personally, Him is not religious; he sees belief as a general good that is often exploited for people’s material gains.

One of seven siblings, Him got an early start in music, learning the piano at age seven from a French teacher. What was appealing to his parents about Western music was its clear structure of grades and levels: it offered a tangible way of measuring the student’s progress. His early musical education was interrupted by the civil war, during which Him dodged American bombs, then “worked nonstop” for the Khmer Rouge regime.

In 1985, Him traveled to Russia to study at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory for over a decade, eventually finishing his doctorate with a thesis on ancient Cambodian music and traditional tunings. There is something laser-focused about the way he describes this period. When I asked him about things like adapting to the climate, learning the language, catching up with the intensive childhood education of Soviet musicians, and whether he considered emigrating, he answered: the climate and language were no problem, he has perfect pitch so he never struggled to catch up. And he never thought of staying.

Him now runs his own school in Phnom Penh, with instruction in Western and Cambodian music, as well as music technology—he laughed about young students whose technique he was trying to improve, thinking that having written one song made them rock stars. Him is disarmingly relaxed. We joked about the Finale vs. Sibelius composition software debate and Milton Babbitt, a composer whom Him respects but whose aesthetic couldn’t be more different from his own.

Within the origin of the term “Bangsokol,” there’s a symbolic connection to Him’s childhood, and the old clothes he wore during the Khmer Rouge. The composition is “structured on a Cambodian Buddhist liturgy for healing the sick and offering merit to the dead, known in Pali as pamsukula (pronounced in Khmer as bangsokol),” according to program materials. Pamsukula can also refer to cast-off robes. In The Legend and Cult of Upagupta: Sanskrit Buddhism in North India and Southeast Asia, John S. Strong relates the origin of the ritual this way: “A rich merchant of Uruvela had a daughter who died giving birth to her first child, who was stillborn. The merchant then decided to offer some robe material to the Buddha; he took an expensive piece of cloth, wrapped it around the dead fetus and the afterbirth of his daughter, and kept it for seven days. Then he deposited it on the road where he knew the Buddha was due to pass. The Buddha, seeing it, thought, ‘This is the first pamsukula…. The Buddhas of the past wore pamsukula; I, therefore, will wear one, too.’ He picked it up; the decaying fetus and afterbirth fell on the ground, which then shook and trembled to mark what for this tradition was a momentous occasion.”

The idea of symbolic connections to tradition and the past, in the context of Cambodian history, is more than an artistic strategy: it’s a statement of intent. In his 1983 History of Cambodia, David P. Chandler writes of the complicated forgetting of Angkor’s glory (a kingdom that lasted roughly from 802 to 1431 A.D.), and how this was used in the more recent past to justify elites taking advantage of farmers and the lower class, even before the Communist regime. The Khmer Rouge then referred to the start of its rule with the term Year Zero, meaning that ties to the rest of Cambodian history had to be severed. “What’s particular in a post-conflict society like Cambodia is that the arts and culture bring people together. Because: we almost lost our culture,” said Phloeun Prim, the director of Cambodian Living Arts, which commissioned Him’s work. Today, Him and Prim both talk about keeping memories alive. The making of “Bangsokol” is an act of preserving history that across many times and places, people have been encouraged to forget.

Him Sophy and Phloeun Prim after our interview in Singapore. 
Him Sophy and Phloeun Prim after our interview in Singapore. 

While speaking before the “Bangsokol” workshop, and then in our interview, Him kept mentioning a particular word: protect. He said his piece should “protect” its listeners, “strengthen the people who are living.” He characterized his piece as a physical space. Sound has this quality, since it comes from physical vibrations making air molecules move. So does the ritual of bangsokol, which the religion professor John Clifford Holt, in a 2012 paper, describes with architectural nouns like “repository” and “arena.” As in the symbolic origin of the ritual, the robes that wrapped the stillborn child, “Bangsokol” will aim to act as protection for something fragile and yet irreducibly important: the link between a people and its history. ¶