Cambodia – Day 2 w NZ Trio, Gillian Whitehead & Tray So

After breakfast a press conference takes place. I’ve never been to one before, let alone recorded one, so it’s an interesting proposition. I think about how journos seem to get up close but be out of camera shot and decide I’ll try the same.

The musicians sit at a long white table, with NZ flag bunting, name cards and give well-structured answers to the questions. I crawl around the floor, trying to keep my microphones steady and in front of the people who are speaking whilst remaining inconspicuous – probably not my forte, but a great experience.


We head across town to tro-player, Him Sophy’s Music School. It’s in one of the rebuilt areas, wealthy and spacious, populated by people from overseas, whose young families go to the school for lessons, especially on the piano.


We climb steep staircases up and up to a large music studio and turn on the air-con. Sophy uncovers his pride and joy, a Yamaha concert grand, shrouded in a pink-frilled cover and then one of silver-foil, to deflect the heat.


Justine and Ashley take a while to wait for the temperature to drop before taking out their violin and cello. As Justine explains, to relax the glue in instruments you add water, so damp, warm air can have catastrophic effects.

12 noon and the musicians start rehearsing Him Sophy’s work The First Strike.

The four Cambodian musicians sit on a beautiful raffia mat. They look as if they’re about to have a picnic. The NZ musicians are on the left, sitting on chairs. The different cultures are brought sharply into focus.


The keys of Keo Sophy’s xylophone slope upwards at either end. They’re resting on a boat-shaped soundbox. Him Sophy’s tro looks and sounds like an erhu. Keo Dorivan plays a vertical flute-like recorder. Him Savy sings and declaims, reminiscent of sprechtgesang. Another of Dorivan’s flutes looks alarming like an animal’s horn or tusk (hopefully it’s made of wood … no, it’s a buffalo’s horn). Another transverse flute, made of bamboo, I think, is placed fully in his left cheek. It sounds like it might have an internal reed. Dorivan’s circular breathing means the lines are seamless. The violin and cello have quiet trills as Him Sophy tells the story of The First Strike, how, in 1976, when he was 13, he was forced to work in the fields and he saw a man beaten by a guard. Later, Sophy finds out from a young girl that the worker was her father, and that he hasn’t been seen since. The musicians bend their heads to listen and make eye-contact.

Keo Sophy plays two drums. One resonant, one dry. Him Sophy marks time, open-handed for resonance, closed for dry.


Ashley asks to go back to letter C. Sarah plays soft Messiaenian harmonies on the piano. The cello has a rising pentatonic line, framing Him Savy’s plangent vocal line. Progression from note to note in the circular-breathed flute means every microtone has equal value. The homophonic string parts remind me of plainchant. Him Savy understands the concept of merging her voice as just one of an ensemble. Him Sophy mimes crying.

Lunch at a nearby restaurant – fried potato rolls, beef & seafood with lemongrass, sour soup, iced and hot tea.

One by one, the Cambodian musicians enquire about Jack Body, and pass on their sadness that he’s not able to be here this time. Jack’s the missing member of the group.

Back at rehearsal time’s rolling on. Him Savy and Keo Sophy have another concert this evening so can’t stay past 4pm.

Rehearsal starts for Gillian Whitehead’s work, the river flows on … There are temple bells and the musicians make the sound of the wind with their lips. The musicians’ lines trigger each others’ entries. This is where communication becomes essential. Bits of English and bits of Khmer are bound together by gestures. Of course Gillian knows her score implicitly and directs with precision and grace (thank heavens she’s here).  It makes a huge difference, having composers at rehearsals.  There’s to-ing and fro-ing, questions raised and answered.  The musicians’ memories are phenomenal – instructions about entries, tempi, dynamics are flying around (some are notated, some just agreed to with a nod, none forgotten).

At letter M the musicians all mutter words, Savy iterates a phrase and then sings lines combining open mouth vowels and long closed mouth consonants. The strings play artificial harmonics. There’s a tam-tam (although there isn’t yet, so Sarah calls out ‘tam-tam’). The texture becomes more and more intricate until it implodes and a melodic, quite Western-sounding solo line rings out from the cello.

And that’s all for today. We take a tuktuk back to the hotel, enjoying the natural air-conditioning.

Him Sophy comes back to the hotel to debrief. They’re all mighty happy to have achieved so much on the first day, reminding themselves of the music they played in NZ three years ago.

We all head to my room to use the Macbook to reorder the Powerpoint presentation slides to be used during all the pieces on Sunday eve. Justine’s an absolute whizz, so she taps the keyboard with instruction from Gillian. A few hours later the job’s done and an email’s gone to Gao Ping, in Beijing, asking him to add the Chinese characters for their four China concerts in the next few weeks.


Sarah, Justine, Gillian and a photo-bomber in my room!

We leave for the dark of Sisowath Quay looking for food, which is abundant. It’s a strip of neon-lit, sophisticated restaurants, but we walk down a side street to find it’s a different scene within a few steps.

Back on the Quay we check into a busy restaurant and get shown to the empty upstairs, air-conditioned room, overlooking the main dining area. We share plates, laughter, stories and opinions. Time with this group is a blast.

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