Hymn of hope

Rachel Hughes

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Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia. Photo: Cambodian Living Arts

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Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia is a new musical composition that tells a story of survival. The Khmer word bangsokol comes from the Pali paṃsukūla, meaning a shroud from a corpse that a monk or nun removes, washes, dyes and weaves into his or her sacred robe. The work, by Cambodia’s leading composer, Him Sophy, draws simultaneously from a Western symphonic tradition and from various Cambodian musical styles, including pin peat, kong skor, smot and chayyam. Bangsokol also features a Western-trained chorus and two outstanding Cambodian vocalists, Him Savy and Chhorn Sam Ath.

Him Sophy’s composition has been developed in tandem with a libretto written by Trent Walker. As Walker writes in the performance notes, the libretto of Bangsokol is primarily rooted in the Pali scriptural texts that comprise one version of a Buddhist liturgy for the dead in Cambodia, and is supplemented with Khmer poems that are frequently integrated into funerary rituals. Also heard are slogans from the Khmer Rouge period, as well as snatches of the music and words of the anthem of the Khmer Rouge state, Democratic Kampuchea. Bangsokol aims to directly face the suffering of this period, as well as to engage in reflection on the inevitability of death and suffering for all, the importance of avoiding anger, violence and vengeful action, and the release from suffering that boundless compassion can bring.

Rithy Panh, Cambodia’s renowned filmmaker, has contributed a film to the production that is projected in a triptych form onto the rear wall of the stage. Australian choreographer and director Gideon Obarzanek also contributed with a series of subtle stage elements, incorporating both sculpted objects and, all too briefly, Cambodian dance, performed by Chumvan Belle Sodhachivy.

Some thirty years after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, Bangsokol was conceived as a work of art that sought recognition for the loss and suffering of the period. After ten more years in the making, and with the support of Cambodian Living Arts, Cambodia’s premier arts organisation, the show, having been performed in Australia and North America, will make its way to Europe later this month.

Last October, I had the privilege of seeing the world premiere of Bangkosol in the Hamer Hall in Melbourne. The performance opened with a procession of members of the Cambodian diaspora in Australia. They walked into the lower level of the concert hall, down the aisle, and up onto the stage. Followed by the musicians, they wove across the stage, left a small object-offering at stage front, and moved off stage to two rows of reserved seating. For those of us seated in this lower level of the hall, there was a white cloth neatly folded over each seat back, which ushers encouraged us to wrap around our shoulders. A small printed card on each seat explained: ‘“How transient the elements of life! Their nature is just to arise and pass away.” The white cloths are symbolic of the shroud in which the dead are wrapped, which is then unwrapped during traditional Khmer Buddhist bangsokol ceremony.

I made a conscious effort to listen to the performance. Even still, I couldn’t help but tack back and forth between the sounds and the hypnotic film images in triptych form — three moons, Cambodia’s elegant Independence Monument (in two panels we approach the monument, in the middle panel it runs further away), three black-and-white Khmer Rouge propaganda films of ant-like, black-clad workers criss-crossing the rubble of a dam construction site, three tracks of roiling explosions from the back door of a B-52 bomber — and back into the field of sound. For the listener, the performance see-sawed between pin-pricking, solo voice virtuosity and heavier, meditative chant, the two musical traditions in respectful conversation. The intriguing timbre and syncopation of the Cambodian instruments were sometimes heard in isolation, while at other times they punctuated the swell and fall of the larger symphonic tide.

As a work of art, Bangsokol makes many powerful contributions. The first is to foreground a Khmer Buddhist approach to death, grief, guilt and vengeful thoughts, with specific attention paid to the violence of late twentieth-century Cambodia, violence that was wrought both from within and without the country. As Walker explains, Bangsokol works to acknowledge the remembering and honouring the dead that Cambodians have been engaged in since 1979. These practices — ceremonies that honoured the untimely dead — are often overlooked in contemporary scholarly and ‘dark tourism’ accounts of Cambodia. In this way, Bangsokol re-writes the received account. While it is true that many artists were killed or died during the regime, those who survived — musicians and composers in this case — have been reviving and refining their creative practices ever since. No one talks about the 1980s as a period of cultural re-emergence in Cambodia, perhaps because it was a socialist post-conflict reconstruction, when Cambodian remained geopolitically ostracised, but Him Sophy’s brilliance is part of this longer story of hard-won cultural return.

Bangsokol also chequers the standard representations of Khmer Rouge rule as uniform across Cambodia and largely unchanging over the period 1975-1979. It adds visual and audio complexity to a growing store of public ‘memories’ of the genocide. Panh’s film begins in a time before, and continues in a time after, the period commonly (and now legally) considered as ‘the Khmer Rouge regime’. From early US bombings, to life in the besieged city of Phnom Penh just prior to 1975, to footage shot at genocide memorial Tuol Sleng today, temporal delimitations are called into question. Spatially, the work also opens up new territory and movement for public debate and consideration. The lonely sounds of a train carriage rocking over tracks — which separates different (musical) movements in the work — recalls the forced population transfers that occurred in the middle of the Khmer Rouge period. As the recent Khmer Rouge trials have established, long after the cities had been emptied in 1975, much of Cambodia’s population was subject to a second phase of forced transfer, sometimes by foot, other times by working sections of Cambodia’s rail system. Yet other places and types of spaces swim into view, for example, the refugee camps of the 1980s on the Thailand-Cambodia border. They are recognisably ‘other’ to life inside Democratic Kampuchea by virtue of the coloured clothes worn by those pictured, but here too are the dazed and the sick. These images press the point that the suffering caused by the Khmer Rouge continued long after the purported end of their rule.

Bangsokol is one of a number of creative arts-based responses to the Khmer Rouge period to have been performed or developed in Cambodia recently. These works have largely emerged out of victim participation at the recent tribunal, where victims may claim collective and moral reparation. A play for students, a song-writing contest, a dance about experiences of forced marriage, a history education app for smartphones — these creative initiatives aim at redress in the form of teaching and learning about the past, being heard and being acknowledged. Although not formally proposed as a reparation project, and far longer in creative development, Bangsokol nonetheless shares some of these intentions. At the end of the requiem, for example, two children join the performers on stage, where they are briefly tutored in Khmer dance movements. This symbolises, if a little obviously, the teaching of a store of (embodied) cultural knowledge that was, under the Khmer Rouge, thoroughly suppressed.

When the lights went up in the Hamer Hall, the audience filled the aisles and filed out past members of the Cambodian-Australian community who had opened the performance. As the audience shuffled past, there was an opportunity to exchange a sampeah, a smile of thanks. Members of the local Cambodian community are not regularly found attending Melbourne’s arts precinct. Bangsokol had engaged them beyond simple participation. At the opening night reception, Cambodians gathered in the largest corner of the party and talked through the speeches; while many reported being moved to tears, they were happy and undeniably proud.

Bangsokol arose from connections between artists in Cambodia and their supporters there and elsewhere, and by a desire to involve diasporic Cambodians in a performance that seeks rest for those still mourned. The extroverted performance geography of this project began in Melbourne last year, travelled to New York City and Boston, and on 16 May to the Cité de la musique in Paris. It is hoped the work will return to Cambodia in 2019 for the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Democratic Kampuchea, although no venue currently exists in the country where Bangsokol can be staged in its current form. While a large part of the attraction of this work for non-Cambodians lies in the fusion of Cambodian and Western musical and performance forms, the piece seeks to contribute more than a culturally and historically specific account of Cambodia’s mass violence and its long half-life. The piece deserves to be known worldwide, as a beautiful, considered and instructive exploration of loss and repair.

Rachel Hughes is a lecturer at the University of Melbourne.

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