Classical Composer’s CD Commemorates Khmer Rouge Victims

Inspired by the memories of his own childhood under the Khmer Rouge, renowned classical music composer Him Sophy pays tribute to victims of the brutal regime with his latest album.

Mr. Sophy wrote “Memory of Darkness,” a trio for the piano, violin and cello, as a master’s student in Moscow in 1990 with thoughts of the evacuation of Phnom Penh in his mind. 

Composer Him Sophy speaks to a reporter at his eponymous music school on Wednesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Composer Him Sophy speaks to a reporter at his eponymous music school on Wednesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

He was just 12 years old when, in 1975, he and his family were forced to leave the city and return to their village in Prey Veng province.

“When I composed the piece I remembered what I saw, especially what I saw in the prison—people be­ing used like an ox. The Khmer Rouge soldiers used prisoners instead of cows or buffalos to pull,” Mr. Sophy said in an interview this week.

“Myself, I was in very bad shape at that time. Nothing to eat, always working, we looked like ske­letons. I felt how people suffered, how they were waiting to die. They all knew they would die soon,” he said.

“I just wanted to dedicate my first composition to them.”

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Mr. Sophy, then a budding young musician, earned a scholarship to study composition and mu­sicology in Moscow in the late 1980s, where he lived for more than a decade.

Mr. Sophy created the 25-minute piece in the third year of his master’s program, mixing Western and Cambodian harmonies under the guidance of the teachers at Tchai­kovsky Moscow State Conservatory.

With his recently deceased father—who survived the horrors of the regime—at the forefront of his mind, Mr. Sophy said “Mem­ories of Darkness” came naturally.

“I didn’t want to wait…. I wanted to describe the genocidal regime and also remember my father,” he said.

“It was as if it were dictated to me…this music is not from head. It is from the heart.”

Although it was created more than 25 years ago, the composition has only been presented on two previous occasions.

In 1990, it was performed and recorded by three Bulgarian and Russian musicians, a version that has been integrated into the audio tour of the Choeung Ek Gen­ocidal Center.

Then last year, it was performed by the New York New Music Ensemble in Phnom Penh as part of a series of concerts organized by the NGO Cambodia Living Arts (CLA). The album is based on recordings by the New York group, and 80 percent of the profits will be donated to CLA to support local artists.

For the first time on Sunday, the piece will be performed by a group of musicians made up entirely of Cambodians at the Him Sophy School of Music.

Violinist Ouch Thach, 38, one of the performers, said the piece also evokes her own past.

“Although I was two years old, just a small baby, I remember and I feel sorrow,” she said.

“This song is very hard to play but it is important to do because it reminds us of this pitiful time.”

(Additional reporting by Sek Odom)

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