Jerome Pernoo had performed as a soloist throughout the world and taught in France, England and Russia before landing in Cambodia last month to teach Western classical music.
The extensive travel did not prepare the award-winning cellist for what confronted him when he met Cambodian traditional musicians. “I had to redefine myself from A to Z,” he said.
His class is one of the French Cultural Center’s efforts to support the Ministry of Culture’s annual December festival at Angkor, said Marie-Christine de Navacelle, the center’s assistant director.
These “Angkor Nights,” consisting of two performances this year, will include Cambodian and French musicians. The center organized a series of exchanges, with Cambodian musicians going to France and French musicians coming here, said de Navacelle.
In addition to teaching, Pernoo practiced traditional music with professors from the Royal University of Fine Arts during his two-week visit. The group performed together at Chaktomuk Theater on Sept 6.
In the process, Pernoo found that the difference between Cambodian traditional music and Western music went far beyond notes and tonalities.
“Imagination is the key in Western personal expression,” he said. “Our [Western] culture is one of identification, identifying ourselves to the music we play.”
“Artistic expression [in Cambodia] is the world of the mask—it’s about distancing,” said Pernoo. “Its principle is to repeat [it], generation after generation.”
The music contains symbols that Cambodians recognize, he said. For instance, they will know that a music segment means cheers and drinking to a person’s health without the musicians having to put those feelings into it, said Pernoo.
The word improvisation has a different meaning for Western and Cambodian musicians, he said. For Cambodians, it consists of slightly changing or adding notes in performing a segment; and for Westerners, this means getting away from the original piece, said Pernoo.
Of course, the notes themselves vary in concept, he said. In the Western tradition, they are set with mathematical precision, whereas in Cambodian traditional music, notes are closer to natural sounds, said Pernoo.
On the last day of his class, five Cambodian musicians closed their eyes as Pernoo had told them to do. They listened to him talk about color and texture, and about letting life “sing inside you while you play.” Then, they gave a rendition of an 18th century piece by Handel that was filled with emotions. “This has been a very new way to perform for them,” he said.
It has also been new and difficult for Pernoo to play with the university professors. His training to express emotions in music is so ingrained that he didn’t think he could really perform as they did. So Pernoo played a trick with himself: he focused on expressing the feelings of a traditional musician distancing himself from his music.