The music that Louis Sclavis, one of France’s jazz giants, has created with local musicians over the past five days in Phnom Penh makes Cambodia’s age-old instruments sound as if they were always meant to team up with his clarinet or saxophone to express the 21st century.
The traditional sounds are still there, but they are now very much anchored in the present.
One could call the music a third stream, Sclavis said Thursday, as in “one plus one equals three…using two different [musical] vocabularies to create a music that feeds on both.”
What Sclavis and Phare Ponleu Selpak musicians will perform tonight at the French Cultural Center’s cafe and Tuesday night at the park in front of Wat Botum—with early silent movies as the visual backdrop—was created since Sclavis started working with the 10 Cambodian musicians last week.
Sclavis said he followed the approach he has used with traditional musicians in France, Africa and India: “I listen…and try to learn what they do. Then I look at what I could suggest that would fit.”
The outcome, said Sim Theary, one of those musicians, “is wonderful.” “When he improvises, it’s always very, very good,” the 20-year-old musician said.
Tonight’s performance at the cultural center will include dancer Chumvan Sodhachivy, known as Belle, who will dance two pieces she has created on the music Sclavis and the musicians developed. She currently is the French Cultural Center’s artist in residence.
Tuesday at Wat Botum, they will perform music they have composed as a sort of soundtrack for films by silent-era filmmakers Georges Melies and Charley Bowers.
Sclavis, who will be 56 years old next month, has won a long series of awards including France’s Django Reinhardt for best jazz musician in 1988, the British Jazz Award for best foreign artist in 1990-1991, and the 1993 Django d’Or award for best French jazz record. He plays clarinet and saxophone but also composes music for films, theater and dance.
Speaking of limitations of Cambodian traditional instruments, Sclavis said, “If there is no constraint, if everything is possible, we don’t do anything.”
It’s by working within constraints that artists develop their style, he added.