Under the brutal reign of Cambodian dictator Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, it’s estimated that nearly 25 percent of the country’s population perished, including many of the country’s artists and Buddhist monks. In the face of those facts, composer Him Sophy and filmmaker Rithy Panh’s multimedia production “Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia” seems to boil with profound sorrow, defiant joy, and steadfast resilience. The sensory feast onstage at the Paramount Center Tuesday night took place somewhere at the crossroads of performance and ritual, of healing and hurting.
Panh and Him are both survivors of the Cambodian genocide, which ravaged the Southeast Asian country from 1975 to 1979. “Bangsokol” honors the many dead whose bones still rise to the surface of the infamous killing fields, drawing on the Buddhist memorial rites their bodies never received. It pays homage to their spirits through many of the arts and practices that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge sought to stamp out: dance, music, visual art, and the Buddhist religion.
Him’s lush, graceful score merges the sound worlds of Western art music and Khmer music. It evokes the beauty of life, the horror and fear of existence under Pol Pot, and the grief of loss, while Panh’s collage of archival footage and abstract imagery plays out on a triptych of screens. Initial visions of verdant landscapes and black-and-white clips of opulently attired dancers give way to carpet bombing and Richard Nixon’s 1971 assertion that “Cambodia is the Nixon Doctrine in its purest form.” Later scenes show long lines of weary laborers, grains of rice being husked, and insects being thrown into pots, as the instruments wail and mutter like starving ghosts.
Commissioned by Phnom Penh-based Cambodian Living Arts, “Bangsokol” was performed in Australia and New York City before its two-night stint in Boston, which was presented by ArtsEmerson. The program features notes in English and Khmer, the official language of Cambodia. Nearby Lowell is a nucleus of Cambodian population in the United States, and in recent weeks, ArtsEmerson presented events with the performers and other local Cambodian cultural organizations in Lowell and Boston. There seemed to be a sizable Cambodian-American contingent in the seats on Tuesday night.
It was a truly international affair. The stage at times seemed insufficiently big to hold the Taipei Philharmonic Chamber Choir, the American orchestra Metropolis Ensemble, the array of Cambodian musicians, and dancer Chumvan “Belle” Sodhachivy. The choir sang the harmonically intricate score from memory, and Andrew Cyr’s economical conducting kept the most austere, chantlike lines from bogging down in repetition. Vocal soloists Him Savy and Chhorn Sam Ath mourned and soothed in piercing melismatic smot chants, and one stiff, barking section had echoes of the propaganda music that was allowed under the Khmer Rouge.
The libretto was written by American scholar of Buddhist music Trent Walker in Khmer and the ancient Buddhist liturgical language Pali, incorporating liturgies for the sick and the dead and prayers for good will. There were no supertitles, but the music carried the messages of the text easily.
The conclusion shouted and exulted with colorfully festooned drums and banners, everyone parading from the stage to the aisles while singing together, and two local young children learning Cambodian dances and music. The horrific past was acknowledged and let go, and so began a celebration of survival and hope for the future.
BANGSOKOL: A REQUIEM FOR CAMBODIA
Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Paramount Center, Tuesday
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.