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Garuda’s song revisited

with Peter Olszewski / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
So Savoeun is accompanied by players from the Battambangers during the Garuda’s Song performance. Supplied

A documentary that revisits notable performances from respected musicians will grace the screens from March 13-22 at select cinemas in the capital as part of the 10th Annual Cambodia International Film Festival.

Last year, music lovers in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh were captivated with live performances of Garuda’s Song, a musical composition written by American musicians Alex Biniaz-Harris and Ambrose Soehn.

The piece conveyed the story of Cambodia’s compelling musical heritage by tying together traditional melodies with the classics from Cambodia’s Golden Age of soul, jazz and rock ’n’ roll – a period that lasted from 1959 to 1975.

The performances showcased four-hand piano arrangements played by the composers, interspersed with music by Cambodian musicians Hong Samley, So Savoeun and Sinn Sethakol.

Now, filmgoers and music enthusiasts will have the chance to watch these performances along with a moving tribute to one of the trio, Sinn Sethakol, who passed away late last year.

Garuda’s Song March 2020 Film Festival Poster. Supplied

The documentary, called Garuda’s Song: Musical Memories from Cambodia, will be screened on Saturday at the CIFF outdoor village at Exchange Square Plaza.

Following the screening, the remaining duo will perform another musical piece, Garuda’s Song Suite, which was performed for the first time in the US at the premiere of the documentary in September last year.

“We wrote a four-hand, three-movement piano suite entitled Garuda’s Song, which later became the basis for the short film,” Mr Soehn explains. “The movements of the suite, in consecutive order, represent the periods before, during and after the Khmer Rouge.”

Mr Soehn says the documentary was created so that a taste of original Cambodian performance could be shown to audiences globally.

“We created the documentary to share our story with a larger audience. The piece we composed and performed serves as the narrative thread through which we explore Cambodian music and culture from before, during and after the Khmer Rouge. This involves interviews, musical performances and other footage from our time in Cambodia.

“Because most of our audience is not familiar with Khmer culture or the nation’s tumultuous past, we believe that the musical elements serve as a vehicle to engage viewers with a meaningful story that we hope will expand their perspective on the topic.

“We should also note the film portrays several beautiful moments with the late singer Sinn Sethakol, grandson of Sinn Sisamouth, who passed away on December 30 last year. We have added a special dedication to him and his legacy in the film, which honours all that he stood for, both musically and personally.”

Filming of the documentary took place last year in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and the countryside from January 14 to January 28. After the editing process, the film was finally finished later in the year.

The duo take a pre-show photo with Oum Rotanak Oudom, So Savoeun, Hong Samley and Sinn Sethakol. Supplied

“Our cinematographer Hem Vana did the majority of the camera work, using a combination of still, handheld and drone footage,” Mr Soehn says. “We tag-teamed on some of the handheld shots that we filmed in between writing the composition while in Cambodia.”

The two Americans composed Garuda’s Song after writing a similar musical composition, Melodies of Auschwitz, that was performed at the 70th-anniversary commemoration of Auschwitz’s liberation in Krakow, Poland in January 2015.

The composers were intrigued by the dark nature of Cambodia’s genocidal regime and were also struck by the melting-pot identity of Cambodian music.

“We found the amalgamation of diverse instruments, genres, ethnic styles and historical eras very intriguing, not only from a musical perspective but from a cultural perspective as well,” Mr Soehn tells Khmer Times.

“We first became fascinated by the trance-like nature of the nation’s traditional performance ensembles made up of percussive, stringed and gong instruments. All such insights are woven into the fabric of the performance.”

Four hands, two composers. Supplied

The logistics and musical direction of Garuda’s Song in Cambodia’s two major cities last year was heralded by Siem Reap entrepreneur Adam Rodwell, co-owner of The Little Red Fox Espresso café, and Oum Rotanak, aka DJ Oro, founder of the Cambodian Vintage Music Archive.

“I first met Oum Rotanak a few years ago while working together at one of our Little Red Fox events in Siem Reap,” Mr Rodwell says. “Then in contacted me again in 2018, after he had planned the Cambodian performances while in America. They needed someone on the ground in Siem Reap to help with contacts and logistics.

“I am a big fan of sixties and seventies Cambodian music, so the chance to be involved in an event featuring Hong Samley and So Savoeun was very exciting,” added Mr Rodwell.

Biniaz-Harris (left) and Soehn pose with the score of their composition Garuda’s Song. Supplied

Mr Biniaz-Harris and Mr Soehn have also been commissioned to write a musical piece honouring the memory of the late Princess Buppha Devi, who succumbed to an illness in Bangkok on November 18 last year. The piece will be played at the festival’s opening ceremony at Chaktomuk Theatre on March 13.

Mr Soehn says: “Written for four hands, the piano piece is our interpretation of the many ways in which the Princess affected Cambodia’s culture, particularly in dance and appreciation of the arts.”

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