photographed by Richard Vogel
Music had always played an important
part in Khmer culture. There are different orchestras for different occasions like: pleng
khar also known as pleng-khmer for weddings and is also considered to be the
most traditional of all orchestras, pleng pin-peat for monastic functions,
pleng khlong khek for funeral purposes, pleng mohori for entertainment as
well and for some other rituals, pleng-arak for healing and warding off black
magic, just to name a few. Music is just one of the many art forms that survived
today and is very fragile because, it is taught orally from father to son or from teacher
to student. Traditionally music was never written down and it is incredible that a
musician will know how to play countless compositions and musical pieces without any
scores or notations.
However Khmer culture suffered very
badly under the Khmer Rouge regime including many other art forms including classical
dance, masked theatre, shadow theatre and many others. They destroyed any
documentation or notation that was written. They killed off many musicians. Today
music is still an important aspect of Khmer culture and will live on in those who keep
this highly expressive art form alive. Although with the influx of modern
entertainment it doesn't seem to actually have any impact on the performing arts because,
the government is aware of what could happen, therefore keeps them apart from new music
and modern culture, thus keeping Khmer arts in it's original and pure form.
The pin-peat orchestra is the best
known orchestra and the most often played in Cambodia. The pin-peat orchestra
is also by far the oldest orchestra in Cambodia dating to the Angkorean period.
There is also evidence about the existence of the orchestra carved on the bas-reliefs of
Angkor Wat. A procession of musicians playing wind and percussion instruments
consisting of suspended gongs, gong-chimes, drums, oboes, trumpets and horns. The pin-peat
orchestra was often associated with robam boran khmer (Classical
Cambodian dance), lakhon khol (masked theatre), nang sbek (shadow theatre), as well as royal rituals,
monastic functions that was composed of the best musicians in the kingdom. Some of
the musicians were descended from a long lineage of palace artists, while others were
recruited among musicians from the countryside through competitions.
Nang sbek (shadow theatre)
Pin-peat orchestra shared
many common characteristics of it's neighbouring countries such as Laos, Thailand and
Burma (Myamar). In Thailand and Laos the pin-peat orchestra is called pi-phat
and in Burma it's called hsaing-waing. These orchestras include gong-chimes
mounted on rattan frames called khong-vong in
Cambodia and Laos, khong-wong in Thailand and kyi-waing in Burma.
Apart from gong-chimes the orchestra also includes bamboo or hardwood
keyed xylophones that are suspended on boat shaped and trough shaped resonators
called roneat in Cambodia, ranat in
Thailand and Laos, pa'tala in Burma.
The pin-peat orchestra would
normally comprise of wind and percussion instruments. Stringed instruments such as pin
(harp or vina) which once formed part of the pin-peat orchestra but have been
replaced many centuries ago, thus string instruments have no place in this
orchestra. In classical dance the orchestra is accompanied by a choir of three to
six singers usually made of up both men and women singing texts that recount stories while
the dancers mime the story lines through expressive gestures and movements. During
the reign of King Sisowath (1904 -1927), there were twenty-singers, two first female
singers, and two readers.
Robam Boran Khmer (Classical
Cambodian Dance) photographed by Giovanni Diffidenti
The pin-peat orchestra would comprise of four
instrumental groups of the following:
- and finally, the percussion instruments, comprised of a
horizontal drum mounted on a stand (skor
samphor), two large bass drums (skor
thom), and little copper cymbals (chhing)
replacing the sets of bamboo clappers that had disappeared in the 1940's. In the
past the bamboo clappers (krapp)
accompanied the choirs.
The pin-peat orchestra
can be small or large depending on how many musicians are available to play the musical
instruments and also the function. A small pin-peat orchestra (vong
pleng pin-peat toch) would normally comprise of one xylophone (roneat ek), one large gong-chime (khong-vong thom), one oboe (sralay toch or sralay thom), one horizontal barrel
drum mounted on a stand (skor samphor)
and two large bass drums (skor thom).
Vong pleng pin-peat toch (small pin-peat
Vong pleng pin-peat thom (large
pin-peat orchestra) performed by royal palace musicians in Phnom Penh from the 1950s
photographed by D.R.
|In the larger pin-peat orchestra (vong
pleng pin-peat thom) would comprise of three xylophones (roneat ek, roneat thung and roneat dek), two gong-chimes (khong-vong thom and
khong-vong toch), two oboes (sralay thom and sralay toch) and sometimes a
bamboo flute (khloy) will replace the
sralay, a pair of small thick cymbals (chhing), a horizontal drum mounted on a
stand (skor samphor) and two large
bass drums (skor thom).
In Battambang Province during
the late 19th to early part of the 20th century, when Cambodia was still under French
Colonial rule, there was a pin-peat orchestra that was owned by a local Lord
Governor of the Province. His excellency's orchestra consisted of about thirteen
musicians making the orchestra very well known throughout the whole of Battambang
Province. During monastic occasions and local festivals, local pagodas would hire
his excellency's orchestra to perform in the religious and other rituals. The Lord
Governor's orchestra comprised of :
- two pairs of large bass drums (skor thom).
- a horizontal barrel drum mounted on a stand (skor samphor).
- one bossed gong (khong khrol).
- one gong-chime (khong-vong
- two oboes (sralay nok and sralay nay).
- three xylophones (roneat
ek or roneat rut, roneat
tharng and roneat thuong).
- and two pairs of thick cymbals (chhing toch and chhing thom).
Vong pleng pin-peat
thom at Bon Om Tuk (Water Festival)