Saturday & Sunday, June 8 & 9, 2013

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I was drenched in sweat and my students had already been waiting for some time, but I had to linger a little longer besides a carving on the northwest corner of Angkor Wat. Guidebooks hail Angkor’s bas-reliefs, especially the celebrated “Churning of the Sea of Milk” and Suryavarman II’s military conquest. There are also the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Indian epic Ramayana, and another Indian epic, the Mahabharata. The section that arrested my attention is not as famous, a sixteenth-century carving showing Vishnu’s incarnation as Krishna and his war to capture a Demon King.

However, what stopped me was not the battle scenes but a carving of the kse diev, the Cambodian instrument that I play, the one-stringed instrument now used in the classical wedding music ensemble. Next to the man playing the kse diev was another playing the hand cymbals. Next to him, men banging gongs and others playing wind instruments.

I am far from the first to find this niche of culture amid chaotic battle and slaughter. Scholars have long been deciphering Angkor Wat’s carvings, and Patrick Kersale, a contemporary French scholar of ancient Khmer iconography, believes that this section of bas-relief is a funeral march, with instruments accompanying the procession. However, in personal correspondence he has suggested that instead of being an exact reproduction of a sixteenth-century funeral march, the procession is more a collage of culture, a survey of musical instruments from the sixteenth century thrown together for a funeral.

It wasn’t the funeral or the odd arrangement of instruments that stood out to me, though. It was the fact that two of the musicians—those playing the kse diev and hand-cymbals—wore wide smiles, the same smile I had seen earlier in the day at the Bayon on the face of another kse diev musician. The Bayon, built by King Jayavarman VII toward the end of the twelfth century,  is known for having bas-reliefs that depict “real life,” as opposed to Angkor Wat and other temples that display Indian epics and the conquests of Cambodian kings. I had already known about two carvings of musical instruments, one of the kse diev accompanying a circus performance carved on the outside wall in the northeast corner, and another of the mem (ethnic string instrument) and pin (a harp no longer found in Cambodia). However, this one took me by surprise. I turned a corner and saw the arched curve of the pin and to the left a man playing the kse diev. I gasped and looked closer and found one—possibly two—more men playing the instrument. Even though it is the twentieth century and this is one of the most-visited sites in all of South East Asia, the thrill of personal discovery was intoxicating. For me, at least, this was a new ancient ensemble: one pin and two kse dievs, accompanying an apsara dance performance.

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Finally, I left funeral carving to find my students, and we returned to Siem Reap for an afternoon in the city. The next morning, we woke early and caught a 15-minute tuk-tuk ride to a countryside village, where a large group of extended family and friends live, many of whom are classical wedding musicians. I had studied and lived here year’s ago and had gotten to know the master musician, Man Men, and a few of his top students, very well, so I thought I knew what to expect. This trip, however, was full of surprises. First, the musicians eschewed their typical wedding music performance for a concert of Angkorean instruments reconstructed by Patrick Kersale from the Angkor Wat and Bayon bas-reliefs. A day after “discovering” a carving of the ancient kse diev (with two gourds, as opposed to one on the modern instrument) playing together with the pin, I heard the two instruments performing together live. But, that was just the beginning.

One of the joys of being in Cambodia is the spontaneity of day-to-day life, especially when you have a few friends and contacts. That was on full display when, about a half hour after we arrived at Man Men’s village, a man and woman drove up on a motorbike and started unloading video recording equipment. When I introduced myself, the man turned out to be Patrick Kersale, whom I had gotten to know on email but had never met before.

Contradicting a negative stereotype about scholars being removed from reality, Kersale is an extremely personable and easy-going man. He offered to present to my students about his work, and he talked to them at length about the instruments and how he reconstructed them from the bas-relief images. Then, got to his own work: filming the Angkorean instruments playing in procession for, as he says, “the first time ever.” The meeting with Patrick was surreptitious and inspiring; I found him to be articulate, intelligent, passionate, and driven. At one point, while pausing from filming the procession of instruments, he came to me and said, “This has been my dream for two years, and it is all happening this morning; Isn’t it wonderful?”

As Kersale’s presentation to my group made clear, there are still many mysteries about life and music at Angkor. We don’t know any of the melodies or the styles of performance, and we are left to guess as to the uses and exact composition of the ensembles. Kersale’s work takes us closer, but there is so much knowledge missing. If only the stones could sing and tell the tales of the ancients, but instead we are left with hints and speculations.

It may be too much of a stretch, then, to imply that the musicians of the Angkorean carvings, often wedged between epic images of war and suffering, represent a portrait of peace, but there might be something to that sentiment. Amid the overwhelming number of carvings depicting battle, the temples’ builders chose music and dance as placid interludes. And, there are those smiles which, to me, appear unabashedly ecstatic, as if the ancient musicians knew they were expressing for future generations the vitality and depth of their society. The carved smiles match those of the village performers who made history with their procession and carry on artistic traditions that, through war and genocide, almost ceased to exist.

Still, as of now, I am left to guess at the meaning and intention of the carvings. Maybe the virtues of peace and cultural rejuvenation were not intended by the temple’s architects. But, I do know that on a day when I needed a moment of peace and quiet, I found it before an image of an instrument and a culture that I have come to call my own.

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