With characteristic styles specific to weddings, funerals, worship, dance, theatre, and even boxing, Cambodian classical music has been woven into the fabric of Cambodian life over many centuries. Its sustained peak was during the Angkor period (ninth-fifteenth centuries), when the temples of Angkor Wat were built and the classical arts flourished. After this glory period came four centuries of foreign invasion, civil war, and depopulation during which the arts fell into a decline.
Midway through the nineteenth century, stability was restored and music and other arts were revived. This period is considered the Cambodian renaissance. The next landmark in the history of Cambodian music is the reign of the Khmer Rouge (1975-79), when ninety percent of the country’s musicians, dancers, teachers and instrument makers were killed or made to disappear, and most written records and documents were destroyed.
This attack on the artistic community was also a devastating attack on the history of music, because Cambodian music is learned, taught, and performed entirely from memory. The musicians and artisans lost were the repositories of their music’s history. Traditionally, Cambodian music was passed from master to pupil, and generation to generation, often in a family setting. No composition ever bore the name of a composer and no two compositions were ever identical.
Classical Cambodian music is based primarily on the five-tone scale (rather than the seven-tone scale most often used in Western music). It is constructed linearly, and has no harmony in the Western sense of the word. Musicians playing together in an ensemble all have a collective melody in mind, but develop and embellish it individually.
The strong foreign impact on the development of Cambodian music can be seen in instruments like the two-stringed fiddles from China and the double-headed barrel drums from India. Other major influences include Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Europe. Cambodian music uses a range of instruments, encompassing Buffalo horns, pipes, flutes, oboes, fiddles, dulcimers, zithers, lutes, xylophones, gongs, cymbals, and drums. Vocals are often an important element. Vocalists are traditionally female, while musicians are traditionally male.
The many different styles of Cambodian music are each played by a unique ensemble type with its own repertoire and general set of instruments. All ensembles specialize in one of two kinds of music: religious or secular. Two well-known ensemble types that play religious music are the pinn peat, or court ensemble, and the kar, or wedding ensemble. Other important religious ensembles are the korng skor, a drum and gong ensemble that plays funeral music, and the arrakk, an ensemble that plays music for spirit worship and communication, often to help bring a medium into a trance.
The pinn peat ensemble plays the ceremonial music of the former courts. A wind and percussion based ensemble of approximately nine or ten instruments, it accompanies court dance, masked play, shadow play, and religious ceremonies. It is one of the most ancient ensemble types and is closely associated with the Angkor period. In fact, its history is carved into the walls of Angkor Wat in the shapes of the instruments held by celestial dancers, such as the gong called korng and the small cymbals called chhing, both of which have been essential to the pinn peat ensemble for centuries.
The kar ensemble plays the music of weddings, and few villages in Cambodia are without one. It is made up of seven wind, string, and percussive instruments, and vocals. Cambodian wedding ceremonies can last up to three days and nights, and are accompanied by music almost continuously. Originally, kar music was thought to have a blessing power that made it too important to risk allowing young, inexperienced men to play, so kar ensembles were restricted to the oldest and most serious musicians.
The mohori ensemble is the most renowned ensemble that plays secular music. Heard at banquets, accompanying folk dances, or playing an evening concert, mohori music is purely for entertainment, and its repertoire can include anything from lullabies to love songs to narratives. Generally, the vocalist and the ensemble alternate their renditions. This large ensemble is almost always string-based, although the exact instrumentation varies depending upon patronage. The term is also used in Thai music, and the instrumentation is often the same as Khmer mohori music, although the songs are different.