POV: The Flute Player follows Arn Chorn-Pond’s efforts, through the Cambodian Master Performers Project, to preserve Cambodian musical and performance history. Can you talk a little bit about the challenges involved with recording live music and incorporating performance in a documentary film?
Jocelyn Glatzer: I knew from the start that music was going to have a big role in The Flute Player, and I wanted to make sure that the recordings we did on location were really good quality. Having made many mistakes with audio in the past (a big part of the filmmaker’s learning curve!), this time I was sure to be prepared.
We had a crew of three (myself, Amanda Micheli, director of photography, and Brad Bergbom, sound recording). Part of what Arn does is bring Master Musicians into a studio where he records as many songs as they can remember. The equipment they had when we were there was not great, so we made sure that our DAT recordings could be used for archiving the masters work and for any CDs the Cambodian Master Performers Program would want to put out in the future. So many recordings were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years and during the Vietnamese occupation. The idea that so many songs would be lost to the wind if they were not recorded before the master musicians died drove me mad. I felt a genuine responsibility to get the best recordings possible.
The best thing I did was hire someone with extensive experience doing documentary “field recording.” Even though we had a small budget for the project, I didn’t skimp in this area. We mixed the sound and put it directly into the DV-CAM camera instead of using the in-camera microphone and riding the levels. And we also brought a DAT machine for additional recordings of performances and ambient sounds. Brad had a really strong handle on mic placement and worked quickly under pressure.
Aside from the studio recordings, much of the music we recorded and used throughout the film was impromptu. Arn generally asked the master musicians he met with to sing or play their favorite song, or a piece of music that had particular meaning to them. Since we were always outside there were always sounds from the natural environment — from motos to insects. Early on it was clear that there was nothing we could do because most of the musicians didn’t live in houses that could be closed off from the noise (most lived in small wooden huts with no windows). So we decided not to fight it, and to let the environment become a part of the recording.
One of the most challenging and wonderful experiences we had was at Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s ancient capital city made of stone structures. It’s an absolutely magical place where remnants of elephant promenades still exist, wall carvings depict the life and spirituality of Cambodia 800 years ago (there was a lot of music!), and the mysteries of its architecture and engineering feats rival Egypt’s pyramids. Arn really wanted to do something special for some of the teachers and students in his project and he thought, “what could be better than bringing them to Cambodia’s most sacred place to perform a concert, and do some recordings for a CD.” So he organized a field trip for two groups from Battambang Province to come to Angkor Wat where they spent a few days touring, and then they performed.
We were in the middle of the jungle, don’t forget, so there was nowhere to go for extra batteries! Technically and organizationally we were well prepared. Arn wore a wireless mic (he wore one 24/7), the mic stand for the DAT machine was set up in the middle of the performers, and we made sure we had extra batteries, DAT tape, etc. The difficulty came in at sunset when the insects of Angkor Wat came out for their own concert. We were not prepared for the cacaphony of sound that began to compete with the performers. It was unexpected and it hampered our work a bit — but the experience was unforgettable… powerful… laughable. Luckily we already had what we needed for the film, and the recordings sound great, even with the bugs in accompaniment.