Various Artists

Cambodia: Royal Music/Cambodge: Musique Royale

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The music on this album has roots going all the way back to the 9th century and one of the great cultures of Asia. One has to imagine music on the same scale as the massive temples of Angkor Wat for an idea of the grandness of Khmer traditions. The recordings on this album present only a small scale reproduction of what might have happened in the good old days, as there are inscriptions in temples referring to concerts by fifty orchestras at once, with a hundred lutes and flutes and 1,000 dancers. The various ensembles that partake in this collection seem to have been almost preserved in mothballs themselves, and we are informed in the liner notes that the instruments themselves are only rarely used anymore. There is a little problem in the translation of the original French liner notes by Jacques Brunet, leading to delirious sentences such as the following: "If removed from their royal abode and presented as entertainment to the concert-hall public, the Royal Ballet and its musicians would be ruined almost immediately." Here's hoping these valuable performers stay protected and out of the public's reach, because this is really beautiful music. The first side is an extended work of nearly one half hour combining music and dance with 18 seperate dance themes; the music seems to exist totally in its own universe while containing elements of just about every kind of music one has ever heard. The keyed metallophone, called a roneat dek, might bring to mind the music of Java but the way the phrasing overlaps and counter melodies are added on top and on bottom could be compared to Debussy or Captain Beefheart, if one has to find Western points of reference. The flip side is a set of shorter pieces focusing on different styles. The sole exception to the orchestra or ensemble performances is a final solo played on a three stringed fretted zither called a takhe. On "Phat Cheay" and "Sampong" there are some fine collective improvisations by the pey ar, an oboe and a three-stringed fiddle, tro khmer. The piece "Salamar" is in two parts, the second meant to accompany a battle and played at a tempo that is fully up to the task.

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