Cambodia, formerly Kampuchea, is roughly the size of the state of Washington and lies on the southeastern coast of mainland Southeast Asia, with Laos to the north, Thailand to the northwest and Vietnam to the northeast. The Khmer are the main ethnic group of Cambodia (90%); the term also refers to the cultural expressions associated with that group. A large number of Khmer have historically lived in southern and central Thailand, and classical Thai culture has been deeply influenced by Khmer expressions.
During the reign of terror and genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979 the Cambodian classical arts were nearly wiped out as Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot systematically exterminated the educated classesthe main patrons of the courtly arts. Since the early 1980s classical and folk Cambodian music has made a slow but steady resurgence. Today large numbers of displaced Khmer live and continue to perform Cambodian music outside of the country, primarily in Thailand and the United States.
Khmer music has its roots in the combination of local cultural forms and Indian practices and instrumentsa process that took place primarily between the 6th through the 12th century CE, during which time the Khmer practiced a localized form of Hinduism. During the 12th century Buddhism, patronized by the courts, became the state religion, as it remains today. Early Khmer orchestras are found represented within iconography in and around the major 12th-15th century Khmer capital-temple complex at Angkor Wat. These ensembles represent both extinct forms of Indian-ized string ensembles as well as early forms of the classical Khmer pin peat ensemble with its combinations of local gong-chimes, winds and drums. In 1431 the Siamese Tai at the capital at Ayuthaya are said to have sacked and plundered Angkor Wat, capturing up to 90,000 prisoners, including many musicians and dancers. Since this time Thai classical ensembles have strongly resembled Khmer orchestras. European cultural influence markedly increased after 1864 when the Cambodian government appealed for French protection to guard against increasing Thai and Vietnamese aggression. The country gained its independence in 1949.
Like the traditional gong-chime ensembles of much of Southeast Asia, classical Khmer music is based upon the polyphonic (many-voiced) stratification of several musical lines and melodies based primarily upon five-tone scales. And, as in similar Asian ensembles, higher pitched instruments tend to play more notesdenser realizations of the core melodic formthan lower-pitched instruments, clappers and hand cymbals mark tempo and rhythmic density. As in Javanese gamelan music improvisation, within a narrowly defined stylistic range, is central to the realization of melodic forms and the creation of pleasing connecting ornaments between core melodic goal-points.
Classical Khmer music, like similar neighboring traditions in Southeast Asia, is an oral tradition, and musicians and composers rarely use notation. As in many oral traditions, the names of historic composers are not generally known, although this is changing today.
The several types of traditional Khmer repertoires and ensembles are associated with different social-cultural-ceremonial contexts such as spirit-dances/worship (the arak and pey keo ensembles), funerals (the klang khek ensemble), weddings (the kar ensemble), dance, Buddhist ceremony and shadow-puppetry (the pin peat ensemble) and secular entertainment (the mahori ensemble). The arak and kar ensembles are considered the oldest extant Khmer orchestras and both are associated with pre-Buddhist animist belief and ceremony. These ensembles include a combination of double reed oboes (pey prabuh), long-necked lutes (chapey), goblet drums (skor dey) and, importantly, vocals (chamrieng).
Traditionally, the pin peat ensemble (which features circular gong-chime sets and xylophones and is structurally similar to the Thai piphat ensemble) was used to accompany the large shadow puppet plays (lkhaon sbaik thom) and traditional Khmer court dance, traditionally performed only by women, in which plays such as the Hindu Ramayana (Khmer Reamker) epic are enacted in long performances. Since the ouster of the monarchy in 1970 and the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, these courtly arts have been relocated primarily to the University of Fine Arts campus in Phnom Penh, but have also been maintained by performers in refugee camps within Thailand and in diasporic communities within the United States. As such, it has become a more academic and aestheticized tradition.
Since the early 1900s Khmer culture was regularly in contact with European and American classical and popular music, both through the French and through cultural interactions with the Philippines. Philippine musicians introduced Khmer artists to American jazz and Latin and other popular dance rhythms. Increasingly, Westernized pop bands have become popular in Cambodian urban centers and occasionally hybrid forms, such as the Thai-Cambodian kantrum style, played mostly by Cambodians living in the Eastern Isan region of Thailand, have generated popular, but localized, bands which often combine electrified Western instruments with folk instruments such as goblet drums and bowed fiddles. The mahori repertoire has in recent decades been modernized and updated to include western influenced vocal styles and is occasionally performed in western band combos. Andrew McGraw