Art in Cambodia — The Search for The Sounding Room

GUEST BLOG POST

James Russell Fritsch, Label Manager for Public Guilt and Deadverse Recordings, went in search of The Sounding Room in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He shares his love of music and art with us…

When trying to find a hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I found the Diamond Palace. The price was affordable and it was a 20 minute walk away from the center of town which had many of the cities famed sites (Royal Palace, National Museum, Wat Ounalum, and the beautiful riverside.) One of the customer reviews stood out in my mind,”Nice room, breakfast is okay. The problem is the location. You have to pass by a really terrible slum area which clouds your vision. Hard to believe people can live in such squalor. I would not stay here again because of that.” Upon arrival, I passed the building on a few occasions and took note. While it was old and crumbling, it also reminded me of parts of my hometown, Baltimore.

While eating noodles in a small restaurant, I met a Nina, a Swedish college student who was studying in Phnom Penh. We talked about art and music and I expressed my desire to find current, underground art in different cities as I traveled. She told me about a gallery space in “The White Building” and it’s current show, The Sounding Room. I searched twice for the space, giving the address to drivers to only be dropped in front of other galleries or simply to have them give up. On the third day, I trekked out on foot and discovered that “The White Building” was the “really terrible slum area” that I had passed by for several days in my search.

The White Building, home to the Sa Sa Arts Project and The Sounding Room.

The long building (which is located in an alley situated diagonally from one of the main roads) is lined with small food carts, playing children and residents enjoying the air. I climbed the steps between the fourth and fifth buildings to the second floor, passing playful cats and local residents who seemed confused by the presence of a “tourist” in their housing complex. In the center of a dark, unlit hallway, I found the Sa Sa Arts Project, a multi-use performance, event and art installation space run by a group of Phnom Penh artists who also maintain another gallery (Sa Sa Bassac) in the center of town.

The Sounding Room name in both English and Khmer, the national language of Cambodia. In the foreground a wind-chime like instrument which can be played by manipulating the metal rods hanging from the oil drum. Against the wall, a series of square aluminum pipes that are cut to different sizes to creates different notes. Due to the loud volume created by striking these with metal mallets, this instrument is not amplified.

The Sounding Room show is a collaboration between two arts organizations, Sa Sa Art Project (based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia) and Incidental (based in Bristol, UK.)  The instruments were created using contemporary objects (pieces of metal, oil drums, steel rods, etc) and were designed to mimic traditional Cambodian instruments. Through the use of contact microphones (similar to a pick-up on an electric guitar,) the sounds are amplified within the room through a sound processor and several large speakers. In both Khmer (the language of Cambodia) and English, suggestions for how to interact with the space were written on the wall:

“Listening is as important as playing.

Respond to what is happening around you.

Keep things simple.

Take your time.”

The visitor is encouraged to interact with other participants in the room and with the sounds themselves, some of which are be altered through effects such as delay or echo. The “artwork” is not only the instruments themselves but the interaction between the visitor and the objects.  Experimentation is encouraged, and you do not need to have a musical background to join in and appreciate the space.

Eight strings each tuned to a different note that may be struck with small bamboo sticks or plucked with fingers. The vertical bamboo pieces acting as a bridge for the strings may also be struck as well, creating a very nice percussive sound.

Amplified chalk board. The rhythm of writing becomes the music. The scraping sound of chalk on the board becomes the tone. Changing the amount of pressure you apply to the chalk changes the tone of the sound.

I was greeted by Ravuth, one of the founders of the Sa Sa Arts Project. He welcomed me and handed me two mallets fashioned from metal rods with soft ends created by duct tape and fabric. I moved around the room slowly feeling out each instrument, before hovering over the ones I enjoyed the most. One other person (The Traveling Teacher) was in the space with me. I listened to her sounds and tried to interact with them. Rough rhythms emerged and a few melodies found their way into our play, but the play itself was more important. Sa Sa Arts hosts weekly open “jam sessions.” Unfortunately, my timing did not allow for me to join one. I would have loved to spent time in the space with more people participating.

The Sounding Room was the highlight of my time in Phnom Penh. I am glad I met Nina and learned of it’s existence. I would have never imagined that the “slum area” I read about weeks before my arrival would be home to such an incredible experience.

Suggestions in Khmer on how to interact with The Sounding Room.

For more information about Sa Sa Art Projects, Incidental, and The Sounding Room, please visit: www.sasaart.info, www.theincidental.com/blog, www.thesoundingroom.blogspot.com