Pleng Arak is an ancient Khmer music performed during shamanistic ceremonies to call spirits when there is no rain, or if animals or humans in the region are struck by a disease, or when an important undertaking is planned. Almost extinguished during the Khmer Rouge period (1975-1979) - when music from past eras was forbidden and most of the musicians killed - Pleng Arak is now facing new risks: the rise of modern medicine as well as lack of interest and belief from the younger generation. There are only a few musicians able to play it and fewer opportunities to perform it.
In August 2018, Sébastien traveled to Cambodia to record one of the last bands of Pleng Arak. The musicians allowed him to photograph them and record the thirty-five songs of their repertoire, provided that they will never be shared nor published. Because it is exclusively performed during sacred rituals, listening to this music outside of its original context - besides being inappropriate - could potentially put the listener at risk.
Sébastien deliberately took a step further by making sure that nobody would be ever able to reproduce it. Starting from the recordings’ sonograms - a visual representation of the spectrum of frequencies in a sound - he translated them into ASCII, a character encoding standard for electronic communication but with a limed number of characters: only 0,1,2,3 and 4. The idea was to get as close as possible to a numbered score of a Tro Khmer, one of the instruments used in Pleng Arak.
Numbered score of a Tro Khmer found in ‘Brunet Jacques. VIII. L'orchestre de mariage cambodgien et ses instruments. In: Bulletin de l'Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient. Tome 66, 1979. pp. 203-254.’
Original recording’s sonogram
Encoded sonogram in ASCII
These abstractions were then engraved on tablets made of limestone and sandstone, the most common in Cambodia - earning Khmer people the rank among the finest stone carvers in the world between the 9th and 13th centuries. In this way, Pleng Arak will be preserved and remembered for a long period of time. The first tablet of this series has been stored for eternity in the coal mine alongside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault; a deep cavern inside a frozen mountain on the Arctic island of Svalbard currently holding over 1 million samples of the world’s seeds.
2018-2019. Comissioned by WeTransfer and The Jaunt. With the help of Emily Howe (PhD candidate in Ethnomusicology at Boston University), Rakmsey An (Anthropologist and administrator of the Kampong Thom Department of Culture) and Tola Say (Reporter on youth and culture for Khmer Times newspaper).