My Name is Mok Bhon

year: 2009    instrumentation: orchestra   
commissioned by: Jack Richards for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
to the memory of: Jack Richards' friend Kong Orn, another victim of the Khmer Rouge purges

I have been haunted by the Cambodian genocide ever since reading Dit Phranís account of his experiences during the Khmer Rouge years, vividly portrayed in the 1984 movie The Killing Fields. More recently Iíve read biographies of Pol Pot by Philip Short and David Chandler. In 1995, at MOMA in New York, I chanced upon a devastating photographic exhibition of selected portraits from the comprehensive collection of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison, also known as S-21, where an estimated 14,000 men, women and children passed through its gates to be photographed, interrogated, tortured and finally executed as perceived enemies of Pol Potís violent, paranoid regime.

In 2007 I was able to visit Cambodia for the first time. I made daily visits to Tuol Sleng to sit among the portraits and to sense the presence of the victims of the brutal genocide. Mok Bhon is but one of these victims. His face is difficult to read, but his eyes burn into me.

What is the lesson of this dreadful history that unleashed an evil that destroyed one in five of the whole Cambodian population? How can such evil exist in a modern world?

Explanations for phenomena like S-21 are embedded in our capacities to order and obey each other, to bond with each other against strangers, to lose ourselves inside groups, to yearn for perfection and approval, and to vent our anger and confusion, especially when we are encouraged to do so by people we respect, onto other, often helpless people. To find the source of the evil that was enacted at S-21 on a daily basis, we need look no further than ourselves.

David Chandler, Voices from S-21

My Name is Mok Bhon uses transcriptions I made of two genres of traditional Cambodian music: a funeral song played by a trai leak ensemble (singer, gongs, drum, gong-chime circle, and double reed sralai), and a plaintive 3-note melody played on the sneng, an instrument consisting of an animal horn with a reed inserted in its side. The performance of this work is accompanied by images I shot at Tuol Sleng, assembled as a video with the expert help of Andrew Brettell.

I am grateful to the following: Sokun for recording his voice for me, Sokha Mey for translation, and Anton Isselhadt for inviting me to Cambodia in the first place. The work was commissioned for NZSO by my good friend Jack Richards, who wishes to make a dedication to the memory of his friend Kong Orn, another victim of the Khmer Rouge purges.

My Name is Mok Bhon was a finalist in the 2009 SOUNZ Contemporary Award.

click here for My Name is Mok Bhon at SOUNZ