June 2015 : VOA interview


I was interviewed by Voice of America (VOA) on being the first female South-East Asian composer to have been accepted and attending the New England Conservatory, and my transition from voice to composition. 


How do you feel about getting into one of the top music schools in America ?


I was very surprised and very happy to get in NEC. I had only taken composition lessons as a minor and this is the result of hard work of course. Coming from a country where music education isn't as developed as in the West, it proves that it doesn't matter what background you come from. There are not a lot of female composers, even less so from Southeast Asia. I was very proud too to be the first female Cambodian composer to get into this school and to be attending the school


You have been singing all your life. But now you are going to major in music composition instead. What makes you choose composition over voice?


When you sing, the music is limited by how you look, how you dress, how people perceive you. When you compose, the music goes directly to the public. They hear the music and they can feel it. I am known for being a singer and for a very long time, I've always thought that I would continue to be one.Singing will always be a part of who I am and I came to the realization this year that all these years were just a very long process to become a composer.

I want to have a PhD in composition and in ethnomusicology. Ethnomusicology is the studies of social and cultural characteristics in music in a global context. Khmer music is rarely transcribed, it is usually played by the ear and transmitted verbally from one generation to another and I want to be able to write and make studies about it by studying with the masters.

We can only innovate if we know perfectly the past and understand the past. New music can only be written in knowing the past. You can’t say you are doing new music or help evolve the traditions if you don’t understand what the traditional music.I need the education that NEC and these western conservatories provide to have to get the skills to write and understand our own heritage.Asian female composers are very rare and those with a background in singing even rarer. I plan to continue to sing but not for the purpose of performance -  for the purpose of composition and ethnomusicology.


When we spoke last time at your high school, Walnut Hill, near Boston Massachusetts, your teachers, classmates and friends praised you a lot. How did the school prepare you for NEC?


I came to the USA with very little knowledge about classical western music and I spent most of my time in Cambodia performing Khmer music. Walnut Hill took my voice to the level of operatic world standards. They train both physically and mentally to become professionals and to get into the top schools in the country. Without Walnut Hill there is now way I would have gotten in these schools or even have the knowledge I have today.

On a more personal level, Walnut prepared me to the life in the USA, understand the education and social system, the mindset, create a network, growing as an adult, being part of a community of artists. I grew as a more mature human being and with more experiences, and Walnut Hill has definitely shaped me to become who I am today.


Do you have plans to come back to Cambodia and give concerts too?


I was planning to be back this July but we could not afford it. Studying in the US is very expensive. I received 50% of scholarship for NEC tuition fees, which really covers only a third of all expenses.My family doesn't have the option of taking out loans and I am a bit anxious about that: managing the time to work for school, my health, going to work to earn money. That’s the cost of acquiring the knowledge and the skills I need to come back and work to preserve our musical heritage. I absolutely want to go back to Cambodia but would need the help of sponsors and my fans to be back. I am preparing a fundraising campaign so hope many of you will support me.


Well, before you go back and do that, can you play something for your fans?


I will perform now with my brother Panhlauv a traditional folk song: O Svay Chanti. It is an “easy song” that everyone knows but I want the audience to hear a change that will happen in the music. We will start the song in a "standard way" and I will finish it in a more modern way, inspired by jazz.what we can do to improvise and make it evolve into American culture in introducing jazz variations.


Anything you would like to tell your fans?


I am entering a new chapter and I would like to thank everybody who has been supporting me for the last 13 years. I would like to thank my teachers for all they have taught me, my family for letting me pursue  what I love despite the costs. For my fans, thank you for believing in me.

What is about to come in the next few years if going to be different from what I have done before and it might not be what you will expect but this is who I am, this is what I love to do. Cambodia will forever be my hometown and my childhood but I am no longer the 9 year old you saw on TV. I'm 18 now, I've changed and I hope you will continue to support me in my dreams of being a composer.