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Archive Preserves Ancient Cambodian Music

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Walker interviewing Dharma song expert Ven. Thorn Vandong in Kampong Cham province, during a research trip to Cambodia funded by a grant from Stanford. Video still © Cambodian Living Arts 2008.

A Stanford researcher has recently completed the first in-depth study of an endangered Cambodian Buddhist musical tradition that combines liturgical texts with complex melodies.

The researcher? Trent Walker '10, a religious studies major who was first exposed to the genre while traveling in Cambodia between high school and college.

Mr. Walker compiled his findings in a senior thesis entitled “Quaking and Clarity: Samvega and Pasada in Cambodian Dharma Songs,” which received the David M. Kennedy Honors Thesis Prize and the Robert M. Golden Medal for Excellence in the Humanities and Creative Arts.

“Trent has produced the first ever full-scale study of the Cambodian dharma song tradition,” said Professor Paul Harrison, Mr. Walker's thesis advisor. “The thesis is so good that it would take very little to turn it into a Ph.D. dissertation.”

Meeting the Masters

Mr. Walker, who was raised in a nonreligious family but converted to Buddhism at age fourteen, became interested in Zen Buddhism in middle school while studying Japanese.

“When I was 14, I converted to Buddhism and that filled my intellectual and spritual life.” he said.

After graduating from high school in 2005, Mr. Walker was offered a year-long research internship in Phnom Penh with Cambodian Living Arts, a nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing Khmer performing arts. Following three months of intensive language study in the capital, he moved to the countryside to study Cambodian Dharma songs (also known as smot) under the tutelage of masters Bram Ut and Koet Ran.

“I found myself captivated by their graceful and haunting melodies, unlike anything I’d ever heard,” writes Mr. Walker in the introduction to his thesis, recalling the experience of first hearing dharma songs on a CD.

He details his first experience at a live performance:

Sitting up stoically, Braṃ Ut cleared his throat, and began filling the room with his mellifluous voice. The sweet sound seemed at odds with the striking severity of the verses he sang from “The Hidden Facts of Life”:

Bodies and minds don’t last long
Like all things, they break apart—
Birth then death, death then new birth—
Time and again without end!

Old age creeps up quietly
Bodies and minds soon decay
Thoughts fade away in silence
Nothing can last forever.

Mr. Walker spent the rest of his first year in Cambodia studying and researching Dharma songs, both as a lay student and as a novice monk, becoming the first non-Cambodian to perform in this tradition.

Detail of a traditional concertina-style Dharma song manuscript of the Pali text "Akaravattarasutta" written in Khmer script. Photo © Trent Walker 2008.

Valuable Archive Preserves Ancient Cambodian Music

As a freshman at Stanford Mr. Walker began pursuing religious studies coursework while making time to organize the wealth of data he had compiled on Dharma songs during his gap year. As a rising junior, he received an Undergraduate Advising and Research Major Grant that enabled him to return to Cambodia to conduct further research on Dharma songs for his honors thesis.

Traveling to seven provinces in three months, Mr. Walker interviewed Dharma song masters, invited them to record in Cambodian Living Arts’ studio, and photographed their manuscripts to produce an archive of nearly 50 hours of Dharma song recordings and over 100 texts.

“I hope in the coming years to make this archive available, particularly to people in Cambodia and in Cambodian communities abroad that are really interested in preserving this form or seeing it through its next evolution,” Mr. Walker said.

Professor Harrison described this archive as “a very important contribution to the ethnomusicology of Southeast Asia.”

Unique Scholarship Bridges Buddhist Studies and Ethnomusicology

Mr. Walker's scholarly approach to studying the Dharma song tradition is unique. While most Buddhist studies scholars emphasize textual analysis and most ethnomusicologists focus on musical elements, Mr. Walker incorporates both textual and musical analysis in his research.

In his thesis, Walker focuses on two aesthetic experiences Cambodians speak of in connection with Dharma songs: samvega and pasada.

“The experience of samvega is the experience of aesthetic shock in the encounter with death, with impermanence, with anything that we encounter in life that really forces us to say, ‘Wow, what’s really going on here? Life is short. What do I do with this life?’” he explained. “Pasada is a state of spiritual clarity or settling of the heart, the calm after the storm of samvega.”

By analyzing the musical characteristics of Dharma song melodies, Mr. Walker demonstrates how certain musical scales are associated with texts said to evoke samvega and other scales associated with texts said to evoke pasada. He also analyzes the ritual context of different Dharma song texts and melodies to highlight their relationship to the ebb and flow of samvega and pasada.

Preserving an Endangered Tradition

The Dharma song tradition is in danger of disappearing in Cambodia, Mr. Walker said. 

“Like many Cambodian art forms, the Dharma song tradition suffered a huge loss during the Khmer Rouge genocide in the late ’70s,” Walker explained. “Only a tiny fraction of Buddhist monks remained in robes during this period and less than two percent of religious manuscripts survived.”

The Dharma song masters that Mr. Walker studied with told him that if he had begun his research in 2015 instead of 2005, he might not have had any material to research.

“Cultural change is inevitable," Mr. Walker said, "but this process is exacerbated by rapid globalization in the face of Cambodia’s long recovery from genocide. I hope my work benefits Cambodians and others drawn to the Dharma song tradition.”

Mr. Walker has created the first English-language translations of a number of Dharma songs. His thesis included a CD that features several Cambodian Dharma song masters singing in Khmer along with his own performances in English. 

He is currently a research fellow at the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford, where he is developing his senior honors thesis into a book. He also writes about his work at www.trentwalker.org