Texts, photos, videos: © Patrick Kersalé 1998-2020, except special mention.
The fretted zither is the most improbable reconstruction among all the Angkorian musical instruments. But, some sculptures show musicians with playing positions different from those of the double-resonator zither.
1/ The upper resonator is no longer pressed on the chest but placed over the shoulder.
2/ The instrument is longer.
3/ Both hands are represented in the center of the instrument, which does not allow the right hand to play the harmonics.
It's what we are thinking that two different zithers were played during Angkorian era: one unfreffed (also called by us "double-resonator zither") and another one fretted.
The two bas-reliefs opposite show the same type of zither, one seen from the front (1), the other in profile (2). On the latter, the lower part of the neck is raised. This is the place where the strings are attached. Moreover, we can see, at the top of the zither, what seems to be a tuning peg. It will be noted that despite the depiction of the image, the sculptor has represented this detail.
If one takes into account both the length of the handle, the point of anchoring of the resonators, the playing position in which the upper resonator is no longer resting on the musician's chest, hands close to the center and no longer at either end, it may be supposed that these instruments had touches or frets.
The fretted zither appeared around the 10th century in India (3-4). At that time, harps and lutes gradually disappeared, leaving the field free to develop a variety of stick and tube zithers.
If one compares the iconography of the zithers with frets of ancient India, it is clear that the position of the right hand differs because it is no longer necessary to generate harmonics with the string but simply to scrap it.
Touches and strident sound device
A single-resonator zither with touches has perpetuated continuously among ethnic minorities in the border areas of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. It has two strings — one melodic, the other one used as a drone —, a gourd resonator and truncated touches made of wood or with spines of kapok tree whose end has been cut. In some of them, there is a device providing a strident sound and an extension of the resonance duration. It is a small piece of thread or a thin bamboo tongue inserted between the rope and the bridge. This device already existed on the monochord zithers of ancient India. Another system consists of a rectangular piece of ivory or cervid horn; the thickness and curvature of the surface vary. It appears as early as the 6th c. on the reliefs. Numerous iconographic testimonies attest to its perpetuity over the centuries and musical treatises describe this element.
We have included the strident sound device in the reconstitution of our fretted zither. It exists also on kropeu and takhê zithers.
Ekatantri tube-zither of India (10th c.). Note the resonator at the top of the instrument, the small piece across the base of the string(s) to generate a aesthetic sought vibration and lengthen the duration of the sound. We also see, on the left hand, a stick that the musician slips along the rope in substitution for the digital game. Note also the characteristic position of the right hand playing on the harmonics of the string(s). Many of these details are absent in the Khmer sculpture.
Detail of a relief of the time Pala. Coll. Privately.
In comparing iconography with contemporary gaming positions, it can be seen that there is no standard for keeping the instruments. There are as many rules as there are musicians. A great wealth and a tremendous freedom in our world in full standardization!
It is interesting to compare both the position of the resonator on the stick and the holding of this instrument with that of the Êdê and J'rai.
Temple of Mahabalipuram, the descent of the Ganges, India. 7th c.
Brok zither. Kreung. Cambodia
Modern takhê zither
The existence in Cambodia of the takhê zither constitutes another element that could support the argument of the former existence of an ancient fretted zither with gourd resonators. This zither is acoustically more powerful thanks to its voluminous sound box. The world history of musical instruments is a quest for ever more sound power.