Liza Lim’s compositions are marked by visceral energy and vibrant colour and often explore ritual forms and performance aesthetics from Asian and Australian Aboriginal cultural sources . Some recurring themes in her work include ‘hiddenness and revelation’, ‘violence and meditation’ and ecstatic transformation. Recent projects have been based on the Sufi verse of Hafez exploring a poetics of bewilderment, loss, communion and ecstasy: Tongue of the Invisible, a 1-hour work written for jazz pianist Uri Caine, baritone Omar Ebrahim and Ensemble musikFabrik with text by Jonathan Holmes, and The Guest, for recorder soloist Jeremias Schwarzer and the Southwest German Radio Orchestra. She has received major commissions from organisations such as the Holland Festival, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Festival d’Automne à Paris, Lucerne Festival, Bavarian Radio Orchestra, Salzburg Festival, Donaueschinger musiktage, Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and Pinakothek der Moderne Munich as well as multiple projects with Ensemble musikFabrik, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Ensemble Modern and Ensemble für neue musik zürich amongst others. She has been closely associated with the Australian ELISION Ensemble for over 20 years with many projects exploring extended forms ranging from all-night installation pieces made in collaboration with artist Domenico de Clario to 3 operas: The Oresteia (1993), Moon Spirit Feasting (1999) and The Navigator (2008) performed in Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Tokyo, Moscow, Paris, Zurich and Berlin.
She was composer in residence with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 2005 and 2006. She curated the concert series ‘As night softly falls’ for the 2006 Adelaide Festival of the Arts presenting aspects of South Indian, Yolŋu, Sufi and contemporary European chamber music that celebrate the ‘changing of the light’. Awards include the Paul Lowin Prize, DAAD Artist-in-residence Berlin 2007-08 and Ian Potter Foundation Senior Fellowship. She was appointed a member of the Akademie der Künste der Welt, Cologne in 2012 and curated the music programme for the opening ‘Cutting Edge’ festival connected to the politically-charged subject of circumcision. Since 2008, she is Professor of Composition and Director of CeReNeM, Centre for Research in New Music at the University of Huddersfield. Her works are published by Casa Ricordi (Milano, London & Berlin) and portrait CDs have been released by Hat Hut, WERGO, ABC-Classics and Dischi Ricordi.
[Ms. Lim was very busy, but was gracious enough to respond to my request for an interview with the suggestion that I find appropriate answers to the questions from her blog and quotes from other interviews. D.L.]
What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?
I think there was a point when I was about 11 or 12 where something turned on inside me, or when sound turned me on I suppose, when I thought in terms of sound, I became extremely sensitized to sound, and I think that was a moment where I sort of became a composer, I think that’s one of the things composers are, that the sonic stimulus becomes a means, a prism with which you experience the world, and so the act of composition is a way of understanding the world through sound, and organizing the world through sound. So for me, definitely the sensory experience more than kind of intellectually wanting to organize sounds was really the key.
Looking back 20 or 25 years, more than that actually, of that sort of connection with sound and music, if I was going to choose an adjective to describe the experience that I’m looking for, it’s about ecstatic, some kind of ecstatic experience and transformation, you know where you are inside the sound, you’re no longer separate from it, and I think when I’m writing music and then I’m listening to music, that is the kind of experience that I’m trying to make contact with.
Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work? Has this changed over time?
Well specifically in relation to The Navigator*, the romantic musical elements come from a very specific reference point, which is Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and in fact there is a quotation of the famous motif. In my work I’m actually examining, in terms of talking about quotations, what I’m examining is the way in which that sliding relationship happens. OK, that’s really abstract isn’t it, but that’s how I think about it.
* As of this writing, The Navigator is Ms. Lim’s latest opera, there is a video clip below, D.L.
Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process? What other technology, if any, do you use?
Part of the process of composition for me is asking what doesn’t exist in my music, and why. And so that sets up another set of possibilities, or frictions or things to work with, or against. So can a C major chord be in my music? Can an extremely rhythmic thing be in my music?
So things which may not necessarily have been so upfront in my music, I think are coming out. For instance in The Navigator there are sort of elements of very luscious consonants, and quite romantic harmony sometimes, yes, kind of finding pathways to some of those things that haven’t been in my music, has been quite an interesting exercise as well.
There’s a continuous process of questioning, conscious kinds of turning over of questions when I’m looking at my work. Even if in the process of writing a piece of music I’m not so conscious of what crops up, later on it’s always very intriguing, an interesting thing to hear all the pieces, and go ‘Oh, right, OK. I wasn’t aware at that time of these connections; how can I build on that?’ I think that’s one of the weird things about creating work, is that actually you don’t know everything about it, and maybe only later you are able to recognize certain things. And that’s fine; I actually don’t need to know everything about my work, yes. It teaches me, actually, I think.
Please describe a recent work and provide a link to an audio clip.
Inspired by ancient Greek myth, the Mahabharata and the story of Tristan and Isolde (as told in the Breton folk tale and by Wagner), it also explores desire, war, creation and annihilation. Its structure is built on the in utero development of the five senses, its sexuality or obscure symbolism.
This is an opera about extremity of passion, about Eros and Thanatos, Desire and Death, the gamble of lovers and of war and choices made between annihilation or creation. The prelude to this ‘alchemical dream opera’ is played by a Ganassi recorder, an instrument long associated with lamentation, the erotic, and pastoral and supernatural realms. A counterpoint is provided by the sound of cicadas: a high pitch of desire and the rustle of the quivering feathers of an entrapped Angel of History. The Angel’s gaze takes in landscapes of tidal blood, unwinding rivers, glaciers, a comet, the ocean, the desert, and finally – in a vision of rebirth during which a cicada is placed on the eye of a foetus – the submarine amniotic world of the womb.
The opera is not about narrative form nor psychological development – instead it describes a series of states of being. Musically, I work with this geometry as a kind of template – a ‘pattern language’ in which elements are moving past each other, are momentarily held in tensile balance which also creates some kind turbulence and then the elements continue on their trajectory. Wagner’s famous opening Tristan motif is an example of this ‘pattern’ and I reference it at various points in the opera (though it’s quite hidden).
This is an excerpt from my opera The Navigator (2008): Angel of History aria (libretto by Patricia Sykes, performed by Deborah Kayser, ELISION Ensemble conducted by Manuel Nawri, theatre direction Barrie Kosky, Brisbane Festival of the Arts).