Interview with Liza Lim

This interview took place by email from May-December 1999 and originally appeared on a website edited be me and Christopher Fox. We were both involved in the interview, and asked for other people to send us questions, with Dominik Karski joining in a little later on.

For more information on Liza Lim, please see her website.

James Saunders: Brian Ferneyhough talks of the power of musical extremes to ‘evoke associations with borders, boundaries and whatever lies beyond’. Is this important in your own music? We were thinking specifically of your treatment of instrumental timbre.

Liza Lim: There is a very vivid sense in Ferneyhough’s music of lines of force colliding, creating fields of explosive tension and friction. I think of my own music as rather more ‘viscous’ – boundaries are much less sharply delineated or perhaps, perform differently. One of my preoccupations in exploring instrumental colour is with working with continuously ‘morphing’ timbres – the modulation of sounds through a number of states. For instance, in string writing, a fluid diagonal movement of bow hair against string ‘opens up’ a sound so that its location as a single pitch is ‘liquefied’ into a myriad whistling overtones, irregular noises and whisper sounds. There is a sense (for me) of sound dipping ‘below the surface’, passing through some kind of meniscus and being refracted by this membrane. The idea of a ‘boundary’ then, is not so much a constricting barrier as something permeable, able to be breached in either direction.

JS: This physicality of creating sounds seems to be central to your work. Does it affect your music structurally in any way?

LL: Analysing the behaviour of instrumental and vocal sounds in a distorted state has provided me with some useful models for organising ensembles of sounds and their interactions over time. But aside from structural considerations, another reason for exploring the physicality of how a sound is produced is also to work with the emotional texture of these energies – the different degrees of breathiness as a flautist pulls away from a normal embouchure position, or how one can push a sound to an extreme and then allow it to die away – these actions all have their own sensual qualities.

I also like the sensual quality of the musician’s touch on the instrument before and after a sound is made. For me, in those moments, the performer continues to contact the sound in the elusive zone from where sounds arise and then dissipate. (‘Silence’ is one of those ‘regions beyond a boundary’). This notion of ‘touch’ is actually a central principle in Chinese musical aesthetics, particularly in guqin (zither) music where the tactile and kinaesthetic is considered of equal and interdependent significance to sound. The element of ‘touch’ suggests the spiritual dimension of music beyond its actual physical sounding manifestation. [in music developed as a scholar’s music – played for oneself or more properly, in the presence of ‘the friend’, friendship ideally, meaning the perfectly attuned listener!]. In this spirit, ‘silence’ is thought of as a sensation of both hearing and touching.

These are rather elusive concepts but they are things I want to explore more in an upcoming project (Sept ’99) with Australian video-artist, Judith Wright. The piece is called ‘Sonorous Bodies’ and involves eight video installations and performances by koto player Satsuki Odamura.

JS: This close working relationship you have developed with the musicians you write for, and with Elision in particular, appears to permeate your music. How then does working with performers for the first time affect a piece? Does it perhaps produce a corresponding reappraisal of any assumptions you may have about your work, or ever signal a point of departure for you?

LL: One path that close collaboration with musicians has led me down is that of exploring the irreproducibility of any moment. From 1994-96 I was involved in a number of improvisation/installation works with musicians for whom I’d previously composed pieces (members of ELISION). Instead of ‘writing a piece’ and having control of shaping sound in a detailed moment-to-moment way, these projects were about ‘offering a space’ in which musicians, through a process of listening & attunement, could interact with each another and the environment (often over rather extreme time spans, for instance, 2 hour segments staggered through the night over 7 days to cover sunset to sunrise, or all night performances).

For me, it was really confronting to ‘let go’ of so many aspects of how I’d formerly constructed my identity as a composer. And obviously, it wasn’t the kind of thing that I could have embarked on with people with whom I had no relationship of trust.

After these experiences, the question that arose for me was how, in the context of notated pieces, I could continue to ‘offer a space’ in which musicians could have that kind of quality of attention to the moment. Some of the ways in which I’ve tried to do this include:

Using silences not as points of repose but as moments of heightened attention. Another kind of silence is when an ensemble falls silent to listen to a single instrument.

The use of sounds in a state of continuous transformation is another way of accessing this listening state – very delicately shaded timbres or highly fluctuating sounds require a certain kind of attentive engagement from the player because the limits of the sound are not clearly delineated and require the musician to really work with nuances in or against the ‘grain’ of the sound.

Different kinds of tuning strategies, applying to both pitch and rhythm, ie: the convergence or divergence of these elements.

 I’ve tended to have very positive experiences in working with musicians. The main issue in working with players for the first time is whether there’s enough rehearsal time available for them to absorb this attitude to sound as an unfixed, ambiguous material. Hence my encounters with orchestras have tended to be difficult (but then, this probably holds true for many composers!). Actually, I find it shocking how fragile and easily shipwrecked my music is in less practised hands!

But on the other hand, I’m also interested in the energy that can come out of so-called mistakes or accidents in performance. When the musicians know the music extremely well, these ‘mistakes’ have a very different quality from the ones that occur because of lack of rehearsal or sloppiness. The intention of the performer carries the music through the ‘gap’ but at the same time there’s a kind of ‘peeling back’ of the surface of the music. I’ve experienced at various times the sensation of hearing another world of sound appear beneath this opening. So I’ve found these experiences very valuable and fruitful (they have generated new ideas). It’s one of those paradoxes like needing to journey in order to arrive at the starting point – needing mastery in order to make beautiful mistakes.

I don’t know if I’m answering your question very well! In short, the longer the relationship with a musician, the richer the possibilities.

JS: In the last five years you have been involved in a variety of such collaborative projects, often involving other artists and media. How do you approach this type of project and has your attitude to collaboration changed during this time?

LL: I like what Tom Johnson said in his interview next door, about how working with a text is a collaboration. Collaboration then is an attitude, a framework for interacting with another, whether a person, an environment, an artwork or whatever. I don’t think of collaboration as necessarily meaning working towards a common goal. In fact, all the projects that I’ve done with other artists have evolved through working side by side rather than focussing on a pre-determined outcome. The resultant work, I think, has been more complex, more fluid and polyphonic in its possible meanings than if we had imagined some kind of ‘gesamtkunstwerk’. This way, each artist has the space to make their own work without compromise – the frictions and contradictions that come out of the process are also given space to resonate. And there certainly have been conflicts! – making one’s work is such an intimate thing, collaboration brings out all one’s vulnerabilities. Creative misunderstandings can be useful though (like those mistakes I was talking about). Each project has had a very different kind of dynamic, in terms of the structure and nature of the project, the interpersonal relationships and the context for its performance/reception. I guess over time I’ve developed stronger intuition for the shape of this dynamic which means that I can go with its flow better – ie: be more open to unpredictability!

However, working with Judith Wright has been particularly easy because her working process is all about looking at the resonances surrounding something rather than the thing itself – her work, par excellence, deals with the act of veiling in order to ‘see’ more clearly. So rather than deliberately trying to make equivalences between things, we’ve been taking ‘sideways glances’ at what each other has been doing. The Chinese music aesthetic has provided a notional framework but really Sonorous Bodies is ‘about’ the poetry that arises out of this ‘intensely averted gaze’.

I feel that your work, James, with its very short time frames is somehow also about a ‘disappearing gaze’. With those 10-second chamber pieces and the 30-second orchestral work, I sometimes had the impression that the music was going backwards. I mean, it’s a music that has ‘only just begun’ before it finishes and perhaps in scanning one’s memory immediately after listening to these short (but complete) events, one ends up with an inverted image (through the lens of memory) of the object rewinding back into silence. Is this something you’ve experienced and what other kinds of cognitive ‘sleights-of hand’ have you noticed in composing in this way?

JS:  The idea of a retrospective music has certainly been suggested and, yes, I do think this reflective filtering of experience happens more at that point than during the piece. One of the central impetuses for writing short pieces was a desire to avoid the drift between focussed and unfocussed listening that we normally experience and work with frameworks which ask emphatically for an attentive approach, albeit for a relatively short period. The difference, perhaps, between watching a 100m sprint and a 1500m: in the former each action is proportionally more influential on the potential outcomes than the latter, and this was something I wanted to explore structurally in music. In a short piece, a gesture is timbre, its the note-to-note event, its a relatively large section of a piece, or it may even be the piece. These different temporal planes are in much closer alignment at this scale, and there is a resultant interplay between the ways we might perceive events hierarchically within a structure which interests me. Unsurprisingly, the shorter the piece, the more important timbre becomes structurally and I’m tending to focus more at this level when I’m working. Have you found this issue of scale of importance in your own work?

LL: I know it’s stating the obvious but one of the amazing things about music is how it can suspend, inflate, conflate or accelerate one’s perception of how time passes. All of which comes out of a very complex interaction between how time is articulated and the subjectivity of the listener (who inevitably will have their own individual narrative of intuitive responses). As you’ve said though, durations of less than a minute say, or longer than 2 hours are probably exceptional cases in terms of how one’s listening memory functions. My recent experiences are with the big end of the scale – 14 hrs was the longest of the improvisation/installation projects. Over very long time spans, the issue of stamina comes into play – the performer’s as well as the listener’s. For myself, I found that I was alternating between being very intensely focussed on the minutest particle of sound (the kind of response you were speaking about in relation to very short pieces) to floating in a kind of meditative limbo drifting in and out of the music. By the 9th or 10th hour, I think one becomes very aware of living during the art event (almost half a day has passed) – the idea of ‘form’ is perhaps replaced by a complex of different experiences that one has during the event. All these words seem very clumsy…I want to hand this topic of discussion over to Proust…

I’m interested to know more about your thoughts on how timbre is used structurally. In my short solo/duo pieces, ‘Amulet’ (viola), ‘Philtre’ (violin or hardanger fiddle), ‘Inguz’ (clarinet & ‘cello) & also the pieces for koto, the timbre and the tuning of the instrument is the musical material itself. The pieces are simply a stroking/resonating of the instrument (as if it were a complex kind of gong) as well as an exploration of the bodily relationship between player and instrument. ‘Amulet’ in particular, because of some more unusual bodily actions (wiggly bowing for instance), accentuates the impression that it’s the instrument playing/ acting on the musician rather than the other way round. In a piece like ‘Koto’ (fl/piccolo, oboe d’amore, flugel horn, koto, viola, 2 cellos, percussion [tuned bottles, steel drum, bass drum]), the full ensemble as well as smaller combinations within, act together as ‘meta-instruments’ describing the percussive/attacking and calligraphic/resonating aspects of koto playing.

JS: My reasoning for using timbre structurally stems from a nested view of music, where large scale events can be broken into smaller constituents. Given this approach (and it is only one possible approach), there are I think two alternative ways of looking at a short piece: the information it contains is either fragmented or compressed. A fragmented piece is one which could conceivably have been extracted from a longer piece, whereas a compressed piece is self-contained. If this compressed piece is to be rich in possibilities space needs to be found as, after a point, note-to-note manipulations become too coarse. The possibility of manipulating timbre then, either through controlling playing technique or with electronics, potentially opens this space up to structural organisation at a finer level. I’m not suggesting this is anything new (ask any electroacoustic composer!) or even that it is entirely practicable in instrumental music, but simply that its consideration becomes more urgent in short pieces as a function of the change in scale. In longer pieces as you suggest, there is perhaps more time for timbre to exist as instrumental resonance and be the material in that sense, but with shorter pieces I’m not so sure. How about you Chris?

Christopher Fox: For whatever reason, I’m not conscious of thinking of timbre as in anyway a separable ‘parameter’. The music sounds a particular way because I chose those sounds. But I am fascinated by the way in which our perception of instruments can vary quite significantly if the harmonic context (for example) in which we hear those instruments is radically changed – microtonal harmonies can make our ears believe that they’re listening to different instruments. The string trio in my skin reminded some people very powerfully of an accordion – all to do with the voicing in 1/6 tone harmony…

LL: Yes, that’s very true. Harmony can create a different ‘field of resonance’ for the instruments and the beating from the 1/6-tones would give the accordion sound. Retuning can also powerfully denature instruments, again because it changes the way they resonate. Richard Barrett has done this in very interesting ways in his ‘Opening of the Mouth’. One of the things I’m working with at the moment is an idea of ‘meta-instruments’, ie: constellations of instruments that act together to ‘describe’ an imaginary instrument. The creation of a kind of artificial partial structure for the way it sounds is quite central to establishing an identity for it.

Dominik Karski: I suppose this is more an observation than a question: as a listener, I find that there is an undivided relationship between timbre and gesture in your music, indeed, you are referring to “emotional texture” arising from various ways of sound production. When those elements – namely timbre/gesture, and performance technique – are interdependent, I find it interesting how that can re-discover the “magic” and uniqueness of live performance, when the sound production is not a servant of a composer’s ego, but an object of attention. Would you agree?

LL: I’m trying to understand where this question is coming from and surmise that the comment about ‘composer’s ego’ refers to an experience of composition as strict manipulations of parametric information where the components are highly divisible. I don’t know if it’s got anything to do with ego or not but I guess my work often gets its starting energy from an examination of the nature and ‘theatre of action’ of sounds themselves rather than from more abstract formalisations of pitches and rhythms – but I don’t think the two approaches are mutually exclusive.

DK: If composition is essentially about making choices, I wonder what are some of the things that determine the choices you make while working on a piece, apart from – or with connection to – the physical aspect of instrumental writing. Is there anything which becomes pre-determined before the first note falls on paper, do the conceptual ideas that you mention in relation to your collaboration with Elision, always enable you to “let go” of the control, or do they have an impact on the way a piece becomes constructed? I’m thinking in terms of the difference between knowing quite precisely how the piece will be shaped, and “improvising” on the ensemble to see the outcome when approaching the final double-bar.

LL: Dominik asks the hard questions! My composition teachers always criticised me for ‘wanting to decide too many things’ rather than setting in train systems that would take care of the decision making. Of course ‘making decisions’ is only a means to an end. It’s taken me a long time to find a way to describe the kinds of musical shapes and behaviours that I’ve been working with and I think I’m starting to come closer since writing my opera, ‘Yue Ling Jie (Moon Spirit Feasting)’.

Amongst many other things, the opera’s structure is informed by the poetic and architectural perspectives of the Chinese ideograms of a poem by Li Shang-yin (T’ang dynasty) that begins the libretto. Each of the poem’s written characters can be read as a constellation of images and concepts which together create the meaning of the word. By analysing these components one gains a kind of three-dimensional view of the poem as a complex structure of receding poetic/semantic spaces. Each character in itself is a kind of ‘Chinese box’ containing several possibilities for tranformation both within itself and in relation to the other characters. For instance, in the poem, the ideogram ‘mother’ (a picture of a pregnant woman) occurs in the context ‘mother-of-pearl’, ‘regret’ (images of a heart placed next to [‘pregnant woman+sprout’= swarming]) and ‘sea’ (water + swarming). The component ‘heart’ appears in the poem by itself; ‘water’ appears within words such as ‘deep’, ‘descent’, ‘drown’… I hope this gives some sense of a structure of transforming and resonating shapes.

Another aspect of the structure of the poem (& much classical Chinese poetry) is that each word exists in a fairly fluid state with both weak & strong forces of attraction in relation to every other word. This is what makes translation into English so tricky – English grammar forces you to ‘fix’ meaning, tenses, subject/object relations very much more than in Chinese where several readings of a text can co-exist without separating out.

In the opera, the seven scenes are like individual ideograms with strong & weak links to the others. Within each scene, there are various processes of transformation where materials move through different ‘spaces’ – I thought of these as a series of ‘rooms’ (each room also has a number of ‘entrances’) which could be traversed in a number of ways; or another way of thinking about it could be of a box that opens, convolutes and closes (but not in a mirror/reverse direction) like the calligraphic relationships I described before. Sometimes these ‘rooms’ were strictly defined or relate to some aspects of the libretto (Scene 6 for instance which I composed very quickly because I knew virtually every aspect of its organisation before writing) and at other time I would just see where things led. Having a libretto provide a scaffold was very useful. With the opera, the textual, conceptual and instrumental materials were so rich and suggestive that after a while I felt that I could move fairly freely and always be supported by a coherent (to me) system.

JS: How do you assess different attitudes to new music around the world, in terms of audience, musicians and general cultural importance?

LL: I wish I could be more positive about this than I am. I think at the moment, there is a massive decline in the institutions and structures that have supported contemporary music in the post-war period (in Europe). Festivals, radio stations, ensembles and orchestras are cutting back programmes or folding altogether with scarcer government funding, even in the richest countries such as Germany and France where culture is a high priority. In publishing, as we move further away from the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century, more & more of the ‘repertoire’ composers that have previously subsidised investment in new work are going out of copyright. For instance, at Ricordi, Puccini’s work (d.1924) has reached the end of the 75year copyright period so there will no longer be the huge income of grand rights (10% of the box office) from every performance of his operas. If you think of how many performances (not to mention recorded uses) of Madama Butterfly there are, you can see what an enormous drop in income this means. So all this is shaking up the organisation of the ‘economies’ between publisher/ composer/ performer/ record company/ festival/ radio station etc etc in a really fundamental way.

Of course there are oases of activity which, as you know very well in England, occur almost as miracles and are often dependent on the energies, vision and sheer bloody-minded persistence of particular committed individuals rather than arising from a culture in which contemporary music is widely appreciated.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t an audience for new music. I have had really charged and moving experiences of being in audiences completely caught up in hearing new work. I remember a ‘family’ audience on a Saturday afternoon rapt in attention at an extraordinary performance of Nono’s quartet ‘Fragmente Stille…an Diotima’ in Amsterdam (that was 1987 at the Ijsbreker); also amazing concerts in Paris and Zurich with delirious audiences and then also the feelings of religious rapture with 100 people in a paddock at 2am in freezing conditions in country Australia listening to Tim O’Dwyer improvise for 2 hours.

But I think contemporary music is generally quite remote from most people’s experience. It’s interesting however that most of the composers who have adopted the stance of ‘wannabe pop-stars’ in a scramble for ‘accessibility’ have not succeeded in finding much wider audiences than the so-called modernists. After-all, pop-music does it so much better and has more multi-national dollars behind it for slick marketing and mass distribution.

One of the weird side-effects of pop-culture’s voraciousness however is that in its post-historical soup (anything can be sampled), Lachenmann or Barraqué could just as easily become a cult object as anything else (of course, devoid of its historical context). There’s a record store in Melbourne where CDs of Stockhausen, Xenakis and Cardew sit in a section called ‘ambient noise’!!

In an increasingly visually-oriented world, contemporary music (or for that matter, music of any period) that demands that one really listens (in an active, engaged way for a sustained period of time) will probably have an uphill battle. On the other hand, perhaps there’ll be a revolution in the education of children and a reactivation of a real need for the modes of contemplation, of interactive attention and poetry that contemporary music calls into play.

 

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