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19 November 2007

Alchemical Journeys – Part One: Liza Lim

Liza Lim Image: Liza Lim  
© Bridget Elliot

Composer Liza Lim is well known for her exploration of crossing cultural boundaries and ecstatic transformation as themes in her creative practice. Currently based in Berlin on a DAAD Artist-in-Residency grant (Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst), Liza writes music ranging from operatic and orchestral scores through to site-specific installations – her music having been performed by some of the world's most eminent ensembles and musicians. Writer Jane Gruchy caught up with Liza to chat about compositional process, aesthetics and her recently completed opera, The Navigator. The following transcript is the first of two installments from Jane’s interview.

Jane Gruchy: When did you compose your first piece of music?

Liza Lim: At High School. I was writing pieces for fellow musicians – works for string quartet, and then I wrote pieces for orchestra as well, just because it was there.

JG: How did you become interested in writing as opposed to performing?

LL: It was an extension of performing, of playing the violin, and the school had a program where everyone was encouraged to write music, not necessarily from a classical music notation point of view, but using graphic scores – making up one’s own notation – then performing those pieces in class. So, in terms of music education, I had very early contact with ‘60s avant-garde notation (graphic scores by people like Penderecki) and using different symbols to represent noise. So rather than composition being about the organisation of pitches into melodies and that kind of thing, it really was about taking it to fundamentals. It was about sound and silence, and any sound could be part of it – very much John Cage’s philosophy. So that was a fantastic entrée.

JG: What kind of music were you listening to when you started composing?

LL: A lot of contemporary music: Penderecki, Berio, Ligeti, Cage, and, because I was playing violin in the school orchestra, also the classical romantic repertoire. I wasn’t that interested in pop music. Pop music then was Abba and Sherbert or something, so that kind of bypassed me a bit.

JG: What kind of school was this?

LL: It was a private girls’ school in Melbourne, and I was a boarder as well, so I guess that’s another aspect: music was a place where I could have some privacy; [the school] was a very ordered, controlled kind of environment, you know – a bell for absolutely every activity. Music was a space where you could be alone, be with yourself.

JG: Once you left school where did you go?

LL: I went to the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne. I wanted to do composition, but I ended up doing violin because I sort of fell between the cracks – it wasn’t the kind of course they offered. It was only later that I fitted in – or being a composer fitted a bit better into the college structure – but I pursued music composition on my own and found a private teacher, Riccardo Formosa, who was a very formative influence on me. He was one of a number of Australian composers who went to Italy to study with Franco Donatoni in Siena and Milano and Rome, and brought back this Italian school of thinking about the organisation of sound and aesthetics – the aesthetics of beauty and lightness and quickness – very Calvino really, and Donatoni’s whole approach to teaching was very much this artisan kind of understanding. It was about craft, not so much about whatever your personal kind of expression was going to be, but whether you could manipulate sounds and the elements of structures of music. That was also Riccardo Formosa’s approach, and he was a very demanding teacher. He always wanted to know how this decision fitted into every other decision. You had to justify everything, and I was always struggling with that because one of his constant criticisms was: ‘You’re inventing too much; you’re making up too much new material. Just go with these three notes and derive everything from [them]’. So it was all about paring it down and really creating a lot of structural depth from very minimal material. It was a very useful apprenticeship. I feel it has stood me in good stead because I do have this propensity to invent, invent, invent, and I’m always hearing this voice in my head: ‘Stop inventing!’.

JG: What about working with performers? Did he encourage that?

LL: Well, I guess so, but I was already inside a performance environment. The connection with performers has obviously been really important in my life as a composer. It started at school and then at the College of the Arts (1984-6). I just got groups together and tried stuff out. I think that’s really where you learn as a composer: you get that feedback, the concrete reality of whatever it is you’re trying to put down on paper, and performers are always telling you how ‘this works better’ – or not, or they show you different things about the instrument, and I’m always looking out for new things. I love it when performers will give you some esoteric bit of information like: ‘Here’s this sound, but if you lift this particular finger slightly at this point it makes this harmonic stronger’. It’s the secret life of sounds. I’m always looking for more and more detailed information about the concreteness of sound so that when I write a note on a piece of paper it’s never abstract. When it’s played by a certain instrument at a certain dynamic at a certain pressure in a certain way, it has its own specific quality. So I’m writing more and more with that specific quality in mind; I’m not interested in generic quality.

JG: You’ve worked for 20 years with the Elision Ensemble and you’ve been in on it since the very beginning, haven’t you? It’s been very much a process of collective exploration and development...

LL: …with the musicians. Oh look, it’s every composer’s dream to have a group with their own musicians willing to do anything.

JG: I gather it involves a lot of improvisation and feedback. Does that mean your compositional procedures with them are a kind of workshopping?

LL: Definitely, but it varies from project to project. There’s the kind of project where I’ve written a score and perhaps in the course of it, if I’m working with a really unfamiliar instrument (like, for instance, the Japanese koto), I’ll work with that particular player, but I won’t work at that same level of detail with every single performer in the ensemble. Then I have the experience of rehearsals and performance: again this gives feedback into my knowledge... Another kind of project has been these installation-improvisations where, when I know a performer really well, it’s possible to work in a freer way, where the performers are generating more of the material, and, through dialogue, the music comes into some kind of shape.

JG: Do you tend to work mostly with people you know well?

LL: Ideally yes, so the thing is to know more and more people and work with them again and again. It starts off small so that it’s just the people in your local area, and that can be very local. You know a cellist, say, so you don’t desire to work with a French horn player because there are none around. You just work with who’s there, and then over time you gather more people around that. There’s a leap when other people start to play your music, and that knowledge is potentially transferred through recordings. One of the interesting things I’ve found in the development of the career aspect of being a composer is that the quality of the performance is a very critical part of what attracts people to my music. They hear this something which sounds really alive because of the way it is played and they go: ‘Oh, we want to work with this composer because of this quality’. The reason it sounds really alive is because everything is so finely shaped and nuanced, and so you’ve got to transfer that information to the next group of people, but it gets easier and easier.

JG: Is the notation the means of doing that?

LL: It’s the notation; it’s through recordings; and it’s through an overall development of the practice in the field. I’m not the only one making this kind of exploration in sound; there are many, many others. And I think there are many, many more (especially young) players now who inhabit this particular kind of performance technique. It’s just not a question. It’s so easy for them, and they understand the language in a way that just wasn’t there even ten years ago in Europe and definitely not in Australia. So it’s very interesting to see that happen. It really shows that any obscure activity now has a global reach – communication has become so accelerated. What one person achieves in Iceland, say, can become known very quickly because they send it out to two people they know and there’s that multiplier effect. More and more you see that this global network really exists, and it gives me a lot of hope, because you’re doing something, which, in the scheme of things, is really a tiny niche, but it has its own world.

JG: One thing I was curious about in relation to your notation, having heard so many stories about your walls covered with sheets of paper – plans, maps, the work itself: does the notation ever lead you places?

LL: Oh, definitely. Yes, I think writing systems radically change the structures of languages.

JG: So there’s a big visual component?

LL: Well, it’s not just that it’s visual; it’s what a visual memory system can do for your sense of structure. Just as the written word is different from the structures that are developed in oral cultures – where repetition is necessary to enable you to remember things and to follow a story, when you write music down it can become another thing. It objectifies something, and it enables you to turn it round in a very abstract way. I think that’s the genius of writing, and it’s the same process with music – it allows you to objectify, to symbolise your musical concept. The final result can be sound, but the work also exists within this symbolic world. And the process really promotes abstract mathematical thinking. You can see the visual shape of something, and once you have that it allows you to turn ideas upside down, expand, contract. Bach’s counterpoint is very much a product of notation, whereas improvising leads you in a different direction – it’s not so much about the precision of manipulating the material.

JG: You’ve spoken about the creative process as one in which you put a whole series of things in place, then once they're there, the doors around the solar plexus open and out comes the music.

LL: [laughs]. Yes, I suppose that is where it comes from.

JG: What are the things you put in place?

LL: Well, I suppose outlines of the potential shape of something, so we’re talking about form. Perhaps reference points, like: ‘I want to move from this particular region to another’. Very basic kinds of things, but I must say: I predetermine less and less now. I think because I’ve been composing for so long, I don’t feel the need to write it down in order to remember it. That actually was my breakthrough with the trumpet solo [finished the day before]: that I could remember so much more information and manipulate it in my mind.

JG: You manipulate it in your mind as sounds or is there still a visual aspect to it?

LL: Both. It’s a bit like a chess game – you make a move, and then there are all the potential moves or pathways down the track, ten moves, twenty moves away. So I’ve got a particular little fragment of music, it could be a little melodic thing or …

JG: Do you often work from melody?

LL: No, melody’s a later stage. It’s more like a gesture – the feeling of taking a vibration in a certain direction. For me, that’s the really basic thing. So with a trumpet solo you’ve got a note that’s held for a certain time and then it starts to…move around [laughs] and just those two things already suggest a whole world – relative stasis and the beginning of this movement. What’s the proportion between them? What’s the speed of the unfolding? If you make the stasis longer it creates more tension or it can decrease tension or… There are so many variables. So, in terms of what I was saying about memory, when I started as a composer, I would perhaps write down all the permutations and all the rhythmic possibilities I could derive from the little figure. Now I find that I can actually project that in my mind.

JG: And do you project it visually or aurally?

LL: Both. But the visual is really important. I think the visual is the mnemonic aspect, the memory aspect. And now I have a stronger ability to translate between physical gesture, notation and sonic outcome. That’s why it feels really free, because I go: ‘Okay, I’m making this movement, but I want to hesitate here for a moment’. It’s very….

JG: …pictorial and choreographic.

LL: Yes. Or: ‘this is a moment where it breathes more or it contracts more’.

JG: Always coming back to the body.

LL: Yes, but then being able to translate that onto a more abstract symbolic level via the visual and being able to see where that might be two minutes down the track. So I’m always flicking between possibilities: I’ll choose one and start making a movement towards that, but then other possibilities are opening up, so I might decide to go another way instead and drop the first idea, but maybe keep it in the back of my head to use later. So there’s a continuous dialogue with all of that.

JG: And the focus of attention is absolutely at the micro-level.

LL: Yes, this is very much the topic, isn’t it? [laughs]… But that’s what makes it not generic, I think.

Further Links

Subjects discussed by this article:

Jane Gruchy works in the film industry and lives in Umbria, Italy. She is the oldest violin student at her local music school.


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A voice

Lovely to see the voice of Liza, I'd like to think I was her Counter-tenor of choice & have learned SO much from this extremely talented composer. Being a Guiniepig from the VCA days we all knew Liza's achievements would be noted!!

Lovely article, Thanks