17 December 2007
Alchemical Journeys – Part Two: Liza Lim
© Michael Watson
Last month we published the beginning of Jane Gruchy’s interview with Liza Lim about compositional processes, aesthetics and the performance of some of her recent works. This month we publish the second half of that interview.
Jane Gruchy: Thinking of your work The Compass , the piece performed on the closing night of this year’s Venice Biennale, and William Barton, the virtuoso didjeridu player: you actually wrote the chant which opens the piece together, didn’t you?
Liza Lim: Well, I consulted with him about the words, they’re in his family’s language – Kalkadoon, and I also spent time with him looking at didjeridu technique. Didjeridu practice in the north of Australia has a very strong and continuous framework from the past to the present. William comes from a tradition to the side of that, and he’s developing a very contemporary extension of it, marrying his tradition with techniques that come directly from the structure of Indigenous language and contemporary influences including hip-hop, which is about virtuosity of vocal articulation.
JG: The question of the limits of the control the composer has over a work really reared its head for me with The Compass. The first Sydney performance and the European premiere in Munich were incredibly different – ‘Australian Arcadian’ on one hand; pure Mahler on the other. You were composer-in-residence at the Sydney Symphony at the time: did this enable you to influence their interpretation?
LL: Well, you’re reliant on the score and the conductor to speak for you. It has to do with the economics of it – every rehearsal costs. There was interaction on a one-to-one player basis – there are players I know very well having been to college with some of them – but the ways in which it operates as an organisation, as an institution, are very rigid.
JG: How many rehearsals did The Compass have?
LL: Every program that an Australian orchestra does (and, in fact, this is the case throughout the whole world)… every concert program, with, say, three largish pieces, gets four calls. Each call in Australia is two and a half hours, including a 20-minute break, so the orchestra has about 2 hours effective rehearsal time. Just looking at the math: they’ve got 8 hours altogether to rehearse a program of maybe 90 minutes of music; so if your work is a new piece, it’s really lucky to get half of the total rehearsal time (which The Compass got). The other four hours are for some Beethoven symphony and concerto they know backwards, but they still have to play through. So potentially in one rehearsal (again looking at the mathematics), if your piece goes for 22 minutes, it could be played through a maximum of twice with an hour or so to fine-tune things. It’s really a short period in which the orchestra has contact with your language. Most people in the orchestra have had no contact with it and are not that interested in contemporary music; some people are downright hostile. So you see what a diminishing sort of situation it is for dealing with anything new or unusual… and how miraculous it is that anything happens. That’s the bald ridiculous reality of it [laughs].
JG: So you hope to be performed by an orchestra which is at least familiar with your musical language.
LL: Yes, or you hope the orchestra performs it a number of times, and that it gets better and better. That makes it sound really tragic [laughs]. It’s interesting that you say there was a kind of Mahlerian aspect to the Munich performance because that’s to do with the culture of that orchestral sound. It's the signature quality of that particular orchestra, so anything they do is going to be stamped with that quality. Again, I think so much of an orchestra is the mathematics, because if those 25 violinists on the stage are playing very high quality instruments, worth collectively millions of dollars, that will produce a certain kind of sonic quality. Also, with an orchestra, you’re much more reliant on the ‘magical’ aspect of the conductor, who, through sheer force of their personality and charisma, can project the whole shape of the piece and allow the musicians to play inside a coherent musical space…but I learnt a lot during the residency about dealing with massed sound and lushness in writing for orchestra – it’s also great fun as a medium!
JG: You’ve often talked about the choreography of the movements of the performer’s body in relation to the instrument which implies a separation, and consequently a possibility of interaction, radically at odds with the usual idea of the performer using the instrument as an extension of a unified self. Could you elaborate on that?
LL: The whole thing about musicians and classical music training is to make this seamless kind of extension between the body and the instrument, to cover up or minimise any glitches in the performance of whatever it is. It’s targeted towards virtuosity of a certain kind, based on the idea that through repetition one arrives at a kind of perfect virtuosity. So it’s not about failure and where things are breaking down, and actually that’s an interesting area for me – when the sounds are breaking down and you don’t have complete control. I put a magnifying glass on it, and that's the reason why my music is very difficult for an orchestra to play. It’s why some musicians in an orchestra will always become hostile because it goes against the grain of their training. These musicians have spent twenty years, minimum, just to master their instrument – always being told it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough. Finally they’re good enough, they’ve made it and they know their thing, so they don’t really want to confront any kind of musical experience where they don’t know everything about their instrument – that is really very shocking for a musician.
JG: Because you do prepare and alter instruments, don’t you?
LL: Yes, but even things like so-called extended techniques or harmonics on a wind instrument are not part of classical music training, and so that is a place on their instrument they’ve never been before, which is very confronting.
JG: Do you think that there is a specific quality to your music that derives from the fact that you are a woman?
LL: That’s such tricky territory. I think it’s just so difficult to pin down a certain practice to being a man or a woman, though there are obviously composers who would say their practice is very much about articulating a feminist viewpoint in a very highly politicised way. I think, yes, my experience as a woman, my understandings and my body are absolutely part of my creative expression, but it’s not like Woman as in ‘for all women’. It’s much more personal. Actually, I think my experience inside a woman’s body is sometimes expressed in my music in an incredibly blatant way. Sometimes even I get embarrassed by what I think my music is saying about all kinds of things, especially with this current opera about desire, which I think is so in your face.
For me it’s not so much about the male-female thing. The project is always how to become more myself, so, of course being a woman is part of it. That’s the bigger project, though, the life project, isn’t it? How to be more authentically in your present place, how to be more present. It’s the same thing in music: how to be alert yet flowing at every moment, in the way meditation is about an awakening. And that opens up all sorts of possibilities. More of you can come through, whereas when you’re less conscious, it seems that one is controlled by more predictable patternings that ‘speak for you’.
One of my definitions of what music is – or, not just music, art – is that it can make many simultaneous pathways to many perhaps seemingly mutually exclusive parts of yourself. So it’s a kind of integration, and I like the idea that it opens up ways of talking to parts of yourself that you don’t know anything about and things that are contradictory and ambiguous and just don’t add up anyway [laughs]. That’s one of the things that I look for in art, whatever kind it is. So it’s not about packaging something.
JG: I haven’t heard all of your music, only the pieces on The Heart’s Ear CD  and The Compass , but what I perceive as a difference between the earlier pieces and The Compass is probably a sense of power and a sense of joy, and I wonder if that’s related to motherhood?
LL: I think it is. A piece like Mother Tongue  is very clearly about that: it’s notionally about language and loss of language, but it’s also about childbirth and looking for one’s child and a real sort of crying out. It’s very deeply emotional music. I think there was definitely a shift. I can clearly see there’s a type of music up till when I had my child, in 2001. There was the period beforehand – gestation – where I really felt my creative power go somewhere else. The tide really went out a long way, and I wrote a couple of crappy pieces where I just couldn’t get it together. I was just in La-la land. I had my child, and I didn’t do anything for the first year of his babyhood – I didn’t even try to. Then there was that whole thing of trying to rediscover my creativity on the other side, which I think lots of women have. ‘Am I the same person in some way, on the other side of having had a child?’
JG: ‘And if I’m not, have I lost something?’
LL: I feel I’ve definitely gained. You’re dealing with different levels of energy and time and so on. I wrote a piece called Ecstatic Architecture for the LA Philharmonic in 2003, and after that I had a number of commissions from the Festival d’Automne in Paris, who've become this gigantic supporter, and that was really important for me. They commissioned me to write Mother Tongue and a piece called The Quickening, which is again that thing of a woman’s experience, the mother’s first sensation of the movement of the baby in the womb, and then a piece called In The Shadow’s Light. I wrote about an hour + forty minutes of music in a short space of time for this particular festival, and I think that experience really just upped my whole creative energy. I really hit a whole new level, a whole new stride which I’m still working on.
In the space of a couple of years, in addition to the Paris pieces, I also wrote three orchestral works for the Sydney Symphony, a piece for the Salzburg Festival and one for San Francisco – masses of music, just churning it out. Whereas before my son Raph was born, I might have tried to pace myself or manage my schedule more. Once he was born, I had less time, but I was incredibly efficient. I would go and do something with him then I’d have half an hour to spare, so I’d go into my studio and write intensely for that half an hour and then I’d go upstairs. I gained an ability to focus really – everything sharpened, so that has been really exciting, and I really do see this demarcation between before and after his birth.
JG: In The Navigator, the opera you’re working on at the moment, the protagonist is split into two separate but bonded, erotically charged and attracted components: the Navigator and the Beloved. Could you talk a little more about the opera and that aspect of it?
LL: I really see this opera as a kind of alchemical journeying, but also as a play of allegorical figures. This is actually a bit different from how the librettist Patricia Sykes views it, which is interesting. For me, there is this division at the beginning, but they are twins. It’s less and less about the separate man-woman thing, they’ve really become components of the one thing, and the opera is a kind of journeying to find connections in different ways – a journeying through desire towards each other. And at the end it doesn’t wrap up in a clean way, it’s not like they’re coming to this immutable union and ta-dah! …it all ends happily, but they arrive at a place of acceptance in their relationship, and that opens another door, so the journey’s not finished. The final words in the opera libretto are: ‘endlessly/ desire’s tireless valve/ opening/ closing/ opening’. The interesting thing is that it’s only through the process of writing the opera that you learn more about it. I think novelists find this too, they learn more about the characters and situations as they write. You don’t know everything at the beginning, and you still don’t know everything at the end, of course, and I love that – I love that open-ended thing. Years later you might see some other aspect of it and what had once been important to you in your understanding of it changes.
JG: I see there is an electronic line in the score. Is that a new thing?
LL: No, I’ve always had some element of electronic modification in my operas, and the source here is actually some recordings I made for another project, a piece called Glasshouse Mountains I wrote in collaboration with Judy Watson, the Australian artist. I liked it so much I want to use it and extend it.
JG: What are they of?
LL: Things like cicadas and bird sounds and water [puts music on]. This is a recording I made at Beerwah, the ‘Mother’ Mountain. It was mainly insect noise, and this is what it became...this shimmering surface and these shifting harmonics. The Compass was very much influenced by this experience, this larger-scale rhythm. The Compass ends with the overwhelming sound of massed cicada calls generated by the orchestral musicians playing toy tin ‘insect clickers’. The Ancient Greeks talked about cicadas as having once been human but they were so caught up in their desire to sing, they forgot all else and became these pure beings of desire. For me, it’s not only the sound of the Australian landscape and the ‘cosmic time’ that goes beyond human perception, but also evokes a place of pure presence, of a great opening to presentness.
© Australian Music Centre (2007) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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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