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16 March 2016

Liza Lim's Tree of Codes and the ephemerality of life

One of the bird costumes for <em>Tree of Codes</em> Image: One of the bird costumes for Tree of Codes  
© Massimo Furlan

Liza Lim's new opera Tree of Codes is about to receive its world premiere in Cologne, Germany on 9 April 2016. In this interview, Lim talks about her libretto, based on several literary sources, her approach to story-telling, and how the close collaboration with trusted musicians - of MusikFabrik, and ELISION - continues to influence her work.

Anni Heino: Your forthcoming opera Tree of Codes is full of layers of meaning and intertextual detail - the starting point of the libretto alone is unusual: Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer is a kind of literary sculpture, in which the writer-sculptor has, literally, cut and carved words out of an earlier literary work, Bruno Schulz's collection of short stories entitled Street of Crocodiles (the title, created by cutting out letters from the original title, is a case in point). You've also included work of Goethe, and Michel Foucault, in the libretto that you devised yourself. How important, in the end, are these literary sources? The fact that there are many and they have been combined or substantially reworked could suggest that part of the idea has been to liberate the composer - yourself - from being a slave of a single text?

Footage from the Three of Codes rehearsals in Cologne (Youtube).

Liza Lim: Slavery? Liberation? Those are not my coordinates. It was simply fun to work with the texts and shape the libretto myself. The world of Bruno Schulz, out of which Jonathan Safran Foer created his book, is so multi-faceted - one could read and cut out many new stories from it and, in a way, that's what I also did, in addition to using Safran Foer's choices. Safran Foer comments that dealing with it was a bit like working with the kabbalah - every combination of letters and words gives rise to new meanings. I actually wrote a work for Ensemble Modern, called Street of Crocodiles (1995), as a response to Schulz's fiction as well as a response to the magical production I saw based on it, presented by Simon McBurney's Théâtre de Complicité at the Sydney Festival way back in 1993. So actually I've had ideas at the back of my mind for an operatic or theatrical work based on this for 20-odd years! But certainly, it was seeing the incredible 'cut-out' structure of the Safran Foer book, where one can read through several layers of pages, glimpsing a changing architecture of words and meanings, that really blew me away when I bought the book at Christmastime in 2010, and I immediately proposed the idea of doing an opera to Ensemble MusikFabrik.

In terms of the other texts in the libretto, Goethe's Der Erlkönig is referenced by Schulz so that's why that's there, and my elaboration of a section about madness drawing on Foucault's work also came out of the reading of Schulz.

AH: There is an outline of a plot to do with a son who idolises his father, then witnesses his downfall. There are mythical elements such as two-headed birds, and some parts of the music have slightly old-fashioned titles suggestive of storytelling - 'ballad' and 'a boat song' - is the telling of a story important for you? Or is it less about a linear story and more about ideas, and about creating a space?

LL: Different parts of the opera play with song conventions: they might start out with a familiar element, which then becomes something else. Actually, there's a lot of 'song' in the opera - much of the writing for the baritone and soprano is highly lyrical but, at times, this lyricism gets turned on its head and inverted into something darker.

Act 3,'Ventriloquism', comprises two big ballads. Adela's ballad begins as a kind of triple-time lullaby accompanied by the plucked sounds of the kalimba (thumb piano). There's innocence in the way she sings 'Let me tell you a story' where you think 'uh-oh', and in the retelling of a fairy-tale, the story becomes stranger and stranger (mutated two-headed birds made of rubbish etc) unfolding into a nocturnal landscape with the sounds of frogs and insects that eventually rasp out Goethe's horrifying lines from Der Erlkönig - about the Son who cannot be kept safe by the Father. Then there's a weird sea shanty for the Son, accompanied by a solo bassoon - a rocking boat song that talks about madness, about death as a masked animal, the soul without compass in an abandoned craft, lost and at the mercy of the sea.

The story telling is important but yes, there are multiple stories in there that are, for me, about opening up an emotional or psychic space. I'm hoping different people will see different things, plug into different aspects of the stories depending on their frame of mind at the time.

If there's a 'story', it is about the basic ephemerality that attends our lives and our deaths and a longing for intensity, iridescence, for epiphany.

The last words in the libretto are:

Why did you not tell me?
the last secret of the tree of codes:
nothing reaches a definite conclusion.
Reality is only as thin as paper
behind the screen,
sawdust in an empty theatre.
there we feel possibilities
shaken by the nearness of realization
I wanted a night that would not end.

These words remind me of Prospero's 'insubstantial pageant'…everything is a dream that dissolves, yet still we reach out and try and touch some splendour.

AH: The action in this opera takes place in an undefined world outside of time, outside of any known worlds, fictional or real, where living creatures, dead matter and non-living machines morph. You're creating a space unlike any other, where anything is possible and rules are bent - why?

LL: Just as the book 'Tree of Codes' is made up of a patchwork of spaces through which one can see different parts of the narrative so that present and future collide, the opera is also made up of different kinds of time zones. I had this idea to make a work in which there are holes in the world, through which one might encounter multiple realities. There is the primaeval time of birds, with which the work begins - which is not really natural but a manufactured hybrid world of bird-like humans and human-like birds existing in some strange laboratory. There's a nostalgic nod to a burlesque carnival world, of masks and floating desires where identities are tried on, discarded, reclaimed, or repurposed. In a suspended zone, there's the central character of the father (played by an actor), who is dead but doesn't know it. He tries to create reality, conjuring things out of rubbish. He commands with gestures but he doesn't speak; others speak for him so he's like a puppeteer who is himself like a ventriloquist's puppet.

AH: You are obviously very interested in detail - I'm thinking of the carefully thought-out and specified playing techniques and the fact that, as opposed to conventional brass instruments, you've composed for a double bell horn, trumpet, trombone and euphonium. How important is this degree of control for you as a composer?

LL: Where I have a chance to work closely with a performer, I like to explore performance techniques that are about very changeable conditions of touch, pressure, speed, etc., to produce a lot of different colours. This approach is much more specific to a performer and requires rather sensitive navigation of the instrument. It may result in more detailed notation but not always - the reason for working in more detail is not so much about control but about finding ways to arrive at some special expressive world.

AH: I'm guessing that the 'specifications' regarding instrumentation, performance technique etc. have to do with your very close working relationship with MusicFabrik, in the same way as a big part of your earlier work has been to a certain degree composed specifically with ELISION's musicians in mind.

LL: The instrumentation of the opera was determined very much by the musicians of Musikfabrik - the brass players (Marco Blaauw, Christine Chapman, Bruce Collings, Melvyn Poore) were keen to involve the double-bell instruments of trumpet, horn, trombone, and euphonium that they have developed, and the opera exploits the double-voiced capacity of these instruments. There is a strohviol played by Axel Porath, visually connected to the brass with its amplifying horns, and this was chosen to evoke a nostalgic lost world. There are various pairs of instruments at different sizes - a beat-up and out-of-tune upright piano and a little toy piano; piccolo flutes and then the really huge subcontrabass flute played by Liz Hirst. With the musicians on stage, one becomes aware of their hybrid nature: the instruments are like prosthetics to their bodies and overall there's a strong thematic thread around ventriloquism and double identities found at both sonic and visual levels. The musicians on stage are not only playing, but also vocalising and singing as a choir and they form part of the crowd of characters that inhabit the laboratory, the city, the stage.

AH: Do you ever worry about if, or how, your work can be taken up by other musicians and how it will go on to live in the repertoire?

LL: I don't really think about making work in those terms… though possibly my publisher does! (Actually, they've never tried to dissuade me from writing for unusual combinations, or for non-Western instruments.) The musicians I usually collaborate with are pretty interested in work that opens up a new view of their instrument.

And it sometimes surprises me which works of mine are taken up more widely - these perhaps have some hurdle in terms of the instrumentation or have technical challenges.

A good case in point is the 'cello solo Invisibility (2009) which I made for cellist Séverine Ballon, a member of ELISION. It uses a prepared bow - the 'guiro bow' that John Rodgers developed in his magnum opus Inferno. You'd think that a piece requiring this bow, which has the hair wrapped around the stick, as well as a standard bow, both of which are also used simultaneously, one in each hand, wouldn't get too many outings. As it is, Séverine has played the work about 70 times, recorded it twice for CD and continues to play it regularly and from memory (next time is on 28 March in Los Angeles). And in the meantime, I know of eight other cellists, ranging from Australian musician Judith Hamann to others in the United States and Europe, who have played the piece, most of them a few times as well. The cello solo was the basis for a large orchestral work Pearl, Ochre, Hair String (2010) which has been played in Munich, Perth, Glasgow and Berlin and, each time, the section leader cellist, who also has to use a guiro bow, hasn't had a problem with it. And then, by contrast, a piece I wrote for straight solo piano, without preparation or any super-difficult technical challenges, doesn't get played that much… One just never knows, so I think it's better to just go for the idea that really grabs you.

AH: How does this music of Tree of Codes relate to your earlier operas - is there common ground, particularly musically?

LL: There are probably more consonant elements in this new opera and, in this regard, it picks up on some of the choral elements that are found in my previous opera The Navigator. At the end of Tree of Codes, everyone is singing - the soloists and the musicians. All the musicians are on stage, acting as well as playing in the production, so this singing, a kind of nakedness of sound where all props fall away, is the culmination of the way the opera tries to dissolve the boundaries between things.

Further links

Tree of Codes - Oper Köln website - world premiere 9 April 2016, performances also 12, 14, 18 and 20 April
Liza Lim - AMC profile (biography, works, CDs, articles)
'Tree of Codes, "cut-outs in time" - an opera' - background notes and links to libretto and other resources on Liza Lim's homepage


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