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30 August 2016

Travels in hyper-reality

Liza Lim Image: Liza Lim  

Liza Lim writes about her life as a traveller-artist, and her new works, born out of encounters during these travels. How Forests think for sheng and ensemble will be premiered by Wu Wei and the ELISION Ensemble, conducted by Carl Rosman, on 3 September at BIFEM - Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, with other performances to follow in 2016-2017 in Zurich, the UK, Melbourne, and Shanghai. Ronda - The Turning World will be premiered by Ensemble Modern in Frankfurt in February 2017, with performances planned for Berlin, Sao Paolo, Rio de Janeiro and Salvador da Bahia. This article was originally published on the composer's website and is reproduced on Resonate with permission. More BIFEM and other performance links further down.

I have criss-crossed multiple time zones in the last six weeks: Melbourne - Shanghai - Melbourne - Beijing - Melbourne - Salvador da Bahia - Melbourne - the constant bead in this roaming necklace is home in Australia, with each contrasting pendant ever more distant, strange and colourful. It is a privilege to be invited to travel for one's work, and if there's one thing I've learnt as a traveller-artist, it's how to be a guest. To be a guest is to be invited into someone else's home, and I have experienced the most wonderful hospitality from my hosts at the Shanghai Conservatory, at Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music and from the Goethe-Institut in Salvador da Bahia.1

To be a guest is to practice the etiquette of receptivity, open and empty enough to take in what is offered. To be a guest in strange lands where one doesn't speak the local language is to have the opportunity to open up to other kinds of signals. When the lenses and senses one usually uses for seeing and understanding things go wonky or become more-or-less useless, one has to develop new attunements.

One of the pleasures of this kind of travel for me comes from switching my attention away from what people 'say' to how people 'are'. A whole other level of information is uncovered. That hyper-attention to non-verbal communication is, for me, akin to musical attention - I listen to the expressive qualities of timbre and timing, to the improvisatory flow of people coming in and out of alignment, and take heed of the micro-cues that precede actual speech or action.

The Spinning World

In Salvador da Bahia I became attuned to the city's dense sonic fabric of drumming, singing and high-keyed voices. One of the most memorable audio experiences I had was in a careening taxi with its radio blaring out a virtuosic barrage of vocal articulation - a mash-up of sports commentary, evangelical outpouring and advertising spiel punctuated with abrupt fragments of cheesy electronica. The composer Daniel Moreira commented that 'life in Salvador has a continuous soundtrack' and the nature of this soundtrack perhaps expresses some essence of a Brazilian poetics of sound.

Sound is experienced as multi-dimensional, spatially dynamic phenomena. It is not frontal or presentational in its acoustics but highly immersive, circulating and generative in its relations - and here I recall ethnomusicologist Jason Stanyek's evocative descriptions of capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian dance-like martial arts form as an inside-out, upside-down spinning world that is an ultimate expression of brasilidade (Brazilianness). Capoeira is played within a roda - the living circle of the group, within which participants spin and wheel in stylised combat. Stanyek says the roda is 'typically conceptualized by capoeiristas as being a kind of world in miniature', and quotes Danielle Goldman: 'the world making potential of improvisation involves the ability to make new spaces, to create and form one's surroundings continually, as one would wish them to be'.2 Another striking example of the world-making circle in Brazilian culture can be found in Candomblé rituals where the danced and sung circle is the powerful dynamo for opening portals of communication between the human and spirit worlds.

Candomblé ceremony, Terreiros of Nilza Maria da Silva Rodrigues, 31 July 2016.
© Liza Lim

Sound and movement weave circles within circles and it is a small step to connect this Brazilian poetics to the work of Walter Smetak, composer, cellist, philosopher and instrument builder who made Salvador da Bahia his home from 1957 to 1984. I was able to spend time at the Museum Solar Ferrão that houses the 150-plus instruments invented by Smetak. My research there was part of a project supported by the DAAD Künstlerprogram and Goethe Institut to integrate Smetak's instruments into new compositions written for Ensemble Modern to be performed in Germany and Brazil in 2017.

Walter Smetak conceptualised the world as polarities of energy flowing across and spiralling around axes of evolution, and he built his instruments or plásticas sonoras (sound sculptures) to express his complex symbology of spiritual relations. At the museum, I was immediately drawn to several of his rotating kinetic instruments: the impressive Máquina do Silêncio or Machine of Silence; the Três Sóis and particularly to the Ronda which Smetak called 'a carrousel producing sounds'. Rather like Stockhausen's insight into the unity of pitch and rhythm as a function of time3, Smetak says, 'It is the slow turn that sets the rhythm. It creates intervals. At a faster speed, the instrument does not allow us to perceive the intervals, forming a melodic line. At an even faster speed, we only hear harmonies, because the rotation is so fast that we hear many strings at the same time. We thus can conclude that rhythm, melody and harmony depend on the speed of rotation. They are three elements in one that depend on speed.'4

Máquina do Silêncio (left); Ronda (right, foreground) and Três Sóis (background).
Instruments from the Smetak Collection of the Museum Solar Ferrão.
© Liza Lim

In these instruments with their rotating microtonal melodies of high and low pitches, rhythms of alternating near and far dynamics, and harmonies of noise and tone, I hear access points whereby I can process and express my experiences of a city's sonic simultaneity, its circulating spatiality and heady polyphony of life.

How Forests Think

While in Brazil, I was able to bring my most recent work, How Forests think to completion. Somehow it seemed fitting to be composing the final part of the piece in a place that has the largest and most bio-diverse rainforest on the planet.

How Forests think reflects on the work of anthropologist Eduardo Kohn who writes about forest ecologies as the 'living thought' of human and non-human selves.5 Each of these selves may have its own subjectivity, creating the world with its own registers of knowledge, sensation and meaning. These selves organise into communities: in ancient forests, a stump may be kept alive for centuries by the surrounding trees through underground fungal networks that nourish the old connections and keep a song going. One might think of a forest as a choir or certainly as an ensemble. Stories, dreams and thoughts inhabit multiple forms in a living matrix; they ask us to look beyond our limited human gaze and limited human time-span.

How Forests think is music made from assemblages of instruments whose qualities are like tendrils looking for places on which to clasp and entangle themselves. Its forms are emergent, like plants growing toward light and water; like mycelial strands entwining with tree roots in a co-evolving internet of plant-life. The music emerges out of criss-crossing conversations patterned like roots, vines, fungal networks; or like airborne, insect and animal-borne cross-pollinations (the breath, the buzz, the scratch, the love songs), where one thing looks for best fit with another. Larger forms grow out of this forest of associations in which difference moves from the individuated to the general and into new instantiations. The music 'thinks' into the future through processes of amplification (towards distortion or simplicity) and through affinities that bridge difference.

Wu Wei playing the sheng. See: sheng fingering chart.
© Liza Lim

In writing the piece, I had the privilege of working with the Chinese master musician Wu Wei who has been key in the development of the sheng as a 37-pipe instrument for contemporary music. The sheng is an instrument with a 4,000-year-old lineage and a rich cultural symbolism that associates it with the phoenix, the mythical bird that rises from the ashes of its own funeral pyre.

The instrument's cluster of bamboo tubes is activated by the musician's breath that vibrates internal reeds. Extraordinary for me is that the many techniques for creating fluttering and oscillating sounds can be produced on both the out-breath and the in-breath. This flexibility of sound production is simply impossible to achieve on standard Western wind and brass instruments.

In the case of the sheng, the musician can create a rare breathing unity between this sounding object and their own body and there is something intensely organic about how breath and reed and bamboo pipe interact; in how the actual point at which pipes flower into sound is not completely predictable. The aesthetic beauty of the instrument lies in this fluid relation between breath and response.

The work is made up of four sections: I Tendril & Rainfall; II Mycelia; III Pollen; and IV The Trees.

At various points in the work, the music enters into a more improvisational space where patterns of breath are intensified - at the end of 'Mycelia', bass flute and alto saxophone musicians are asked to 'tell a love story' by vocalising through their instruments. In 'The Trees', the score is made up of 'islands' of text instructions and musical notation where the placement of events relies on the musicians' awareness of their own and of the ensemble's breathing. The intention is to create conditions for patterns of responsiveness and receptivity to emerge from the group.

Excerpt from How Forests Think, Mvt IV, bar 20, Ricordi Berlin, SY.4484/01. Larger view.

In the music, one is listening to living things breathe; one hears the unpredictable rhythms of rain falling and a trace of the wind in the trees. Neither the wind nor any weather, nor growing things can be completely controlled, contained or resisted - there is a tempest of forces that dwells in the forest. That tempest is also a song in us.


1) My thanks to Wen De Qing, Wu Wei, Chong Kee Yong (Shanghai); Qin Wen Chen, Lee Tingfei, Wang Qing Qing (Beijing); Manfred Stoffl, Felix Toro, Bega Tesch, Graça Lobo, Bárbara Smetak, Tuzé de Abreu (Salvador da Bahia). I also gratefully acknowledge the support of a Playking Foundation travel grant (for Shanghai) and the support of the Goethe Institut of Salavdor da Bahia who hosted my residency as well as Ensemble Modern and the DAAD Künstlerprogramm Berlin who initiated the 'Re-inventing Smetak' project.

2) Jason Stanyek, '"A Thread that Connects the Worlds": Ovoid Logics and the Contradictory Lines of Force of Brazilian Improvisations'. In Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation, Vol 7, No 1, 2011, p.2.

3) Karlheinz Stockhausen, '…how time passes…', (English trans. Cornelius Cardew), Die Reihe ('Musical Craftsmanship'), Vol 3, 1959.

4) Walter Smetak, Simbologia Dos Instrumentos, Associação dos Amigos de Smetak, 2001. Symbology of Instruments, (unpublished English translation), p.38. For an overview of the instruments, see: Tuzé de Abreu, 'Smetak and his instruments', (trans. Denice Maria Figueiredo Santos), Music review - Federal University of Bahia, ART 025, SEP 2013.

5) Eduardo Kohn, How Forests think - Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2013.

Further links

Liza Lim - homepage (https://lizalimcomposer.wordpress.com/)

BIFEM: How Forests Think, 3 September 2016 (Bendigo) - ELISION ensemble, works by Lim & Cassidy; event details in the AMC Calendar

An Ocean Beyond Earth, 9 September 2016 (Melbourne) - ELISION ensemble, works by Lim, O'Dwyer, Czernowin, Barrett et al.; event details in the AMC Calendar

BIFEM: Machine for Contacting the Dead, 4 September (Bendigo) - ELISION & ANAM, music by Lim

BIFEM: Composer Colloquim convened by Liza Li, 4 September (Bendigo); AMC Calendar

'ELISION ensemble: 30 years of performance practice in the sonic arts' - an exhibition at RMIT Gallery, Melbourne, 9 September - 22 October; AMC Calendar

Bendigo International Festival of Contemporary Music BIFEM (www.bifem.com.au)

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