Tonight in Amsterdam, MusikFabrik will premiere Liza Lim’s Tongue of the Invisible at the Holland Festival. Now, if I post some of MusikFabrik’s wonderful footage of the collaboration process, I hope you won’t miss the substance of this post: the transcript of a conversation I had with Lim last year.
I’m always fascinated to learn about an artist who is working over the same set of ideas for a substantial period of time. Something has come into their experience that resonates both personally and artistically, and that they find new or subtly different ways to explore from one work to another. It may be precipitated by some serendipitous event, but it continues as a daily choice to continue to work out that relationship between the idea and their work, wherever it leads. Liza Lim has written eloquently in Search Journal for New Music and Culture about an aesthetics of presence which she has been referencing for about seven years now. ELISION’s transference CD includes one early and one recent example of work that has come out of this line of thought, and offers some sense of how rich a field it is in her work.
Lim refers to an aesthetics of shimmer that plays out in Songs Found in Dream, which is an aspect of this overall aesthetics of presence. Shimmer is one of many words that I have thought I understood the meaning of until I looked it up. Various dictionaries refer to a subdued, tremulous, glistening, fitful, or wavering light. It is not just light, but the coexistence or alternation of light with darkness or dullness or obscurity. As she said in our interview, these transitions that interest her “stand for the states which you could call shimmer, shininess, whatever. They stand for a certain kind of attunement, and then states for dullness. Qualities called dullness, veiling, obscurity, dustiness, stand for another part of that attunement in the same continuum if you like.” One type of sound might lead to or even include another, as she goes on to describe in her use of granulated sounds.
Yet another way of conveying this sense of shimmer is through the layering of one thing onto another, using qualities of transparence and opacity as parameters. In the program note to Ochred String, she talks about “moving lines of sound as maps showing the ‘turbulence patterns’ created by the passage of unseen presences.” In her recent orchestral piece, Pearl, Ochre, Hair String, there is ‘guiro’ section that plays against the other sections. In Invisibility, the serrated bow acts as one type of layer and the normal bow as another, in the section in which they both are used simultaneously. The serrated bow itself includes the hair layer and the wood layer, as it is applied to the cello. The serrated playing surfaces used in these and other pieces create vulnerabilities in the resulting sounds. The notated pitches only partially emerge. The obscuring of them is audible, and has this dull quality, but also highlights the vibrancy of the full contact of, for example, bow-hair and string.
Lim’s ideas come through clearly, both in words (as you can read in the interview below, in her Search article, and in Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s article embedded below the interview) and especially in her musical work.
Here is a video of ELISION playing Songs Found in Dream at King’s Place, London in 2010. If you follow the link, you can read further notes on the piece. But it works best to go full screen and pay close attention once you click the play button. It’s wonderful to watch the ensemble, how intensely they are engaging with the sounds from one moment to the next, and how closely they are interacting with one another.
We did the following interview in March 2010. Invisibility and Songs Found in Dream are both included on ELISION’s transference disc.
One thing that struck me as I was reading your article in Search is that the intensity and dynamic interactions that are brought out through what you call an aesthetics of presence seem really conducive to the approach you take. It’s a good fit with what you do, that real push and pull. Can you see that sort of approach in your earlier work, before you formulated this aesthetics of presence?
I think it’s all interrelated, in that I’m attracted to certain conditions and certain situations which reflect that. And it may only be later that I explore perhaps its more theoretical aspects or the ramifications of those ideas in a more detailed way. But there are certain things which always provoke this gut reaction that’s very strong in terms of qualities: qualities of intensity, qualities of vibrancy. So I find that in aspects of Chinese culture. I find that in Aboriginal culture. It’s not even culturally specific, but I find it expressed in a number of places. The idea of life force, of the possibility of heightened tension to a threshold state is a cross-cultural thing. But on the other hand, there are some cultures which will emphasize it in a ritual way or paradigmize it, and hence that has led me towards certain explanations. I think to try and answer your question, there is an innate kind of set of conditions I’m really attracted to, and that catch my attention, and which I push my energy towards. So it is an integrated thing. It’s not that oh, I’ve got some intellectual interest in Aboriginal work and therefore I find this thing and I apply it to my music.
That breaking down of those barriers and that interrelatedness seems crucial, and you really welcome it in. Now that you’ve found this and stated it so clearly and seen this clear correlation, do you think that it’s going to be a part of your future work?
Oh yeah, definitely. I’d been working with the Aboriginal cultural ideas and so on since 2004, 2005, and that’s connected to just serendipitous meetings with Aboriginal artists and my next door neighbor when I was living in Brisbane—so again, a very organic process, when you’re led from one thing to the next. And I don’t see such a clear division between the different areas that I’ve explored in my work. It’s not like, oh here’s the Sufi part of me, and here’s the Chinese part of me. You know, they’re actually all perhaps speaking to the same thing in a way. And I suppose in relation to that, I would say fundamentally the music is about pointing to that experiential space rather than the music being even the primary thing in itself. So the reason for being engaged in music is in order to be in contact with those kinds of very heightened states, rather than necessarily defining myself as a composer working with certain materials, that kind of thing.
Yeah, the music as a vehicle to…
Yeah, that’s right. You’ve put it exactly.
And how does this aesthetics of presence manifest in Songs Found in Dream?
Well that was actually one of the earlier pieces in that sequence of work, which was written deliberately as an exploration of this aesthetics of shimmer. And not only shimmer as a sort of positive quality of shininess and vibrancy and oscillation, but the way in which that is veiled. There’s also an aesthetics of obscurity and an aesthetics of dullness. So there’s a whole dialectic between states as well, and transitions between states that I explored in this piece. And that’s important to me. What’s important is the fact that there is a landscape in which there are these transitions happening, rather than it being about any particular state. They stand for the states which you could call shimmer, shininess, whatever. They stand for a certain kind of attunement, and then states for dullness where one moves away from a clear attunement. Qualities called dullness, veiling, obscurity, dustiness, stand for another part of that attunement process in the same continuum if you like. So that’s the basis for the language.
That’s really clear. That really maps onto what I’ve heard, too.
Yeah, so to be clear, it’s the functional qualities of that. There’s a system of relationships which is what I’ve adopted, rather than any kind of surface characteristics of, say, aboriginal music or whatever. And that’s always been the level at which I try to look at cultural references, also Chinese music. It’s those kind of subterranean structures. You can work with it more, I think, as an artist, when you’re looking at that level.
Yeah, getting right in there. And do you find your approach has shifted over these last five years or so?
Well, it’s just that you learn more how to move around, and it’s a continual process. I feel like I’m just starting.
And how it shifts must have something to do with the performers you’re writing for as well.
Sure, yeah. Different opportunities come up as well, so you find different ways of, as you say, mapping a set of ideas into situations. A solo piece has obviously a certain kind of scope as opposed to working with a larger scale ensemble or orchestra. And I just finished writing this orchestral piece [Pearl, Ochre, Hair String] which takes as its starting point Invisibility. It actually incorporates, to a small extent, some of the material of Invisibility, not so much directly, but in terms of technique—so the serrated bow, the guiro bow…
Will multiple players have those?
No, there’s a soloist. Well, there’s a sort of guiro section. So not only are there sections of winds, strings, brass; there’s a guiro section, which is two percussionists playing serrated instruments of various kinds, a solo double bassist who is using a rasp stick (so that’s a serrated stick), and then the cellist also with a serrated bow. So it’s become like a category, its own section of sounds.
It plays that way in Invisibility too. There’s the one bow and then the other.
Yeah, which really dramatizes the differences between those modes of playing. So the thing in the orchestral piece is that it’s a quality of sound. What I find really interesting about those kinds of sounds as well as any other sort of granulated sounds like rattles, where you really hear the graininess of the sound, is the quality of being both solid and liquid. It’s flowing, but it contains these very distinct and articulated elements as well. And so that in-between quality is something I’m always looking for in my work, because it can therefore take on more of the properties of the liquid, or more of the properties of the solid. So you can move in a number of directions—that’s how I think about it.
I’m not sure if there’s a question in here, but we’ll find out eventually. It’s striking to me that those transitions between are so important, that it’s this moving to that, but that in your life experience and your work, there’s a very clear transition and integration that seems really essential to how you’re operating as a composer. I don’t know if that’s something that you’ve sought out, but it’s also been serendipitous, finding those things that work.
I think that, in a sense, to me that’s the whole project—to become more integrated in your life. Don’t you feel that about your own work?
Isn’t it of a piece with who you are and who you want to be?
For more on Lim’s work, take a look here at Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s article in INTO magazine.