My exhale is your inhale

It’s been a lovely harvest September with two premieres of my music. What a privilege to hear and see Séverine Ballon weave her magic in  An ocean beyond earth and to work with the equally magical Wu Wei and ELISION on How Forests thinkI’m hearing a music which I think has a different approach to form than in my previous pieces – a form which emerges in the spaces in which performers breathe.


In the solo work, ‘cello and violin communicate their resonances over fragile threads suspended between them – one instrument’s exhalation is the other’s inhalation. How Forests think is also a breathing music… the respiration of trees, of rainfall, mycelia and pollen, of humans and non-humans meeting their partners in the world. A recording of this work from ELISION’s performance in September at the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music which will be released early next year on Huddersfield’s HCR CD label.

The next opportunities to hear How forests think are with Wu Wei and ELISION on tour in Europe at the Tage für neue Musik Zürich (Nov 20) and the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (Nov 22).


Travels in hyper-reality

I have criss-crossed multiple time zones in the last 6 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’s 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 stylized 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.

spirits as cowboys

Candomblé ceremony, Terreiros of Nilza Maria da Silva Rodrigues, 31 July 2016 [photo: L.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 – 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 time [3], 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]

i) Máquina do Silêncio; ii) Ronda (2 in foreground) and Três Sóis (background)
Instruments from the Smetak Collection of the Museum Solar Ferrão
[photos: L.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

Whilst 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 organize 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.

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.

i) sheng fingering chart ii) Wu Wei playing the sheng [photo L.Lim]

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
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 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

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.

How Forests think for sheng & ensemble will be premiered by Wu Wei and the ELISION Ensemble conducted by Carl Rosman on 3 September 2016 at BIFEM – Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music (Australia) in a programme with Aaron Cassidy’s The wreck of former boundaries. Project supported by Creative Victoria, Playking Foundation & CeReNeM, University of Huddersfield. Other performances follow in Zurich & UK (2016); Melbourne & Shanghai (2017).
Ronda -The Spinning World will be premiered by Ensemble Modern in Frankfurt in Feb 2017 in a programme with works by Daniel Moreira, Arthur Kampela and Paolo Rios Filho. Other performances planned for Berlin, Sao Paolo, Rio de Janeiro and Salvador da Bahia.


[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 Künstelerprogramm 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 transl.), 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.


Tree of Codes trailer, images, press

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[photos (c) Paul Leclaire]

Also see previous post for detailed information about the opera, libretto etc.


Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, Vanishing Languages, Reincarnated as Music
The New York Times, March 30, 2016. [+ related teaching & learning resource +
radio broadcast]

Raoul Mörchen, Wie bleibt von der Strasse der Krokodile, Kölnischer Rundschau, 6.04.16 [pdf scan]

Programme book_Tree-of-Codes_2016 [essays in German]


Egbert Hiller, «DIE WIRKLICHKEIT IST DÜNN WIE PAPIER» Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, May 2016.

That ‘reality is as thin as paper’ is a core statement from Liza Lim’s libretto that she underlines with her music. With its wealth of colours and forms, which does not shy away from ‘late Romantic’ gestures and arioso vocal writing, Lim’s suggestive sound-world itself becomes a shimmering ‘hybrid being’ in ever-changing ensemble constellations. What is also amazing is her attention to detail, which manifests itself, for example, in a viola with a gramophone horn, which is in turn connected metaphorically with the work’s subject as a de- or re-formed instrument. Liza Lim has fully attained her goal of writing ‘an opera about origin and memory, time, erasure and illumination’. In Tree of Codes, she convincingly connects the old vanitas principle with lurid, distorted images of the present in the tension between virtuality and existential de-restriction, scientific progress and the archaic depths of the soul – a major contribution to the music theatre of our time, and a further milestone in the work of this composer, born in Australia in 1966.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson, Review: Tree of Codes (Musikfabrik), Limelight Magazine  26.04.16

Cologne Opera’s stage is thus populated by beings who are part-human and part-bird, plant or insect. Musikfabrik’s brilliantly versatile clarinettist Carl Rosman, playing the part of the Mutant Bird, performs as both singer and instrumentalist… Masks, anthropomorphic transformations, instruments as proxies for the voice/prosthetics for the body – anyone familiar with Lim’s work over the last decade will have recognised many of the themes here. However, Tree of Codes not only brings these together in a fantastical piece of storytelling, but also gives rise to new depths and dimensions in Lim’s music. It contains some of her most lyrical work: Adela’s fairytale retelling of the Father’s bird-obsession; the Father’s funeral procession; the closing a capella chorus, sung by all 17 instrumentalists. A radiance that is usually just beneath her music’s busy surface has been set free. Everything seems to grow out of itself, like buds within flower buds, but at the same time articulating strong musical phrasing and dramatic pacing; this adds tremendously to that sense of coherence I mentioned before…Claims are often made for a new kind of opera, but in Tree of Codes they seemed entirely justified by the true fluidity between music and spectacle, sound and drama (a feat that few ensembles, it should be said, could have brought off as willingly and as capably as this).

Andreas Falentin, Schöne Neue Musikwelt, Theatre Pur, 10.04.16

The Cologne Opera can count itself lucky to have, with Tree of Codes by Australian composer Liza Lim, brought out probably the most exciting literary opera premiere in recent years. Lim uses its templates – the book sculpture by Jonathan Safran Foer is based on the contents of a related collection of short stories ‘Cinnamon Shops’ by Polish author Bruno Schulz – as neither Bible nor as a quarry. For her and the director Massimo Furlan, who developed the project over three years, the literature is a springboard for their own musical-theatrical fantasy. A composition is created that is self-contained, with high rigorousness and beauty and claims its own substance independent of the templates. Of course, there is the taste of Foer and Schulz in the transformation of atmospheric and formal motives in the new piece. But it lives on its own terms.

Ulrike Gondorf, Musiktheater als Labor des Bewusstseins, DeutschlandRadioKultur, 10.04.16

“Tree of Codes” by the Australian composer Liza Lim transports viewers into an alchemical laboratory of consciousness. It is about transformation, where music and plot unfold a maelstrom effect.
…Liza Lim and the whole team for the premiere, who developed the piece jointly over three years of close cooperation, have created a compelling piece of music theatreWhat Christian Miedl does in the lead role of the son this evening, is sensational.
Everything flows in this piece where no identity, no fixed contour remains. One seems to relive a dream where everything is harmonious, but nothing is logical and space and time are blurred. “Tree of Codes” is an exciting discovery for music theater, cleverly structured and extremely sensual in sound. In Cologne, the audience experiences the new work under optimum conditions: add suggestive theatre images from director Massimo Furlan, who is actually a visual artist. And with a virtuoso ensemble whose impressive skills are perhaps surpassed by their notably enthusiastic commitment to the new work.

Andreas Falentin, Liza Lim: Tree of Codes, Die Deutsche Bühne, 10.04.16

That one feels involved rests especially on the richly varied sounds of Liza Lim: clusters and nature sounds, fine melodies are combined in sound mixes with bizarre dissonances. It rests on the clear, highly concentrated movement direction of Massimo Furlan, marked by slowness. The images are formed and stay over long periods. They sometimes fall into a void, but this seems almost a mandatory part of the theatrical concept. But above all, the performers guarantee the success of the evening. Four mute actors deliver quirky but never intrusive accurate studies of ‘type’. The soprano Emily Hindrichs fulfills the role of the object of desire with wonderfully relaxed vocals, which although smokily lascivious, remain seductively beautiful. Christian Miedl, the son, despite a huge gamut, never slips a phrase and is believable in the intense game that illustrates his paradigmatic torment. The real protagonists of the evening, are the Ensemble Musikfabrik. The 17 musicians are the research team: playing strange and conventional instruments, they excel in small singing roles and towards the end, as wonderful a cappella choirs. They have fun and convey it.

Markus Schwering, Uraufführung in Kölner Oper Liza Lims „Tree of Codes“ überwältigt die Zuschauer, Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, 11.04.16.

Liza Lim’s music, which partly involves birdsong leaking from a computer, inclusive of everyday sounds and music of the spheres, is remarkably innovative in the crafting of sounds and combinations. Liza Lim’s music is remarkably innovative in the way it finds and combines sounds. Some parts have a great density in their structure while other parts are full of heart and easily accessible. And when the brass intone the funeral march for the father, one may almost feel a reminiscence of Beethoven, Chopin and Mahler.
A precise judgement on the work’s quality would require repeated listening, which makes it impossible here. But one thing certainly becomes clear: this is an opera which is for, not against the human voice – not something to be taken for granted nowadays. Vocal virtuosity in a very traditional sense is celebrated here in a veritable feast. And the calm mastery, the radiant, unstrained intensity in all registers with which the singers (Christian Miedl as the son and Emily Hindrichs as Adela; the father, portrayed impressively by Yael Rion, is a silent role) perform their difficult parts – these already make this 80-minute evening an event.
Finally, the performance by musikFabrik is outstanding. Liza Lim composed for the ensemble’s special characteristics – the score was tailor-made for them, as it were. The musicians not only make use of special techniques, but also draw on special instruments. A viola with a phono horn instead of a body – has such a thing been seen or heard before? Vigorous applause for all involved.

Reinhard Kager, Strohgeigen und Krokodile, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 12.04.16
[pdf scan]

…how real is reality and how much of what we call reality, is a construct of human consciousness. The Australian composer Liza Lim follows this trail with a music of electronics, natural sounds and unusual playing techniques to approach a dream world that escapes direct conscious access. At the beginning a beguiling sound track of strange chirping sounds is mixed with real birdsongs so that the sound sources become indistinguishable. The musicians are part of the stage action with rare instruments: subcontrabass flute, strohviol, toy piano, double-bell horns…Lim alternates strict with more freely interpreted passages by which she succeeds in creating a convincing symbolization of the dissolution of the organizing power of musical rationality. As its antithesis, there is the lure of a delicate sensuality.

Uwe Bräutigam, Tree of Codes| Reality is only as thin as paper, NRWJazz. 14.04.16

The powerful images that arise again and again, accompanied by intense but not over-expressive music, allow the audience to become completely immersed in the action of the opera. The movements themselves are rather quiet and make the lines of development in the plot understandable. The actions, images and sounds constitute a whole, which captures the the audience and completely monopolises the attention… Anyone looking for rigorous action will be hard pressed to know who is involved in the different treatments of action and the sensory effects of music, for in surrendering to the singing one is richly rewarded. A great, contemporary opera, which one should not miss.

Jörg Lengersdorf, Liza Lim ‘Tree of Codes’ in Köln, WDR3 Opernblog, 11.04.16

Liza Lim’s sound techniques are extravagant, multiform as well as in part, downright entertaining.

Tobias Ruderer, Oper als Koan, Van Magazine, 13.04.16 [German edition]


Anni Heino, Liza Lim’s Tree of Codes and the ephemerality of life, Resonate Magazine, 16 March 2016.

Professor of Composition’s opera premieres in Cologne – 9 April. University of Huddersfield news, April 2016.

An interview with the Australian composer Charlie Sdraulig on making opera, recorded as part of a graduate seminar series Re-imagining Opera (2015) at Stanford University, can be found here.

[more info in the previous post]

Tree of Codes, ‘cut-outs in time’ an opera

Tree of Codes (2013-15), ‘cut-outs in time’, an opera
Premiere season: 9, 12, 14, 18, 20 April, 2016, Staatenhaus, Cologne Opera

Liza Lim – Tree of Codes information and libretto (read-only downloadable doc)

new info: Tree of Codes – programme notes
Field recordings as ‘cut-outs of the real’ in Tree of Codes

Text about the opera: Michael Rebhahn, translation Christine Chapman

Four years ago, I blogged that I had been commissioned to write a new opera.
Tree of Codes, is now coming into view after a long journey and will be premiered on 9 April 2016 at the Staatenhaus in Cologne. The work was commissioned by Oper Köln, Ensemble MusikFabrik and HELLERAU – Europäisches Zentrum der Künste in co-operation with the Akademie der Künste der Welt. (see links above for more info)

Bird costume

photo (c) Massimo Furlan


Background note (L. Lim)

Tree of Codes takes place during an extra day grafted on to the continuity of life. Within this margin of secret time, a ‘backstage’ area, the boundaries between the natural world, animals, birds, humans and machines are dissolving. Dead matter is combined with the living and becomes animated. It learns to dream, to speak, to sing…

A bird mimics language and humans sing like birds. Father…does he know he’s dead?…conjurs birds made out of rubbish into mutant forms of being, recuperating strange life across a boundary of death. There is a kaleidescope of relationships joined by ventriloquism – one thing speaks for another – this world is made up of contingent parts where form is an excuse for slippage. Scene 3: ‘Ventriloquism’, begins with a comet, its sounds recorded by the Rosetta space mission, whilst far, far below, perhaps affected by some strange gravitational pull, a brass band blurts into life. The bubbling, percussive song of the comet is mirrored in a chorus of frogs and insects, Father’s ‘generatio aequivoca which he had dreamed up’ – not real frogs and insects but ‘a kind of pseudofauna and pseudoflora, the result of a fantastic fermentation of matter.’ Musicians play the most primitive of violins in the form of blocks of wood that are bowed with sticks to sound out this pseudo animal kingdom yet, out of this, emerge rhythmic patterns that recite Goethe’s Erlkönig.

Displacement and dissociation of time, space and identity create effects of menace and wonder. What is authentic? What is fake? The opera Tree of Codes asks:how do the inheritances of our genes, our stories and the unconscious beliefs passed down through generations, shape who we are, our desires, our curses? Do the living and dead exist in a relationship of ventriloquism?’ As Bruno Schulz says: ‘What is a Spring dusk? A multitude of unfinished stories. Here are the great breeding grounds of history. The tree roots want to speak…memories awake…’


Emily Hindrichs, soprano (Adela)
Christian Miedl, baritone (Son/Doctor)
Carl Rosman, tenor (Mutant Bird)

Theatre performers from Company Numero23Prod
Yael Rion (Father)
Diane Decker (Touya)
Anne Delahaye (Adela double)
Stéphane Vecchione (Son double)

16 musicians of Ensemble MusikFabrik (also singing & on stage)
Liz Hirst (Flute/Piccolo/Subcontrabass Flute), Liz Hirst
Peter Veale (Oboe/Cor anglais)
Carl Rosman (Clarinet/Bass clarinet, in addition to singing role of Mutant Bird)
Lorelei Dowling (Bassoon)
Christine Chapman (double bell Horn)
Marco Blaauw (double bell Trumpet)
Bruce Collings (double bell Trombone)
Melvyn Poore (double bell Euphonium)
Dirk Rothbrust (Percussion)
Benjamin Kobler (Piano/Toy Piano/Shruti Box/Kalimba)
Juditha Haeberlin (Violin)
Hannah Weirich (Violin)
Axel Porath (Viola/Strohviol)
Dirk Wietheger (Violoncello)
Florentin Ginot (Double Bass)

Clement Power, conductor
Massimo Furlan, director
Claire de Ribaupierre, dramaturg



& may your veggies (no matter what colour, shape or stripe), sweetly ripen, & your hungry caterpillars emerge into magnificence in the new year

my desk, several worlds

My desk today


I’m sitting at a fulcrum between several large projects – I finally printed out the compiled score of my opera, Tree of Codes (2013-15) which will be premiered on 9th April 2016 at the Staatenhaus Cologne, performed by MusikFabrik & Numero23.Prod with singers from Oper Koeln conducted by Clement Power, directed by Massimo Furlan for Oper Koeln
have started two new works, also for 2016: an ocean beyond earth, a ‘cello solo with various preparations written for Séverine Ballon, and the related 40’ work Everything turns to Air, for Wu Wei (Sheng) & ensemble, co-commissioned by the ELISION Ensemble and ICE (New York).