September: 2 CDs and a premiere



I’m excited about September. It brings the launch of two CDs embodying the fruit of special collaborations with the musicians of the Cikada Ensemble and with the ‘cellist Séverine Ballon. Cikada will launch their disc, which was recorded live at last year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, on 12 September at the Ultima Festival in Oslo. Séverine launches her CD ‘Solitude’ comprising works written for her by myself, Rebecca Saunders, Mauro Lanza, Thierry Blondeau plus James Dillon’s classic Parjana Vata (1981), with a concert in Paris on 22 September. At the end of the month, Ensemble Contrechamps with David Grimal as violin soloist will premiere my piece Speak, Be Silent amongst a rambunctious programme of works by John Zorn, Conlon Nancarrow and Frank Zappa.

Cikada live cover

Kenneth Karlsson writing in the liner notes of the Cikada CD (which includes Winding Bodies: 3 knots (2013-14), The Heart’s Ear (1997) and Jon Øivind Ness’ magisterial Gimilen) recalls that our connection goes way back to 1988 when I first met some of these Norwegian musicians at the ISCM festival in Hong Kong. I remember the jokes about how opening a can of Foster’s lager is an Australian intelligence test, as it took a few tries for them to figure out the odd mechanism at the top of the can. It took 25 years for an artistic connection to manifest in the form of a compositional project which I think says something true about how art is made – it is a subterranean process, essences subtly dripping over long periods of time before emerging into form. Sometimes the passage from idea to finished work happens quite quickly, other times at a glacial pace, yet both rely on that underground pooling of energies and one can’t easily predict the time needed for connections between energies and ideas to grow and bear fruit.

Winding Bodies is full of the creaking sighs and breaths of friction sounds made by pulling fishing line and bouquet garni strings tied on to the strings of the piano, the hardanger fiddle, the violin, viola, ‘cello and double bass (yeah…it looks weird), as well as the sounds of musicians counting, inhaling and gasping. It’s a sound world that exists in various ways in many of my works. I find these kinds of fluctuations and distortions intensely expressive, arising as they do from a magnification of the sensory interface between body and instrument – in both recordings one hears an incredible level of passion and an uninhibited wildness in the playing. A cross-modal experience of sound emerges in which aspects of physical resistance are animated as a musical vocabulary through the haptic intelligence of the musician (the myriad touch-sensitive and ear-sensitive adjustments and decisions they must make as they navigate ever-shifting situations on their instruments). Invisibility (2009), reflects on the Australian Aboriginal aesthetic category of shimmer exploring how aspects of presence and absence originating in a secret/sacred knowledge system might be experienced within the destabilised surfaces of a retuned ‘cello played with two bows. In Speak, be Silent (2015) the expressive vocality of the violin peaks in moments of friction rather like the way emotions ‘catch’ in the throat and cause a distortion in speech. That moment of expressive burn takes off in some surprising ways in the piece in a chorus of wood blocks bowed with rasp sticks.

inner urban gardening – food for the soul

the averted gaze

I was recently given a list of interview questions and was quite unable to answer them. At first I felt that this was a reluctance on my part because I would be giving too much away. Then realised that actually, I am unable to know the answers. Whatever they might be, they don’t cohere into easily communicable forms and this un-gatherable logic enforces a kind of hiddenness.

There is a certain power to things left unshared and undescribed; to the averted gaze. Joshua Rothman writing in The New Yorker about Virgina Woolf’s sense of privacy, touches on this feeling of mystery:

Woolf often conceives of life this way: as a gift that you’ve been given, which you must hold onto and treasure but never open. Opening it would dispel the atmosphere, ruin the radiance—and the radiance of life is what makes it worth living. It’s hard to say just what holding onto life without looking at it might mean; that’s one of the puzzles of her books. But it has something to do with preserving life’s mystery; with leaving certain things undescribed, unspecified, and unknown;with savoring certain emotions, such as curiosity, surprise, desire, and anticipation. It depends on an intensified sense of life’s preciousness and fragility, and on a Heisenberg-like notion that, when it comes to our most abstract and spiritual intuitions, looking too closely changes what we feel. It has to do, in other words, with a kind of inner privacy, by means of which you shield yourself not just from others’ prying eyes, but from your own. Call it an artist’s sense of privacy.

Speak, Be Silent (2015)

Just remember, when you’re in union,
you don’t have to fear
that you’ll be drained.

The command comes to speak,
and you feel the ocean
moving through you.
Then comes, Be silent,
as when the rain stops,
and the trees in the orchard
begin to draw moisture
up into themselves.

Jalaluddin Rumi, excerpt fr. Mathnawi V: 3195-3219
version by Coleman Barks 

What is a ‘concerto’ but a work that is somehow about ‘sounding together’ and ‘sounding apart’; it is a form that deals in union and separation. Yet within any unison one can see myriad differences in the weave of each participating strand; within forms of difference one can also see similitude. Looking deeply into states of sameness or difference one perceives qualities that exceed the boundaries of either term’s definition.

Or as Kaya Silverman proposes in The Miracle of Analogy (2014), ‘Each of us is connected through similarities that are neither of our making or our choosing to countless other beings. We cannot extricate ourselves from these relationships, because there is no such thing as an individual; the smallest unit of Being is two interlocking terms. There is also nowhere else to go. Analogy runs through everything-that-is like a shuttle through a loom, weaving its threads into the All, or what I call the “world.” But this does not mean that there is no dissent. Analogies contain difference as well as similarity—sometimes in small proportions, but sometimes in such large proportions that they seem at risk of falling apart.  The world is also an untotalizable totality, because it is in a constant state of transformation.  Since analogy prevents similar things from collapsing into [each other], and disparate things from going their separate ways, it is ontologically democratizing. Everything matters.’

In attending to sameness and difference, a dizzying perspective comes into view of multiplicity and plentitude, and of the particularity of things. Forms of unification and ways of separation and dissolution somehow become modalities of one another even though they may not be in a symmetrical relationship. Outlines become fuzzier and in that, there may be a reciprocation between things. After speaking, comes listening. And after listening?

The trees, they sing

Speak, Be Silent is a work for solo violin & ensemble of 15 musicians: flute/piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, tuba, percussion, piano, harp, violin, viola, violoncello, double bass, commissioned by Ensemble Contrechamps with the generous support of the Ernst von Siemens Foundation. Dedicated to Ensemble Contrechamps, the work will be premiered at the opening of their 2015-16 season on 29th September 2015 with David Grimal playing solo violin with Ensemble Contrechamps  conducted by Michael Wendeberg at the Théâtre de l’Alhambra in Geneva.

Rug Music (2015) for solo harp

I had a lot of fun writing a short harp solo for the wonderful harpist Marshall McGuire to celebrate his birthday. There’s a short video of us chatting in a rehearsal break before the premiere in April at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Ricordi Berlin have made the score available as a free download (available for 5 weeks). More info at:

5* recommendation for HatArt disc in NZM

Dietrich Heißenbüttel, Empfehlung: Liza Lim Orchestral Works, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 2/2015 or online link

A chant provides the pitch; an invocation. Merely a short sequence of four descending notes, yet highly unusual for a CD of orchestral works: it is neither the sound of European art music nor one defined by the tempered chromatic scale. Liza Lim catapults the listeners of The Compass far outside the concert hall. But then, when the phrase is intoned for the third time, a low note is added; claves; trombones; a multi-faceted array of percussion instruments, piano, cellos, and the ever-vital flute of Carin Levine. Once William Barton stops singing, the drama escalates further to a first climax before he brings the orchestra back down to earth, calming its seeming collapse in all directions with earthy sounds from the didgeridoo, underlaid by timpani. At first glance, it may seem risky to bring such widely-diverging sonic worlds together. It is more than simply a juxtaposition, however: one can listen to the didgeridoo as a musical instrument that produces an extraordinary wealth of timbres; and one can also hear the voices of animals, birds, even spirits in the flute part and orchestral colours. At any rate, listeners are left with little time to think about this, as the dynamic flow of events, even at points of temporary repose filled with noise-like sounds, majestic trombone notes and brief moments of silence, never lets them go. The two soloists are also breathtaking, breathing new radiance time and again into the multi-coloured orchestral setting, primed by the introductory chant. But Liza Lim does not need exotic instruments: in the second piece, Pearl, Ochre, Hair String, it is the cello that brings a wealth of overtones into play using a special bow. Rhythmic wooden drums, shimmering string and wind colours: the music is no less dramatic, and here too one can feel as if on a strange journey, where sounds of the spheres bring forth light from a different world. Lim has occupied herself with the aesthetic categories of Aboriginal art, which she here transfers to the large ensemble of the symphony orchestra. This produces equally captivating results, from the first minute to the last, with the two excellent orchestras and three conductors that recorded the three works on the CD at the Herkulessaal in the Munich Residenz and at the Donaueschingen Festival. In the third work, The Guest, a trumpet plunges right into the middle of things, but then it is the recorder sounds from Jeremias Schwarzer that transport us, sliding and lurching like a bird of paradise, into a magic forest. Orchestral landscapes and sonorous, virtuosic recorder sounds give each other enough space to emerge. Outstanding. (translation by Wieland Hoban)

Concentrated energy maps. Reviews of HatArt Orchestral Works CD

Updates (other reviews)
1/3/15. Gordon Kerry has a few things to say about Australian politics & cultural insularity as well the CD. Liza Lim: Orchestral Works, The Music Trust

9/2/15. Another review of the HatArt CD: ambitious, eruptive orchestral works. Andrew Clements, The Guardian, 6 Feb 2015.

Liza Lim, Orchestral Works, Hat[now]Art CD review
Julian Cowley, The Wire, Issue 372, Feb 2015, pp. 58-59

‘Everything falling, rushing forward, ascending, disappearing, reappearing. Disintegrations, agglutinations, fragmentations, reconstitutions.’ So poet Octavio Paz summed up the visionary writings of Henri Michaux, but those words fit well the music of Australian composer Liza Lim. Her orchestral scores are concentrated energy maps. Her music suggests infinite turbulence, cosmic flux and spasm, eruptions and swirling vortices that drag you in, then abruptly spew you into another zone, no less volatile or intense. Carin Levine’s flute and William Barton’s didgeridoo heroically negotiate just such a convulsive and elemental soundworld in The Compass. Lim’s writing for full orchestra doesn’t console them with a sense of progression, but creates skewed cycles of gushing emergence, transformation, sudden decline and regeneration. Recorder soloist Jeremias Schwarzer is granted a more hospitable, less disorienting passage through the vivid orchestral textures of The Guest. A third piece, Pearl, Ochre, Hair String, is a stirring cauldron of glaring brass, gritty and frictional percussion, shrill woodwinds and vertiginous strings.

The CD was also mentioned in ‘2014 CD Picks’ by Andrew Ford and Alex Ross.