On gender disparity, structural luck and other things people have been saying for a very long time

I had the privilege of being invited by Dr Natalie Williams to give a keynote at the Women in the Creative Arts conference held at ANU’s School of Music during 10-12 August 2017. My fellow keynote speaker was Prof. Cat Hope, Head of Music at Monash University whose talk, ‘Stepping Aside: Gender equality and privilege in Australian music culture’ provided a comprehensive overview of recent data and an assessment of strategies for diversity that can move us towards true gender equality in the arts. The conference was a fantastic gathering of artists, arts facilitators and academics from around Australia and elsewhere. The event built on a strongly synchronistic wave of attention focussed on issues of gender equality in music with the publication in the previous week of two important reports: Catherine Strong & Fabian Cannizzo’s Australian Women Screen Composers: Career Barriers and Pathways commissioned by APRA AMCOS and published by RMIT, and Sydney University’s report by Rae Cooper, Amanda Coles & Sally Hanna-Osborne Skipping a beat: Assessing the state of gender equality in the Australian music industry. APRA AMCOS’ response to the findings of the Strong/Cannizzo report can be found here.

Here’s more or less what I said. (for discussion specifically on quotas, see pp.11-13)

Liza Lim: Luck, Grief, Hospitality – re-routing power relationships in music (2017).pdf

& here are images of the powerpoint slides:

ANU keynote powerpoint slides (images)

& for inspiration, please watch: ‘Soldering a Noise Instrument’, Yorkshire Sound Women Network workshop led by Dr Elizabeth Dobson and Nina Richards, University of Huddersfield, 2016. Video by Angela Guyton

Also see: All Girl Electronic 2017 a programme of free workshops and mentoring in music software, composition and arrangement, recording, production and performance (Western Sydney)


Time, possession & ventriloquism in my operas

I recently participated in a very stimulating workshop on opera, ‘Sound & Story’, convened by the composer Hans Thomalla and held at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, 28-29 June 2017. Here’s my talk text (long read – who knew that the scroll format would come back into vogue after all these centuries…)

The Future-present-past voice: possession and ventriloquism in my operatic works

It starts with distortion – otototoi – Cassandra’s lament against Apollo’s curse. Popoi da! Prophecy pushes against a silencing wall of rationality – the Greek chorus is deaf to Cassandra’s words and can only hear the noise of something lost in translation, the distortion created as her words cast from the future are squeezed through too small an aperture in the present.

Ex. 1 Scene 1 of The Oresteia (1993), libretto by Liza Lim after Tony Harrison’s version of Aeschylus’ trilogy, ELISION cond. Sandro Gorli, Melbourne  [excerpt 0’00-2’10]


That’s the opening of my first opera ‘The Oresteia’ (1993) performed by ELISION with production directed by Barrie Kosky. Written 25 years ago, it’s a 70-minute version of Aeschylus’ trilogy in which fragments of story surface through the performers through acts of possession. The floor of the stage is charged, barely separating the living from the dead, and any of the singers or musicians that step onto its surface can suddenly be caught up as channels to the unrequited voices of Cassandra, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, Orestes, The Furies. ‘The Oresteia’… it’s a well-worn tale that has worked well for opera composers, a mythic story that doesn’t need much re-telling because you already know the outlines. The possibility of relying on a certain level of redundancy in the text and its meanings, allows me as a composer to occupy a more speculative space in which music’s affective power can do most of the work of communication.

This early experience with making opera, in which a predilection for excess is sustained on stage by the thematic framework of performers channelling archaic forces has shaped my choices in three subsequent operatic works. The staging of presence itself has been at the forefront of my concerns. In these works, story usually exists as a mythic template for archetypal figures, for symbolic psychic manoeuvres and projections of various kinds. Where story is foregrounded, it is deliberately about the ‘retelling’ of story: in my second opera ‘Moon Spirit Feasting’ the Monkey King and the Queen Mother of the West, a demon goddess, compete in a song competition to tell their versions of the tale of Chang-O, the Moon Goddess. In my most recent opera ‘Tree of Codes’, Adela sings ‘Let me tell you a story’ before recounting a version of the fairytale become horror-story, ‘Der Erlkönig’. In ‘The Navigator’, the story that is retold is of the ship that flies the false flag, the fake news of Isolde’s death, as Tristan awaits her arrival.

Each of these re-tellings are concerned with narrative slippage where meanings are ambiguous and open up a rift. In that rift something arises; there we find extra presences that compete to be heard. What the hell is that story really about? This extra presence – the hidden voice, the story that lies beyond another story – is staged in my work through possession and ventriloquism. In both of these things, we are dealing with a special kind of voicing, a voice that comes from pushing one identity aside in order for another to come forward.

I mentioned distortion and you could say that that is almost a default state in my music. It comes from a fascination with emergence, the sense of something arriving. I say ‘pushing aside’ because with distortion there is distension and compression. That deformation suggests to me a trace, the evidence of invisible presences squeezing through into our space-time field. Distortion brings strangeness, alien-ness, divine or demonic energies, shock, repulsion, awe and other signs of the sublime into view.

In my opera ‘The Navigator’, there is an Angel of History character borrowed from Walter Benjamin famous aphorism. The Angel is a figure ‘moving with its back to the future’, a paradoxical inertia-filled movement into the future whilst looking at the spillage of the past. The Angel for me is, like Cassandra, a figure possessed by a future-present state whilst also channelling the past. What would the voice of that conjugation of time sound like?

Ex. 2 ‘Angel of History’ aria from The Navigator (2008), libretto by Patricia Sykes. performed by soprano Deborah Kayser, ELISION cond. Manuel Nawri, director Barrie Kosky, Brisbane dress rehearsal


The Angel of History channels multiple voices – there are human, demonic-angelic, bird-like and bestial voices that are trying to break through and they’re all competing for space in the cavities of the singer’s body. These voices possess the singer, moving her and jerking her around like a puppet.

The distortion here is completely acoustic/analogue and there’s no use of electronics at all. The soprano is singing and also whistling with a little plastic membrane stuck to the top palette of her mouth, and the distortion and beating effects are created by the interference patterns of the criss-crossing lines of sound. The singer is literally grappling with multiple fields of energy inside her body, that transform her body as she gives in to these states of possession and pure presence.

Here, ‘story’ in the narrative sense of creating a sequence of causal events is veiled; one only captures a few bare threads of text retroactively out of the metamorphoses of language and sound; meanings are suspended during the performance and concepts overwhelmed by the intensity of those simultaneities of voice.


A variation on the theme of a play of voices and identities can be found in my Chinese street opera ‘Moon Spirit Feasting’ (1999) where ‘voice’ might be understood as grammatical ‘person’. [Lydia Liu’s work on the translation of Chinese pronouns was important here – the gendered 3rd person didn’t exist in written Chinese until the early 20thC when Chinese scholars ‘invented’ it to translate European texts because originally, ‘it’ covered he and she contextually]. The opera deals with multiple versions of the story of Chang-O, the Moon Goddess who stole the elixir of immortality and flew to the moon – ask any two Chinese people to tell you the story and I can guarantee that they’ll immediately get into an argument as to whose version is more authentic. This contestation of the ‘real’ story and who gets to speak it is one of the through-lines of this opera.

Scene 6 of the opera is called ‘Chang-O Flies to the Moon’. The text by librettist Beth Yahp, is structured around a set of grammatical translations in which the character, Chang-O, first tells her story in the third person which then shifts to the first person before reaching out into the second person – from ‘she’, to ‘I’ and then to ‘you’, the ‘shadow sister’.

Ex. 3 Libretto for Scene 6 of Yue Ling Jie – Moon Spirit Feasting (1999), poem by Beth Yahp

Chang-O text


In the music, distortion is again the destabilising, liquidating energy that enables movements between states of being to occur. The verse structure is matched by the looping of musical phrases that start with a high-pitched suspension on the 3rd person pronoun, ‘she’, moving to distorted ululations that jolt things forward into a tracing and retracing of melodic contours. At the word ‘I’, there is a shift to the declarative spoken voice. The bondage of the musical circling is broken. We hear the woman’s speaking voice as an authoritative gesture before she sings her own name and claims her story for herself.

Ex. 4 Scene 6, ‘Chang-O flies to the Moon’ from Yue Ling Jie – Moon Spirit Feasting, libretto by Beth Yahp, Deborah Kayser soprano, ELISION cond. Simon Hewitt (Brisbane, 1999)


Chang-O’s scene ends with an embrace between ‘I’ and ‘you’ suggesting a new I-you pronoun – not subject-object but, to repurpose Steven Connor’s words [about Michel Serres (with apologies!)], ‘Rather, they enter into each other’s composition, such that the reciprocal constitution of subject and object is both inaugural and ongoing’ (Connor, 2009, p.8). From a kind of estrangement or dissociation of identity, the text traverses different facets of personhood – it moves from the distanced view of the subject being spoken about, to a self-speaking subject that, in a twist at the end, brings in an extra layer of unification with a transpersonal self. There I see something of the melancholy of the ventriloquist’s subjection of and possession by another subject.


In so many operatic ‘mad scenes’, the female voice has been associated with emotional volatility and loss of control. Opera has often focussed on the woman’s voice as siren call – seductive, sexualised and dangerous. And actually, all power to that! The gendered valuations and devaluations of things variously called ‘shrill’, ‘volatile’, ‘hysterical’ – everything related to distortion – are for me, a source of deep knowledge and beauty. For me, there’s a basic truthfulness in noise – particularly the high intensity full spectrum kind – and the way it disrupts norms, the way it invades the body and blurs boundaries between things, the way ecstasy creates it’s own time and space and physicality. Noise creates force fields with which and within which, one can conjur up presences.

In my most recent opera ‘Tree of Codes’ premiered last year at Oper Köln with Ensemble Musikfabrik, the theme of ventriloquism as identity shift is attached not just to the female character but also to the figure of the ‘Son’, played by the baritone Christian Miedl. The opera is based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s cut-out book of the same title which was made by filtering words and phrases out of existing stories in ‘Street of Crocodiles’ (1943) by the Polish writer Bruno Schultz. With Safran Foer’s book one can read the story of a man’s last day of life (or extra day of life) by focussing on the surface of each page but one also can literally see through holes or slots in each of the pages so that one glimpses multiple layers of the story to come. It’s a perforated story (you can see why I was attracted to it) marked by an existential riddle – how do we know we’re alive, and what would we do with one last day.

Ex. 5 page view, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes (2010)

Tree of Codes book


The Son asks those questions and provides the answers: ‘Is my father alive?’; ‘No, he’s dead’; ‘Does he guess?’; ‘No, he doesn’t guess’; ‘This is a secret operation’; ‘Here we reactivate time past’.

Here’s part of that riddle in the opening act of the opera:

Ex. 6 Excerpt from Act 1, Tree of Codes (2016), libretto be Liza Lim after Jonathan Safran Foer. First riddle, Son, baritone Christian Miedl, Opera Köln, Ensemble MusikFabrik cond. Clement Power, directed by Massimo Furlan with theatre performers of Numero 23 Prod. 


And here it is again in a dialogue in English and Polish in which the questions and answers bounce around as if like voices in the head of the Son as he hovers over the Father’s body.

Ex. 7 Excerpt from Act 3, dialogue in English & Polish, Son, baritone Christian Miedl; Father, Yael Rion; Doctor, Stéphane Vecchione 


Where’s the distortion?

If I had opera singers who could do Mongolian throat singing meets death metal meets Korean p’ansori I’d be really happy. But I don’t… so in this opera, the singers generally vocalise in a rather lyrical, bel canto way (& actually, I also love this sound) and distortion is voiced ‘off board’ in the instrumental accompaniment. In the section following the English-Polish dialogue, that quality of otherness that I seek to evoke through disturbances in sonic surfaces is grafted around the baritone voice by the accompanying bassoon. The Son, now turning into the Father, sings of death and madness, caught up in a rocking lullaby-boat song of bassoon multiphonics.

Ex. 8 Excerpt from Act 3, Tree of Codes, Baritone, Christian Miedl; doctor, Stéphane Vecchione; bassoon, Lorelei Dowling; Ensemble Musikfabrik cond. Clement Power, directed by Massimo Furlan (Cologne dress rehearsal, 2016) 


Instruments are used as ‘off board’ components of the voices in various ways throughout the opera. This aspect of instruments as distributed components of voices was highlighted in the production directed by Massimo Furlan where the musicians were, as you could see in the video, on stage as characters, moving and interacting with the singers and actors and at times also singing. Their presence on stage heightens the artifice of the theatrical situation – there’s no behind the scenes or pit – you can see the dress up, you know it’s a drag show, the puppets and the masters are all in view.

Yet there is much that is ‘hidden in plain sight’. Though things may seem to be obvious, like all good magic, they also remain somewhat unaccountable. At the end of Act 3, Adela, played by soprano Emily Hindrichs, swaps role with a plant-creature… and relates a version of Goethe’s ‘Der Erlkönig’ as told by Bruno Schulz. What you hear is both her chanting whisper and the chanting of rasping woodblocks. The speech patterns of Goethe’s poem are transferred into these froggy, insectoid scraping sounds. The text is hidden but the meaning still comes across – the thread of the story is carried into an alien soundscape yet we still understand what those blocks are saying in their secret woody tongue.

Ex. 8, End of Act 3, Tree of Codes, Adela, soprano Emily Hindrichs, Oper Köln, Ensemble MusikFabrik cond. Clement Power, directed by Massimo Furlan


Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind

(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Der Erlkönig)

These are words that tell a devastating story and I think they’re made even more devastating when spoken by blocks of wood. In those scraping sounds something else beyond the words is coming through and coming to life. Like Bruno Schulz’s stories in which mutant birds made of papier maché fall from the sky; where people are turned into useless machines; the father turned into a cockroach, objects and life-forms become interchangeable. The semantic communication of the soprano’s voice is replaced by percussive utterance, by sonorous gesture. We trick ourselves into hearing words where there are none. Inanimate wooden blocks take on an animistic power. In agreeing to the illusion – that woodblocks speak – we fall for the oldest ventriloquist’s trick in the book: we ourselves recreate speech from less than clear enunciations and believe that the words emanate from the puppet. We put up with the poor sampling rate for the information and anthropomorphize the object. The retroactive meanings we put together ‘after the fact’, is the future collapsing back into the past so that we understand what is happening as if in the present. Ventriloquism is a time-space shift act – a shifty sleight of hand between meaning and voice.

In my operas, there are oblique relationships between story and sound, meaning and presence, where things may not be in the places where we might expect to find them.

Timothy Morton in his book ‘Realist magic’ (obviously I’m indebted to the polymath thinking of both Morton & Steven Connor), says ‘Time emerges from relations between things. The meaning of an object is in its future, in how it relates to other objects, including those objects that constitute its parts. Relations are hollowed out from the inside by the un-canniness of the objects between which they play. This hollowness just is time. To figure out what a relation is, means to build another relation.’ (Morton, p.93)

Time – future-present-past – is like the ventriloquist’s art, a hollow dummy perhaps, ready for the operatic stage and all its illusions.


Liza Lim
28 June 2017, Berlin

 Selected References

Connor, S. (2000) Dumbstruck: a cultural history of ventriloquism. Oxford, OUP.

Connor, S. (2009) Thinking Things. Textual Practice lecture. University of Sussex, 14
October 2009. [online, http://stevenconnor.com/thinkingthings/thinkingthings.pdf, retrieved 13 June 2017].

Liu, L. (1999) ‘The Question of Meaning-Value’. in Tokens of Exchange, the Problem of Translation in Global Circulations. Durham & London, Duke University Press.

Morton, T. (2013) Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality. Ann Arbor, Open Humanities Press.

writing for solo instruments

Ask composers what the most difficult thing to compose is and many would say that it’s writing a solo work. Compared with writing for an ensemble or for orchestra where one has a range of colours to work with, as well as many options for contrasting textures that can give immediate dynamism to the music, writing for a solo instrument can feel a bit limited. Or rather, painting with ink on paper makes different technical demands than working with oil paints on canvas. Like Chinese ink painting, writing a solo piece can leave one feeling exposed but it also thrives on that exposure; it challenges one to articulate form with reduced means.

I’m possibly somewhat better equipped to tackle solo pieces these days and I’ve found that reduction has opened up some wonderful riches. This year I’ve written works for solo woodblock (ok, that must count as the ultimate challenge), solo violin and solo double bass. There are some surprises in each so I’m looking forward to hearing their premieres later this year and in early 2018.

An Elemental Thing, for solo woodblock, 9′
written for Eugene Ughetti, commissioned by Speak Percussion

The Su Song Star Map, for solo violin, 12′
written for Ashot Sarkissjan

The Table of Knowledge, for solo double bass (with voice & preparation), 18′
written for Florentin Ginot, commissioned by Acht Brücken|Musik für Köln

There’s a solo trumpet piece lurking inside this ensemble work:

**Update 8 July 2017: I’ve actually written the trumpet solo now based on the material from the ensemble work. The new piece is called ‘Roda – The living circle’ and will be premiered by Tristram Williams in Melbourne (Meat Market) on 8 August 2017.

The Spinning World



Tree of Codes

How Forests Think

An ocean beyond earth

the turning dance of the bee

~ Ronda – The Spinning World ~


just finished: the last piece for the year, Ronda – The Spinning World, premieres on 25 February 2017 in Frankfurt, performed by Ensemble Modern with a big trumpet part for Sava Stoianov & ensemble conducted by Vimbayi Kaziboni in a programme of music by Arthur Kampela, Daniel Moreira and Paulo Rios Filho. Programme note here


it was a profuse kind of year for composition…like my garden: unruly, full of enjoyment;
there was the the odd ravening bug but also wonderful seasons of vibrant flowers and trumpets ripening amongst the curling vines

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 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 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.