About Liza Lim


‘in raptures the world will writhe before you’

There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can’t do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you. [Franz Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks, ed. Max Brod, transl. Ernest Kaiser & Eithne Wilkins, Cambridge: Exact Change, 1991, p.98.]

I’ve always loved this aphorism from Kafka ever since I first saw it in a catalogue for artist Domenico de Clario’s multi-part epic installation work ‘Machine for Contacting the dead’ (1990). Waiting and witness and rapture are absolutely key to Domenico’s work and were the basis of the various collaborations we had in the ’90s which involved long durations (all night, 7 days) with improvising musicians from ELISION and audiences moving through car and house demolition yards in country Northern NSW, a disused foundry on the outskirts of Perth, a dusty church tower in the suburbs of Melbourne and other unexpected performance spaces.

Kafka’s words came to mind again today as I watched two versions of a postcard piece ‘Love Letter’ that I originally made for Speak Percussion in 2011. Or rather, this is a work that is made by others – there is no piece by me as such, merely an invitation to a performer to enter into a creative circuit of energy with a beloved. You can see videos of quite different versions that were composed and performed by percussionists Eugene Ughetti (Australia) and Juanjo Guillem (Spain) and a brief description of the project here.

Some of the best music of ‘mine’ might be that made by others.

Domenico de Clario, Cathedral (2009), NGV Australia

Domenico de Clario, Cathedral (2009), NGV Australia


CDs come in threes; SWR merger protest & petition

You can wait for years – for CDs, for buses – and suddenly they come in threes…

Angels CD cover

Hot off the presses is Marco Blaauw’s Angels on WERGO which follows the release of Tongue of the Invisible earlier this year on the same label. Both CDs have come in for praise from Alex Ross on his blog and in The New Yorker; Ross recently included Tongue of the Invisible as a case study in his keynote lecture for The Rest is Noise Festival at the London Southbank Centre. The CD of recent orchestral works has come out on the Swiss label Hat Art and includes performances by the Bavarian Radio Orchestra (conducted by Lothar Zagrosek & Christoph Poppen) as well as the SWR Sinfonieorchester (conducted by Rupert Huber with soloist Jeremias Schwarzer). The SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg (SO) and the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR (RSO) are fighting a massive battle against their fusion. Please see the online petition and consider joining the many music lovers, conductors, composers and musicians in their protest against this act of cultural vandalism.

Angels CD coverhat(now)ART 185Tongue CD

Knot thinking…

Susumu Nishinaga: micrograph of Easter cactus flower (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri); see: http://www.theguardian.com/science/gallery/2013/may/19/invisible-beauty-flowers-in-pictures

Susumu Nishinaga: micrograph of Easter cactus flower (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri), see: http://www.theguardian.com/science/gallery/2013/may/19/invisible-beauty-flowers-in-pictures

Excerpt from ‘Knots and other forms of entanglement’ (Lim, 2013)

…One could think of this musical language as textilic: a music of intertwining fibres and chaotic entanglements, structures of mesh-work or of threads becoming woven textures.

A key aspect of this quality of ‘textility’[1] is the notion of sound rooted in a dynamic relationship to the physical and material conditions of its making. For me, a ‘note’ is not merely an abstract set of parameters called ‘pitch’, ‘duration’, ‘timbre’, ‘volume’ but a very particular and lively ‘world of responses’ between the body of the musician and the resistances and resonances of their instrument, the environmental conditions of the performing situation and so on. This ‘material’ is ‘emergent’ in nature, rather like in Darwin’s famous evocation of ‘an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth’. In this ecologically rich picture of ‘elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner’ (Darwin, 1872, p.429), life is fundamentally improvisational. Each ‘move’ made by plant, mineral or animal is both conditioned and unconditioned, suggesting that every moment is an interweaving of energetic factors that can never be completely predicted.

It is this kind of dynamism that I look for in music-making. I don’t mean ‘improvisation’ as a type of freedom from the constraints of notation but as an unpredictable quality within constraints in which one senses a mind-body intelligence in the responsiveness present in the total situation. The ‘entanglement’ here is an emergent property of performance in time and space and can be seen in the myriad subtle ways in which physical and audible materials play on and are played by musicians in a tactical feedback loop of information and action. In this living world, sonic materials are ‘woven’ inside performative situations rather than deployed as architectural building blocks. Sounds remain close to their physical production revealing the inherent twists and turns, torque and expanding-contracting energies of their material sources…

[1] See: Ingold, T. (2010) ‘The textility of making’, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 34, 91-102.

An ‘intercultural’ education

I’ll be participating in a forum next week hosted by Cambridge University as part of the activities of the Commonwealth Creativities in Intercultural Arts Network (CIAN). One of the preparatory questions asked by Dr Brydie-Leigh Bartleet, convenor of forum 2, was
‘In your experience what is the single most important thing to take into account when documenting intercultural arts practices?’.  My perspectives arise from experiences as a creative artist rather than ethnographer so some early thoughts are as follows:

An ‘intercultural’ education

I have sometimes described my work as being ‘about’ intercultural exchange – the label is used as a kind of shorthand to describe various kinds of creative transactions ranging from collaborations with performers of Western and non-Western instruments to projects that were based on research into specific cultural practices (Chinese, Indigenous Australian, Northern European), often connected to things like shamanic possession, rites surrounding communication with the spirits and the dead, and ways of entering into liminal or threshold experiences of transformation. Yet I have often felt ambivalent about the ‘inter-‘ part of the label in that, too easily, it posits some notion of the ‘West’ versus the ‘Rest’. The attendant anxieties to that dichotomy, whether my own or projected on to me by others, concern notions of ‘authenticity’ versus ‘tourism’, issues of ownership, and the transgressions of appropriation. I want to rethink this structure with the help of recent reading of the work of anthropologist Tim Ingold who emphasises the dialogic dynamic of  ‘field-work’. He says: ‘anthropologists enter the arena of theoretical debate with far more than ‘data’. They come to it with a set of intuitions, sensibilities and orientations that have been decisively shaped by the field experience. The dialogue in the field, in short, is not just a source of ethnographic facts: for the fieldworker it is also an education.’ (Ingold, T. (2013) ‘Making’, London, Routledge, p.3)

That term ‘education’ rings true for me, and in my case it has been an education that has come about through various meetings, serendipitous and planned, with artists, academics and ritual specialists over many years. This education has taken the form of conversations, active silences, shared activities and journeys of exploration – a curriculum formulated by following hunches and inclinations, often stemming from unexpected meetings or introductions. In this way, the idea of a static or geometric logic of exchange in relation to culture starts to break down – knowledge is not so much passed from one ‘side’ to another but is generated in the engagements of the exchange. The dialogue itself is inherently ‘cultural’, that is, a situated social activity within which some processes of understanding can take place.

What I am foregrounding is not the ‘information’ level but how the process of dialogue enables capacities for action and capacities for understanding to be developed. In this way, the ‘intuitions, sensibilities and orientations’ of participants are part of the shape of new feelings, responses, evaluations and understandings that arise: that is, the dialogue shapes the intertwined capacities for response to and for engagement with meaning. In my projects, I am newly constituted in my feelings and perceptions as I am immersed in processes of learning, making, doing and knowing. In this way, the ‘education’ is about much more than the acquisition of skills and knowledge, for it is truly transformative.

Tongue of the Invisible CD released on WERGO

Tongue CDI’m very excited that the Tongue of the Invisible CD is now out on WERGO (WER 68592). This is issued in the Music of Our Time/Edition musikFabrik series and documents a beautiful collaboration between myself, writer Jonathan Holmes, musicians Omar Ebrahim, Uri Caine, Ensemble musikFabrik and conductor André de Ridder. The CD is a  live recording made at Ensemble musikFabrik’s 20th anniversary concert at WDR, Cologne.
more info
WERGO press release

Selected for CDs of the Year 2013 lists by The Rest is Noise and The Sunday Times
Tim Rutherford-Johnson: ‘An ecstatic vertigo’, The Rambler, 20/7/13
Andrew Clements, The Guardian, 16/8/13
Simon Cummings: ‘Spontaneous & Formalised’, 5:4, 15 Oct 2013

Liza Lim – Tongue of the Invisible. 
Uri Caine (piano), Omar Ebrahim (baritone), Ensemble musikFabrik, cond André de Ridder Wergo WER68592.  This disc is devoted to a single work by the Chinese-Australian Lim, and remarkable it is. A complex treatment of verse by the 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz, one of whose sobriquets provides the title, the eight-part cycle draws on elaborate English verse by Jonathan Holmes. Only five movements involve the baritone – the excellent Ebrahim – three being instrumental commentaries whose formal strategem recalls Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître. There are vivid excursions for microtonal oboe and cimbalom, and the group improvisation is basic to the concept. Under de Ridder’s guidance, it is certainly convincing.  – Paul Driver, The Sunday Times, 18/8/13

The Weaver’s Knot

Lim: The Weaver's Knot (2013), string quartet - ink score before typesetting

Liza Lim: The Weaver’s Knot (2013), string quartet – ink score before typesetting

The Weaver’s Knot (2013), a string quartet based on aspects of hardanger fiddle playing and written for the Arditti String Quartet on the occasion of their 40th anniversary for performances in 2014.

The ‘weaver’s knot’ (also known as a ‘sheet bend’ in knot parlance) is a traditional technique used for hundreds of years in textile production that is an incredibly strong and effective method of tying threads together. It’s a knot that uses tension to hold it in place yet is also reversible so it can be undone. The musical work offers an image of the string quartet as an ensemble of dynamic sonic threads in an unfolding process of binding and unbinding. Individual lines follow different pathways coming together to create emergent patterns or knots in which tension is accumulated and held or released.

Lespugue Venus

Lespugue Venus (photo: Leroi-Gourhan, 1982; Musée de l'Homme, Paris)

Lespugue Venus, back view (photo: Leroi-Gourhan, 1982; Musée de l’Homme, Paris)

‘Lespugue Venus’ (26-24,000 years old, carved mammoth ivory) – I was transfixed by this beautiful statuette  in the Ice-Age art show at the British Museum. It’s in a cabinet right at the start of the exhibition and it took me ages to tear myself away from its radiant presence. According to Elizabeth Wayland Barber, this is one of the earliest representations of spun thread – the female figure is shown with a ‘skirt’ made of twisted fibre frayed at the ends hanging from below her hips. I’m currently reading about various cultural uses of nets, about weaving, twisting fibre and ‘the knot’ as a ‘technology for thinking’, connected to a new string quartet I’m writing.

I last wrote a string quartet ten years ago for the Kairos Quartett commissioned by the Festival d’Automne à Paris which is entitled In the Shadow’s Light (2004). I described the forms and the sound world of that work as being like sensations filtered through different kinds of veils: ‘These veils might be experienced as a tangle of submerged pathways through which one senses the movement of creatures on the surface above; perhaps as a trance of saturated light coming from a place beyond, or as oscillating interference patterns created by intersecting lines and arising from the coupling and uncoupling of sonic elements.’ The composition of ‘veils’ in that quartet was a meditation on death, loss and disintegration, on memory and sensation becoming unmoored from the body. I recently returned to listening to that quartet and now find enough distance to notice more clearly some of its more objective features: the ways in which it explores effects of shimmer and different degrees of transparency in the layering of sound surfaces as well as an idea of a fraying of the ‘weave’ of sounds into multiple threads which are then subjected to more chaotic entanglements.

Lespugue Venus, front view, Plazy (2001)

Lespugue Venus, front view, (photo: Plazy, 2001)

My new string quartet continues aspects of the earlier exploration. Technically, part of my focus is on the naturally occurring micro-variations in the texture of a single bow stroke and how these irregularities can be amplified through a recursive shuttling back and forth over a ‘glitch’ in the sonic material. The physics of the action of a bow exciting a string on a violin or ‘cello can be described as a series of glitching or ‘stick-slip‘ movements. The rosin on the bow provides varying amounts of ‘grip’ or static friction that is counterpoised with the ‘slip’  or kinetic friction provided by the player’s movement of the bow. I am working with playing techniques that create high static friction by reconfiguring the set-up of instruments through retuning and by exploiting complex combinations of transverse movements against different torsional qualities inherent in the strings.

The music is made up of the acoustic articulation of strings in these amplified or intensified states of behaviour, conceptualised as a sounding topology in which lines become spiralling knots becoming curvilinear planes nested within folded volumes.

That’s a rather dry, technical way of describing the music though…
Within the ‘stick and slip’, the resistances of bow and string against the movement of forces flowing through the body, there is a deep expressive core. You can hear this expressive quality in the throaty distortion of the special ‘catch’ or ‘sob’ in the voice of Sufi singers, caught up in their passionate praise for the Divine. In that distorted inarticulacy of the voice ‘breaking’, we hear a connection to ecstasy.  There’s something more celebratory about this quartet!

The quartet is called The Weaver’s Knot and is written for and dedicated to the Arditti String Quartet on the occasion of their 40th anniversary in 2014.