‘sympathetic error’, fragile architecture

I was commissioned by Ensemble musikFabrik to write solo works for two musicians of the group: Axis Mundi for solo bassoon, for Alban Wesly, and The Green Lion eats the Sun for double-bell euphonium, for Melvyn Poore on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday.  Both works explore ideas connected to shamanic journeying or alchemical transformation touching on the very ancient idea of sound as a vehicle for communication with other worlds or for enabling altered states.  An intense dream I had in 2011 gave me some points of orientation for both solo pieces.

In these works, I am exploring morphologies that belong to dream states – collage, episodic slices in time, organic elaborations of details that bifurcate in unexpected ways. There is an emphasis on the tactile, on the haptic, in which intimacy and emotional excess find musical form in gestures of irregular formation. The temporal landscapes of the pieces are in continuous flux, sometimes accelerating or slowing, at other times stilling, so that time is experienced as a kind of highly volatile liquid-matter – fluctuating, flowing and spilling out, or halting, distending and pooling in to-and-fro movements. The emphasis is on an experiential journeying through sensory states arrived at through both real and imaginary bodily conjunctions that accommodate and amplify juncture points, nodes of resistance or of ease in the physical structures of the musical instruments.

Rather than working with a pre-fabricated architectural plan or a systematised method that ‘logically’ determines the details, here, I am working in slow, labour-intensive ways which prioritise waiting, watching, and listening out for things that appear in my ‘peripheral vision’. If this is a ‘strategy’ for composition, it is something fragile, it is ‘hands-on’, it involves micro-level participation rather than delegation of decision-making, it is about ‘attention’, ‘wanting’, ‘receiving’, ‘deciding’, ‘making’ and also involves redundancy, failure and wasted effort. What I find interesting about the element of failure is the way traces of discarded efforts still find their way into the work – there is a reverse archaeological dimension to the process of composition whereby earlier ‘ruins’ are recycled to build up new forms. The Finnish architect Alvar Aalto has spoken about ‘sympathetic error’ in which so-called mistakes lead to new design solutions. My working process for these pieces leaves a lot of room for this uncertainty principle (!) For me, this way of composing is a conversation between different layers of time leaving ‘margins for error’ in terms of what eventually surfaces. There is an engagement with the heterogeneous qualities of sonic materials as opposed to the homogenising impulse of ‘classical’ instrumental virtuosity. A different kind of virtuosity ensues as the performer negotiates more unfamiliar combinations of touch and breath to coax a result. Close listening to so-called ‘imperfections’ where sounds catch, distort, break and breathe, guides a sensual process of creating a music which has the fragile and violently metamorphosing architecture of dream states.

Axis Mundi (2012), for solo bassoon

Images came to me in a dream: I saw a dead tree with dessicated bark and as I watched, the cracks and hollows filled with insects and larvae. Birds began feeding and breeding until the whole tree was a singing mass of fluttering creatures.

I used this dream sequence as an ‘emotional key’ for elaborating the idea of the bassoon as a ‘singing tree’ exploiting the natural irregularities of intonation and timbre in the instrument. Together with Alban Wesley, I investigated ways of organizing a conception of bassoon acoustics coupled with an unorthodox technical approach so that many differently coloured tones and sound-complexes are arranged into scales that have rather localized positions within the resonating tube of the instrument. There is the materiality of tree and reed and metal: a hollowed-out log is shaped to emphasise particular acoustical properties; a cane reed is cut and scraped to perform against tongue and lips; a metal key system extends the reach of fingers to produce new and more complex combinations of touch. Elemental matter produces new messages yet still remembers its origins in the intimate details of this interior landscape of sound.

The title ‘Axis Mundi’ refers to the idea of a central pole extending between Heaven and Earth which can be found in many cultures and religions. One of the best known of these is Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree of Norse mythology, whose roots, trunk and branches connect multiple realms of existence. Similarly, in Siberian shamanic cultures, the world tree represents a kind of ladder between lower, middle and upper worlds. Symbolic representations of the tree in the form of a ceremonial staff, a column of smoke or the vibrations of a drum, act as a ritual axis enabling the shaman to enter into states of non-ordinary reality to communicate with animal spirits and other sources of power.

The Green Lion eats the Sun (2012-13), for solo double bell euphonium

 As I watched, a larval creature at the base of tree transformed into a scorpion, then a turtle, a wombat and finally a ravenous-looking mountain lion. I tried to hide from it in a garden shed but its powerful paws demolished the building and it moved to devour me.

from J.D. Mylius, Philosophia reformata (1622)

from J.D. Mylius, Philosophia reformata (1622)

The Green Lion eats the Sun was written especially for Melvyn Poore and the double-bell euphonium which he developed with the instrument builder Gottfried Büchel during 2011-12.

‘The Green Lion Devouring the Sun’ is one of the classic images of alchemy with a great variety of interpretations as to its possible meaning. The green lion usually represents a powerfully volatile corrosive agent (aqua regis) which swallows seven metals, even dissolving gold in a process of purification.

The euphonium solo explores an interplay and transference of vibrations between the musician’s body and the many chambers of the instruments: voice, lips and reeds create sounds that interact inside the euphonium’s tubing and bells in a turbulent landscape of frictions, activating internal nodes of vibration (‘interior stars’) and combining to bring about a ‘roar’.

‘Green Lion Eating the Sun’ illustration from the Rosarium Philosophorum (1550)

‘Green Lion Eating the Sun’ illustration from the Rosarium Philosophorum (1550)


Pearl, Ochre, Hair String

Pearl, Ochre, Hair String. Sebastian Klinger, principal ‘cello, Sinfonieorchester der Bayerischen Rundfunks, photo by Astrid Ackermann

Click for: Video documentary about Pearl, Ochre, Hair String made by Peider Defilla for BR-Alpha.  Interview with Liza Lim and excerpts from the premiere performance by the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Lothar Zagrosek


Pearl, Ochre, Hair String (2010) For orchestra

  • Commissioned by the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and West Australian Symphony Orchestra and with the generous financial assistance of the Ian Potter Cultural Trust
  • Premiere: 9 July 2010, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, cond. Lothar Zagrosek, Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich, Musica Viva Concerts. Also: 25, 26, 27 November 2010, West Australian Symphony Orchestra cond. Paul Daniel, Perth Concert Hall; 17 March 2012, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra cond. Otto Tausk. BBC Hear & Now, Glasgow

In 2008, I spent some time in the Kimberley area of Northern Australia as part of my Ian Potter Foundation Composer Fellowship, producing a number of works in response to ideas and images from my travels.  In this part of Australia, Bardi artists have long carved pearl shells for ceremonial purposes in the initiation of boys.  One of the key artists in this field is Aubrey Tigan whose works are collected as art objects as much as cultural artefacts. Shells are incised with navigation and other designs, rubbed with ochre (coloured earth) and fixed with string made of human hair.

Aubrey Tigan, carved pearl shell (Riji), 2006

Pearl shells, with their iridescent shimmer suggesting the shifting surfaces of water, are emblems of life.  They are highly prized items in the Aboriginal economy having been traded for centuries across the continent, taking on new meanings in different locations.  For instance, whilst in the coastal areas, they are openly handled by men and women, in the interior desert communities they are regarded as ‘secret men’s business’ and the incised designs given other layers of meaning.  One intriguing theory, discussed by the writer and art critic Nicolas Rothwell, is that the meander zig-zag designs might have originated from the classic ‘cloud patterns’ on Chinese porcelain used by Macassan people of the nearby Indonesian islands who were trading with Aboriginal people a thousand years ago (well before Europeans ‘discovered’ Australia).  For me, the subject is very rich in ideas about the migration of ideas and images and the way meanings accrete and disperse as something travels into different contexts thus having a wider conceptual resonance beyond the specifically Aboriginal sources.

In Pearl, Ochre, Hair String, I explore aspects of the aesthetic category of shimmer which is so central to Aboriginal art and ritual culture. Qualities of ‘shimmer’, ‘brightness’ and ‘iridescence’ are factors which both veil and point to the presence of a timeless spiritual reality.  The solo ‘cello at the beginning of the work, makes use of a serrated ‘guiro bow’ (the bow hair is wrapped around the stick to create an uneven playing surface) adding a layer of granulated sounds over every stroke rather like the cross-hatching patterns of bark paintings or the incised lines on the pearl shell surface.  This idea of surface vibrations moving over other underlying shapes is explored in many different ways by the whole orchestra and I think of the moving lines and planes of the music as sonic maps showing ‘turbulence patterns’ created by the passage of unseen forces.


For more information, see: Lim, L. (2012) Patterns of Ecstasy. Darmstädter Beiträge zur neuen Musik , 21, pp. 27-43.

Axis Mundi (2012-14)

Axis Mundi: Tree of Joy, Tree of Sorrow (2010), artist book by Stephan Erasmus medium: ink on paper, 50x33x33cm, Gallery Brundyn + Gonsalves

AXIS MUNDI (2012-14) for solo bassoon
Commissioned by Ensemble musikFabrik through Kunststiftung NRW. Dedicated to Alban Wesly.

Images came to me in a dream: I saw a dead tree with dessicated bark and as I watched, the cracks and hollows filled with insects and larvae. Birds began feeding and breeding until the whole tree was a singing mass of fluttering creatures.

The symbol of the ‘Axis Mundi’ as a central pole extending between Heaven and Earth can be found in many cultures and religions. One of the best known of these is Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree of Norse mythology, whose roots, trunk and branches connect multiple realms of existence. Similarly, in Siberian shamanic cultures, the world tree represents a kind of ladder between lower, middle and upper worlds. Symbolic representations of the tree in the form of a ceremonial staff, a column of smoke or the vibrations of a drum, act as a ritual axis enabling the shaman to enter into states of non-ordinary reality to communicate with animal spirits and other sources of power.

Alban Wesly visited me in Manchester on 23 March 2012 to demonstrate the bassoon: the instrument is a long wooden tube that doubles back on itself, punctuated by a great number of holes and keys. The keys might be thought of as a quite complex ‘management system’ to resolve a natural out-of-tuneness but it was precisely the irregularities of intonation and colour in the bassoon that attracted my attention. Alban and I found a way of organising sounds which takes an ‘inside-out’ view of the instrument: in thinking about each hole as a venting point governing the cycles of vibration inside the instrument, and then subtly changing the interaction of these vibrations by opening and closing parts of the acoustic chamber below the open hole, we arrived at a series of irregular scales. These scales are made up of differently sized microtonal intervals and changing ‘behaviours’. There are tones expressed in distinct timbres from bright to dark to fuzzy, and complex multiphonics ranging from highly dissonant rolling tones and roaring frictions to consonant harmonies. Some of the sounds are highly localised, gloriously emerging from the bell at the top of the bassoon or circulating in quite specific regions of the tube. These sonic ‘knots’ inside the vibrating hollow tube of the instrument form the musical material of Axis Mundi. The breath of the musician travelling the hidden pathways across and through these knots activates the many voices of a ‘singing tree’.

new day, new opera

And yet, and yet – the last secret of the tree of codes is that nothing can ever reach a definite conclusion. Nowhere as much as there do we feel possibilities, shaken by the nearness of realization.

[from Jonathan Safran Foer
Tree of Codes, p.95]

Tree of Codes is a new opera commissioned by Oper Koeln, Ensemble musikFabrik and HELLERAU – Europäisches Zentrum der Künste in co-operation with the Akademie der Kuenste der Welt for performances in 2016. [updated 7/11/14].

Between the pages of the world…

Some music for the solstice as the light returns…

This is the 4th movement from Tongue of the Invisible (2011) performed by Omar Ebrahim (baritone) with musikFabrik conducted by André de Ridder, recorded in June this year at the WDR Funkhaus in Köln. It’s a moment of hushed stillness in the hour-long journey of the music.

Between the pages of the world

The rose flowers for a day only
Before the bud is pressed
Between the pages of the world

(Text by Jonathan Holmes, after Hafez)

The complete work can be heard online in a radio broadcast from WDR3 on 25 Jan 2012.

Orchestral works next season

Looking ahead to the next season, two of my orchestral works referencing aspects of Australian Aboriginal culture will have performances in locations quite far removed from those origins. Pearl, Ochre, Hair String (2010) will be presented on 17 March 2012 by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Otto Tausk at Glasgow City Halls as part of BBC Hear and Now.  Bayern-Alpha tv with Peider Defilla made a documentary film about the premiere by the Bavarian Radio Orchestra in Munich last July 2010.

The Compass (2006) will be performed on 2, 3 & 4 July 2012 by the Städtisches Orchester Bremerhaven conducted by Stephan Teztlaff with soloists Carin Levine (flute) and William Barton (didgeridoo), and is also  programmed in the 2012-13 season of the Orchestre National de Lille conducted by Philippe Danel (making that the 16th performance of the work).

The Compass has been heard live in Sydney, Munich, Venice, Paris, Verona, Modena, Rome, Turin, Naples, Merano, then next in Bremerhaven and Lille.  Pearl, Ochre, Hair String has been presented in Munich, Perth and next in Glasgow. I’ve been reflecting on aspects of ‘reception history’, that is, how an audience’s cultural background and life experiences provide frameworks that shape their interpretation of a work’s meaning or informs the degree of resonance that is created in an encounter with new work. I wonder what it means that the location where both of these orchestral works have been perhaps most warmly received, has been in Munich.

Bavarian Radio Orchestra - The Compass, Munich Jan 2007 (photo by Astrid Ackermann)

‘The Guest’ broadcast

I attend a low-key yoga class at a local church hall in Manchester. The teacher likes to recite poems during the final Savasana (relaxation pose) as a way of giving some inspiration and yesterday chose a poem by Rumi. It talks about welcoming and accepting any aspect of the human condition, even the seemingly dark and mean sides. Lying on the ground appears simple but many things rise up to one’s awareness when in this posture and it’s quite challenging to bring a spacious attention both to things that are attractive and those that feel repellent. When one stops applying the usual framework for judging and interpreting for a little moment, life can seem very vivid.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

~ Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi (13th century) ~

(The Essential Rumi, versions by Coleman Barks)

ABC-Classic FM Radio in Australia are broadcasting a series of concerts from last year’s edition of the Donaueschinger Musiktage.  The Guest, a ‘concerto for orchestra and recorder’, that I wrote for Jeremias Schwarzer and the SWR Orchestra conducted by Rupert Huber can be heard online via their website.