revisiting ‘Moon Spirit Feasting’

Yuè Ling Jié (Moon Spirit Feasting), a Chinese ritual street opera

This trailer is from the 2000 Adelaide Festival premiere when the opera was performed outdoors on a barge floating on the Torrens River. One of my many collaborations with, and fabulous productions of, the ELISION Ensemble.

Music by Liza Lim
Libretto by Beth Yahp
Directed by Michael Kantor
Set & Costumes by Dorotka Sapinska
Choreography by Melissa Madden Gray
Singers: Chang-O, Deborah Kayser
Queen Mother of the West, Melissa Madden Grey
Monkey King/Hou Yi, Orren Tanabe
ELISION Ensemble conducted by Simon Hewett
Opera commissioned by the Adelaide and Melbourne Festivals

This production then travelled for seasons at the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts (2002), Hebbel Theatre Berlin (2002), Zurich Theatre Spektakel (2002),  Saitama Arts Centre Tokyo (2002) & Brisbane Festival (2006)


Winding bodies: 3 knots shortlisted for 2015 BASCA Award

Winding Bodies: 3 knots has been shortlisted in the large chamber music category of this year’s BASCA awards. Here’s what I wrote about the piece:

A knot is the magical image of time turned back on itself – think of a knot and you start thinking of the actions and process of tying it! The place where you were first finds itself next to where you will be next as you interlace a strand and pull it tight.
A knot is a material technology for binding and unbinding through friction and tension and is also one of our oldest patterns for story-telling, memory-work, divination and magic. The properties that make a knot ‘knotty’, somehow also appeal to our story-telling instincts when we’re faced with paradoxes and problems intervening in a life of desires, curses, memory and loss. Winding Bodies, 3 Knots looks at the old Nordic tale of sailors ‘buying the wind’ tied in knots – untying the first knot would release a breeze, the second a strong wind and the third contained a hurricane which should never be untied…

I would like to make a music that is similarly intertwining in nature, a music made up of a circulating meshwork of lines of activity in which one finds knots of stable coherence and knots that puzzle and confound; a music where knotting describes a poetics of bewilderment as much as of clarity, and where forms grow out of an attention to and fascination with the hurricane of waywardness that sits at the edge of where you think things are going, barely contained by a knot in a rope.

For alto flute, bass clarinet, piano (with preparation), percussion, Norwegian hardingfele (hardanger fiddle), violin, viola, cello and double bass. Winding Bodies: 3 Knots was commissioned by the Cikada Ensemble with the generous assistance of the Norwegian Arts Council. It received its UK premiere by the Cikada Ensemble at St Paul’s Hall on 23rd November 2014 as part of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

memento mori – assemblage #1

Svetlana Boym – on Nostalgia [Adaptation and elaboration from Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, Basic Books, New York 2001.]

the wandering scales at the end of this…

…the breathing of a stone rubbed on a granite tile
I played part 14, [stone-on-stone], as one of 100 percussionists in Speak Percussion’s production of Michael Pisaro’s A wave and waves for the Melbourne Festival

morning sky, taxi from the airport, 5 October 2015, Melbourne

morning sky, September 2015, Melbourne

inner urban gardening – food for the soul

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.

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.

*Update: recording from the premiere (3rd movement only)