interview in MusikFabrik’s new 2014/15 Season Brochure


Remembering Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly: An artist of selective abandon – an artist to return to again and again…

The Four Seasons (after Cy Twombly) was made for the pianist Marilyn Nonken who brings so much nuance and colour to her performance of the work (Helsinki, 2009).
The half-hour work falls into 4 parts: I. Autumn, 6′, II. Winter, 6′, III. Spring, 7′, IV. Summer (Sema), 10′

have notebook & pen – will compose

I started writing this piece, The Green Lion Eats the Sun – for double-bell euphonium, in Boston airport during a 7-hour delay (this is what boredom can do for you…) and finished it a few days later in Manchester, UK.

Marco Blaauw from musikFabrik and I had a conversation about recent projects and here’s an excerpt:

Liza: …I guess it’s the idea of parallel structures of creativity and consciousness that really fascinates me. For instance, “The Green Lion eats the Sun”, the piece for double-bell euphonium that I’ve written for Melvyn Poore, is about these two sides of consciousness which are represented quite simply with the two bells. The opening and closing of the bells give you access to one or the other side but in a weird reversal: the so-called unconscious side is much more colourful, active, vibrant than the so-called conscious one. There’s a gap: when we are on one side we can’t realize what’s on the other side. And it’s only when we change the perspective or, in the case of the piece, change the position through the opening of the bell that we can actually perceive it. That was one of the really basic ideas I had compositionally about switching between these two sides of the instrument.

Marco: Is composing, is music helping you with that process of switching between the different states of consciousness?

Liza: Yes it is – definitely! Because composing and making music is actually to be in touch with an activated form of consciousness, which is not really part of ordinary operations. I experienced that very strongly writing the piece for Melvyn.

I found it very difficult in the beginning to write for the double bell euphonium. How to activate this instrument, which doesn’t have a huge repertoire? It is not a pre-trodden path in terms of solo repertoire or of any kind of established virtuosity. I really struggled. I was getting later and later, because I was finding it hard to work with the instrument. Then I actually starting writing the piece quite recently when I was at Boston airport delayed for seven hours. One would say it is the least promising place to get into composition! But for some reason I was just so focused, so ready to reach out and pick up this piece that I wrote half of this piece in Boston airport. Surrounded by this layer of noise and frustrated passengers, I just got into such a focused state of mind and being. Nothing could disturb me. Nothing could touch me. That is the ecstasy of making art. The music is making you and you are making the music. The wonder one aims for but doesn’t necessarily reach. That was really exciting! Many thoughts I had before just came together, thoughts I had grappled with in the previous, let’s say, two years… And then it was like having access to another state, to another world, and being able to touch it and grab it. That’s one of the initial ideas of my piece “Songs found in Dream” (2005) – the Australian aboriginal idea that songs are things you “hunt” for in this other state of being.
(Skype interview with Marco Blaauw, musikFabrik, 30 May 2014, transcribed by Mareike Winter, reproduced with permission)

The Green Lion Eats the Sun (2014) for double bell euphonium will be premiered on 21 September 2014 by Melvyn Poore, Witold Lutoslawski Polish Radio Concert Studio. 

‘Gifts and Greetings’, the Arditti String Quartet’s 40th Anniversary

On Saturday 10th May, the premiere of The Weaver’s Knot, a new string quartet of mine commissioned for the concert ‘Gifts and Greetings: Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Arditti String Quartet’ takes place at Wittenertage für neue Kammermusik. As well as my work, the programme see the premieres of quartets by Mark Andre, Hans Abrahamsen, Harrison Birtwistle, Uri Caine, Brian Ferneyhough, Georg Friedrich Haas, Toshio Hosokawa, György Kurtág, Hilda Paredes, Brice Pauset, Wolfgang Rihm, Marco Stroppa and Jennifer Walshe. I think it’ll be a party to remember…
WDR 3 will broadcast the concert on 10 May at 22:00 (CET). 

Arditti String Quartet. l-r: Ralf Ehlers, Lucas Fels, Ashot Sarkissjan, Irvine Arditti

Arditti String Quartet. l-r: Ralf Ehlers, Lucas Fels, Ashot Sarkissjan, Irvine Arditti

traditions – transformations of memory

I’m somewhat incredulous/pinching myself that Machine for Contacting the Dead, a piece from 1999-2000, will be performed by Klangforum Wien conducted by Enno Poppe next March 2015 in Vienna. The concert is entitled ‘Place of Longing’ and my work is programmed together with Eva Reiter‘s fantastic piece, Irrlicht (2012) and Brian Ferneyhough’s Liber Scintillarum (2012). This is part of their Immigrants series at the Vienna Konzerthaus that asks an intriguing set of questions about transnational movement, cultural flows, identifications and alienations that take a more complex and subtle view of ‘migration’ than is often presented.

Machine for Contacting the Dead for 27 musicians was originally commissioned by the Ensemble Intercontemporain and premiered in Paris in Feb 2000 (they also commissioned and premiered Mother Tongue that ICE played a couple of weeks ago).

For the Ensemble Intercontemporain commission I was invited to make a work that reflected on a grand exhibition of archaeological treasures excavated from the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zheng dating from 433 B.C. (see article). Very little is really known about the world of this ‘China’ though naturally, the grandeur of its artefacts can be and have been co-opted for new narratives of power – a replica model of the massive set of bells from this tomb was used in a work by Tan Dun composed for the handover ceremonies when Hong Kong was passed back to China from British colonial territorial control. I’m not saying anything new here: ‘History’ can be a heavy yoke but can also become an invitation to invention (part of this is also how people contest the right to invent); ‘tradition’ is in many cases not a unitary, unbroken line of pure transmission but I think often reveals itself to be a place of not-knowing, of loss and disjuncture forcing re-invention in order to bridge the gaps. This became a focus in my compositional project in which I sought out glimpses of an imagined history of the women/concubine musicians and dancers who were buried with the nobleman – a calligraphic architecture of ‘memory traces’, broken instrumental cries, elided resonances, sighs and whispers.


I recently visited China for the very first time as a guest of the 2014 ‘Rainbow Bridge International Poets Gathering at the Slender West Lake’ in Yangzhou. The festival is co-directed by the poet Yang Lian whose poems I set in a piece called The Quickening (2005) for guqin and soprano. Lian’s vision is to bring the contemporary and international into a dialogue with Chinese traditions in a festival that claims its roots in the legendary gathering of poet-calligraphers in 353BC whose games of wine drinking and poetry composition gave rise to the ‘Orchid Pavilion’ poetry collection. The collection’s Preface essayed by Wang Xizhi is still held up as an unsurpassed benchmark for calligraphic achievement.

The city of Yangzhou is astoundingly beautiful. During the T’ang dynasty it was the centre of an Imperial-sponsored literati culture that embraced poetry, music, calligraphy, architecture, garden design, culinary arts etc. At the opening event we travelled in boats along the meandering course of the Slender West Lake whilst multiple groups of school kids and citizens gathered along the banks to recite T’ang dynasty poems. We stopped in our boats at each location where the visiting poets recited their poems to the locals in a moving exchange.

Children reciting T'ang poetry, Slender West Lake, Yangzhou

Children reciting T’ang poetry, Slender West Lake, Yangzhou (some wearing masks of the faces of poets)

This context of a brilliant historical tradition operating at an extraordinary time scale provided the framework for meetings, discussions and translation events between visiting poets Kwame Dawes, C.D. Wright, Fiona Sampson, Forrest Gander, John Burnside, Aleš Šteger, Yang Lian and Chinese poets Guanguan, Tang Xiaodu, Chen Dongdong, Song Lin amongst others. ‘History’, ‘tradition’ and ‘contemporaneity’ were the terms up for debate. Poets of course deal in the currencies of language as invented meaning and re-imagined histories – from a certain viewpoint, this might even be a definition of poetry! A paradigmatic example of the sleight of hand that has to go into any insistence on ‘history’ and ‘tradition’ as a form of unbroken purity in China is to point out that no-one knows how ancient Classical Chinese might have sounded. Rather like Latin and Ancient Greek, pronunciation is a matter of conjecture and scholars use a variety of modern Southern dialects such as Cantonese, Hakka and Hokkien or even Vietnamese to approximate or reconstruct aspects of the sounds and rhymes of the classical language. Invention then starts at the very point of recitation where sound transgresses the framework of the neat calligraphic mark and points to the necessity of new imaginings.

(this weblink might be of interest: East Asian Writing Systems)

April press

Press from ICE concert at Miller Theatre, New York

Alex Ross, Singing in Tongues, The New Yorker, 21 April 2014

Corinne Ramey, Australian Composer Finds Her Marbles, Wall Street Journal, 9 April 2014

Christian Carey, ICE does justice to a neglected composer, Musical America, 15 April 2014

Press from Six Degrees concert at Melbourne Recital Centre, Metropolis Festival

Matthew Lorenzon, Metropolis New Music Festival: Six Degrees, Garden of Earthly Desire, Partial Durations, 9 April 2014

Clive O’Connell, Six Degrees weaves a polyphonic web, The Age, 8 April 2014

Matthew Lorenzon, Making meaning as you journey, Realtime Arts RT119, Feb-March issue 2014

April is the month for journeying

I’m very excited to be visiting the States to work with ICE, the International Contemporary Ensemble who are presenting a concert of my work at the Miller Theatre in New York on April 10th. I did a skype rehearsal a few days ago with ‘cellist Michael Nicolas who will be performing Invisibility. This is a work which Séverine Ballon has very much made her own having performed it about 50 times so it’s very interesting to hear the music being bodied forth by another player. What strikes me is how seismographic this music can be – the whole set up of the ‘cello with the retuned strings and the use of the prepared and the normal bow create conditions for the performer in which their physical presence registers in the music in very immediate ways – a shift in weight, a prioritisation of pressure, speed and a myriad qualities of touch that are judged ‘by ear’ are intimately woven into the musical texture.

Gareth Flowers on trumpet and Ross Karre on percussion will perform Ehwaz (journeying) and ICE as an ensemble of 15 musicians with soprano Tony Arnold (also playing a ‘cello with two bows!!) conducted by Karina Canellakis will perform Mother Tongue. All the pieces in the concert represent very strong turning points for me in terms of finding new paths for exploring ideas related to Indigenous culture, shamanic practices of attention and an emotional terrain around how we access the world through language and articulation.

Speaking of another piece that was very important in my formation as a composer, Garden of Earthly Desire (1988), written when I was 22, will be performed on April 5th by the Six Degrees Ensemble at the Metropolis Festival, Melbourne Recital Centre. This was originally commissioned by the ELISION Ensemble funded by the Music Board of the Australia Council for a music-theatre production with Handspan puppet theatre. It was a bit of a ‘breakthrough’ piece for me in terms of engaging with large-scale structure (it’s a 30 minute work for 11 instruments) and generated a lot of energy for an incredibly fruitful collaboration with ELISION that was to result in several installation projects, 3 operas, the song cycle Mother Tongue as well as many, many solo and chamber music explorations.

Here’s a link to an article/interview Making meaning as you journey by Matthew Lorenzon about Garden as well my work Tongue of the Invisible that appeared in Real Time #119 (Feb-March 2014).

I’m sorry not to be able to attend the Melbourne concert. Here’s a recording made in 1991 by ELISION conducted by Sandro Gorli:

I also feel incredibly grateful that I have the opportunity to visit China in the first 4 days of April as a guest of the Yangzhou International Poetry Festival. (I’ll post about this later). On April 15th, I will present a talk on my recent work and compositional thinking entitled ‘Knots and other forms of entanglement’ in the Barwick Colloquium Series at Harvard University.