Farewell to Humans: An Interview with Liza Lim

The following is an edited transcript of an interview with Liza Lim (LL) conducted by Martina Seeber (MS) for the Jetzmusik programme on Südwestrundfunk Radio2.

The episode, ‘Abschied vom Menschen: Die Komponistin Liza Lim’, was broadcast on 19 March 2019 on SWR2 with excerpts from the interview material overdubbed in German interspersed with commentary by Martina Seeber and with musical examples. Video and audio examples from online sources appear in the body of this text to illustrate the works under discussion.

Abstract: The Anthropocene, oceans full of plastic debris, climate change, beauty, rituals and magic. As an artist, Liza Lim deals with subjects which might be considered to be way too complex for a single composition. The composer grew up in different cultures and came to prominence in an era of global problems. In almost every work, she deals with extramusical ideas. Her works carry messages, but at the same time she explores sound, experiments with playing techniques, and the possibilities of communication among musicians on stage. Despite this article being titled ‘Farewell to Humans’, Liza Lim does not say farewell to humanity, even in works where she explores dimensions beyond our civilisation.

MSI would like to talk about a range of pieces: How Forests Think, An Ocean Beyond Earth, Ronda, Tongue of the Invisible, and Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus. Let’s start with the solo piece, An Ocean Beyond Earth. What do you like about solo pieces?
LLWell, in a way, writing solo pieces is like a laboratory. It’s a chance to really go in-depth, studying that particular world. Most solo pieces I write are connected to a specific performer, so there’s usually a sense of an ongoing conversation with the performer, a collaboration. I really discover new things for myself when I’m writing solo works and often the solo work finds a new life inside an ensemble piece. There’s an interesting kind of interrelation between the single-focus and then a much wider kind of world.

What’s so fantastic about having a very close study of one instrument is that you can discover all kinds of multiple worlds, micro-worlds inside that instrument, so it becomes almost like an ensemble work in a way. I suppose what the solo piece offers is this rich detail and nuance where the single performer has to drive everything—there isn’t the dialogue with a community of musicians. There’s something very intense about that as an expressive context which I find really interesting.
MSI love the intensity in An Ocean Beyond Earth, with Séverine Ballon. This piece also has a visual element with the thread between the violin and the cello. A lot of your pieces have visual elements on stage.
LLAn Ocean Beyond Earth is quite unusual in that there is a violin which is tied with cotton threads to a cello, and then there’s also the body of the performer operating the two instruments. It becomes a three-part creature, a hybrid, fantastical creature, like a centaur. In my solo pieces there is often a sense of instrument and performer making a new kind of hybrid identity. And in this piece you’ve got two instruments and a performer making this particular situation.
MSWhat did you develop with Séverine Ballon? Did you tell her what to do or did you develop how to do things together?
LLOne of the most unusual parts of the piece is the use of these threads. It was my idea initially but we also developed the technique together—that is what collaboration is, ongoing dialogue and making something together. Séverine has rosin on her fingers and when she pulls the thread away from the violin, it sounds the violin strings at a distance. And then when she pulls the string that’s tied to the cello away towards the violin, she sounds the cello strings.

So, this is a very fragile and tenuous kind of system where she’s making sounds by this friction effect on these very simple materials, this cotton thread. Exactly the kind of fragile thread you might use for sewing clothes, it’s nothing special at all. A very ordinary material that’s transformed into quite a magical kind of substance in this piece.
MSWhat about the development of new techniques? There have been so many developments and experiments in contemporary music. In the 90s music became so subtle and kind of well-worked in every detail. What is there to discover today?
LLYou know, I’m not so interested per se in developing extended techniques for the sake of it. I suppose it’s always driven by other factors, whether it’s a conceptual idea or a kind of aesthetic quality that I’m looking for—that is what really drives the investigation into sound. So it’s not novelty for its own sake but something that arises from an artistic need. In the case of these friction strings, in a way it’s a continuation of what a stringed instrument is. There is the sense of the string itself being a very lively material. For me, these cotton threads are something very living, and at the same time rather simple.

There’s something very appealing about the relative simplicity of it. There is something very archaic about it. It’s very connected to a type of archaic story-telling or myth-making, or spellbinding. All of these things are related to this idea of the strings that I use in this particular piece.
MSIt’s a really powerful situation, seeing her pulling all these threads and being very concentrated in this fragile situation.
LLYes, a few reviewers have commented that it’s like watching a spider spinning a web. As someone in the audience, when you see her pulling these threads and making these sounds it is as if the sounds are pulled out of the air by magic. Because you can’t really see the strings, so it’s like she is stroking the air and the sound is coming out. There’s a connection between images of weaving, the spider, and a mythical kind of world-weaving. It does become very resonant and I think there’s a certain kind of power around it.

But there is also the content that is tied to this fragility, this expressiveness that comes from the fact that it may not quite sound, or there’s a slight catch in the sound. And for me, I find that very interesting, where there is this element of rupture, this element of an edge between possibility or impossibility, and of failure. I find it opens up for me a kind of expressive territory that I’m really interested in.
MSLet’s talk about another kind of experimenting with instruments. You worked with Smetak instruments in Ronda. What was interesting in this project?
LLRonda – The Spinning World was a commission from Ensemble Modern, and it was proposed to me by the DAAD in Berlin who hold an archive containing some instruments and materials of Walter Smetak, who was one of their residents (as was I). They really wanted to activate their archive in a new way by inviting composers to work with those materials.

At the invitation of the DAAD and the Goethe Institut I spent some time in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, visiting the Smetak museum of instruments. The instruments are built out of really quite simple and makeshift kind of stuff, like gourds and pieces of polystyrene. They’re put together in a very homemade kind of way. But for Walter Smetak they were a kind of metaphysical diagram. They were instruments that could be played but they were also representative of an idea about the energies of the universe, reflecting his theosophical, cosmological ideas.

I had this very fabulous time in Salvador, coming into contact with these very potent instruments, gaining a lot of ideas, not just from the instruments but from the whole context of the city. The sonic world of the city gave me a lot of impulses for the piece which fed into the spatial concepts that are in the piece where some of the musicians walk around the hall. There’s a sense of circulation, circles within circles, a sense of play and also of combat.

These were some of the things which I found in the streets of Salvador, as well as in a ceremony that I went to, the Candomblé ceremony, this very intense, trance-based, Afro-Brazilian religious ritual. All of those things kind of make their way into the piece. I suppose from that you can see how often my process is about being quite transparent to things which are in my environment, really drawing upon ideas, energetic elements which I gain from people, from objects. From both humans and non-human things, material objects, which for me have this liveliness as I mentioned before with the strings. A sense of their own kind of story, or agency. I guess that does connect to some of the other pieces that you mentioned. This idea of a kind of ecology of human and non-human things is operational in the work I’m trying to do.
MSCan you really focus on these instruments? I found it quite difficult because they’re in the context of the ensemble.
LLI use these kinetic string instruments (called ronda) and they’re types of harps which can be bowed. There’s also a rotating harp called Tres Sois made up of three discs of rows of strings that are plucked as they move around. The sound of these plucked and bowed instruments blends with the normal harp and blends with the stringed instruments. What they do is provide a chaotic element—you hear this rotation of pitches, this melange of circulating sounds in the work, and those are the Smetak instruments.

There are also these very rude, brass sounds, instruments called Piston Cretino that are these very crude, homemade trumpets. They are made from just a length of rubber tubing, as you might find in a garden centre, and a €2 funnel stuck to one end of the tube, and then a trumpet mouthpiece on the other end.

It’s the most basic kind of trumpet you can make. In the piece, the players playing them are actually moving around the hall, so in the live situation you get this spatial element where there is this kind of mock combat. It’s improvisational so the work has both fixed and then more open elements. But I think there’s a sense in which the unusual Smetak instruments inject a more chaotic energy into the overall work. They provide impulses which the other musicians playing the more standard instruments respond to.

It’s not so much like, okay, here’s one class of instrument and here’s another that are separated out. It’s really that the presence of these more unusual homemade instruments collide with the standard orchestral instruments to create this world that has this more chaotic dimension.
MSLet’s talk about the ideas of music beyond humans. We spoke about this in the context of Extinction Events, but the same idea appears in How Forests Think where you draw on the ecosystem of a forest. Why is this subject so interesting for you as a composer?
LLI think when one takes an ecological view, it immediately widens one’s references beyond the strictly human. I think that is, for me but also for many people, the number one challenge and question of our times as we are facing extraordinary and catastrophic kinds of environmental crises. As an artist it’s something that I absolutely want to respond to in different ways.
MSBut how do you use this idea of an ecosystem of the forest, the idea of a thinking forest system, when you are composing? How does this enter your music or your work?
LLI drew upon the book How Forests Think, by the anthropologist Eduardo Kohn. It derives from his field work with the Runa people in the upper Amazon, so it’s very much situated in a particular culture. A better word might be ‘nature-culture’. It is about the way in which everything in that environment—there are human people, but there are also non-human selves; they could be trees, or animals—each has its own sentience, things have their own sort of subjectivity, which creates this series of dialogues and communications happening in different registers.

So there’s this incredible complexity, this sense of the absolute interconnection between everything that I find incredibly generative and inspiring, and to me it just makes sense. Where I grew up in Brunei, in my childhood—on the island of Borneo in South East Asia—there was absolutely this sense of the livingness of the environment. I grew up with people who had really strong animistic beliefs, and they did speak to trees, and animals, and rocks. It was all incredibly real, so to me it feels like a very natural way of thinking and responding to the world.
MSTell us a little bit about where you came from. Which countries did you grow up in? What did your parents do?
LLI grew up in basically two countries; in Australia, where I was born, and also Brunei, which is where my parents come from. I moved around a bit during my earlier childhood, so there’s a mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian, as well as Anglo-European cultures that all play a part in my education and upbringing, for sure. My parents come from medical backgrounds so they are professional people. My grandparents were more involved in music, so I think there’s a kind of inheritance there on the musical side.
MSWhen you talk about Brunei, did you really live among people of villages, or in a city?
LLWell, when I was growing up, Brunei was a small, sleepy town. So, the jungle is always there, right next to you. You’re not separated from that environment at all. Where we lived there were monkeys in the backyard. There was that sense of nature being absolutely present and interwoven with daily life. It’s not like you had to go somewhere separate to experience it, it was absolutely surrounding us.
MSSo you weren’t living in a gated community with a long way to go to meet other people or nature?
LLNo, not at all—it really wasn’t that kind of town. The rainforest is so intense. It’s this wall of sound, especially the insects. There is something very provocative; it really creates a strong resonance for me when I hear those sounds. If homesickness has a sound, it would be that kind of sound. This kind of buzz of insects, this white noise element is something that I find incredibly comforting. If that sort of level of noise, that level of distortion is my homeland or my nostalgia, then that probably says quite a lot about my music as well.
MSI once heard the rainforest when in Mexico and I was astounded how loud it was. I had never heard this kind of sound before where I could not tell where it comes from, what animals make these noises, if it were little frogs or big monkeys.
LLYes, it’s very immersive; it’s a sort of full-body thing. The other thing that’s really interesting about rainforests as a sonic environment is how different animals inhabit different acoustic niches. The frogs may just be in the lowest register, and then one type of insect above that and so on. There are these bands of sounds, so when you spend time in rainforests you really hear how the sound operates in these different layers. They don’t actually cross over and that’s a kind of survival mechanism. If you want to broadcast your mating call effectively within that wall of sound you have to stick to your sonic band.
MSSo then you composed How Forests Think with a lot of different parts in it. With duos, and solos, and in it there is also the sheng player Wu Wei, who you said is like the lung of the piece. What is his role in this forest? He is not the soloist?
LLWu Wei is a master sheng player. He is really the musician that has transformed this ancient Chinese traditional instrument into an instrument of contemporary 21st Century presence. He has done all kinds of incredible things all around the world. For me, the sheng is itself like the forest—it has these 37 bamboo pipes tied into a clump. It has a very interesting property in terms of performance practice where you can make a sound both on the exhale and also on the inhale. It’s like an accordion actually. It has a very responsive reed, so whether you’re blowing air in or out, it will sound the instrument. And so in this sense it is this lung because it registers both the breathing out and the breathing in. I make use of this kind of patterning of inhale/exhale throughout the piece to coordinate a bigger rhythm for the ensemble which, at the end of the piece, becomes a sort of meditation where they really listen to their breath and use their breathing to place events in the music.

In this sense, I can say that the ensemble becomes this community of listeners. It’s this organism that’s really responding to the moment of each other’s breathing to make the music. And in this sense the music is really emergent from the presence of the musicians. That’s one way in which the sheng as an instrument kind of entrains all of the participants through the course of the piece.

But, as you say, there are many, many different things in the work, so it’s not like the sheng is the only solo instrument. Everyone has their turn to play their part, to come into some kind of prominence, to lead but then move away. So again, I was just trying to play with this idea of organic presences which are made up of musicians as people with bodies, but who also play instruments.
MSHow do you work with musicians to achieve this? It seems like a very unusual approach for a composer who works with a written score.
LLIn How Forests Think most of the score is very precisely scored in terms of traditional stave notation, but then as the piece continues it starts to contain textual instructions which say: ‘listen in a certain kind of way; place your phrase in relation to the breathing pattern'. So it shifts from a score which really directs the musicians in terms of exactly what to play to something more invitational in terms of getting the musicians to create and make decisions. It’s not a new thing at all—there are many traditions and lineages of that in contemporary music—but it was my way to try and open up this space somehow over the course of the music.
MSYet it sounds very different from the experiments Stockhausen did, or Lutosławski, or somebody like that. It’s very personal.
LLI guess it’s trying to find a way to allow the group to move from one sort of attention into other kinds of attention through social listening. One of the things I was trying to do, and which I’ve tried to do in piece after piece, is to invite some kind of more personal element that comes from the musician. So there are some things in it which seem not to belong. Straight away you think ‘oh, why is that there?’ There are some particular parts ... like Wu Wei speaks this phrase in Chinese halfway through the work, saying ‘in the forest far from the poetry, love arises’. But he also sings, he does his Mongolian chanting. It’s not that I’m really quoting that culture, it’s more about a certain kind of energy that Wu Wei brings that then allows the other musicians there to shift their attention.

It’s a delicate proposition really, maybe it’s not always going to work. But when it does, it’s really amazing. Suddenly the atmosphere shifts. This is what I’m interested in. It’s hard to quantify, you really can’t know how it will turn out. It has an absolutely qualitative dimension to it. That’s the magic aspect of what performance is about.

In this piece, I introduced all these elements that I probably wouldn’t have done in the past. I’m not trying to weave it into a kind of totally coherent whole necessarily, but I use it as a tool to shift to something else that’s happening in the work.
MSAt the same time in this piece, the conductor disappears for a time. Like in Extinction Events, where people move around and do things. Is this because you have a lot of experience with music theatre, with opera? Why is this stage movement important for you?
LLI suppose spatial things have different roles. Sometimes it’s very much a sonic thing, it’s about shifting sound around a space. Sometimes it’s about a kind of politics which is about dissolving a kind of stage setup or tension or power relation.

So for instance, in How Forests Think when the conductor moves away from the usual spot and joins the ensemble in singing, for me that is a kind of dissolving of a certain kind of regime of power in the ensemble. These things are not so much about theatre or acting, they’re more techniques or tools to shift a state within the feeling of the work.

So yes, I think power relations are something which one can address, via spatialization and movement. I find that quite interesting, and it’s not like I do incredibly extreme things either. I just make usually quite small interventions and test them. That’s a sort of ongoing project to see ‘oh okay, if I do this, what really can happen? Does it disrupt the way in which communication is happening? Does it open up a space? Does it dissolve?' All of these kinds of questions come into play.
MSYou deal a lot with titles and thoughts and systems.
LLYes, I think music often operates on this other plane. I think it’s like ritual, it can affect you on some really non-verbal plane, not in terms of a direct message but it can operate in another cognitive field of impression and emotion.

I can’t say that any piece has to communicate any one thing. There are so many things that come into play and I suppose I’m just trying to offer that, and people can take whatever they can out of that situation.
MSHow do you work with the results of scientific research? Do scientific systems like formulas or algorithms enter your compositional processes like with a lot of composers, or is it much more allegorical or poetical?
LLI don’t use scientific data in my work. It’s not like I have any transference from data to sound. I work more in terms of a metaphorical world where I transpose a kind of system of operation. For instance, Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus looks at the environmental situation of plastic pollution circulating in the ocean, which I transpose into a musical arena by thinking about circulation of time.

It’s very much a transposition from one realm into another. And finally, it acts in a poetic and aesthetic way, so it’s not taking a message in any sort of direct transformation.
MSSo you don’t translate, for example, the theory of fractals into the compositional process?
LLNot like that. I mean there may be a principle I find interesting which I can then relate to a musical process. But often I’m working in a more metaphorical, poetic, and aesthetic way.

A writer who I really like, is Timothy Morton, and in a book of his called Realist Magic he says that reality recedes from our grasp. That science is also an aesthetic experience. It is interpretation. Measurement is also interpretation, and therefore aesthetics. He makes a very interesting comparison between what artists do and what scientists do. He kind of closes the distance somewhat, so I find that quite intriguing. This sense of whether we’re trying to reach something through the realm of measurement, which of course is also a framework, is a choice; it is a kind of interpretation and epistemology; or whether we use another kind of system. For example, Indigenous thinking also gives me a lot of access to thinking about other epistemologies, other ways of understanding the world and poetic ways of thinking. For me it’s not necessarily one thing being more important than the other. You see a kind of relativity there in terms of what kind of scale, what kind of grid, what kind of framework you’re going to use to examine something and think about it.

For me I often rely on metaphors and story-telling. That’s my framework and I find that a very rich sort of methodology to think about the work. There’s another writer I really like, Marilyn Strathern. She says it’s critical which stories we choose to use to tell other stories. I find that a very nice reminder of the way in which everything we bring to the situation co-creates it, a partial frame that allows us to see some things but not others.
MSI think that’s a very good description of what you’re doing. One of the subjects you’re dealing with is questions of identity, and you have a lot of perspectives you bring with you. Do you also have an Australian perspective to contemporary music? Was Eurocentrism a problem for you when you were younger, or is it still? How did you deal with this situation?
LLI have had a very European or Anglo education, but I also have a South East Asian upbringing. I’ve lived in two countries, Brunei and Australia, which were both British colonies, which have very particular kinds of histories.

I guess from a fairly young age I was aware of a kind of complexity of identity in everyday life because it wasn’t so clear where I belonged. People ask you, ‘where are you from?’ or ‘are you from here?’ These kinds of questions put you in a more uncertain and fluid ground in terms of identity. I guess that’s definitely been a theme of my creative work from the beginning.
MSI would like to talk about Tongue of the Invisible. It’s from 2011 and it was, I think, quite a success for you. Was it a turning point in your work? How do you consider the piece?
LLTongue of the Invisible has a very ecstatic, sometimes erotic text by Jonathan Holmes, the British theatre director and writer. He based his work on the work of Sufi poet Hafez, who was writing in Farsi, but I set his English text. It’s a song cycle—there’s something very immediate about the voice and how I use the voice. There are a lot of songs in this one-hour piece.

What was perhaps new for me at the time was the use of more recognisably traditional harmonies and modal materials in this work. I think working with some of the cultural references, this idea of the voice as embodying ecstatic experience, sort of changed some things in my work. I think there are elements, for instance in the fourth movement, which are very direct, very melodic and simple. So that was an interesting kind of world to be stepping into in that piece.
MSYes, there is a kind of beauty in it that people would have discussed a lot in the 80s or even just 10 or 20 years ago.
LLI think now there are no taboos around what materials one might use, so I think that argument faded quite a long time ago. But for me, yes, I do find this element of beauty that rests in the clarity of harmony very intriguing, and it’s something that I do want to continue working with.

I spoke about noise as being the ultimate sort of nostalgia for me, and that’s absolutely true. You hear so much of this noise and kind of distortion and qualities of distortion in my work, but then there is this other side that’s really coming through now where I’m absolutely interested in another kind of beauty. And in a funny way, that beauty is not the nostalgia. That beauty is a more unfamiliar territory. That’s funny, isn’t it? It’s a reversal.
MSYes, but I think that’s what makes it beautiful. If it’s something you already know, it’s kind of nice but it’s not that exciting, or not exciting in the same way.
LLYes, so for instance, in Extinction Events, in the third movement there is this very strong set of harmonic fields that are arrived at via more noisy elements as the ground, and for me the harmony then becomes a sort of dissonance. Yes, it’s a kind of reversal, I mean that’s a very personal take on it, perhaps for a listener it’s not like that at all. But it’s certainly an area I’m very interested in.
MSYou were working a lot with the brass instruments in Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus, and then we have this trumpet solo, Roda. What is fascinating for you in your work with brass instruments? Is it a kind of laboratory for you?
LLYes, that’s right. The brass writing, it’s kind of connected. That piece, Roda – The Living Circle, is connected absolutely with the trumpet part of Ronda, the Ensemble Modern piece, and then further extended in Extinction Events. That was a kind of breakthrough with brass writing because I’m very familiar with strings and using stringed instruments to enter this very fluid, highly malleable sound world where the harmonics are changing very rapidly.

I was really trying to find the same kinds of qualities in brass writing and I think this is the territory I’m entering into. The usefulness of this particular study is to find this fluidity, this kind of gestural behaviour that’s very free, that’s sliding around. It’s instantly transforming from moment to moment in the way that stringed instruments can achieve very easily because of the bow.

And here with the brass it’s about disrupting the normal kind of functioning of the instrument by changing the embouchure, by changing the way in which the valves of the instrument are only half pressed, so it’s opening up the instrument to a stranger space. It’s what I actually call a fictional space because a lot of the notes are not real.

They sort of have to be conjured up by the player and I find that really interesting. It’s very challenging for the players as well; you can hear that they have to be amazing performers to be able to play this work.
MSJust one last question. I try to imagine how you are composing. Are you sitting in a room, working on the computer, are you or singing, or laughing, or, I don’t know, tapping on the table or writing on little pages or papers? How do you compose?
LLI work in a really super low-tech way, just on paper with pencil, and sometimes just pen as well. I have put some of my sketches online and you can see it’s so much about the handwriting. You know, it’s a very intimate thing where you can make a sketch very freely on the paper. You can scratch it out. There’s a sense I love about handwriting which I don’t think you get when you tap on a computer where you’re a little more distanced from the mark. I love that thing where you can just make a mark on the paper and it’s like playing an instrument. It’s like the bow on the string, there’s a sense of being able to see the energy of the thought on the paper. And for me that’s one of the real joys about composing. It’s this very intimate, instantaneous sense of the body making marks and expressing something in a very simple, very immediate way.
MSAnd, are you quiet?
LLAm I quiet when I compose?
LLWell, sometimes I sing. Well, yes, I often sing when I’m writing. Again, it is part of the sort of immediacy where I am really with the sound when I’m writing it.