Q. Liza Lim had a Composer Portrait concert during the 2013-14 season. What made it time for a second Portrait?
A. Her first Composer Portrait, which featured the International Contemporary Ensemble, was almost ten years ago now. And it included U.S. premieres of works that had been written ten years earlier. Even though Liza was an acclaimed international composer, writing for some of the most prominent institutions and ensembles the world over, her work wasn’t very well known in the U.S. This concert feels similar in that we’re presenting the premiere of a joint commission for the JACK Quartet alongside a solo cello work she wrote six years ago. We’re providing another opportunity for New York audiences to hear her music, to give it a platform, for it to be documented, and to be recognized.
One of the benefits of bringing ensembles and composers together for a multi-day residency in our space around the Composer Portrait concerts is that it affords us an opportunity to get to know each other. When it goes well, I always hope that it won't just be one and done. Liza and I had stayed in touch because she’s somebody who I knew that I wanted to work with again. So when she reached out last October because there was a potential commission for the JACK Quartet from the Lucerne Festival and asked if Miller might be a co-commissioner, it was an instant yes. Liza and JACK had long been interested in working together. And I'm always interested in working with them.
Q. Tell us about her music.
A. With Liza (pronounced Lee-za), who she is as a person, a sense of place that comes from being rooted in Australia, and her feelings of social responsibility towards our planet, inform her practice. The music feels organic, which is not to say that it isn’t technical. She exercises very precise control. There’s beautiful orchestration, masterful use of timbre, and a sense of form that's created from the content itself, like unwrapping a beautiful gift. It's appealing to look at and then continues to reveal more in an exciting way.
I want to add that her musical influences are synthesized so beautifully that the components are not immediately identifiable. You can't say that one section comes from an Indigenous Australian influence and another is Chinese; Lim’s parents immigrated to Australia from China and she spent part of her childhood in Brunei. She's someone who has absorbed the sounds of different places and people.
Q. In 2014, critic Alex Ross of The New Yorker wrote that “Lim exemplifies a younger generation of composers who have revivified modernism by kicking away its technocratic façade and heightening its visceral power.” Perhaps that’s true, but, more specifically, I hear Lim’s music as visceral because it is embodied; it lives in the physicality of its performers and our relationships to our physical selves. Would you agree?
A. Yes, you’re exactly right. She is drawing on a lineage that includes composers like Boulez, Berio, and Stockhausen. The music has an underpinning of European high modernism in its vocabulary, but, what's interesting to me, is that she’s using that language to do something different. There's a muscularity to it, but not for its own sake. It's not like the music of Charles Wuorinen or Elliott Carter, where inscrutability might be considered a virtue. Her music is rigorous, and, at the same time, there's something very inviting about it.