Explore Program Notes

Liza Lim


"The kind of sound I'm looking for is just at that moment when you're crossing over from control to not having control." -Liza Lim

           Liza Lim’s music comes, too, from other zones of transition: between concert performance and theater, between instrumental and electronic sound, between meaning and doubt, dream and waking, between voice and instrument, soloist and group, between western and non-western traditions and sensibilities. Being a western-style composer of Australian birth and Asian family may have helped her feel at home with dichotomies that are simultaneously overt and erased – as also may being a woman in what is still largely a male field. At the same time, though, the ambiguities and iridescences of her music seem to derive more directly from a keen, searching awareness of music’s basic qualities of sound and time.

            Much of her work involves new instrumental practices and combinations, which have continuously evolved during the quarter century and more of her relationship with ELISION, a group she helped found in 1986 at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, where she was then a final-year student. ELISION, from the first, was all about pushing at the edges – at the edges of instrumental and vocal possibility, and at cultural limits, its instrumentarium including electric guitar and koto in a hot, spangled resonant group as prominent as the winds and strings. Lim’s half-hour Garden of Earthly Desire (1988-9), scored for eleven players and originally accompanied by puppet theater, was a breakthrough piece for her and for the ensemble.

            Their next major project was The Oresteia, performed in Melbourne in 1993, by which time Lim was receiving international attention, her string quartet Hell (1992) being a Milano Musica commission for the Arditti Quartet. In 1994, a new aspect of her work opened up when she collaborated with the visual artist Domenico di Clario on a performance-installation, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, presented over seven nights. She went on to expand her sphere of resonance with meditations on Rumi (The Alchemical Wedding for a large ensemble including South-East Asian angklung and Chinese violin, 1996) and a Chinese opera (Moon Spirit Feasting, 2000).

            Since the turn of the century, she has created more works on a large scale, including Ecstatic Architecture for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Disney Hall (2003), The Compass for orchestra with flute and didgeridoo soloists (2005-6), which was the major product of her two-year residency with the Sydney Symphony, and The Guest (2010), a recorder concerto written for the Donaueschingen Festival. An opera on the Tristan legend, The Navigator, was given at the 2008 Brisbane Festival, and another, Tree of Codes, is in progress for musikFabrik. However, as tonight’s program partly shows, she has also been composing plentifully for smaller formations and solo instruments.

Invisibility for solo cellow with two bows (2009)

           This twelve-minute piece, written for Séverine Ballon, exemplifies Lim’s concern with unmaking and remaking habits of performance (not least by adding a serrated bow to the normal one) and listening. Allied to that is a notion of veiled presence that comes from Australian Aboriginal thinking, how the numinous may be at once concealed and revealed in a shimmering.

            The composer writes: “The ‘invisibility’ of the title of the piece is not about silence, for the work is full of sounds. Rather, I am working with an idea of the invisible or latent forces of the physical set-up of the instrument. What emerges as the instrument is sounded in various increasingly rhythmicized ways is a landscape of unpredictable nicks and ruptures as different layers of action flow across each other.

            “The composition also works with magnifications of these disruptions by intensifying various paradoxical combinations, e.g. playing a string that is lightly touched at a non-harmonic node so that the string vibrates in highly complex ways producing a multiphonic effect. The string doesn’t settle in any one vibrational zone but flicks or flickers (shimmers) between states so that what results is an unpredictable array of different noises and harmonics.

            “The two kinds of bow used in the piece offer different possibilities of friction, for instance, the stop/start structure of the serrated bow adds an uneven granular layer of articulation over every sound. Like the cross-hatched designs or dotting effects of Aboriginal art, the bow creates a highly mobile sonic surface through which one can hear the outlines of other kinds of movements and shapes. Moving rapidly between places of relative stability and instability in terms of how the cello is sounded, the piece shows patterns of contraction and expansion, accumulation and dissipation, aligning with forces that are at work within the instrument-performer complex.”

Ehwaz (journeying) for trumpet and percussion (2010)

           Like the cellist of Invisibility, the two musicians of this piece bring forward new sounds, the trumpet part being full of quarter-tones, breathy sonorities, and split tones, where the player produces two neighboring harmonics at the same time, while the percussionist operates on a kind of expanded vibraphone, with struck resonances added from bottles tuned to quarter-tones, gongs, and ceramic bowls. Where many composers today extend techniques and resources in a spirit of daring and display, Lim’s music is cool and precise as well as hot and eager. In another seeming paradox, the performers go beyond and also go back, their new sounds evoking an era more raw. One might have the sense that the trumpet is discovering its long-suspended inner war-horn, in gestures to which the mistuned fifths give a shadow of fanfare. The title is the name of one of the runes used by Germanic peoples of the first millennium, written in the shape of a capital M but sounding ‘eh’. And as Lim notes in her instructions, the trumpeter’s split tones will be fragile and must sound so. This is music that lives on the edge of disintegration.

            Each of the instrumentalists generally hovers around a point that is fixed but not strongly asserted, as the two of them move continuously but through a number of sections and subsections. Occasionally, one of the performers will be alone, but only in the case of the trumpet’s last solo, towards the end of the fifteen-minute piece, is there the sense of a cadenza.

            The piece was commissioned by the International Trumpet Guild for its 2010 conference, in Sydney, at which it was played by Tristram Williams and Peter Neville.

Mother Tongue for soprano and ensemble (2005)

           The composer writes of this forty-minute piece, written for performance by the Ensemble InterContemporain at the Festival d’Automne in Paris, as follows:

            “Mother Tongue – there are so many aspects to this rich and emotionally complex subject. One thinks of childhood and the intimate quality of first expressions, and of how this child language returns to us near death. One thinks of the fragile and robust ways in which language shapes the transactions of thought and acts as a compass for our perceptions and feelings. Then there are the reverberations of loss when a language with its registers of knowledge disappears from the world, as when a giant tree is felled in an ancient forest.

            “My original inspiration for Mother Tongue came from a list of ninety-two Australian Aboriginal (Yorta-Yorta) words that a linguist friend, Stephen Morey, was involved in compiling. This was a list of the few words recalled by an elderly woman, one of the last speakers of Yorta-Yorta, for whom this language was her mother tongue. So it was a very poignant document that recorded impending loss, the extinction of a language, the disappearance of a whole world-view, with its particular knowledge systems, registers of feeling, and expression.

            “What also interested me about this list was the actual words themselves: what words does one retain at the end of one's life? In fact, they were very fundamental words: terms of endearment, of kinship, mother, father, basic nouns and expressions. And it was doubly moving for me since these are the words that I know from my own lost mother tongue of Hokkien Chinese dialect as well as the kinds of words that my young son was acquiring in his first speech. A circle of life and of death was present in that list of words.

            “I commissioned the Australian poet Patricia Sykes to create a text responding to these themes of ‘language formation, language loss and ... of language as one's most intimate possession’ arising from my ruminations.

            “The music navigates some of these impulses and resonances – veiled, submarine, shimmering, visceral, shadowy and radiant, pulsing and still. It is inspired by Patricia Sykes’s poems, which demonstrate the symbolic magic of words. These are words as transformative gestures, through which one says ‘let this thing stand for that,’ in the way

                                            'the water in us mirrors erosion:

                                            the future stalking us from behind

                                            uncovers a radiance of ellipses'"

Texts and Translations

Mother Tongue

by Patricia Sykes

1. Century, the Continuance

                        ‘tämä kieli jota vaalin’ (i) (‘this tongue I am cradling’)  

                        from the womb’s rift valleys,       
                        its broken silence,        words

                        waterfalling through the brain

                        —tik(ii), were you the first?       
                                                                        how can it matter?                  
                                                                        the uncurled spine
                                                                        is no longer foetal
                                                                        each tongue is an earth document

                                                ‘my reach has no immunity!’

from a march of languages, a birth of soldiers
bang! bang! a ravage of voices
but love songs are breeding in the abdomens(iii)
and every tongue bathes in every other tongue:

xanki =khoake (iv), Jiebai Zimei (v), Shimá (vi), mampu-mani (vii), äidinkieli (viii) 


2.  Latitude of Gain

‘in the mouths of my child
fragments of my beginning, my end’

how simple to make a desert out of gain—

on the open market, languages as clearfells
the forests dying like consonants:

‘my tongue is a root
the animal snuffling at me is you!’

wanhal yenbena,(ix) ‘where are the people?’
believe dust when it embraces you!

the swirling welcome-kiss
which becomes a mourning dance

when the cord is snapped
mother-of-the-evening, stem-mother

phrases of choice haunt our silences
like tendrils clambering for air
amid the sexy cons, the sweet-talking
corporates, the jilting parliaments

—for how long can sleep rekindle 

                                                —kalyuyuru (x)
                                                dream’s glimmer forms
returning, again, again

to a birthing ground
whose voices 
                                                     like new rain


3.   Longitude of Loss

boats of commerce, boats of skin
sailing from the mouth like lanterns

no wind but our conjugations—my oar is my tongue!
                                                  the amnios is my compass!                   

how cleverly the water in us mirrors erosion:
the future stalking us from behind
uncovers a radiance of ellipses

‘the shreds between your teeth are my children’s names!’

their colander bones, a sifting so alive
the clouds pour and pour through them:                            ‘look!

the footprints in the mouth have left us their wings!’
their smallest noise pinpoints a galaxy:

you, me, us, them
                                                descended larynxes
                                                who shadow-bounce among the stars

punctuating light                      endlessly
                                                at play
                                                with memory and prediction:            

                                                ‘language has no substitute
                                                the sun is a pendulum’

                                                                         O voice, O instrument
                                                                         repeat, repeat!

                                                                                      ‘I am hanging by my mother tongue’



(i) Finnish for ‘this tongue I am cradling’.

(ii)   ‘Tik’: reportedly put forward by linguist Merrit Ruhlen as the first word (or one of the first words) ever spoken.

(iii)  For the Walpiri and the Kukatja people of Australia’s Tanami Desert region, the primary seat of the emotions is not the heart but the stomach.  Source: Exhibition Catalogue Essay, ‘Yilpini and the Visual Art of the Walpirir and Kukatja Peoples’, Dr. Christine Nicholls, Senior Lecturer Australian Studies, School of Humanities, Flinders university.

(iv)   N/u (a click language of the San people or Bushmen of the Southern Kalahari), meaning ‘mother language’.  N/u is one of the world’s endangered languages. It is said to be spoken by only 10 elders. Elsie Vallbooi (whose age was estimated to be over 107 when she died in 2002) was responsible for helping resurrect the San identity.  Source: Nigel Crawhall of the South African San Institute.  See also ‘Language, Idenity and Land Rights’, Lingua Franca, 20 November, 2004, ABC Radio National Australia, interview by Jill Kitson, where Crawhall presents the view that in indigenous communitites, language death is linked to land loss and loss of identity and self-esteem. The pronunciation of this phrase, as given by Nigel Crawhall, is: ‘xanki’ (mother) does not have a click or any difficult sound in it. The ‘x’ is a velar fricative as you get in ‘loch’ or ‘ich’ in German. ‘=khoake’ (language) is more difficult. The first symbol (=) is a palatal click, the ‘kh’ is somewhere between a ‘k’ and an ‘x’ (velar fricative as in ‘xanki’). 

(v)   ‘Sworn Sister/sisterhood’, the ancient oath of secrecy in Nushu, the secret women’s language of Hunan Province, China.

(vi)    A generic word in Navajo (an indigenous culture of  Southwestern United States) used to name things giving or sustaining life, thus ‘mother’, ‘corn’, ‘sheep’ `earth’, etc. Sources: (1) Linguistics: A Very Short Introduction, P.H.Matthews, Oxford University Press, 2003, pp 8,9; (2) Karletta Chief of the Navajo people.

(vii)   A Walpiri (an indigenous language of Australia) phrase, meaning ‘to take care of something’. Source: ‘in the silence a world disappears’, Nicolas Rothwell, The Australian, November 12, 2003.

(viii)  Finnish for ‘mother tongue’.

(ix)    Yorta Yorta: ‘where [Aboriginal] person?’, ie, ‘where are the people?’.  Yorta Yorta Language Heritage, Heather Bowe (Department of Linguistics, Monash University), Lois Peeler (Yorta Yorta Tribe), Sharon Atkinson, Yorta Yorta Tribe), Department of Linguistics, Monash University, 1997, Appendix 3, p.207.

(x)    Kukatja language of the Western Desert. Refers to songs found in dream, which are kalyuyuru, meaning ‘like water shimmering as it falls’.  Source: Richard Moyle, Balgo, The Musical Life of a Desert Community’, Calloway (CIRCME), University of Western Australia, 1997.  (Note that many of the world’s cultures speak of pursuing or capturing inspiration in dreams).