“It’s a magical substance,” Lim says. “I’m drawn to the animacy of it. There’s the tension of string and the friction of string; its fragility, and its strength. You cannot completely control its behavior. It may snap at any moment, which reminds you of time and the thread of life that keeps spinning out. We bind and unbind. We weave our understandings.”
The violin was Lim’s instrument while she was growing up. Although she was born in Australia, her parents had emigrated from the Malay peninsula to Melbourne. They moved the family to Brunei when Lim was around seven years old. One by one, they sent their three daughters to boarding school back in Melbourne at the Presbyterian Ladies College, a place Lim describes as having a “strong feminist ethos.” Contemporary masters including Penderecki, Berio, Ligeti, and Cage were part of the curriculum. Lim was encouraged not only to play music but to compose, starting with graphic scores.
“I was lucky to be in an environment where one experimented with instruments,” she remembers. “You could prepare an instrument, detune it, whatever you wanted. There was no distinction between, Oh, here’s a sound that’s allowed. And here’s a sound that isn’t.”
She earned her undergraduate degree in violin—there was no composition major—at Victorian College of the Arts. There she met the future members of Elision Ensemble, who would become Australia’s pre-eminent new music group and her most significant collaborators, relationships that have now lasted more than three decades. Lim continued her formal studies at the University of Melbourne (M.A. 1996) and the University of Queensland (Ph.D. 2001). Her principal teachers were Riccardo Formosa, an accomplished popular musician and student of Milanese composer Franco Donatoni, and Richard David Hames.
From the beginning of her career, Lim was ambitious about both the scope and scale of what she created. She wrote her first opera Orestia (1993), a “memory theater” in which the characters of the Greek trilogy recommence their feud, at the age of 27. Full orchestral works and multi-evening performance pieces with coordinating installations would follow. Yet Lim did not espouse a particular compositional orthodoxy.
“I was a sponge and grateful for all that I encountered,” she remembers. “I was fascinated by Brian Ferneyhough’s work and had already spent time with his scores when I was a teenager. Then I worked with Riccardo Formosa on Italianate craft. I definitely grappled with that super-detailed, technical, high modernist language, but the other important aspect of European music was sound—sonic exploration.”
Yet another factor was at play in the formation of Lim’s compositional voice: her identity as an Asian Australian woman only a generation removed from immigration. She grew up with Malay musics at home in the 1980s, when the Asian experience was one of invisibility. “So that one isn’t a target,” she says. “My parents’ generation was afraid of any kind of political visibility because that put you in danger.” At the same time, Australian musical culture was seeing a wave of nationalism that rejected its European ancestry in favor of Eastern and Indigenous influences (with materials and methods arguably appropriated by white Australians). Composer Peter Sculthorpe, for whom Lim’s professorship is named, was the leader in a generation invested in this type of multiculturalism, making Lim’s academic appointment in his name politically significant.
Critics have written about her work in terms of its “blending” and integration” of non-Western elements, terms that center an Anglo-European perspective and its notions of purity.
“It’s not a project of integration—it’s where you already are,” she says.
“For example, I grew up speaking village dialect. My mother’s side is Hainanese. My father’s side is Hokkien, though they were already removed from where those languages came from. People in my community in Brunei spoke a mix of Chinese, Malay, and English—English is an Asian language as well. This is very important to recognize. It’s used as a dialect, but it’s a language, right? To say something is a dialect is to create hierarchy. But if you say the dialect is your language, that a mixed-up, creolized culture is your culture rather something lesser-than, it takes you into another space.”
If Lim’s works offer a more visceral take on technically precise, high modernist musical ideals, it is perhaps because of the ways that her experimentalist leanings overlap with her multivalent cultural identity. Together, they ground her work in tactile, embodied experiences situated in the environment, ones that extend to her explorations with string.
After a break following the birth of her son, Lim’s career gathered new momentum. She composed Ecstatic Architecture (2004) for the Los Angeles Philharmonic to be performed in its then-new, Frank Gehry-designed concert hall. From 2005-2006, she was the resident composer with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. And in 2007, her Flying Banner (After Wang To) won the Orchestral Work of the Year from the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA).
At the time, Lim was living in Brisbane. Through neighbors, she had become involved with Indigenous communities. A trip to Yirrkala, on Australia’s remote northern coast in East Arnhem Land, had a profound impact, causing a conceptual shift from a “horizontal construction of Chinese knowledge – with its cosmologies, writing systems, poetry, and other cultural forms – to a much more vertical idea of structure made up of different layers of transparency, viscosity, opacity,” she told Rosalind Appleby in Women of Note: The Rise of Australian Women Composers. “Shimmer, an effect of flickering light or a pulsing aural quality, has an absolutely central value across Australia and [Indigenous] cultures as an indicator of the presence of a spiritual reality. The aesthetic quality of a shimmer (whether found on a canvas painting, a body painting, or the beating of clap sticks) is associated with the creative transformation of matter and a tangible connection to ancestral time.”
String instruments became essential in Lim’s attempts to manifest these qualities musically and can be heard in a series of compositions: In the shadow’s light (2004) for string quartet; Songs found in dream (2005) for oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, trumpet, two percussionists, cello, and double bass; Shimmer Songs (2006) for string quartet, harp, and three percussionists; The Compass (2006) for orchestra with flute and didjeridu soloists; and Ochred String (2008) for a quartet of oboe, viola, cello, and double bass.
Invisible (2009) for solo cello, composed for Séverine Ballon (and performed as part of Lim’s lecture/demonstration at the Wissenshaftskolleg), was central to these experiments. In the work, Lim employs a “güiro bow,” an alternative bow construction in which the horsehair is wrapped tightly around the wood in a spiral. “It creates a three-dimensional quality because every stroke has a kind of granulation on top,” she says. “It’s like there’s a hidden object. And then there are these oscillating surfaces.”
Weaver’s Knot (2013-14), written for the 40th anniversary of the Arditti Quartet and played by JACK at Spoleto in 2018, thus beginning their relationship with Lim, takes those experiments in another direction. The so-called “weaver’s knot,” found in fishing nets from neolithic times, has remained an essential technique in fabric production. “It’s a knot that uses tension to hold it in place yet is also reversible, so it can be undone,” writes Lim in her composer’s note. “The musical work offers an image of the string quartet as an ensemble of dynamic sonic threads in an unfolding process of binding and unbinding. Individual lines follow different pathways coming together to create emergent patterns or knots in which tension is accumulated and held or released.”
The two pieces on tonight’s program extend Lim’s body of work with string, an inexhaustible resource that forms new connections between performers organically, through its own distributed networks and transformative potential.
an ocean beyond earth (2016) is scored for solo cello prepared with violin and thread, making it, in essence, a duo for a solo performer.
The cellist sits across from a violin secured on a stand. Each string is tied to the corresponding string on the instrument opposite it, creating an installation of long, parallel threads. Using a hand powdered with rosin, the player reaches out to grip a thread between their thumb and first finger. The tension and the friction caused by the hand tracing these lines back and forth produces vibrations that sound each instrument in turn.
“There is a magical quality to the movement,” explains Jay Campbell. “Depending on how far away the violin is, I might not be able to see the thread. It looks like I’m pulling sound out of the violin with my hand.”
The technique is like one Lim observed in Latcho Drom (1993), a French film that uses music to tell the story of the centuries-long Romani migration. Instead of bowing, fiddler Nicolae Neacșu (1924–2002) of Taraf de Haïdouks plays a raspy melody using a horsehair tied to the G-string of his instrument, a technique referred to as la fir de păr (“hair without bow”).
But the idea to use additional threads in an ocean beyond earth was one with a personal connection to Séverine Ballon, for whom the piece was written.
“Severine sews and she always has thread in her pocket,” Lim shares. “She makes all of her own clothes. That’s super intimate, isn’t it? It became a little portrait of the player.”