The Music of Liza Lim: The Weaver’s Knot

For reasons of space, a small number of work analyses had to be cut from the printed version of The Music of Liza Lim. I’m very happy, however, to be able to publish these online as sort of DVD extras.

First up is The Weaver’s Knot. Although this is a short piece, I wanted to include it in the chapter on chamber works because otherwise I wouldn’t be covering any of her string quartet music. Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be, and there is certainly a case for a future study of Lim’s quartet music: from the early Pompes funèbres, mentioned below, through Hell, the pivotal In the Shadow’s Light and up to her recent major work, String Creatures, for the JACK quartet, which was composed after I wrote the below and will receive its first performances around the time you read this post.

NB: For licensing reasons, I’ve chosen not to include any of the musical examples that would have appeared in the printed text. However, all Liza’s scores can be found on nkoda.

The Weaver’s Knot (2013–14)

In 1988 the renowned Arditti String Quartet gave a performance of Lim’s Pompes funèbres at the World Music Days in Hong Kong. It was one of her first international concerts. More than thirty years later she returned the compliment with The Weaver’s Knot, written for the Ardittis’ fortieth birthday celebrations in 2014. Despite her interest in solo string instruments, in particular violin and cello, music for string quartet features infrequently in Lim’s output: The Weaver’s Knot is a relatively short work, written for a special occasion; it is joined only by the withdrawn Pompes funèbres, the early Hell (also first performed by the Arditti Quartet) and In the Shadow’s Light. The Arditti Quartet gave its first performance at the Witten New Music Days.

Although The Weaver’s Knot is written for a standard string quartet, its music is inspired by the sounds of the Norwegian hardingfele, or Hardanger fiddle. The Hardanger fiddle, originating from the Hardanger region of southwestern Norway, is a traditional instrument, much like an orchestral violin but with the addition of four or five sympathetic strings running underneath the fingerboard. These give it a distinctive resonant sound whose character can be altered according to the tuning of both the main and sympathetic strings (more than twenty different tunings are found in Norwegian folk music). Although the instruments of The Weaver’s Knot do not have sympathetic strings, Lim applies a different scordatura to each of them to approximate that diversity of tone colour.

The Hardanger fiddle is clearly an instrument of some interest to Lim, and she has written music for it on two other occasions: in the solo Philtre (1997), which can also be played by violin, and in Winding Bodies: 3 Knots for alto flute, bass clarinet, piano, percussion, Hardanger fiddle, violin, viola, cello and double bass, written for the Norwegian Cikada Ensemble at the same time as The Weaver’s Knot. In the current piece, it is not the instrument as such but the way it is played that is the focus – in this respect, The Weaver’s Knot is related to both Koto and weaver-of-fictions before it. Of particular interest are the use of trills, drone pitches and left-hand pizzicati that feature in traditional Hardanger fiddle music: examples of Lim making use of all three of these can be seen at bars 15–16 and 35–6.

While it contains a number of familiar Lim sounds, The Weaver’s Knot is notable for its relative lack of noise of effects and its lyrical quality, born out of the extensive, high tessitura passagework, particularly for the upper instruments (often making use of harmonics), and the use of drones and pedal tones, which give the work a strong harmonic grounding.

Also known as a sheet bend, the ‘weaver’s knot’ is commonly used to securely tie lines together, particularly those under tension. It is used often in sailing but has also been used in textile manufacture for centuries, and in the creation of fishing nets as far back as Neolithic times. For Lim the image of the knot – a means of connecting and binding, the result of interweaving threads, or a way of encoding knowledge and memory – is obviously appealing, and it has value as a metaphor for the coalescing/unravelling push and pull of the dynamic heterophonic technique. These ideas are explored more extensively in Winding Bodies: 3 Knots, but they return too in later works, in particular the loops and gyres of Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus; looking back, we can see there is something ‘knot-like’ too about the crossing lines of the Viking runes that had earlier fascinated Lim, and the webs of connected timbres and instrumental relationships whose origins go back further still. Although it is a relatively minor work, The Weaver’s Knot draws together several important threads of Lim’s music; a knot in its own right.

The Music of Liza Lim is available to pre-order from Wildbird Music until 11 September, and will be more widely available after 12 September. See here for pricing, ordering and other details. I will be in Berlin on 11 September for a launch event at the Philharmonie supported by Musikfest Berlin in association with the Australian Embassy in Berlin. Come by if you are around and I will sign you a copy.

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One thought on “The Music of Liza Lim: The Weaver’s Knot

  1. Hello Tim….I’m writing a feature for BBC Music magazine within which your Oxford Dictionary of Music expertise would be very useful. Could I possibly please beg a few words on the phone or via Zoom? I’d be very grateful. Fingers crossed. Many thanks, Andrew

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