The Music of Liza Lim: Burning House

The second piece in my short series of bonus Liza Lim content is Burning House for singing koto player. This is a good example of Lim’s practice of working with the histories and ergonomics of individual instruments in her practice, and of her way of working with non-Western instruments. It’s a particularly interesting example, because the score is not written Western staff notation but in traditional calligraphic notation. It was one of the first pieces of Liza’s I became aware of, for this reason, although in actual fact it is relatively unusual in this respect (she has written one other piece using traditional notation, 16 Touches of the Zither for koto, which is performed as part of the installation Sonorous Bodies, made with the artist Judith Wright).

Burning House (1995)

Burning House, for voice and koto (one performer), was written for the Japanese-Australian koto and shamisen player Satsuki Odamura. A member of ELISION (she also performed in the first performance of Koto in 1994), Odamura has also commissioned nearly forty works for koto by Australian composers.

Lim frequently incorporates the ergonomics and performance histories of instruments into the music she writes for them. In Burning House, she goes one stage further, writing the music in traditional Japanese calligraphic koto notation. This is one of two works she has composed in this way; the other is Sixteen touches of the zither, also written for Odamura, written to be performed as part of the video installation Sonorous Body (1999), devised with the artist Judith Wright.

The example above shows the first page of the score (taken from Lim’s online notes for the piece). It is read in eight columns running top-to-bottom, right to left; the first column begins midway down the page. Each box represents one beat (equivalent to a crotchet); the horizontal line partway across these boxes divides them each into two quavers. The symbols within these spaces indicate, first of all, which string of the koto is to be plucked on that given quaver, according to its number, 1 being the lowest string (here tuned to the D below middle C) and 13 being the highest (here tuned to the E just over two octaves above). Empty spaces are equivalent to rests. Additional symbols indicate different playing techniques – all of which are found in or derived from traditional koto performance practice. These include raising the pitch by a semitone or tone (accomplished by pressing the string behind the bridge to increase its tension), vibrato, tremolo, and strikes or scrapes upon and along the strings using the plectrum. The voice part is indicated in a similar way, alongside the koto tablature, beginning in the fifth column from the right. The first column of music thus reads: strings 4 and 6 crotchet, 5 dotted crotchet, 5 quaver, 6 quaver, 4 quaver, beat and a half nothing, string 1 quaver leading to a semitone vibrato for the next two beats, and then a rest (the circle). In Lim’s tuning, string 4 is the B below middle C; 5 is C sharp, slightly flattened; and 6 is D, again slightly flattened. (NB these three strings are also prepared with Blu-Tack to create a ‘gong-like’ timbre.)

While it is not necessary to be able to read koto tablature in order to understand Lim’s composition, the impact of the notation on its style is clear. First of all, the graph-like tablature, with its rigid divisions into crotchets and quavers, resists the varied metrical subdivisions Lim usually favours. The fixed pitches of the koto’s strings (the semitone and tone pitch bends described above notwithstanding) also limit her usual preference for a density of chromatic and microtonal pitches.

Nevertheless, she finds ways to stretch and bend these constrictions. To add rhythmic variety, for example, she uses grace notes (there are several examples in the second column of the music, marked above and to the right of the main notes) and even triplets and quintuplets (see columns five and eight, where these are marked using Western phrase markings, aligned vertically, and Arabic numerals).

Yet Lim turns limitations to her advantage. Burning House is notably slower and more contemplative than many of her other compositions. She has said that since she wrote directly into the traditional notation, she gained a stronger feel for the time-space nature of the koto’s aesthetic because each note became an isolated object, written within its own box, rather than part of a larger, more abstracted notational hierarchy (as in Western music).[1] The frequent recycling of pitches through the use of open strings gives the music a particular harmonic field (compare the ending of Invisibility) and in the first part of the work at least encourages the repetition of certain motifs, in particular the C sharp–D–B motif from the first column, which may also be found at the start of the third and (in triplet crotchets) near the end of the eighth.

Burning House is in three parts, each setting a stanza by the Japanese poet Izumi Shikibu (?974–?1034). They are love poems but are also rich with references to the Lotus Sutra, and its message that although there may be different forms of Buddhist teaching, there remains only one Way. The title comes from a parable in which a father uses the promise of different toy carts (i.e. different Buddhist teachings) to draw his children out of a house that they do not realise is on fire; but when they are all out he gives them one large single cart (i.e. the Way) to carry them all.

In the first part, the instrumental introduction anticipates the rise of the poet, who is ‘Wakened by the scent / of flowering plum’.[2] The use of pregnant silences and shivering tremolos reflects the next two lines: ‘The darkness / of the spring night / fills me with longing’. The second part is short and features a retuning of eight of the koto’s strings (achieved by moving the bridge for each string). In this part, the first half of the text is spoken, ‘in a rapid, excited manner’, matching the poet’s words: ‘Come quickly – as soon as / these blossoms open. / they fall.’ The second half of this poem, ‘This world exists as a sheen of dew on flowers’, is sung in a somewhat chant-like fashion, with gasps at the end of each word, as though the declaratory nature of the verse is being broken up by the sense of wonder it captures. The third part introduces a new sound, an irregular strumming on the strings at the end of the koto (a little like plucking guitar strings behind the bridge). This dry, percussive sound evokes the rain of the third poem: ‘Should I leave this burning house / of ceaseless thought / and taste the pure rain’s / single truth / falling upon my skin’. In all three parts we can see, therefore, a degree of word-painting that is not always apparent in Lim’s music, and that perhaps reflects the immediacy and clarity of the poems she is setting, and the relative simplicity and spaciousness of the musical style that is encouraged by the traditional notation.

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.


[1] Email to the author, July 2021.

[2] Translation by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani, in The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu (Vintage Books, New York, 1990).

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