The Music of Liza Lim: Chang-O Flies to the Moon

The third and last post in my short series of offcuts from The Music of Liza Lim, comes from the final chapter, ‘Music for the stage’. Lim’s second opera, Yuè Lìng Jié (Moon Spirit Feasting) is very high on my fantasy list of revivals. Its complexity makes that unlikely, and the particulars of its staging (with audience participation, perambulating musicians, etc, etc) mean that there is no full recording. However, its sixth scene, the soprano aria ‘Chang-O Flies to the Moon’ was recently released by HCR on the Singing in Tongues album of Lim’s theatre music, which made it possible for me to write about this at least. In the event, I wasn’t able to include all of my analysis of this scene in the book, which features instead a brief overview of Yuè Lìng Jié itself.

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.

Yuè Lìng Jié (Moon Spirit Feasting) (1997–2000)

Yuè Lìng Jié was commissioned by the Telstra Adelaide Festival and was first performed there in March 2000 (it was staged five more times between 2002 and 2006 in Melbourne, Berlin, Zurich, Tokyo and Brisbane). It marks a peak in the exploration of Chinese culture and thought that runs through Lim’s music (and draws on her own Chinese heritage), beginning with Li Shang yin (1993) for soprano and fifteen instruments, through The Cauldron and The Alchemical Wedding, and on to later works such as The Quickening, The Compass, How Forests Think and The Su Song Star Map. It was written at the same time as Lim’s other major engagement with Chinese culture, Machine for Contacting the Dead, a double concerto for bass/contrabass clarinet and cello inspired by the fifth-century BC tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng that was discovered in 1977 and is one of China’s most celebrated archaeological sites.[1]

The opera was written with the author Beth Yahp, like Lim another Asia-born Australian, whose Chinese-Thai parents moved to Australia from Malaysia in 1984. Her first novel, The Crocodile Fury, published in 1992, tells a story of Asian migrant experience in a world populated with ghosts and spirits. In preparation for writing the opera, the two women spent a fortnight in Malaysia researching Chinese opera, shamanic rituals and shadow puppet theatre in Kuala Lumpur and Penang. Of particular interest to them was the Hungry Ghost Festival, celebrated in the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, during which spirits are believed to be released from hell to roam the earth and demand offerings, prayers and performances, and the opera’s staging draws heavily on Southeast Asian street festivals like this. In Adelaide, the set was constructed on a barge on the Torrens River; the musicians performed both on the stage and in a ‘shrine’ behind the audience. Audience participation was important, as was the inclusion of food stalls, the burning of incense and the decoration of the river bank with lights and religious offerings: the work’s performances were multi-sensory, festive occasions. Finally, the performance space was blessed by a Daoist priest prior to the first rehearsal.

There are four characters: the moon goddess Chang-O (soprano), the demon goddess Queen Mother of the West (dancing mezzo-soprano), the Archer Hou-Yi and the Monkey King (both performed by acrobatic baritone). The ensemble of nine instruments includes erhu, koto and two percussionists, the second of whom moves around the performance space. It was performed by Deborah Kayser, Melissa Madden Gray, Orren Tanabe and ELISION, conducted by Simon Hewett, directed by Michael Kantor and designed by Dorotka Sapinska.

Yuè Lìng Jié retells the story of Chang-O from a number of angles – a woman transformed into a goddess, a figure of nightmare, a wish-granting heavenly creature – and its seven scenes and two interludes draw on many Asian theatre traditions, including riddles, puppet shows, song contests and poetry. In the aria for soprano that constitutes Scene 6, Chang-O takes charge of her own story as she takes an elixir of immortality and completes her transformation. Her aria is accompanied by a striking quartet of bass flute, koto, cello and percussion (water gong, frame drum and yunluo or ‘cloud gong’), whose timbral profile resembles that of the Cassandra-quartet in The Oresteia. Lim’s technique of dynamic heterophony, developed in the mid-1990s, is markedly more evident here than it was in her first opera, and the music freely explores heterophonic relationships between voice and instruments.

The scene begins with soprano and cello on a pedal on D. Chang-O sings of herself in the third person, characterising herself as others have done before. As the music continues, soprano and cello explore in turn ways of enlarging the space around their pedal note, using changes in timbre and, a little later, melodic deviations that eventually dismantle this single perspective altogether. Although it is fully notated, the musical effect is like that in Bardo’i-thos-grol, as the musicians gradually carve out a sonic territory from a single point. Lim acknowledges the influence of the installation on her opera: its last pages (unfortunately not available on recording) are an attempt to recreate the sound of Deborah Kayser’s heart chakra ‘Song of compassion’.[2]

As Chang-O ascends, she begins singing in the first person. Interrupted by a chorus of police whistles – a representation of attempts to control and contain her story? – she continues regardless, drawing strength from the celestial birds around her: ‘I have your reason. / Your wishbone blazing / Alchemy of feathers / Wind-heart tremors’. Like the steps of an ascending staircase, the musicians maintain a string of gestures that appear to emerge from each other: as Chang-O’s words turn towards the second person and the support she receives from her environment, her song becomes heterophonically attuned to the accompanying ensemble. In bars 39–40, the cello’s D (the starting point established in the first section of the aria) becomes an upward, tremolo glissando; this is picked up by the bass flute as buzzing multiphonics around the pitches F♯ and C♯. Picked up by the voice, the first of these becomes a relatively pure, continuous tone – a temporary moment of stability and focus that is reinforced (in asynchronous rhythm) by the cello’s harmonic – before the flute initiates a multiphonic splitting of the F♯ (mirroring its figure from the previous bar) and then a melodic descent that is taken up in different ways by both voice and cello. Koto and then percussion enter a few bars later, but the relay of gestures and energies continues even as Earth falls further away (see bars 80–82).

In the next section Chang-O, singing along, reveals more of the (untold) details of her own immortal origins: ‘Before my blood and spirit fused / I was already burning / Womb ice wanting / Pregnant with fire’. The music is suitably chilling, the continuity of the previous section fractured into isolated, searching gestures.

For the final section, Chang-O returns to the D with which she began. Now it is a stage for new beginnings as, unaccompanied again, she sings a series of first-person affirmations: ‘I rise, I ripple, I reach, I resonate’. Each one is subtly word-painted, as in bars 107–14. From here to the end of the scene, sixteen bars later, the ensemble is silent, except for a delicate harmonic shading beneath ‘I resonate’.

With the last phrase of her aria, Chang-O rises from the D that has been her anchor throughout to a high A on the words ‘I embrace you’. In a programme note, Lim explains the role of Chinese grammar in this ending, and the aria overall. Although the pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’ are distinguished in written Chinese, in the spoken form they are represented by the same syllable. (The written form of ‘she’ was only invented in the twentieth century, when Chinese writers first began translating European texts.) The shifts in pronoun that take place in ‘Chang-O Flies to the Moon’ are therefore significant to both Chang-O’s story and the emergence of female identity in Chinese culture. ‘The singing subject “she” transforms into “I” through to “you” until at the end “you” (her shadow presence) comes into an embrace and unity with “I”’. At the end of the aria, ‘the ensemble dissolves into silence leaving Chang-O singing alone, in an ecstatic opening up to the self’.


[1] The tomb is noted in particular for containing a large number of musical instruments, including a set of sixty-four bronze bells.

[2] Conversation with the author, August 2021.

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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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).

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.

Introducing The Music of Liza Lim

In April 2020, I received an email from Brian Howard, director of the Australian publisher Wildbird Music. Wildbird wanted to produce a monograph on Liza Lim’s music to add to their Australian Composers series. Liza had recommended my name to him; would I like to write it?

This was just three weeks into the first Covid lockdown and life was still rather scary and uncertain. And here was the chance not only to work on a large-scale project, but also one involving an artist whose music is very important to me. In fact, a book on Liza had been in my mind as a possible project one day, I just hadn’t thought he might publish it. I waited a beat, then bit Brian’s hand off.

Quite quickly I got the book’s overall structure worked out. Brian wanted an introduction to Liza’s music that was detailed and focused on the scores, but also appealing to a student audience. Based on the other books in Wildbird’s series (on Nigel Butterley, Richard Meale, Peter Sculthorpe and Carl Vine), I settled on chapters for different performance forces (solo, chamber, vocal, orchestral, installation and stage music) and began drawing up lists of works that could be covered in each chapter, based on a general principle of trying to show as much range in Liza’s work and in the themes her music addresses. Each chapter would be chronological, and the whole book would grow in scale, from the short viola solo Amulet with which it begins, to the 2016 opera Tree of Codes with which it ends. As I wrote, I would try to add layers of understanding with each new piece. And that was all I needed to get started. Unusually for me, I wrote it from beginning to end, which I hope conveys some sense of discovery and exploration, as well as of a continuing thread (or bundle of threads), which is how I see Liza’s overall body of work.

Of course, there were some shifts and changes along the way: some of the running themes only became apparent midway through the project and had to be retrospectively inserted into earlier chapters. The chapter on installations moved several times before finding its final position. And, pertinently for this blog, analyses of three pieces were taken out of the book entirely, primarily for reasons of space.

On 11 September I will be in Berlin for Ensemblekollektiv Berlin’s performance of Liza’s Machine for Contacting the Dead, as well as works by Xenakis and Iannotta. This concert is also doubling up as a launch event for the book and beforehand, at 4:10pm, I will be interviewed by SWR’s Leonie Reinecke and will be doing some signings and what have you. The book is available for pre-order from Wildbird’s website until then.

Until then, I will be posting those three unused analyses as bonus content here over the next few days, starting on Friday with Liza’s short gift to the Arditti Quartet, The Weaver’s Knot. Stay tuned! And if you’re in Berlin on the 11th, come and say hi.