An ecstatic vertigo: Liza Lim’s Tongue of the Invisible (CD review)

tongue-cd

There still isn’t enough Lim on disc for my liking (and still less of her longer works), but this release of the 55-minute song cycle Tongue of the Invisible (2010–11) will fill the gap for a while. It’s the latest instalment in Wergo’s musikFabrik Edition.

The situation of the artist within and towards a global culture is one of the great aesthetic wellsprings of our age, and Lim one of music’s most sensitive practitioners. Previous works have turned to urban China (Moon Spirit Feasting) and Aboriginal northern Australia (Invisibility, Pearl Ochre Hair String, Shimmer Songs). Tongue of the Invisible sets words by the 14-century Persian poet Hafiz. One could make an argument for a sort of eclectic tourism, except that Lim approaches musical traditions distant from her own with the greatest respect and artistic sincerity.

Which is not to say that there’s a touchy-feely, post-colonial humility to her music. Not at all. Its baseline sound is very much that of the Western acoustic/orchestral tradition, and its gestural language that of Western musical modernism. It speaks honestly to the messy, ugly and violent global story. Growing up, being trained and making a career in the West endows one with certain perspectives and privileges. To acknowledge that is to grant the same to those growing up in Central Asia, Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa. And it is a global story: the music within Lim’s Western inheritance is heard with the same analytical ear as that without. The sound of it all, in which timbres, forces, impulses and sensations collide (and I mean properly mess each other up; not cozy together around a pomo global beat) is the sound of mutation, creolisation, life, an ecstatic vertigo.

And despite certain stylistic consistencies (a taste for disjunct timbres, whistling harmonics, skirling melodic lines) you can clearly hear the mutations. The Aboriginal pieces of the mid-2000s addressed the ‘shimmer’ of Yolngu art through striated sounds, repeating pulses, and layered rhythms; Tongue of the Invisible employs a palette of drones, melodic ornamentation, solo declamation, drumming patterns and accumulative structures. There are sections of improvisation, which the preface to the score tells us are a ‘metaphor for paths of rejuvenation and the creation of variable meaning’. The piece was written for musikFabrik, and they bring a headily sensual quality to their playing. The instrumental introduction, a sequence of increasingly elaborate solo curlicues over an increasingly massive drone, is one of the most absorbing passages I can recall in Lim’s output. If you’re looking for an introduction to Lim’s music – and if you haven’t already had one then you should be – then this may be what you need.

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ELISION, Music We’d Like to Hear

Jennie Gottschalk alerts me to the fact that ELISION’s concert at the City of London Festival was broadcast on Radio 3’s Hear and Now on Saturday, and has been on iPlayer all week. I find I need a lot of alerting to things at the moment … It will be there for another couple of days, so grab it while you can.

Jennie and I were both at that concert, which was followed, later in the evening, by the last concert in this year’s Music We’d Like to Hear series. It was one of those evenings you occasionally get in London when there’s almost too much new music at once. Even more rarely, it was actually possible to attend both concerts, since it was just a couple of hundred yards along Holborn Viaduct from one to the other. (A side note to those who argue that you always see the same people at new music gigs: against expectations, Jennie and I were the only people to go to both.)

On paper, they were two very contrasting concerts from opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum. In actual fact, not so much, both marked by seriousness of intent, skill in execution, and musical intelligence from performers, programmers and composers alike. I’m calling time on new complexity, new simplicity, new complicity; it’s old-fashioned doing it right.

One of the more surprising connections was the success of two pieces of earlier music within an avant-garde context. ELISION played Random Round by Percy Grainger, dating from 1912; Music We’d Like to Hear, as was their habit this year, went even further back, Tim Parkinson programming a violin duo by Vincenzo Gabrieli. The Gabrieli highlighted concerns of instrumentation, temperament, patterning and form that I heard echoed in, especially, Parkinson–Saunders’ brilliant realisation of Michael Parsons’ Pentachordal Melody. The transition, over three interations of Parsons’ grid of numbers, from pitched instruments to noise, was beautifully judged and exquisitely counterpointed the systematised empiricism of Parsons’ score.

Random Round is one of those early 20th-century oddities  – like Satie’s Vexations – that occasionally crop up: a curious, anomalous idea that after several decades appears unexpectedly serious-minded and prophetic. I don’t know enough about the Grainger to know what his intentions were; but it was striking how contemporary ELISION’s realisation (which incorporated lots of extended instrumental sounds) was. There aren’t many pieces that can remain quite so fresh 100 years after they were written. Incidentally, here’s a fun interactive version of Random Round to play around with, although its sounds are much more conventional than ELISION’s were.

The other big highlight of ELISION’s concert was the performance by Richard Craig and Peter Veale of John Rodgers’ Amor, a flute and oboe duet extracted from Rodgers’ much larger (?music theatre) work Inferno. Amor is based on Dante’s pair of lovers Paolo and Francesca, who were caught in the act of adultery and doomed to remain forever joined in the second circle of Hell. Rodgers clearly possesses an extraordinarily original musical mind (he came up with the ‘guiro’ bow used in Liza Lim’s Invisibility, also played in this concert), allied to a great intellectual integrity. At the end of Amor, he symbolises the conjoining of the two lovers by asking for the bell of the flute to be inserted inside that of the oboe: this act of delicate, precise and obviously allegorical instrumental manoeuvring gives rise to a tormented noise of massed interferences, splitting harmonics and so on. Remarkable.

Here’s a video, recorded on an earlier occasion by Veale and Paula Rae:

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBX1ZNXV4Mg%5D

Spirit Weapons – ELISION at Kings Place this Monday

It has taken a little while to get the programme finalised, but ELISION’s next concert at Kings Place (this Monday, 15th November) looks like a doozy:

Michael Finnissy Hinomi (1979), for solo percussion

Newton Armstrong Unsaying (2010), for solo violoncello and voice

Evan Johnson hyphen (2002), for solo crotales

Jeroen Speak Epeisodos (1998), for solo Eb clarinet

Richard Barrett Abglanzbeladen/auseinandergeschrieben (1992-96), for solo percussion

Liza Lim The Quickening/Spirit Weapons (2005/10), for soprano and violoncello

It’s quite a percussion-heavy programme, so a great opportunity to enjoy the skills of the amazing Peter Neville, and the appearance of Deborah Kayser in a Newton Armstrong premiere and a version of Liza Lim’s The Quickening reworked especially for this concert adds an extra special gloss. I’ve said it before – do not miss. Get more details and tickets here.

While I’m at it, ELISION-heads and fans of extreme notated music should be pretty excited about the release of two new ELISION CDs on Huddersfield University’s HCR label. Full disclosure: I wrote the sleevenotes for these, but that also means I’ve been listening to the tapes for a while now, and they are very special indeed. The CDs will be officially launched at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival on 23 November.

Processes of Revelation: Liza Lim

My latest article for Sound and Music’s INTO Magazine is out, and it’s a sort of profile/introduction to Liza Lim and some of her recent music. A short article like this is nowhere near enough space to begin to unravel the layers of intellectual investigation and emotional energy that make Liza’s music so special. This is only a sketched beginning, in some ways a study for some more detailed work I’m going to be doing later this year on her recent ‘shimmer’ pieces, but hopefully there’s something in here that will hook some new listeners.

Opening a Liza Lim score for the first time, one is struck by its mix of precise rhythmic and pitch notation, and generalised, graphical indications of timbre and sound production. A flurry of microtonal demisemiquavers under a 9:8 tuplet might, for example, be followed by a hand-drawn wavy line and the instruction ‘sweep bow’. When one listens, however, the contrast between the controlled and the speculative dissolves, revealing something utterly new and original.

Thanks to Liza for taking the time (in the early morning after a premiere no less!) for the interview that feeds into this piece.

New videos from ELISION

Freshly uploaded to YouTube and added to my YouTube mega-post.

All these pieces were performed by ELISION at Kings Place in February (and the videos are live recordings from that concert). When I reviewed that concert, I was absolutely taken with Liza Lim’s cello solo, Invisibility, and I’ve not changed that view.

Invisibility draws inspiration from Aboriginal art, particularly the the use of ‘shimmer’ effects to reveal the simultaneity of past, present and future spiritual reality.The piece demands two bows, one standard, the other a ‘guiro’ bow of Lim’s devising, in which the bow hairs are twisted round the wood of the bow, like a damper spring. This gives the sound across the string an irregular, serrated effect, rather like the cross-hatchings of Aboriginal art. The bow stunted the cello’s dynamic range, but as well as obscuring it also revealed new drifts of sound beneath the notes. Unlike many of the other composers represented, Lim deals not in the sparks and abrasions of conflicting musical forces, but in a stretching and dissolution of those forces to find new realms beyond: discovery, not destruction. The result was breathtakingly beautiful. Séverine Ballon’s superb performance may be a hard one to follow, but this is a piece that deserves a long life in the repertoire.

Liza Lim – Invisibility

Timothy McCormack‘s Disfix is already familiar to regular readers; this video complements the live recording made in Huddersfield last autumn:

Timothy McCormack – Disfix

When I first heard it in February, I found Richard Barrett’s brass duo, Aurora, tricky to get my head around. Listening again, I’m still thrown by that opening section of disintegrating harmonics, but the piece’s overall shape benefits from a couple more listens:

Richard Barrett – Aurora

ELISION at Kings Place – review now online

My review of ELISION’s latest concert at Kings Place is now online at Musical Pointers:

Liza Lim’s Songs found in dream is one of a group of recent pieces by this composer concerned with aspects of Australian Aboriginal culture (the cello solo Invisibility, reviewed here last month, also belongs to this group). Of the pieces in this concert it was the least concerned with an externally-imposed compositional logic, but instead derived a quite special vividity from an instinctive development of sounds, each giving birth to something new as the music proceeded. What logic there was deferred to the sounding bodies of the instruments themselves, which had been given a dry, percussive palette that was evocative, but never derivative of Aboriginal music.

Continue reading here.

ELISION – Terrain – at Kings Place this Monday

Opening bars of Ferneyhough's Terrain

This Monday sees the first London appearance of the full ELISION cohort, as they come to Kings Place armed with classics by Brian Ferneyhough and James Dillon, plus new and recent works by Mary Bellamy, Aaron Cassidy, Bryn Harrison and Liza Lim. Should be a great night.

Programme:

Liza LimSongs Found in Dream (2006)

Bryn Harrison – surface forms (repeating) (2009)

Mary Bellamy new work (2009)

Aaron CassidyAnd the scream, Bacon’s scream, is the operation through which the entire body escapes through the mouth (or, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion) (2009)

James Dillon – Once Upon a time (1980)

Brian Ferneyhough – Terrain (1992)

Tickets are selling fast, I’m told, so visit the King’s Place website now for booking information and more details.