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.


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.

Rambler releases of 2020

In no particular order, some of my favourite releases of 2020.

Liza Lim: Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus (KAIROS)

An essential release of what will surely be one of the most important, powerful and original compositions of the decade. A transformative work in Lim’s career, you can hear in real time the disintegration of her previous compositional voice and its metamorphic re-emergence from the rubble. Shoring fragments (Janáček, Chinese astrology, the songs of extinct birds) against her ruin, this is a musical Wasteland for the age of the climate crisis.

Moor Mother: Circuit City (Don Giovanni)

Bleak, angry, restorative, hopeful. Camae Ayewa was a howl of productivity against 2020’s numerous oppressions. Circuit City, an album I listened to and excavated day after day in December, just pipped Offering, with Nicole Mitchell, released earlier in the lockdown.

Clara Iannotta: Earthing (WERGO)

One of a number of composers who have broken through into something much deeper and darker in the last few years (see also Tim McCormack and Iannotta’s teacher Chaya Czernowin): there’s a doom-core/drone metal vibe to Iannotta’s second CD that one can hear permeating the music of several other composers at the moment. Few do it with Iannotta’s lightness of touch, though.

Beatriz Ferryra: Echos+ (Room40)

I knew nothing of Beatriz Ferryra before this year, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. The trio of new works released as Huellas Entreveradas (Persistence of Sound) in May revealed an important and singular voice in contemporary electronic composition. But this collection of earlier pieces, released a couple of months before, was the real knockout, epitomised by the previously unreleased title piece from 1978, a ghostly collage created from the voice of her late niece.

Anna Höstman: Harbour (Redshift)

Released in early January, Anna Höstman’s album of piano solos, played by Cheryl Duvall, is a capsule from an entirely other era. We shouldn’t forget that other life, though, and Harbour is a reminder of a more careless, casually meandering, simply beautiful time. Brief review here.

Linda Catlin Smith: Meadow (Louth CMS)

Any new recording of Linda Catlin Smith’s music is to be welcomed, but this issue of Meadow, released by Louth Contemporary Music Society near the very end of the year (launch event on 11 December here) feels very special. A 30-minute string trio, Meadow scrapes a little deeper into the influences of early music that frequently run beneath the surface of Smith’s music: like a Dufay motet it conveys an atmosphere of melody and polyphony without constraint, but also of contemplation and extraordinary warmth. If Höstman caught the end of the pre-pandemic world, maybe her Canadian contemporary points to a future after it.

Sarah Hennies: The Reinvention of Romance (Astral Spirits)

2020 feels like it was the breakthrough year for composer and percussionist Sarah Hennies. Last September’s Reservoir 1 made many end-of-2019 lists, but this year that position has been built upon and, remarkably, expanded with two releases: Spectral Malsconcities and The Reinvention of Romance. Both records are examples of a stark yet organic minimalism, characterised by patience, sensitivity and unsettling tension. The latter just pips it though for its capturing of love in the time of Covid – a negotiation of shared spaces, intimacies and solitudes.

Daniel Lentz and Ian William Craig: In a Word (RVNG Intl.)

When I was invited to contribute marketing notes to this album I knew nothing of Ian William Craig’s haunted combination of classically trained voice and crippled technologies, but I was quickly sold on his music’s haunted nostalgia. In combination with Daniel Lentz’s expansive piano minimalism, In a Word (the sixteenth in RVNG’s FRKWYS series of intergenerational collaborations) conjures something between the disintegrating texture of William Basinski and the yearning ghost of Schubert song. Wonderful.

Milana Zarić and Richard Barrett: Mirage (Strange Strings)

Typically for him, Richard Barrett has taken the circumstances of the pandemic and lockdown as a prompt to reexamine the fundamentals of his practice. In 2003, following the invasion of Iraq, he began a reassessment of his work in view of what responsible artists should do in the face of war and parliamentary deceit – a process that began with the orchestral work NO and culminated (although did not end) with 2012’s CONSTRUCTION. In 2020 he has sought ways in which to turn enforced isolation to his advantage – no small challenge for a composer whose work is so enmeshed with performance and collaboration. One outcome has been a turn to electronic composition, documented on strange lines and distances; another is the development of the duo with his partner, harpist Milana Zarić, begun with Barrett’s 2013 work for harp and electronics tendril, but taking on a new significance with the curtailment of all other shared performance opportunities in 2020. nocturnes was one of my compositional highlights of last year, and the new pieces mirage, restless horizon and sphinx highlight still further Barrett’s refusal to constrain his imagination.

Angharad Davies/Tim Parkinson: The Quarantine Concerts (Experimental Sound Studio/YouTube)

The March lockdown represented a fundamental challenge to every musician on the planet. Many are still finding it hard to produce work under pandemic conditions. One composer who came fast out of the gates, even found the constrictions a spur to creativity, was Tim Parkinson. Parkinson’s 2020 album Here Comes a Monster (Takuroko) was released in May 2020, and somehow already incorporated compositional responses to quarantine. But this even earlier performance, from the first month of Experimental Sound Studio’s (still-running) Quarantine Concerts series stuck with me (at a time when I, for one, still found it hard to engage with new music) for its whimsical reinvention of Parkinson’s opera Time with People, played by him and Angharad Davies using Playmobil toy figures. For more like that, see also the split-screen performance with James Saunders, 24 Preludes.

Bastard Assignments: Lockdown Jams (Bastard Assignments/YouTube)

Trust BA to make 2020 even weirder and more unsettling. The Lockdown Jams emerged from short studies in making experimental music theater over Zoom and Google Hangouts, but quickly grew into a series of commissioned works by (among others) Marcela Lucatelli, Neil Luck, Alexander Schubert, Elaine Mitchener and Tommaso Petrolo, and Jennifer Walshe. As the series has gone on, the Lockdown Jams have taken an increasingly classical approach to Zoom/isolation aesthetics (see Walshe’s zusammen iii, and Thick and Tight’s wonderful Woking), but the early instantiations capture like nothing else the unravelling, baffling, inexpertly improvisational mess that was spring 2020. Read my review here.

Some recent writings

Last autumn, I was fortunate to be asked – separately, but serendipitously – to write essays on five of my favourite artists: Apartment House, Chaya Czernowin, Evan Johnson, Liza Lim and Timothy McCormack,. Although I enjoy most writing, it’s rare to be able to take such pleasure from it, and over such a sustained period – eight weeks through September and October in this case. It was a wonderful time. With the release this week of McCormack’s debut CD (on KAIROS), the events and CDs for which I wrote those essays have finally all come to fruition. I’m moved therefore to share a little extract from each here. I particularly like the fact that I have written about some of these musicians for a decade now: having them all together engendered a profound sense of ‘what next?’, but also felt like a victory.

The three liner notes below accompany CDs that I believe are among the essential releases of the last few months, and I recommend them to you as highly as I can.

A mountain’, wrote the Scottish novelist and naturist Nan Shepherd (1893–1981), ‘has an inside’. Like Shepherd’s ‘living mountain’, McCormack’s music also has an inside. To be in a landscape is to be part of it, to participate in its creation, evolution and destruction. We do not observe, we do not consume, we do not utilise, we do not inhabit or farm or pollute landscapes passively. They enter us as we enter them. For karst survey McCormack told the flutist Zach Sheets, ‘I really wanted to put the listener on the ground walking through it and not understanding the connections between its features. … I wanted to put the listener really in the middle of this landscape, and you’re only seeing what you’re able to see – you don’t see how the whole thing connects until you’ve walked through it all.’

From sleevenotes to Timothy McCormack, KARST, karst survey, and you actually are evaporating, released by KAIROS.

In the final movement of [Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus] is a remarkable sound, based on a real phenomenon: the ‘dawn chorus’ of coral reef fish that takes place in the changing light of morning; a mass of clicking, rasping percussive sounds, transcribed by Lim through the sound of Waldteufels and windwands being swirled in the air. As the music passes theoretically below the range of human hearing (thanks to a contrabassoon that has been extended with a metre of plastic tubing), we end listening to a song that we can no longer know nor understand, looking to a future perhaps no longer meant for us.

From sleevenotes to Liza Lim, Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus, released by KAIROS.

A hyphen sits between. A hyphen is small. Its use implies the presence of two more substantial items – words, or parts of words – on either side, which give it its function and meaning. Those words constitute a sort of white or negative space, whose presence and influence can be inferred even if the words themselves are not spoken. It is an image articulated spectacularly in a favourite artwork of Johnson’s, the pen and ink drawing Der Hafen von Antwerpen beim Scheldetor (1520) by Albrecht Dürer. Dürer’s picture inverts the normal rules of Renaissance perspective by becoming more detailed the closer one gets to its vanishing point. At its centre, where the outlines of buildings and ships collide, it reaches a state of almost self-negating intricacy, the profusion of lines leading to less, not more, definition. But outwards from this point the picture tends towards white space, and indeed more than half of the page is completely white, including the large expanse of dockside pavement on which were are standing. Johnson’s music can be understood in large part in response to this picture – and it directly inspired his 2014 string quartet inscribed, in the center: ‘1520, Antorff’. The works on the present recording, written before this quartet, reflect alternative responses to the dialectic of compression and emptiness revealed by Dürer.

From sleevenotes to Evan Johnson portrait disc, also on KAIROS.

Despite a continual swinging between opposites – from art gallery to concert hall, from detailed notation to allusive text, from the heart of Europe to the fringes of New York, from the cutting edge to the historical – Apartment House have created an artistic identity that transcends those differences . . . In part that identity is guided by Lukoszevieze’s own tastes, contacts and performance opportunities. He has described a word of mouth aspect to the group’s artistic direction that is driven by enthusiasms and personal relationships rather than publishers’ catalogues or occasion-related prestige. The group’s direction is also driven by Lukoszevieze’s own reading of musical history (shared with Cage), not as a straight line going in one direction, but as a series of rivers, and Lukoszevieze delights in discovering or reviving works and composers – particularly from the 1960s and 70s – that have left only the faintest traces on history. Not even the early experimental or minimalist works that might be referenced in textbooks of the time, but those that were published only in small-run magazines, or were performed only once, or that for any other reason might have slipped beneath the floorboards of history.

In a musical world in which fragility and precariousness are countered by institutionalisation and formality, Apartment House have made flexibility into a virtue. The group’s name alludes to Cage’s Apartment House 1776, but more significantly to the idea of different rooms within a single building: rooms with different functions, rooms on different levels, rooms close or far apart, some rooms with people in, some that are empty.

From programme essay on Apartment House, for Rainy Days Festival, Luxembourg.

Falling in love is a huge risk. To share your life and your self with someone is to risk pain and suffering – and in extreme circumstances even torture and death. This is very rare, of course, although movements like #MeToo have made us all more aware of the amount of physical abuse that does take place. And even in a kind and caring relationship in which each partner is able to grow, to love is to lose something – other lives, other loves. It means giving up our autonomy and independence in order to become part of something larger. It is an opening up that is both physical and psychological. In Czernowin’s words: ‘In all this process of falling in love or opening your life to somebody else there are so many emotions, and they are all very focused, all very concentrated. It is almost like the whole body – and the whole body of the personality – know that they are going to undergo a huge change. And that change is described to us by society as something so idyllic: not many people talk about the risk, of opening an organism into another organism.’ Insofar as it tells a story – or describes a series of scenes – Heart Chamber does so in ways that engage us listeners aesthetically, psychologically and physically. As far as is possible, we are drawn into the same adventure into the unknown as the lovers themselves.

From programme essay, Chaya Czernowin, Heart Chamber, Berlin Opera. (Full text here.)

Playlists for the Long Distancing 3

We’re going to be indoors for a long time now. In case it helps ease the pressure, I’m revisiting my back catalogue of new music playlists and posting things here every weekend. Some of these lists regular readers will have seen before; some of them will be new collections. (Or at least ones I’ve had knocking around privately for a while.)

For this weekend’s listening, I’ve collected together the (small but growing) number of composer-chronology playlists I have been compiling over the last six months or so. So far each of these has been created in response to a piece of writing on my desk related to that composer, but I have a couple more partly ready that don’t relate to anything much yet; I’ll add them to this post in due course.

Richard Barrett

George Benjamin

Oliver Knussen

Liza Lim

Original post here. This list now includes Axis Mundi for bassoon, and the extraordinary Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus, from this newly released and essential CD.

Luigi Nono

Original post here.

I’ve also added a new playlist to this collection, for Krzysztof Penderecki, who died last weekend. Judge for yourselves the degree to which his later (post-1977) style was prefigured in his earlier works, or not. It’s a chance, too, to listen to some of his overlooked very late works, which exhibit a simplicity and clarity rarely encountered in his earlier music. Missing from the list – because recordings aren’t available – are the operas, the early electronic works and a handful of occasional pieces. I haven’t bothered to include many of the arrangements that Penderecki made of his own music.


Albums to look out for in 2020

Albums to look out for in 2020

This is the season of end-of-year lists (I’m pleased to see several of my top 10 make it into The Wire‘s albums of the year). But it is also a time of year when many great recordings are still coming out that might get overlooked in twelve months’ time. I want to give quick shoutouts to a few of these that have become aware of in the last few weeks.

Anna Höstman: Harbour (Redshift Records)

When I wrote about Canadian experimental composers for The Wire a couple of years ago, Anna Höstman‘s name was one that came up in my research, even though I wasn’t able to write about her at the time. Harbour (released 11 Jan 2020) is an album of piano solos, played with great finesse and concentration by Cheryl Duvall. I emphasise concentration, because Höstman’s music demands a combination of intense mindfulness and extremely long-range thought. Not unlike her compatriot Martin Arnold, she is fascinated by musical lines – rather than encasing structures – that unfurl and loop and roll under their own volition. At points they seem to catch, on a motif or a chord, and at these moments the repetitions bring Feldman to mind. At other times, the music meanders quite carelessly, but somehow always doing enough to hold your attention. The 25-minute title piece, composed in 2015, is particularly sumptuous. One not to miss in 2020.

Robert Haigh: Black Sarabande (Unseen Worlds)

Another record due out at the start of 2020, this is also another one for fans of off-kilter piano music. Haigh’s second album for Unseen Worlds occupies a sonic space filled with hauntological tape hiss, synth pads and almost-out-of-earshot field recordings. Shades of Harold Budd, as well as Vangelis’s Bladerunner, with a harmonic and textural subtlety – a hallmark of Haigh’s work that runs all the back to his drum ‘n’ bass days as Omni Trio – that keeps it all from shading into simple ambience. Unseen Worlds had a tremendous year in 2019; Tommy McCutchon’s label looks to be start strong in 2020 too.

ELISION: world-line (Huddersfield Contemporary Records)

It’s great to have a proper recording of Richard Barrett’s world-line, a work that affected me deeply when I first heard it at the Transit festival in Leuven a few years ago. Written for custom-made lap-steel guitar, with percussion, trumpet and electronic accompaniments, it is not only an exemplary instance of Barrett’s interest in bespoke instrumental ergonomics but a moving (and forgivably masculine) portrait of his relationship with Daryl Buckley and ELISION: everyone duets with Daryl’s guitar, and the movement where Daryl and percussionist Peter Neville – partners in music for 30 years – get to improvise on their own is surprisingly touching.

Also on the disc are Timothy McCormack’s subsidence for lap-steel guitar (two players), a 30-minute pitch-black spiral down into slack strings and popping pickups. A seriously dark piece and a great taster for McCormack’s forthcoming portrait disc on Kairos. The CD is completed with Liza Lim’s Roda – The Living Circle, a trumpet solo for Tristram Williams drawn and elaborated from the ensemble work Roda – The Spinning World.

This one is already out: you can see full details at the NMC website.

POST-PRESS ADDITION: David Brynjar Franzson: longitude (Bedroom Community)

Another recent release is David Brynjar Franzson’s longitude, performed by Ensemble Adapter. Composed in moody instrumental and electronic atmospherics – jagged, hissing, perforated sounds that crossfade in and out – it’s a compelling soundscape that I’m sure is even more striking heard live. It’s also an exploration of the extraordinary story of the Danish adventurer Jørgen Jørgensen, whose complex involvement in the Napoleonic Wars can be read as both heroic and traitorous: after fighting with the Danish against the British in the Gunboat Wars, he attempted to liberate Iceland from a Danish trade monopoly that was slowly starving its people; he named himself ‘Protector’ of Iceland, but after 40 days he was taken back to England, imprisoned, and eventually became a British spy working in France and Germany.

Over the course of longitude‘s 50 minutes, those sibilant atmospheres take on more emotionally provocative identities: the work is never programmatic (although one is free to imagine in its sounds something of Jørgensen’s voyages across the North Sea between Denmark and Great Britain; the famished state of Rejkyavik that he encountered in 1809; and the whistling harmonics of Scandinavian folk music), but draws one ever-deeper into sonic ambiguities that echo the shifting allegiances and morals of Jørgensen’s life. Worth the investment of time; you can get it through Bandcamp here.


Music after the Fall mixtape for The Lake Radio

A fun outcome of my visit to the Borealis Festival last month was an invitation from Jan Stricker of The Lake Radio to produce a new music mixtape for their podcast.

The original brief was that it would accompany an interview with Simon Steen-Andersen and Louise Alenius, so I made sure to include a track by each in there. As for the remaining artists, it’s sort of a Music after the Fall who’s who.

It has been a while since I did anything like this, and while the final result is nowhere near as densely layered as those old Blogariddims mixes, I still had a blast making it. The whole thing was put together in Audacity, texture/mood matching things along the way. Here’s a tracklist with timings:

0:00 Laurence Crane: 20th Century Music. Michael Finnissy, pf (Métier)
2:37 Liza Lim: Tongue of the Invisible. Musikfabrik, Omar Ebrahim, Uri Caine, André de Ridder (Wergo)
8:25 Pamela Z: Pop Titles “You”. (Starkland)
11:33 Chaya Czernowin: Sahaf. Ensemble Nikel (Wergo)
14:21 Simon Steen-Andersen: On and Off and To and Fro. asamisimasa (Dacapo)
18:20 Michael Finnissy: The History of Photography in Sound: I. Le demon de l’analogie. Ian Pace, pf (Métier)
24:26 Peter Garland: Another Sunrise (Mode)
27:57 Peter Ablinger: Morton Feldman, from Voices and Piano (Kairos)
29:21 Louise Alenius: Doctor Treves, from Elephant Man (Louis Alenius)
30:50 Sr. Anselme O’Ceallaigh (Jennifer Walshe): Virtue IV (Migro)
35:46 Richard Barrett: Transmission VI, from DARK MATTER. Daryl Buckley, gui (NMC)


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


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.