Liza Lim in conversation with Marco Blaauw on composition, parallel worlds and flight delays
Marco Blaauw: Dreams seem to play a central role in some of your pieces. Are dreams a vital source of inspiration to you?
Liza Lim: The use of the word “dreams” is quite interesting. There are a lot of philosophies which use the concept of a dream world parallel to ordinary reality: the dream world might be just as real. One might operate in dreams with the same liveliness and intelligence as in ordinary life. This idea intrigues me – of parallel realities or alternative, non-ordinary realities rather than thinking of dream as something passive. The idea of “dreamtime” in Aboriginal culture for instance is not something vague but an absolutely current, concurrent, activated, creative form of presence, in which one can find knowledge and in which one can act creatively.
MB: Is it a state in which you personally enter consciously – is it something you plan? “Now I am going to enter this world…”
LL: No. It is not a formal process. I guess it’s the idea of parallel structures of creativity and consciousness that really fascinates me. For instance, “The Green Lion eats the Sun”, the piece for double-bell euphonium that I’ve written for Melvyn Poore, is about these two sides of consciousness which are represented quite simply with the two bells. The opening and closing of the bells give you access to one or the other side but in a weird reversal: the so-called unconscious side is much more colourful, active, vibrant than the so-called conscious one. There’s a gap: when we are on one side we can’t realize what’s on the other side. And it’s only when we change the perspective or, in the case of the piece, change the position through the opening of the bell that we can actually perceive it. That was one of the really basic ideas I had compositionally about switching between these two sides of the instrument.
MB: Is composing, is music helping you with that process of switching between the different states of consciousness?
LL: Yes it is – definitely! Because composing and making music is actually to be in touch with an activated form of consciousness, which is not really part of ordinary operations. I experienced that very strongly writing the piece for Melvyn.
I found it very difficult in the beginning to write for the double bell euphonium. How to activate this instrument, which doesn’t have a huge repertoire? It is not a pre-trodden path in terms of solo repertoire or of any kind of established virtuosity. I really struggled. I was getting later and later, because I was finding it hard to work with the instrument. Then I actually started writing the piece quite recently when I was at Boston airport delayed for seven hours. One would say it is the least promising place to get into composition! But for some reason I was just so focused, so ready to reach out and pick up this piece that I wrote half of it in Boston airport. Surrounded by this layer of noise and frustrated passengers, I just got into such a focused state of mind and being. Nothing could disturb me. Nothing could touch me. That is the ecstasy of making art. The music is making you and you are making the music. The wonder one aims for but doesn’t necessarily reach. That was really exciting! Many thoughts I had before just came together, thoughts I had grappled with in the previous, let’s say, two years… And then it was like having access to another state, to another world, and being able to touch it and grab it. That’s one of the initial ideas of my piece “Songs found in Dream” (2005) – the Australian aboriginal idea that songs are things you “hunt” for in this other state of being.
MB: The other solo piece you were writing for Ensemble Musikfabrik, “Axis Mundi”, is for bassoon which doesn’t have so many examples in the contemporary music either. It also seems to be an instrument that still needs exploring.
LL: That was also an exciting project and that was a little bit different. That process of writing was very much happening while I was in contact with Alban Wesly exploring specific techniques, ways of thinking about navigating the bassoon in terms of organising colours and fingerings in a more technical way. I guess one of the issues one is faced with in making these instrumental explorations is that one can uncover a lot of techniques and effects. And then you have to ask: What does it all mean? Does it go beyond some kind of novelty factor? Alban as a performer was showing the way in terms of navigating amongst these different multiphonic sounds via a very practical fingering system that became the basis for that work.
MB: Your first meeting with the ensemble was 2008 when we played the piece you mentioned earlier: “Songs found in Dream”.
LL: Yes, when you did an education project: the kids were able to express their own kind of understanding and interpretations of what it might mean to journey through a landscape. They made drawings like maps and recorded environmental sounds that went into an animated film. That was very inspiring. The thing that intrigues me about the work of the ensemble is the way that you are always adding something to your activities. It’s not just the concert… there’s always something which is about communicating into a wider context. Through specific education projects, but not just that – it’s a whole range of work. You are always exploring new formats and always imagining ways of communicating them.
MB: And now the work with the ensemble goes on… I’m very happy about the upcoming collaboration together with the Cologne Opera and Hellerau, European Center for the Arts in Dresden: “Tree of Codes”. An opera based on a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. Do you want to give us a short preview?
LL: I’d rather not say too much but it is related to some of the things we have spoken about: the parallel worlds and the sense of the boundaries between worlds breaking down. That is a very strong theme at the beginning of the opera: the boundaries between humans, animals, nature, machines are dissolving.
MB: For you, while creating the music for the opera, how essential is the connection to the Ensemble? Is it relevant for you as a composer?
LL: It is quite significant. We already did a workshop where we had a chance to try things out, ideas which at the time were very unformed. That material is now making its way into the opera. The characters of the musicians and their relation to their instruments – they all populate the opera. I’m thinking of the opera in a completely concrete way. I’m not thinking, here is the trumpet part, I’m thinking: You are going to play the trumpet part – knowing your capacity to move and to play something like the double bell. I’m trying to compose something for the whole capacity of the players.