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Making meaning as you journey

Matthew Lorenzon: Liza Lim, Metropolis New Music Festival

Liza Lim, Tongue of the Invisible, Ensemble musicFabrik, Wergo (CD, 2013), Six Degrees Ensemble, The Garden of Earthly Desire, Melbourne Recital Centre, Metropolis New Music Festival, 5 April

André de Ridder (conductor) and Liza Lim (composer), Tongue of the Invisible rehearsal André de Ridder (conductor) and Liza Lim (composer), Tongue of the Invisible rehearsal
photo Klaus Rudolf
Today we are likely to hear the word “peregrination” as meaning “a meandering journey.” In 12th century Anglo-Norman and Middle French the word referred to one’s earthly journey towards heaven, a pilgrimage where the path, and perhaps even the destination, is uncertain. Liza Lim’s Garden of Earthly Desire and Tongue of the Invisible are musical peregrinations, in this earlier sense, through artworks that themselves depict winding paths through sensual landscapes in search of the spiritual.

Melbourne-based contemporary music ensemble Six Degrees will perform Garden of Earthly Desire at the upcoming Metropolis New Music Festival. “I’ve known the members of Six Degrees for many years,” Lim, in the UK, explained in a phone interview. “Many have played my music before in ensembles including the Atticus String Quartet and the ELISION Ensemble.”

Garden of Earthly Desire is an extended work for chamber ensemble based on the 15th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. “It was written in 1988 and was the first big piece I wrote for the ELISION Ensemble. The Bosch was a jumping-off point for all of us. It’s very rich in its imagery…It’s made up of these incredibly detailed figures. As a viewer you start to create stories in the different figures. How did something get there? What’s the relationship between the parts of this strange, hybrid, animal-human?”

Everyone will be familiar with the paradox that travelling is really about finding places to sit down. Perhaps this is why “peregrination” also referred to a “resting place” or a “temporary habitation.” Lim’s response to the Bosch painting is full of such resting places where the audience encounters immaculately detailed and otherworldly figures before being hurried off to the next scene.

Though almost 25 years separate the pieces, Lim sees connections between Garden of Earthly Desire and Tongue of the Invisible, which is based on poems by the 14th century Sufi poet Hafiz. “Both are about intersecting pathways, creation of meaning as you journey through a landscape—a garden, say. A garden of images and ideas and emotions.”

In Tongue of the Invisible, recently recorded by Ensemble musicFabrik for the Wergo label, this sense of journeying is written into the libretto. “Jonathan Holmes chose the ghazals [a poetic form] and developed a grid-like structure where every square has a line of the poem instead of following the narrative form. Wherever you turn you can trace a number of different pathways through this grid. Wherever you turn is the poem, is this world of bewilderment and yearning. That was a huge influence on what I did musically as well.”

The result is a musical world where bewildering fury gives way to ecstasy, as in the first movement “At dawn I heard the tongue of the invisible.” A teeming wall of sound punctuated by swooping trills from the woodwind plunges into silence before tingling, shivering cimbalom and muted brass underscore a ravaged cry from baritone Omar Ebrahim. Other movements explore the tender pathos and patient yearning of Hafiz’s poetry, such as “Between the pages of the world (II),” where Ebrahim mourns the short lifespan of the rose that is then “pressed/ Between the pages of the world.” To sing Hafiz must be a daunting task considering the depth of the Qawwali tradition, but Ebrahim traverses Hafiz’s emotional world of rapture and longing with sensitivity and stamina throughout the almost hour-long work.

Hafiz’s poetic peregrinations may be considered a type of translation between worlds, of finding the term in one world for an object in another through a complex and paradoxical weave of meanings. “The Hafiz is a work that reflects on translation between one language to another, but more than that, between ways of being and ways of experiencing. What I really love about the poetry is how elusive it is. It seems immediate. There are these really earthy, sensuous images, but at the same time you can’t quite grab hold of it. It’s very complex and indefinable. He talks about drunkenness and wildness and in the next line something about being gathered up by divine love. You’re shifting registers of feeling and meaning all the time. As soon as you think you’ve got somewhere it’s subverted by the poetry.”

We might think of Lim’s compositions as a second level of peregrination between the artistic sources and the musical. But as in Hafiz’s poetry, the ecstatic is sought through contrasts and surprises. A remarkable element of Liza Lim’s music is the imaginative and unique ways it conjures feelings or scenes without the use of literal transcription or imitation. “I don’t think of my music as a transcription of anything, really. I’m not trying to map nature or a specific situation or emotion. For me, everything is much more elusive, more ambiguous. Yes, I’m inspired by many things that may be literary or from another art form. It could be anything that provides inspiration. I think through the medium of music these impulses start to speak a more abstract, musical language. Maybe there’s something about musical thinking by itself that goes beyond transcription. It’s about transformation.”

Part of the translation from the works to the music is achieved by the performers themselves, through the inclusion of different levels of improvisation. Says Lim, “I find that very interesting and it’s something that I tried to work with in the structure of the music and the setup of the ensemble in the way it combined improvisation and more directed things. It was about creating experiences for the group, for a community of musicians within the context of a performance.”

Liza Lim does not so much set words to music as use them to construct a journey whose truth is to be found between the musical lines, through a process of immanent peregrination. “I’ve always sought to write something that was quite physically immediate in the sense of performance, of gesture, of theatre and also in the sense of the mystic, for me. They are part of a continuum or of a whole picture.”


Australian composer Liza Lim is Professor of Composition at the University of Huddersfield, UK. Alex Ross, music writer for The New Yorker, listed Tongue of the Invisible as one of the CDs of 2013.

Liza Lim, Tongue of the Invisible, Ensemble musicFabrik, Wergo (CD, 2013), Six Degrees Ensemble, The Garden of Earthly Desire, Melbourne Recital Centre, Metropolis New Music Festival, 5 April

RealTime issue #119 Feb-March 2014 pg. 45

© Matthew Lorenzon; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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