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Liza Lim: instrumental imaginings

Richard Wilding

A cool spring evening wrapped itself around the Judith Wright Arts Centre in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley as the human traffic on Brunswick Street began increasing for the weekend. But it all seemed a thousand miles away from the centre’s insulated theatre space as we waited for the Australian premiere of Liza Lim’s composition, Machine for contacting the dead. Originally commissioned by the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the piece was first performed in Paris in 2001 in conjunction with an archaeological exhibition of artifacts from the burial site of an ancient Chinese aristocrat. Included in the exhibition were numerous musical instruments found within the tomb and it is primarily these, and the imagined fate of the 21 royal concubines also interred, that inspired Lim’s composition.

However, before the main attraction, an appetiser: Elision’s Ben Marks performs Xenakis’ Keren for solo trombone. This is a demanding piece that uses a host of virtuoso techniques such as multiphonics and microtonality to push the timbral qualities of the instrument to extremes but is tempered with classical precision and deceptive restraint. Marks seems to have made this a signature piece and he approached it with confidence and skill. He shifted easily from muted ostinati to natural harmonics until the last guttural gliss that seemed to descend into the quietness of a tomb, paving the way for Lim’s piece.

In this performance, the ensemble for Machine for contacting the dead consists of 27 musicians drawn from Elision and The Queensland Orchestra with Franck Ollu, the French conductor who is currently involved with the Ensemble Modern Orchestra and the Ensemble Intercontemporain. As the composer explains during an introductory speech (complete with slideshow), she has grouped the orchestra into smaller clusters of instruments and each cluster is treated as an instrumental unit that plays to produce a new instrumental timbre. Without representing them directly, these “meta-instruments” evoke the spirit of the ancient Chinese artifacts dug from the tomb. The key to this is Lim’s metaphorical treatment of the original instrumental sounds—she is not attempting to recreate them but rather to veil them. In an accompanying article she describes the meta-instruments as dug from the ground in a ruined state, creaking and exhaling as they are played. What issues is not the sound of strings and brass but fragmented cries and susurrations as if the ensemble were a medium channeling the voices of the dead. At times bewildering and erotic these fragile and aggressive voices seem to emanate fitfully from the meta-instruments as they squawk and cry, inhale and exhale.

Though Lim’s introduction and accompanying essay outlines a very structured piece, this is not necessarily evident on the surface. The movements flow together and interference patterns echo across the work as the elements interact. I found myself wishing I could read the score as the piece unfolded to tease out the threads of mourning cloths or hear the laments of ancient lovers. This complex work owes some of its labyrinthine qualities to traditional Chinese territorialisations of space where a matrix of multiple pathways and gateways is explored. Instead of drawing from the Western idea of structural development and final revelation, Lim’s method allows glimpses of fragments, as if half seen through a passing doorway.

Rosanne Hunt’s cello and Carl Rosman’s bass clarinet were the focal points and lead voices in the performance: both musicians extracted strange and riveting sonorities that melted into the timbres of other instruments or were punctuated by haunting percussive sounds. But the high-point was a group lead by Mark Knoop who took to the skeletal body of the lidless piano with lengths of fishing line and by sawing at its strings produced a great, polyphonic, ritual cry of loss.

The most obvious comparison for this work is George Crumb’s Black Angels with its startling transformation of string timbres, otherworldly sonorities and darkly mystical inspiration. Lim seems to echo Crumb when she describes one section as “subterranean, ruined harp music”, but her aesthetic language is definitely generated from her own culturally and musically hybrid perspective.

As I emerged into the Valley’s lively revelry, my final impression of Machine for the contacting the dead was of a strange and complex work with a hauntingly poetic heart.

Liza Lim was awarded Best Composition by an Australian composer for her opera Moon Spirit Feasting at the 2002 APRA-Australian Music Centre Awards. Lim’s latest work will be premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Her essay on Machine for contacting the dead can be found at

Raising the Dead: Keren for solo trombone, composer Iannis Xenakis; Machine for contacting the dead, composer Liza Lim; Elision ensemble and members of The Queensland Orchestra, conductor Franck Ollu; Judith Wright Arts Centre; Brisbane, Sept 6-7

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 36

© Richard Wilding; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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