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Lim, Liza

Liza Lim (*30.8.1966 Perth / Australia) writes music marked by visceral energy and vibrant colour and often explores ritual forms and performance aesthetics from Asian and Australian Aboriginal cultural sources. Some recurring themes in her work include ‘hiddenness and revelation’, ‘violence and meditation’ and ecstatic transformation.

Her music, which ranges from operatic and orchestral scores to site-specific installations, has been performed by some of the world's pre-eminent ensembles. Notably, she was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to write the orchestral work, Ecstatic Architecture, to celebrate the inaugural season of the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2004. She was composer-in-residence with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 2005 and 2006. She has received major commissions from organisations such as the Bavarian Radio and SWR Orchestras, Ensemble musikFabrik & Holland Festival, Ensemble InterContemporain, Ensemble Modern, ELISION, the Arditti String Quartet (Milano Musica), Salzburg Festival, Lucerne Festival, Festival d’Automne à Paris, WDR Orchestra & Choir and BBC Symphony as well as the Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth Festivals.

In 2014, the Miller Theatre in New York presents a portrait concert of her music performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). Recent projects have been based on the Sufi poetry of Hafez: Tongue of the Invisible, a 1-hour work written for jazz pianist Uri Caine, baritone Omar Ebrahim and Ensemble musikFabrik, and The Guest, for recorder soloist Jeremias Schwarzer and the Southwest German Radio Orchestra. She has written a string quartet The Weaver’s Knot to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Arditti String Quartet for Wittenertage 2014. Current projects include a chamber work for the Norwegian Cikada Ensemble as well as a new opera Tree of Codes commissioned by Oper Köln in association with Ensemble musikFabrik and Hellerau European Centre for the Arts in co-operation with Theatre Company Prod.23 and festival partners for a premiere in 2015.

She has been closely associated with the Australian ELISION Ensemble for over 20 years with projects including 3 operas: The Oresteia (1993), Moon Spirit Feasting (1999) and The Navigator (2008) performed in Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Tokyo, Moscow, Paris, Zurich and Berlin. Awards include the Paul Lowin Prize, DAAD Artist-in-residence Berlin 2007-08 and Ian Potter Foundation Senior Fellowship. She was appointed a member of the Akademie der Künste der Welt Cologne in 2012 and curated the music programme for the opening ‘Cutting Edge’ festival. Since 2008, she is Professor of Composition and Director of the Centre for Research in New Music at the University of Huddersfield. In her research, she is interested in connecting her compositional practice to areas such as Australian Indigenous aesthetics (‘shimmer’) and non-western epistemologies of time and space; weaving and knots as a metaphorical ‘technology for thinking’; material translation, empathy and intuition in an ecology of collaboration; and distributed creativities. Her compositions are published by Casa Ricordi (Milano, London & Berlin) and on CDs with Hat Hut, ABC-Classics, HCR, Neos, WERGO, Dischi Ricordi and Vox Australis.


Born in 1966 to Chinese parents, educated in Brunei and Australia, and embraced in Europe and Australia as one of the leading composers of her generation, Liza Lim is an artist of the contemporary globalized era. Her mixed cultural background has enabled her to step back from cultural allegiances and traditions, and write from an ‘in-between place’ of her own. As such her music draws on an exceptionally wide range of influences, from modern architectural theory to Australian Aboriginal knowledge systems.

>The components of Lim’s style, as well as her skill and ambition, were established early, with her first opera The Oresteia (1991–3), completed when she was still 27. Ancient texts and stories – from China, Tibet, Persia and elsewhere – continue to feature in her work. The Oresteia is also an early example of the collaborative spirit that has defined her career. The text was adapted from Aeschylus with the director Barrie Kosky, and the music was written for the ELISION Ensemble, Australia’s leading new music ensemble, with whom Lim has had close musical and personal ties since the late 1980s.

At the same time, Lim began an abiding interest in musical traditions beyond the Western orchestra. Koto (1993) and Burning House (1995) both look to Japan – in the latter case with Lim writing the score in traditional Japanese notation. Perhaps inevitably, the study of Asian music led her to her own emigrant Chinese identity in the ‘ritual street opera’ Yuè Lìng Jié (‘Moon Spirit Feasting’, 1997–9). Later works, including her third opera, The Navigator (2008), have expanded her attention to pre-classical Western instruments such as the Baroque harp and viola d’amore. However, nowhere does Lim use her instruments as exotic colour. Instead she studies their performance practice and history in detail, using architectural or biological metaphors to synthesise their language with her own.

At first Lim’s interests can seem eclectic. Yet there are recurring themes. One is that of shamanic possession or the fluidity of states of living between the human and the animal, the mundane and the unearthly, the present and the eternal. It is a tense combination of ritual and ecstasy – two words often used in descriptions of Lim’s work – and is articulated in her music’s blend of rigour and abandon.

Using the full range of techniques available to a composer in the early 21st century, she transforms her players into channellers of these wild forces. Vocalists use whacky whistles in their mouths to change into animal or insectoid voices (The Navigator); players become absorbed in lengthy, meditative communion with their instruments (Bardo’i-thos-grol, a seven-day installation created with the artist Domenico de Clario 1994–5); the sensations of playing become the door to private knowledge systems (Invisibility for solo cello, 2009).

Shamanism has allowed Lim to connect the points of her own heritage, from China to Australia to Europe, all places with ancient stories of animal-human transmutation. A fulcrum of these different backgrounds is The Quickening (2005), one of the first works Lim wrote after becoming a parent. Its title refers to the mother first feeling her baby moving in the womb. Motherhood may be its theme, but the work is a typical complex of ideas. It is composed for the quintessentially Lim-like pairing of soprano and qin, the most revered of Chinese instruments; the text, by the poet Yang Lian, speaks of ‘cicadas in the body’ and ‘a ceremony for childbirth’. In the score’s preface Lim also refers to the shamanic practices of Aboriginal healers, the ‘ecstatic Central Desert art of Aboriginal Australia’ and the kinaesthetic performance practice of the qin.

The Navigator (2007–8) represents another, still greater coming together. Its libretto is by the Australian poet Patricia Sykes, with whom Lim had previously worked on Mother Tongue for soprano and ensemble (2005). The partnership with Kosky was also renewed for the work’s first productions at the Brisbane Festival and Melbourne International Festival of the Arts. And the music was again composed for the musicians of ELISION, several of whom gained new solo and ensemble works extracted from the piece (Wild Winged-One for trumpet, Weaver of Fictions for alto Ganassi recorder, and Sensorium for countertenor, Baroque harp, viola d’amore and harpsichord). The Navigator also introduces a new element: Wagner. Lim has said that hearing the Tristan prelude in 2004 helped her ‘fall in love with music again’, and the story (and disguised moments of the music) feed into her own opera. Since The Navigator, Lim has widened her circles of collaboration further still, working with members of musikFabrik on solo works such as Axis Mundi (2012–13) for bassoon and The Green Lion Eats the Sun (2014) for double-bell euphonium, as well as a major setting of the Sufi poet Hafez, Tongue of the Invisible (2010–11), which uses systems of improvisation devised in close cooperation with the players.

Music involves people on three levels. The physical relation between the performer and their instrument; the bonds of friendship and collaboration between different performers in an ensemble (and between composer and those performers); and the connection between music and external groups of people, whether the audience in the concert hall or segments of the wider society. Profoundly humanistic, Lim’s music is a conduit between all three, in which the actions of a performer’s finger on a string or lips on a mouthpiece open up reflection on entire cultural systems and ways of being.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 2015