Q&A

Composing New Futures: Liza Lim on Exploring the Anthropocene Through Sound

We speak with Professor Liza Lim from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music about her practice as a composer and scholar, exploring embodied knowledge and the more-than-human world.

Image from Liza Lim's ‘Womb Bell’ from Sex Magic (2020), Queenslab, The Kitchen, New York, performed by Claire Chase (contrabass flute) with Levy Lorenzo (electronics).

Liberty Lawson: Could you give us an overview of your background and your current practice as a composer and scholar?

Liza Lim: My compositional practice is focussed on transcultural ideas and collaborative methods invested in the distributed and emergent nature of knowledge and ‘making’. Of note is my 35-year collaborative relationship with the Australian ELISION Ensemble which has acted as a performance ‘lab’ resulting in projects spanning three operas, installation pieces, and concert music. I’ve also enjoyed commissions from some of the world’s pre-eminent ensembles and orchestras, eg: Ensemble Intercontemporain, Ensemble Musikfabrik, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBCSO and a stint with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra as composer-in-residence in 2005 & 2006.

One of my favourite creative situations is where I can work closely with individual musicians to explore the textilic and haptic nature of sound. I prioritise embodied knowledge and am developing notions of the ‘lyric’, of ‘contact noise’ and ‘respiration’ for a l’écriture féminine1 that writes on, with and through bodies in order to speculate on music’s connections to ecological thinking and more-than-human agencies.

Your current work has been turning towards ecological thinking and the more-than-human as an alternative form of knowledge and experience – could you tell us some more about this, and the value in moving beyond the human perspective?

I’m interested in extending performance practices through ‘radical idiomacity’, both following and pushing against the natural resonances and resistances in instruments in order to activate their creature-like animacy. This attentiveness to a bestiary of agencies in objects and materials that decentralise the human is for me, a gesture towards hope at a time of many human-activated environmental disasters. Recent examples of this kind of work include Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus (2018) in which there are transcriptions of the calls of the now extinct Kauaʻi ʻōʻō bird and Australian reef fish and one of our most common companion creatures, plastic (!)2; Sex Magic (2020) a 50-minute work for contrabass flute, kinetic percussion and electronics for American flautist Claire Chase commissioned through Harvard University; and Ash – Music for the Eremozoic for Sigma Project, a Spanish saxophone quartet, written as a response to the Australian wildfires of Summer 2019-2020.

Liza Lim, excerpt of ‘Womb Bell’ from Sex Magic (2020), Queenslab, The Kitchen, New York, performed by Claire Chase (contrabass flute) with Levy Lorenzo (electronics)

The video below includes the premiere performance of ‘Ash’ filmed in the Chillida Leku sculpture museum in Basque country and an interview where I discuss how my responses to rather massive topics such as species extinctions, pandemics and so on, are metabolised and expressed in my music as temporal structures: flows, resistances, pulsations and ‘fossilised time’.

 

How do you see the power of music as a force for change in a rapidly changing world?

I believe artistic research has an important role to play during a time when the complexities of climate emergencies, of global pandemics and other forms of collapse create cognitive and emotional loads that leave us grasping for new stories to navigate our entanglement with what Anna Tsing and others have dubbed ‘ghosts and monsters’.3 I’m intrigued by the ways in which the stories one tells are ways of knowing that organise the world; the form of an analysis is already an epistemological structure; the beliefs one holds already make their own rules, and so on. Hence I see my compositional practice and scholarly writing as twinned projects which are speculative attempts to rethink what music is and what it might be, exploring juxtapositions of material realities, sounds, ideas and stories that are cultural attempts to respond to the challenges of the Anthropocene.

“I see my compositional practice and scholarly writing as twinned projects which are speculative attempts to rethink what music is and what it might be, exploring juxtapositions of material realities, sounds, ideas and stories that are cultural attempts to respond to the challenges of the Anthropocene.”

What are the most important lessons you have learned throughout your career so far, in interweaving and championing voices that might otherwise go unheard?

I’m definitely learning as I go…

I’ve run the Composing Women program at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music since 2018 and benefitted from the zeitgeist that has changed the conversation to demand the inclusion of women as creative leaders in music. It’s so crazy that still, in 2021, we’re fighting for these things, not to mention for the basic safety of women in all social spaces as seen in the recent March4Justice protests around Australia. It’s infuriating to say this because it’s obvious, but what I’ve learnt from working in women-centric educational spaces is that cultural safety (where one doesn’t have to defend or deny one’s identity or lived experiences) for women and also for Indigenous people makes a huge difference to the quality of teaching and learning that can take place. Having that in place unlocks amazing levels of insight, creative risk-taking and articulation from people because they feel socially and emotionally safe, and in a diverse group, this benefits everyone. The takeaway is that no change takes place without addressing underlying conditions and structures. As Donna Haraway says: ‘It matters what stories tell stories; It matters whose stories tell stories’.4

References
1. Cixious, Hélène, Keith Cohen, and Paula Cohen (1976) ‘The Laugh of the Medusa,’ Signs. Summer: 875-893.
2. Lim, Liza (2020) An Ecology of Time Traces in Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus, Contemporary Music Review, 39:5, 544-563.
3. Tsing, Anna, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt, eds. (2017) Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press.
4. Haraway, Donna (2019) ‘It Matters What Stories Tell Stories; It Matters Whose Stories Tell Stories’, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, 34:3, 565-575.


Liza Lim is an Australian composer, educator and researcher whose interests include collaborative and transcultural practices in music with a focus on perspectives from ecological anthropology, post-human/anthropocene studies and research into distributed creativity. Her compositional practice is deeply imbued with a sense of the socio-cultural lineages of people, objects and performance practices hence her interest in musical form as an emergent expression of group processes. Her works, and in particular four operas: The Oresteia (1993), Moon Spirit Feasting (2000), The Navigator (2007) and Tree of Codes (2016), as well as the recent large-scale cycle Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus (2018) explore themes around ritual, temporal slippage and the uncanny. Her genre-crossing percussion ritual/opera Atlas of the Sky (2018), is a work involving community participants that investigates the emotional power and energy dynamics of crowds.