Review by Bec Scully
It’s reported Mahler once said that one ought not bother looking at the view, as he’d already composed it. Well may Australians say, “save your wonderment at the planet’s richest natural jungle communication network—Melbournian Liza Lim has already composed it.” Take a sneak peek at the view here. The point is vistas and sunsets aren’t ever likely to be passé and Mahler will always enrich our spirits, but Australians are travel-crazy, smart, curious, connected and living in the now, and we need art like Liza Lim’s to help us celebrate our uniquely modern experiences of wonder.
Lim is so hot in the international art music scene, she’s the new-classical-music equivalent of an Oscar-laden actor or an athletic medal magnet. Remember when Boulez’ own Ensemble Intercontemporain commissioned and performed Machine for Contacting the Dead? Or when the Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned and performed the Frank Gehry-inspired Ecstatic Architecture as a highlight for the opening of Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall? The time her song cycle, Mother Tongue, was reviewed—or was it revered?— by the writer art music audiences read: Alex Ross in The New Yorker? If her name’s new to you, or her music doesn’t spring to mind, it’s probably a sign some lagging Australian orchestras and opera companies still need to pull their fingers out of their Rings.
In celebration of Lim’s 50th birthday, the dimpled, unfailing servant of the avant-garde, David Chisholm, programmed both the premiere of How Forests Think—an exquisite and consoling work of unprecedented formal ecology, which my ears are aching daily to hear again—as well as a return performance of the fluid, exploratory, mystically beautiful and heartbreaking Machine for Contacting the Dead.
In the 1970s, in a spectacular archaeological accident, the People’s Liberation Army uncovered the tomb of Marquis Yi and the remains of 21 ritualistically-mutilated women, believed to date back to the third day of the third month, 433 BCE, in Suizhou, Hubei, China. These burial chambers were filled with over 18,000 ancient artefacts including a complete armoury and a trove of gold, bronze, silks, calligraphy and, uniquely for the time, a caucus of 124 musical instruments.
In Machine for Contacting the Dead, Lim pairs archeology and music through a resplendent diversity of orchestral colours and ritualistic performance directions. Lim’s artistic excavations of the human experience draw on her cultural plurality, and eschew the orientalism of some poorly-aged excerpts of Debussy or Puccini.
Like Stravinsky, Lim amplifies the intimate musician-instrument connection and takes the possibilities of tone colour to the extreme, presenting musical colours from breathtaking, as-yet-undiscovered palettes. In Machine for Contacting the Dead, Lim again allows the performers to explore the colouristic potentialities of their instruments: the pianist stops directing keys and hammers through the instrument, instead extracting resonance from the instrument’s using a looped string. For a moment, the performer has the direct contact with their instrument normally only afforded to winds and strings. Extreme sul pont, often a compositional source of aggression or ambiguity, is executed with a transparency and choreographed introspective tenderness by the ELISION/ANAM strings.
The ELISION/ANAM concert highlights this as music to be watched. The sound structures are paramount, but Lim’s interest in the performer’s experience and their embodiment of compositional devices and themes is part of the reason the experience of being in a Lim audience changes you. Richard Hayne’s contrabass clarinet is central to the stage, and to the work, as a mystical figure espousing extreme yet lyrical multiphonics and animalistic tongue slaps. The clarinets, oboes and violins are split across stage, enhancing sincere ensemble dialogue from Mena Krstevska in the B-flat clarinets as she vaults thematic messages to her counterpart, Mitchell Jones, uncovering unity across the divide at the culmination of the first section.
ANAM student percussionists Thea Rossen, Hamish Upton and professional percussionist Peter Neville won hearts with discrete totems of sounds written in some of the most beautiful timbral pairings of the idiom. I adored the connection of cello and thundersheet along with bowed vibraphone and woodwind. Some mesmerising rototom twisted through unexpected turns. Maraccas were items of grave punctuation in Neville’s hands. Our archaeological setting was tactile, with the dry, decrepit elicitations of rainstick and geophone. A spectacular modern day ritual was evoked from a raised row of three percussionists, extending offerings of mirrored instruments in each palm, with a freakishly synchronised flexatone theme; a musical message so profound, I felt momentarily moved to carve the transcription into a tablet.
Given conductor Carl Rosman’s long-standing familiarity with the work and Liza Lim’s mentorship of this ensemble, Bendigo experienced an authentic rendering of this work, written in the greatest sincerity by one of Australia’s most-impactful living artists.
Machine for Contacting the Dead
By Liza Lim
Conducted by Carl Rosman
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
4 September 2016