(long newsletter post…)
My year as composer-in-residence at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Institute of Advanced Studies) or ‘Wiko’, has recently come to a close (1 Sept 2021-30 June 2022). This is a residency like no other in which the ‘obligations’ comprise attending 4 lunches and a dinner during the week and giving a talk to a non-specialist audience. But of course, that’s just the tip of what these ten months have offered: Wiko is all about serendipitous encounters between people and ideas (plenty on offer when topics of conversation ranged from snow leopard conservation to tracking emerging pandemics, from microbiomes, food webs and the history of metabolism to amulets and magical papyri, and more…) with the serious challenge to take risks with one’s work in a super-supportive environment. I had an incredibly productive year and had the privilege of being able to attend performances of my music in Berlin and throughout Europe. But the best part from an artistic point of view was having enough time and mental space to gain an inkling of new directions for my work in the longer term.
What is a Wiko education?
LL: An expansion of mind and heart: learning through dancing with things; finding inner freedom; cultivating fellowship by conversing and dining together.
Dancing with things?
LL: I was immersed in the dance of the changing seasons and took hundreds of photos of the view from my study window: of flaming Autumn colours; of a gang of Great Tits, sparrows, shy red robins and Eichhörnchen (there is no more perfect name for squirrels) who came to munch on the birdseed I put out on the sill during the surprisingly brief Winter season (hi climate change…); and the procession of Spring flowers rising and falling on the lawn topped by showy fanfares of magnolias and rhododendrons. All of these were object lessons in composition that taught me so much about temporal polyphony, about timing and the vitality of organic form.
Nuno Ramos: ‘If embodiment is everywhere, then notation should be everywhere. Can this curtain be notation or that dried tree outside?’
LL: Brazilian artist Nuno Ramos always asked the best questions!
Musical notation came alive for me as never before. I’ve always had a lively, dialogic relation to notation but this year, that interface of marks and traces of bodily gestures on paper attained a stronger living presence. One of the first things I completed was a revision of the end of an orchestral work: ‘Mary/ Transcendence after Trauma’ (two pandemic postponements gave me extra time!). ‘Mary’ is the middle part of a large cycle of works, Annunciation Triptych (2019-22). I saw that the ending I’d composed was too passive and too sure of itself, and so I opened up the last bars and found myself able to write a music of defiant doubt in the form of a surging orchestra that lets loose three wayward trumpets in its receding sea foam. I also completed the last part of the trilogy: ‘Fatimah/ Jubilation of Flowers’, setting words from Etel Adnan’s ‘The Spring Flower’s Own’ and again, the garden showed me ways of orchestrating a tidal push and pull.
It was an incredible experience to be able to hear the full cycle played by the WDR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Cristian Măcelaru with soprano Emily Hindrichs in Cologne at the end of April 2022. The work was then recorded under the guidance of the exceptional tonmeister Günther Wollersheim and producer Harry Vogt, for release on the Kairos CD label. A day later, the BBC SSO conducted by Ilan Volkov performed the first part of the cycle ‘Sappho/ bioluminescence’ at the Tectonics Festival in Glasgow. Further performances of ‘Mary’ are due next year in Berlin and Munich.
‘Shall we dance? Collaboration, Embodiment & Ritual’, colloquium, Dec 2021
LL: I think that was the proudest achievement of my residency: getting a roomful of academics and scientists up to dance the Swedish Polska in my colloquium session with the help of violinist Karin Hellqvist and choreographer Hannah Loewenthal. Our shared experience of dancing the triple-time Polska (which underpins the folk fiddle music that Karin plays) with its hesitating second step became the experiential basis for thinking together about embodiment and ritual and musical practice. The questions and discussions that ensued are still reverberating in my mind—here’s a sample (slightly paraphrased):
Francisco Bethencourt: ‘I connected to the dance through my memory of Salsa. How can dance be reintroduced into your music and how could this dance be a departure from previous memories?’
Anthony Ossa-Richardson: ‘In that dance I felt there was a dialectic of embodiment/ disembodiment? Is there a duality there for you?’
Ulilnka Rublack: ‘As a historian I think of dance as registering historical experience; your rendering seems to me to be an exploration of the ghostly. My question is around what these dances registered when they first appeared [as wedding music] at a time when marriage was not necessarily a joyous occasion.’
Daniel Schoenpflug: ‘The dance is shared cultural knowledge with layers of inscription/references. But what I see in our bodies is a cacophony of knowledge!’
Mark Hauber: ‘I didn’t dance; I would have fallen over because there’s an inscription of Hungarian rhythms in my body which feels ‘3’ differently from the Swedish dance.’
Ilya Kliger: ‘The dance had inclusiveness and a life-affirming quality but the discourse and the music also contained disruption, distortion, parody, satire, harshness, irony.’
Sabina Leonelli: ‘…so notation is controlling time?’
LL: ‘yes, but I think more in terms of “time textures” rather than counted or measured time.
The dance contains ghosts—Karin is recalling past dances, past iterations of her experience as a player. The musical form through its repetitions, interpolations (pockets of time), deliberate technical and temporal slippages (distortions) tries to opens up a space in which the player can come into a “channelled” relation with both the past and the future.’
Karin Hellqvist: ‘Freedom sounds different. In this music there is deviation on purpose; things grow when one dares to leave being super true to the score.’
LL: In partial answer to Francisco’s question: ‘maybe through the music, one is remaking the body. What art can do is “re-imagine us into different spaces”. In the end, the musician is the dancer.’
Karin and I also presented a workshop on our collaborative process for the DAAD’s Uncommon Grounds series and she will premiere ‘One and the Other (Speculative Polskas for Karin)’ at the Rainy Days Festival in Luxembourg this November.
Did freedom become a theme for you?
LL: We are confronted by questions of freedom all the time. Leaving Australia after two years of pandemic lockdowns and encountering a re-opened Berlin of concerts, theatre, opera and in-person gatherings was an ecstatic experience. But of course, Covid-19 continued/continues to shadow everything and the world became even darker when the war in Ukraine broke out. I was impressed by the way Berliners, Wiko as an institution and fellows mobilised in support of the refugees pouring into the city. I felt the melancholy of my colleagues, particularly the playwright Mohammad Al Attar whose Syrian story foreshadows so much of the unrelenting brutality that has been unfolding; the emotional complexity faced by colleagues from Russia and Belarus and soon after, the shattering grief of guests fleeing from Ukraine, including the composer Valentin Sylvestrov who was in residence for a time with members of his family.
and do you reflect the times in your music?
I think that’s inevitable…but art is not just some transcription of ‘reality’. It often takes a more indirect route with mysterious forces at play and its ‘unrealities’ can resonate truths in quite unforeseen ways and at unexpected times.
The topic of grief has been a thread in my recent work, particularly the perspective that the Buddhist scholar and ecologist, Joanna Macey articulates so well in her teachings where ‘owning’ or being present to and a witness to grief allows one to reframe it as a compassionate ‘suffering-with’ in order to re-connect to life. The other side of the coin of grief might be a kind of hard-won joy… In any case that grief-joy dyad keeps resurfacing for me and I tried to express this in my work for piano & orchestra World as Lover, World as Self (titled after Macey’s book). I was so fortunate to work with the great pianist based in Berlin, Tamara Stefanovich who premiered the piano concerto at the Donaueschinger Musiktage in Autumn 2021.
I pick up on some of these themes in ‘String Creatures’, the work I’ve written for the American JACK Quartet and was lucky to be able to workshop ideas with them at Wiko in January. Not all of the ideas—including performing magic rope tricks and tying up the viola player John Richards—made it into the piece… but certainly, the experimentation left traces on the playing techniques used in the final score.
The work begins with a section called ‘Cat’s Cradle: 3 diagrams of grief’: sonic gestures of percussive shredding, weeping lamentation, and laboured breathing becoming song. The music tracks paths guided by the materiality of the instruments and bodies involved, and it builds form by exploring the relational possibilities of string as a substance—entangling, knotting, weaving…and finally nest-making. The last part of the piece (‘a nest is woven from the inside out’) is inspired by an article from the New York Times: Why Birds Are the World’s Best Engineers which describes the weird ‘magic’ of mechanical synthesis. Rather than necessarily weaving their nests, birds pile up twigs and grasses and then rub against these with their bodies until individual filaments start to behave collectively, jamming together to make the nest. The chaotic ‘stick bomb’ of a nest retains just enough energy from the bird’s activity for the whole ensemble to maintain its shape. yep, that just about describes my compositional process…
Speaking of serendipitous conversations, I have to thank bird specialist Prof. Mark Hauber for this interest in bird behaviour, and papyrologist Prof. Sofía Torallas Tovar who piqued my interest in the cascading formats (notations!) of Ancient Egyptian spells of increase and decrease that fed into the structure of the expanding and contracting repetitions that occur in the string quartet.
‘String Creatures’ will be premiered at the Lucerne Summer Festival in August followed by season premieres in September at the Miller Theatre New York, Berlinerfestpiele Musikfest and Klangspuren Festival Schwaz and later on, at the Melbourne Recital Centre.
I spoke with Martina Seeber about the piece in this video for the Berlinerfestspiele
I also started a collaboration with Wiko Fellow, the South African photographer Guy Tillim. Our project ‘Place – non-place’ will involve musicians and projections of photographs from Guy’s Berlin series annotated with drawings and notations (let’s see what happens…I don’t quite know at this stage), and is slated to premiere in Berlin on 26 October 2022 at Villa Elisabeth in Mitte with ensemble mosaik.
In amongst the turmoil of the world, Wiko was a House of Grace. I am so grateful to all of the staff, steered by the personification of graceful leadership, Prof. Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger. An institution’s culture is created in practice and at Wiko, there is an extraordinary practice of attentive care and support for everyone working there as well as for the intellectual, creative and daily lives of the fellows – something to aspire to in our usual academic and artistic spaces…
My fellow Fellows became like family and I was so moved when they and even some of their kids rocked up to attend my Berlin concerts: ‘Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus’ played by Klangforum Wien conducted by Leonard Garms at the Philharmonie at Maerzmusik, and ‘Sex Magic’ which was given a radiant performance by Claire Chase and Senem Pirler at the Akademie der Künste (after a similarly powerful performance at London’s Southbank Centre a few weeks earlier). The Berlin performance was part of the „Speicher des Hörens“ Festival where I had the pleasure of having a public conversation about memory, time, listening and ritual with composer Isabel Mundry. In Wiko’s 40-year history, Isabel was the first woman composer-in-residence (2002-03); I’m the second in this ‘lineage’ and pleasingly, the third is Lucia Ronchetti (2022-23).
Then there was the customary Wiko gesprächskonzert (lecture-recital) which I gave with French ‘cellist Séverine Ballon, surveying my works for solo ‘cello. I discussed some aspects of Indigenous Australian culture—specifically Yolngu art and aesthetics—that have influenced my approach to sonic colour and texture. (The sound on the Berlinerfestpiele video above is excerpted from Séverine’s performance of ‘Cello Playing ~ as Meteorology’).
Looking back, I actually managed to do quite a few of the things that I said I would do…
One of the best (& unexpected) compositional experiences of the year though was the instant group-composition that fellows contributed to in the colloquium which was performed then and there by Karin Hellqvist. When I listen back to the music it’s like a giant Proustian madeleine in which the sounds vividly bring back each person who got up to add a bar to the music, and the discussion, laughter and shared insights of the moment.
The following scores are published by Ricordi Berlin:
World as Lover, World as Self (2021), for solo piano and orchestra
Mary/ Transcendence after Trauma (2021), for orchestra
Fatimah/ Jubilation of Flowers (2022), for soprano, orchestra and ad. lib. singing audience
One and the Other (Speculative Polskas for Karin) (2022), solo violin with low octave string
String Creatures (2022), for violin (with low octave string), violin, viola, ‘cello
Nautilus (2022), for solo contraforte
Lim, L., Brodsky, S., Hellqvist, K. (2022). ‘Elementens Musik’. Portable Gray, 5(1), 83.
Lim, L. (2022). ‘One and the Other (Speculative Polskas for Karin)’. Portable Gray, 5, 88-105.
+ miscellaneous happy snaps of Wiko fellows & partners, including my family—Daryl & Raph—who joined me at the end of my stay.
& thanks to my publisher Ricordi Berlin, to General Manager Silke Hilger, her team and especially Promotions Manager Max von Aulock, for their support; and to Prof. Anna Reid and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney for granting me research leave for this extraordinary year.