I’m thrilled to have a new CD out on the KAIROS label [they previously published my work Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus in 2020]. Annunciation Triptych is a 45-minute orchestral 3-part cycle (the last work includes soprano and adlib parts for singing audience) that celebrates three iconic female spiritual figures: The Ancient Greek poet Sappho, the biblical Mary, and Fatimah, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon them). The three parts took nearly four years to compose and after a sequence of postponements due to Covid were successfully premiered at the 2022 Achtbrücken Festival in Cologne by the WestDeutscherRundfunk Sinfonie Orchester conducted by Cristian Măcelaru with soprano Emily Hindrichs in ravishing voice. The recording (made up of the live concert and studio recording made the following day) was beautifully produced by the tonmeister Günther Wollersheim. I’m incredibly grateful to Harry Vogt, the former Producer for Contemporary Music at WDR and Artistic Director of Musik der Zeit for his support in commissioning this recording project.
The work can be listened to on Spotify and other streaming channels.
But please support KAIROS (enormous thanks to Martin Rummel) and buy a copy of the CD or downloadable file.
In a time of streaming, one often misses the rich information provided in the CD booklet so please see below for the incredible essay written by musicologist Seth Brodsky (reproduced with permission).
Seth Brodsky (CD booklet notes)
An Infinite Amount of Hope*
Max Brod recalls a conversation with Franz Kafka in 1920: “‘We are,’ he said, ‘nihilistic thoughts, suicidal thoughts, that spring up in God’s head.’ This reminded me at first of a Gnostic image of the world: God as evil demiurge, the world his fall from grace. ‘Oh no,’ he said, ‘our world is just one of God’s bad moods, a bad day.’—‘So is there, beyond this apparitional form through which the world makes itself known to us, hope?’—He smiled: ‘Oh hope enough, an infinite amount of hope—just not for us.’”[i]
Three quarters of an hour of music for large orchestra, music so luminous and buoyant and windblown your ears can’t remember what the point of tonality—of any system for anchoring and constraining music’s flow—ever was. This is music that grows, wanders, flowers, freely and in enormous space. It searches, but it also finds and enjoys, “makes haste slowly.” It’s hard to think of anything less Kafkaesque than Liza Lim’s Annunciation Triptych. Not least its gentle but dogged Druidry. All is alive here, permeated by unstressed agency. This is music of gods’ good moods, where everything might be god.
Kafka is the poet of partition, impediment, darkening. Interiors are always closing in, designs opaque, relations barred. Flow is usually blocked, and if it happens at all, it takes the form of paranoia, a vortex in which libido swallows itself alive. The first movement of the Triptych, “Sappho/Bioluminescence,” is a surely unintentional inversion of all this. The opening eleven pages of the score—to about two and half minutes into the first track on this recording—are a kind of beautiful birth, as unforced and realized as the births in Kafka are mangled or deferred. We first hear a flute, then two, unfurling a kind of instrumental hack: as they scurry up and down chromatic lines they trill between the D and D# keys, producing a singular, slightly detuned shimmer. A cymbal placed atop a timpani drum completes this composite instrument: as the flute-shimmer ebbs and flows, so too do the foam and glint of the cymbal. This trio provide a kind of sun-kissed sea surface through which break a solo horn and harp, the harp glissando-ing up and down, the valved horn channeling its natural ancestor in a yawning downward overtone arc. More flute-cymbal shimmer, then silence, then a low, earthy, buzzing PLONK from the harp, a single measure standing alone in the score like a tattered Sapphic fragment. (Think of John D’Agata’s admonition: “Her real name is Ψαπφοι—Psappho, in English—much more waterlogged and harder-edged than the downy s and faded f’s we commonly use to pronounce it. You’ve got to stutter when pronouncing Sappho’s real name, and spit.”[ii])
And just like a proper fragment, this PLONK doesn’t arrest the flow but injects it with new life. The solo horn now stands and restarts, its big-bellied dives and trills full of priapic swagger: this is some kind of beast-being, sweat-beaded, happy, exhorting its environment to wake up and resound. Piano and harp form a continuo loosely mirroring and resonating horn, while violins seem to cackle and titter in delighted antiphony. Gradually the remaining brass—first muted trumpets, then trombones and remaining horns—join the soloist in chorus. Basses introduce a low B-flat pedal, out of which blossoms an overtone spectrum, horns climbing in staggered octaves, fifths, thirds, eventually leading to a proper apparition: a B-flat triad in horns, “blooming” and “glowing” (Lim’s words). The chord hangs suspended there, registering itself, hearing itself, maybe, in a sudden brief crescendo, voicing its own hearing: “Yes, yes, hear that, that’s me.” In the contemporary orchestral lexicon, both object and event are icons of Nature, the dream of sonic aletheia, the truth of the natural order disclosing itself through audition. But strikingly, Lim adds an extra note to the chord, technically not in the spectrum: a major sixth, a note that “subjectifies” the chord, drapes it in historical and cultural fabric—a “smiling adieu” kind of sound, a jazzy ta-ta, there in Ellington or Debussy, or, quite literally, in the sublime final harmony of Berg’s 1935 Violin Concerto, written “in memory of an angel,” Manon Gropius, who died at 18 of polio.
A minute and a half in, there is now a kind of second-order shimmering. It’s as if that “bioluminescent” composite-instrument of the first measures were projected out in time and space, transfigured from an act of concrete mimesis to a principle of formal organization. It begins with trilling flutes enjoying some meta-imitation: perhaps the nocturnal camouflages of the bioluminescent Hawaiian bobtail squid, masquerading from above as the starry sky for its unsuspecting prey below. But the score quickly maps this phenomenal shimmering onto a larger field of play. The music becomes an arena for a more general “appearance-ing” or “apparition-ism”: a shimmering in ontological status, in the order of sonic being. Is a chord “nature” or “culture”? Is a gesture “animal” or “human,” a transition “spirit” or “body,” an event “hearing” or “enunciating”? Lim writes in her program note about her longstanding preoccupation with assemblage, and how her works “are often made up of imagined composites of plants, animals, elements, spirits and more …” These composites—imagined, she stresses, emphasizing the will and whim of dream logic over synergistic pragmatism—often straddle the “real-fictional” divide; they become a wedge to “open up a space of speculation.” The speculation-space here seems to have something to do with whether and where something exists. Is that magical smiling adieu chord in the horns real or fictional? An artifact in the apparatus or the laying bare of a revelation? Is it coming from inside a head—the head of the composer, her dream, our own heads, bewitched by associative fantasies—or outside a head? Might we be in the presence of a true, real other? A visitor? An annunciator? An angel?
There is arguably no older, more recalcitrant question forced by the bizarre civilizational fruit that is the modern philharmonic orchestra.[iii] We sit and watch a provocatively coordinated throng of laborers huffing and puffing, their toil put on glorious but also strangely banal display. We know very well they are a collection of individual noise-makers, and yet, in performance, they never remain this, but instead fan out into a spectrum. At one end, these workers cohere into a monument—often to centralized, hierarchical power, the celebratory sound of the imperium, but, at the very least, some kind of sovereign. At the other end—far more germane to Lim’s work—they become the ultimate musical assemblage-machine: a lusty, polymorphously perverse orgy of infinite recombination, creaturely coupling, prelapsarian sex. But anywhere on this spectrum, the same phenomenon seems to emerge. The orchestra speaks. It speaks to us, to its space, to its city and state, to its own canons and histories. It becomes, almost instantaneously, what Steven Connor might call a “vocalic body” that hovers over not just the musicians but so many “big others,” magically veiling their patchworks of industry and identity.[iv] In their place it produces—what? A visitor, perhaps an angel, god, or mind-of-god. Perhaps a forest, an ocean, a squad of sparkling squid.
It is poetic, then, that when Liza Lim came to write the largest orchestral work of her career so far—also, in a deeply original way, a work about the orchestra—she concerned herself with the theme of annunciation. For Lim the orchestra is “an orchard. Suddenly I am in a grove, a holy place.” All three movements explore “themes of revelation and ritual,” but do so by reinventing that most venerable of orchestral genres, the tone-poem. The score is not, strictly speaking, program music. But questions and problems of representation saturate it. It could be argued that the Annunciation Triptych is an epic of orchestral conjuration, a saga whose protagonist is less a single person—though each movement centers on an individual woman—than a logic of radical manifestation and reception. For Lim, this logic establishes a relation between “a profound receptivity through hearing and a speaking forth that is a spilling over after having been filled up—receptivity generates response.”
But this is no hero-cycle, quite the opposite. If anything it shatters the Romantic trope to pieces, and rebuilds it otherwise. Rather than use the orchestra to amplify personhood’s self-possession, Lim treats it as a historical and cultural prism, and the women in each movement—Sappho, Mary, and Fatimah (daughter of the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon them), respectively—as a source of transhistorical light. Each “prism-orchestra” is, moreover, an assemblage in itself, filtering its figure’s radiance in unpredictable, sometimes revisionary ways. In Lim’s paratactic account, the first movement, “Sappho/ Bioluminescence,” is “physical flesh as enlightenment; erotic trance, hallucination; gods and goddesses [walking] among the living; phosphorescent plants and genetically engineered creatures glow[ing] in the dark.” The second, “Mary/ Transcendence after trauma” is “visitation of the angel, both foreshadow[ing] the passion, testimony, mystery play, illumination of human anguish, forgiveness”. The third, “Fatimah/ Jubilation of Flowers” is “lamentation and joy, a great wedding feast; every flag unfurl[ing] in the wind; revelation and transmission.” Distinct texts spanning space and time on a planetary scale superscribe or underwrite the score: a Sappho fragment (no. 94, translated by Anne Carson[v]) from over 600 B.C.E. in the first movement; in the second, “Audi, Pontus” (“Hear, O Sea”), a verse from a conductus chant in the Huelgas Codex from early 1300s Spain. The last movement is an actual setting, for soprano, orchestra, and “singing audience,” of a remarkable poem published in 1990 by the great Lebanese-French-American poet and artist Etel Adnan.[vi] Adnan passed away just before Lim began composing the movement in 2021, and the music strikes a mythic pose, trilling slowly between joy and grief less as feelings than icons, etched and gleaming, not unlike the impossible flowers of the poem which “rise and never bend,” and which “recite poems in my ears/they never die …”
One could say that these texts also “shimmer.” One could even go so far as to say that the score irradiates their bacterial composition, so to speak, to produce yet another bioluminescent sheen, less as camouflage than as part of a larger ecstatic mode, a mode of being outside oneself, seized or shaken loose from the coils of neurotic self-confinement. In this mode, subjectivity encounters a visitor almost traumatically foreign and, at this crossroads, decides to let go. Sovereignty does not, however, give way to oblivion, some celestial fading or conversion into a mere spark on the holy fire. This is not Dionysian music, not even in its dreams. There is a pervasive sobriety, bright but unwavering. Throughout each of the Triptych’s movements, another figure keeps returning: symbiosis. It emerges often as a coupling—flute/cymbal, cymbal/drum, violin/harp, squid/bacteria, overtone spectrum/tonal triad, utterance/audition—but it eventually paints the picture (this is a triptych, remember!) of a web, a distributed agency, a composed relationality that weaves together musical, geographical, and historical points otherwise distant. If ecstasy often connotes seizure by the divine, something else is going on here. An opening into interrelation and interdependence, what Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing calls the “dilemmas of collaborative survival.”[vii] These points depend on one another for their lives, the music keeps suggesting. Tug at one, and the others, eons apart, vibrate as if touched.
Which brings me back to Kafka. I’m not about to pull the mask off and reveal that this refulgent work is, despite the above denials, covertly/actually Kafkaesque. It’s not Kafkaesque—really! But there is an interesting, slightly baroque connection. Writing about her 2018 work Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus, Lim meditates on the crisis of global environmental collapse, and how music might help model its meaning and scope, maybe even offer “clues for living in uncertain times—not in stories of resolution but perhaps in rehearsals for precarity.” “In the midst of extinction,” Lim continues, “there is some kind of dawning. To paraphrase Kafka: ‘There is hope … but not for us.’”[viii]
For the most part, the specter of extinction doesn’t darken the Annunciation Triptych, not overtly. One has to dig a bit. The omnipresence of symbiotic construction certainly speaks to the fragility of relating, the challenge of remaining “all ears” to the world’s overpresent boom, how you and it both quake in moments of mutual address. But there is one moment, near the middle of the cycle’s middle movement, where the world actually ends. A cadenza for horns, percussion, and piano winnows to a single bass string played inside the piano’s body, generating higher and higher partials. Then silence. Then BOOM, an enormous chord from the orchestra, one of—for me at least—the strangest moments in Lim’s entire body of work. Because of how it’s voiced and orchestrated, it sounds bright and triadic, Brucknerian even: the face of god. But as it stretches out, indeed shimmers, one realizes it’s another harmony, a half-diminished seventh chord—Wagner’s “Tristan” chord, the ultimate symbol of death-driven desire. Above it in the score, Lim cites a line from the 14th-century conductus chant, which, it turns out, is not about Mary and the annunciation, but apocalypse, Biblical revelation: “the stars fall over earth.” The chord ebbs into another “spectral” harmony, gathers demonic new energy, and again explodes: an unbearably bright B Major tutti, a cosmic Cheshire grimace whose tones fall out one by one like loose teeth.
But the end is not the end. The end is the middle. What happens next is—continued growth, new relations, new creatures and couplings. “After hearing comes speaking,” Lim writes, and the speaking now comes from a Mary who will give birth after the end of the world. The tone of the music is shaken, wary, but its tread is absolutely determined. The Tristan chord returns, now reimagined less as harmony than as a rhythmic engine mapping onto the spring drums that have symbolized a fetal heartbeat since the movement’s start. What, the music seems to ask, will it feel like, during this long ongoing end of the planet, this interregnum where the old world dies and the new cannot be born, to continue? And not just to continue hoping, but to continue loving, fucking, birthing, creating more beings in our physical and cultural bodies—among them the “orchard,” the “grove,” the “holy place,” of the orchestra. The movement ends with a floating fanfare, three wonderstruck trumpets cascading over a chasm of tam-tam and gamelan gong “played with utmost reverence.” They form a brittle and beaming question mark, a canto sospeso for a new catastrophic age.
Seth Brodsky, 2023
Seth Brodsky is Associate Professor at the University of Chicago and author of From 1989, or European Music and the Modernist Unconscious (California, 2017).
- Readers are encouraged to consult Liza Lim’s own rich account of the Annunciation Triptych, which can be found on her website here: https://lizalimcomposer.com/2022/02/22/annunciation-triptych-2019-2022/.
[i] Max Brod, “Der Dichter Franz Kafka,” Die Neue Rundschau, November 2021, see https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31970025263507&view=1up&seq=583.
[ii] John D’Agata, “Stripped-Down Sappho,” Boston Review, October 1, 2002, see https://www.bostonreview.net/articles/john-dagata-stripped-down-sappho/.
[iii] For a peerless history of the early 19th-century orchestra, see Emily I. Dolan, The Orchestration Revolution: Haydn and the Technologies of Timbre (Cambridge, 2013).
[iv] See Steven Connor, Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (Oxford, 2000), Ch. 1, “What I Say Goes”.
[v] Sappho, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, trans. Anne Carson (Knopf, 2003), 186–87.
[vi] Etel Adnan, The Spring Flowers Own & The Manifestations of the Voyage (Post-Apollo Press, 1990).
[vii] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, 2021), 25.
[viii] Liza Lim, “An Ecology of Time Traces in Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus,” Contemporary Music Review 39/5 (2020): 561.