In Germany, they sell cocktails of cola and Jack Daniel’s whiskey in pre-packaged cans. I thought that was weird, but not for the reason you would think. In the summer after my Freshman year of college, I did an intense musicianship program at the European American Musical Alliance (EAMA). Species counterpoint, 4-part voice writing, analyses of Bach and Chopin, it was the most immersive experience of traditional classical training I had ever had in my life. So instead of celebrating the last night of the program at the bar, my friends and I sought out the farthest thing we could think of from our 2-weeks of fugues and chorales. We had heard of this opera, The Navigator by Liza Lim. On a cursory click through of the 90-minute online video, we found cross-dressing, firecrackers, baroque instruments, prosthetic genitalia, and some very unfamiliar sounds. Perfect. In a dark dormitory common room that night, we watched Liza Lim’s The Navigator on a small laptop screen. My friend brought a liter of Coca-Cola and a handle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey to pair with the experience.
That drink became a strange omen for me. It was an accidental, casual witness of a beginning – that night I began a journey of self-discovery with Liza Lim’s music. If you asked me back then about my artistic ambitions, I would tell you that all I was interested in was making the most shocking, groundbreaking music anyone had ever seen. In that frame of mind, I gravitated towards the seeming limitlessness of Lim’s music. However, over those three years, her music guided me through a re-conception of what it meant for art to be “shocking”. In Germany, I passed by these pre-packaged cola whiskey. I thought that was weird, because I happened to be on my over to interview Liza Lim and meet her for the first time. That day I wondered what it would be like to repeat that night of cola whiskey and The Navigator on a small laptop screen. I wondered if I would perceive anything differently than before.
The Navigator: Angel of History Aria
Brandon Lincoln Snyder: The other day you spoke with Good Morning Darmstadt about the “life of the object” in your music. I connect so much with this idea, because your music approaches instruments in such a fascinating way. I’m thinking about the way your vocal writing features so many different sound production techniques in The Navigator. The voice is no longer a tool used by the vocalist. Rather, it is a second being, grappling and responding to the musician. There is an energy, a life-force in that. What exactly is the life of the object?
Liza Lim: When I talk about the life of the object, I’m actually referring to something that is intensely relational. The object doesn’t stay in an isolated position. The whole point of the object coming to life is that it’s not just something one is acting upon. The object itself is also acting back. The way we bind to multiple things, it’s a form of existing in the world. This chair I am sitting in, in front of this table – I not only use these things as tools. They form my whole bodily comportment. They construct me.
It’s a kind of ecological approach to thinking, an idea of knowing as being distributive, and of how the boundaries between things are constantly interweaving. When I talk about the life of the object it’s that these dynamics generate signals, knowledge, and orientations in the world, and that feeds our sense of knowing. It’s not so much that of a user interfacing with an object as it is this: I am using something, and at the same time it’s using me. I’m interested in this quite mobile, fuzzy boundary between everything.
This response was out of left field for me. When I hear the phrase “the life of the object,” I see Lim’s objects as having strange, fantasy-like lives. The “normal” life of the cello is to be bowed like a cello. But for Lim in her cello solo an ocean beyond earth, the life of the cello is bound to a mounted violin. The strings of the cello are attached the strings of a violin mounted on a stand via thread. The result is that every action from the cellist produces an audible reaction from the violin. I see the “relational” component Lim speaks about, but what about the fact that tying a violin to a cello is also really unusual? In our whole conversation, Lim never brought up the notion of her music being strange, shocking, or unconventional. It was about relationships. And that could even mean familiar relationships like bowing a cello the way it is typically bowed.
an ocean beyond earth
BLS: The relationships you imbed in your music for performer and instrument are often unconventional. Are you challenging the “standard” way of living for the object?
LL: I guess if I use something so called “unconventionally,” it’s not necessarily a rejection or critique of it’s more common use. I’m in a dialogue with those things as well. It’s not like I refuse playing a violin the way performers have been trained to play it. I actually find that to be a really interesting object as well. You know, performance practice, the modalities of knowing and of use. I’m interested in composing with those repertoires of knowledge as well. It’s not about reactions against established things.
For instance, let’s just talk about the orchestra, something which most composers would say is a problematic instrument and institution. It’s a leviathan. It’s very difficult to shift in certain ways. But actually I find that extremely fascinating and absolutely something to work with rather than only being with in a confrontational relationship. This is sort of the anthropological attitude towards things, I’m like, “Oh how interesting, it’s an absolutely functioning system with bodies and histories and fascinating constellations of energies and powers.”
BLS: Is there any point in the creative process when you do cast judgement on a convention or history? A moment when you do situate yourself in support or opposition to it?
LL: I probably just kind of take situations as they are and say, “Oh this is interesting. How can I relate to that?” Are there relationships to be gained there? I say “yes,” rather than a priori deciding that it’s suspect in some way and avoiding it or rejecting it altogether. That’s just where I am. I’m probably extremely pragmatic.
I re-watched parts of The Navigator as I transcribed this interview. That vocal solo I spoke of earlier, the one with all the insane vocal techniques, I realized that it was titled “Angel of History Aria.” Not only that, much of the symbolism in the piece derives from the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic poem of ancient India, as well as from Richard Wagner‘s opera Tristan und Isolde. This opera that I found to be shocking and cutting edge was actually intimately tied up with the past. It embodied a complex network of histories and mythologies that Lim accessed to create symbolic and sonic expression.
I dwelled on this and realized that even my conception of what is “shocking,” is one that has more to do with the past than the future. A sound is not shocking because there is something inside of it that inherently shakes me. Rather, that moment of shock is a relationship itself, one that is between the sound and my personal history. When I first encountered Lim’s music, my fixation was on the music alone. Since then, my conception of her music, even of music in general, has shifted. When I listen, I can’t pinpoint where I end and the sound begins. The boundary is unclear. To reference back to Lim, it is a “mobile, fuzzy boundary between things.” For Lim, this fuzziness is not just in her music, but her entire career. In the coming weeks, I will be putting out two more pieces on Lim's career. They will cover not just her music, but also her work as a scholar, mentor, and collaborator. Unsurprisingly, all these arenas hold a common thread of relationship-focused thinking. For Lim, the life of the object is one that is all-permeating.
Thumbnail photo by Liza Lim.