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The Age

Lim's pulse of life

Author: Susan Shineberg
Date: 21/04/2008
Words: 1472
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: Metro
Page: 15
Composer Liza Lim has just added a year in Germany to a CV that includes stints in the US and performances of her works across Europe. She is bringing her new opera The Navigator back to Australia, writes Susan Shineberg from Berlin.

AUSTRALIAN composer Liza Lim greets her Berlin audience with a sunny, self-assured "Guten tag". She is seated front of stage, the subject of a pre-concert "composer portrait" for the city's March Music festival, but already she looks a good deal more relaxed than her interviewer, who is fiddling with his glass of water and his microphone. There's a murmur of anticipation as Lim gives a short speech of thanks in flawless German before switching to English to discuss her music.

This event, featuring Brisbane's Elision Ensemble, is the culmination of Lim's year-long residency in Berlin as a guest of the German Cultural Exchange Service artist program. The five works by Lim include the first outing of excerpts from the composer's forthcoming opera, The Navigator, which premieres at the Brisbane Festival in July before going on to this year's Melbourne festival.

"I don't get nervous any more talking in front of a crowd," Lim tells me later in the kitchen of her Berlin flat. "I think I learnt to do that when I worked in America quite a few years ago - they are so good at articulating their thoughts there." But how was she able to rattle off five minutes of perfect German with only a year's worth of lessons? Did she write it down and learn it off by heart? "Yes, I did," admits Lim with a laugh. Which just goes to prove my hunch that this is a woman who spares no effort when it comes to meticulous preparation.

Her stints at Cornell University and the University of California, San Diego and Berkeley, for example, giving lectures and master classes, are a couple of examples from a long and impressive CV. It's hard to believe Lim has managed to pack so much composing and so many activities into her 41 years.

Her works have been performed at concert halls and festivals around the world, at Salzburg, Lucerne, Paris, Los Angeles, Warsaw, Zurich, Munich, Huddersfield and the Venice Biennale. Her most recent appointments were the residency with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 2005-06, and her work as artistic curator in music at the 2006 Adelaide festival.

Lim's intricate and finely textured music uses sophisticated, elegant sound colours and combinations and she is insatiably curious about new timbres and effects. It's an intense and energetic music, well crafted and often deeply explorative and stimulating for the intellect, in a personal way, but not always immediately approachable. It helps that Lim can so eloquently provide her audience with a "key" to the door.

"A characteristic of my music is the flickering surface," she tells her Berlin listeners, "the unstable, shimmering surface beyond which lies something else." She thinks for a moment. "OK, OK, maybe I can explain it like this," she says. "There are these layers of information, and something's moving at a certain depth. Like seeing the sparkle of a crocodile beneath the water. There's a crack, an opening . . . then it disappears again. Something is there all the time, but you reconnect again and again."

Many of her images reflect her interest in Aboriginal culture, and also in the Chinese culture of her ethnic background. In another musical analogy she refers to the "system of energies used in acupuncture", not a direct cause and effect but "the sense of hidden energy streams throughout the body".

"What I try to do is just give certain images and stories, and be quite personal in the way I talk," she tells me. "I think in the end that's what people want."

By the time the concert begins the audience is clearly eager to hear the music. Among the crowd is Berlin resident Barrie Kosky, who is to direct The Navigator in Australia. (Kosky also directed Lim's first opera The Oresteia, which premiered in Melbourne in 1993.) During the interval, people swarm around the composer, and I learn later from her husband Daryl Buckley, artistic director of Elision, that representatives of several international festivals (Holland, Huddersfield, Dresden, Vienna and Paris Autumn) are interested in taking the new opera.

Lim's artistic partnership with Elision goes back more than 20 years and the group has been something of a sound "laboratory" where she can realise her various projects - such as the early instrumental work Garden of Earthly Desire, which marked her as a composer to watch, and the visceral Chinese ritual street opera, Moon Spirit Feasting, which premiered at the 2000 Melbourne festival.

But there have been many more ensembles and orchestras keen to commission Lim, among them Ensemble Intercontemporain, Ensemble Modern, the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In May 2004, the LA Phil premiered Lim's Ecstatic Architecture at the new Walt Disney Concert Hall under star conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The 1999 invitation for the Los Angeles commission initially went astray, and only by chance did the orchestra's assistant conductor bump into Lim in Brisbane a year later and ask if she was really not interested in writing a work for the orchestra. "Of course I'm interested," she told him.

But the big, personal turning point in Lim's professional life came in 2001 with the birth of her child, when "the tide went out a long way" in terms of writing music. After an extensive fallow period there was a sudden burst of creativity in 2005. "The last two years have been the most productive period of my life," says Lim. "All my energy came back to me in a great rush, this great pulse of life."

The fruits of this are manifest in such works as Ochred String, Songs Found in Dream, Mother Tongue, The Compass (featuring virtuoso didgeridoo player William Barton) which the Sydney Symphony Orchestra is taking on its overseas tour in October, and now The Navigator, which Lim was apparently inspired to write after seeing a performance of Tristan and Isolde.

"I thought it would be a terrific idea for Brisbane," says festival artistic director Lyndon Terracini. "She's one of Australia's most important composers and a major international voice, a distinctive voice. You know, it's quite provocative music, it's intellectualism, nevertheless it speaks with a very clear musical message - restrained and yet extremely powerful."

The Navigator, for five singers, 16 instrumentalists and electronics, is a highly charged, emotional piece about desire and the journey towards connection and transformation.

"In my music I'm always searching for a threshold, a crossing-over point," says Lim. "That ecstatic feeling is always something I'm trying to achieve, that point of transformation."

"This new opera is more lyrical than Moon Spirit Feasting," says Terracini, "and certainly more romantic. It allows a lot more space for you as a listener to dream and imagine."

Meanwhile, the Berlin flat has become a hive of activity. Lim has to check the recordings Elision has made to aid rehearsals for European performances of The Navigator. Ensemble musicians are practising their parts for the final March Music festival performance of Ton, a stunning installation for which Lim has written the music. Half-packed cardboard boxes litter the floors, in anticipation of the move back to Australia.

"I felt incredibly supported artistically here," says Lim of her fruitful year in Berlin. "I felt I didn't have to justify my work as an artist, which I often feel I have to do in Australia. There are continuities in the art forms here, reinforced everywhere in the built environment and in the way institutions are set up. There's also a stronger tradition of modernist art in Germany, one that also engages intellect. People are really interested in what your ideas are."

Lim returns to Australia for just a few months. She has recently been appointed research professor in composition at the University of Huddersfield in England and takes up the position in September.

Lim joins the increasing band of Australian artists who, having gained wide recognition overseas, are attempting to turn those contacts into a professional life lived on two or more continents.

"I guess the thing is to have another model," she says. "Not just the old expat thing where you were just in one place or another . . . It's not exile, just an opportunity for expansion."

The Navigator premieres at the Brisbane Festival, July 30 to August 2.

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