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Liza LIM (b.1966)
Singing in Tongues – Operas and Vocal Works, 1993-2008
rec. 31 May – 1 June 1994, Dallas Brooks Hall, Melbourne (The Oresteia); 20 July 2003, The Powerhouse, Brisbane (Yu Ling Ji); 11 June 2003, Sydney Conservatorium Verbrugghen Hall (Mother Tongue); 29 July 2008; Judith Wright Centre, Brisbane (The Navigator)
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview

The role of ritual in these works is all-important. Rather than telling a story, they enact it as though we were observing a religious ceremony. Given the sacred roots of Greek drama, stripping the Oresteia, the basis for the first opera in this set, back to its mythic basics is highly effective. Lim uses influences from Chinese ritual to bring out these qualities in the Greek story. We tend to think of these stories as part of Western culture but Lim brings out just how strange and distant we actually are from the civilisation that produced Greek tragedy. The darker aspects are evoked like some kind of suppressed memory that is simultaneously familiar and yet alien.

Dramatically, this Oresteia opera reminded me of a play by Samuel Beckett. The main protagonists of the Greek plays are first presented to us as a jumble of gabbling voices talking over one another incoherently before the words and music gather themselves to present a scene for each character. It is as though we are listening to ghosts who cannot let go of their part in the story.

The ritual aspect, stylised and formal, holds these fragments together. It is as if these disjointed bits of character are doomed to replay these events eternally. There is ultimately a resistance of catharsis, if that might mean completion of the need to retell. One is left rather with a sense of what Freud referred to, in relation to traumatised victims of the First World War, as the compulsion to repeat. Through this re-enactment, we are confronted with more disturbing aspects of ourselves and Lim’s music plays a crucial role in this.

There is a paradox at work here, as her music is simultaneously highly ordered in ritual terms, and yet it is made up of a huge range of heterodox sounds, music, speech and sometimes just noises that seem constantly on the verge of collapse. It is as if the music itself were subject to the same destructive force of memory which the myth of Orestes has undergone: that what we are left with are remnants of a music which has been ritualised.

Of course, Lim is an incredibly skilful composer who relishes the opportunities thrown up by this way of writing an opera. Her range of imagination and reference is vast, matched only by her energy. It is astonishing to realise that she was only 24 when she wrote it, yet it does sound like the music of a young person. Perhaps more impressive is the way she is able to shape and give coherence to her effervescent bag of tricks. This is a remarkably effective opera, both despite and because of its difficulties. On repeated listening, as with all the pieces included in this set, those difficulties reveal themselves to be depths.

The Oresteia was followed by Yu Ling Ji which translates as Moon Spirit Feasting. Only one scene is included here, yet according to the liner notes included with the set it is climactic moment in the opera. The Chinese influence audible in the Oresteia is more explicit here. It is unfair to criticise a “bleeding chunk” out of its context within the opera as a whole but I found it the least involving thing on this recording. The disparate parts don’t seem to come together with the same dramatic and musical force as they do in the other pieces.

Whilst not an opera, the inclusion of Mother Tongue makes good sense, as it continues the development apparent in the previous two operas and is clearly a link to the latest work included, The Navigator.

As its name suggests, Mother Tongue is concerned with language and, in particular, disappearing languages as a kind of metaphor for difficulties with expression. Most of the text is made up of words from Aboriginal languages on the brink of extinction. But both text and music hover at the edge of articulacy. The latter is made up of sounds like the ruins of musical language held together by the force of Lim’s imagination. As with the other works on this set, it is remarkable how much beauty and eloquence she finds in what on the surface look like highly unpromising materials. Mother Tongue is an exploration of the roots of both music and speech in fundamental sounds that have a peculiar psychological force. By freeing herself from the classical tradition through a process of deconstruction, Lim is able to get at the meaning of sound itself upon which, for example, the Western musical tradition rests unawares. Lim’s approach, for all the vitality and frequent ferocity of her music, is neither negative nor destructive. Her music advances the tradition rather than rejects it.

Mother Tongue is like an opera which has dispensed with the conventional structures of plot. That tendency was already there in the two earlier operas but Mother Tongue seems to open a way to the even greater looseness that we find in the Navigator. Plot becomes a source of inspiration rather than a narrative device.

The Navigator, from 2008, is a tougher nut to crack but probably the most satisfying work included in this set. It certainly builds on the ambition of the earlier works in moving away from a single, unifying mythological narrative. Whilst there is an underpinning of myth – the story of Tristan and Isolde, a tale from the Indian epic, the Mahabharata – the characters seem more like archetypes rather linked to one particular story.

By this point, Lim’s capacity to tune into the essence of her characters is uncanny. Freed of the demands of a linear plot, the music is liberated to follow an associative path that, rather than degenerating into chaos, acquires a powerful, largely psychological, logic. This does require the listener to let go of preconceptions about an opera needing a narrative and surrendering to where Lim’s imagination will take them. There are even fewer narrative touchstones in this most recent of her operas. In some ways, this set is the perfect primer for listening to The Navigator, since each successive work takes us deeper into her creative world. Lim is aided enormously by a suitably elusive and allusive libretto by Patricia Sykes.

If the Oresteia gets under the skin with uncomfortable truths about ourselves, then The Navigator has a broader emotional range. Yes, it too unnerves but it also contains music of immense poignancy. We may not always know why this rag bag of noises, bits of music and strange vocal techniques moves us but it does move us. It is almost as if, in moving beyond traditional characters, Lim’s music becomes more, not less human. Where previously there was virtuosity, now that virtuosity is deployed to evoke an even wider range of the feelings that make us human. This is music that alienates but it does so to hold up a different kind of mirror to us.

One of the seeming contradictions that runs through these works is that, as they pull in the direction of dissolution, Lim’s writing is characterised by extreme precision. The composer who came to mind most when listening to these pieces was Ravel. Lim is more extreme than the French composer but there is a similar concern for just the right blend of tones, timbres and effects. I believe it is this concern with detail that enables these operas to make the impact they do. Nothing is slap dash or modernity by numbers. Every note does something. Listen to the percussion at the end of the 5th scene, Transfiguration of the Navigator, and the way it works on the nerves even as the spoken words talk of immortality. These are not just random percussive effects. It is a marvellous example of what is referred to as psychoacoustical – that is, sounds that are designed to produce a psychological effect on the listener. More than this, the psychoacoustic effect undermines the words, bringing us back to our inescapable mortality. In other words, music and drama working powerfully together. This is just one example of the ways in which the seemingly random is anything but in these staggering scores.

Performances and recording reflect the fact that these musicians have been an integral part of Lim’s creative development. Like the composer, they ask for and take no quarter. They positively hurl themselves into Lim’s sound world and the effect is shattering. The notes included form an interesting introduction to these entrancing works but I would have appreciated synopses and sung texts too.

These are demanding works but the question is whether they are worth the effort. They do not give up their secrets easily and are often bewildering and unsettling. They are meant to be so. Without these difficulties, they would not be able to allow the open-minded listener to experience such rare and profound truths about the human condition. Each of the works on this set is designed to change the listener by their end, and they certainly did have that effect upon me. I am acutely aware that, even after repeated listening, I have only scratched the surface of these works.

Alongside the challenge of this music must be set its visceral thrill, its devastating climaxes, its moments of breathtaking, strange beauty. Listen to weird woodwind harmonies and the interwoven vocal lines that end the Navigator and the way the dissonances achieve one of the loveliest operatic endings – this is, by any estimation, great music.

David McDade

Track List:

Liza LIM (b.1966)
The Oresteia (1993) [48:54]
Jeannie van de Velde (soprano)
Julie Edwardson (mezzo)
Deborah Kayser (mezzo & cello)
Andrew Muscat-Clark (countertenor)
Tyrone Landau (tenor)
Grant Smith (baritone)
Paula Rae (flute, piccolo) / Stephen Robinson (oboe, cor anglais) / Jane Robertson (clarinet, bass clarinet) / Andrew Evans (trumpet, piccolo trumpet) / Brett Kelly (trombone) / Cassandra Azzaro (Turkish baglama saz) / Daryl Buckley (electric guitar) / Peter Neville (percussion) / Jennifer Curl (viola, viola d’amore) / Rosanne Hunt (cello) / Joan Wright (double bass)
Sandro Gorli (conductor)

Yu Lng Ji (2000): Chang-O flies to the Moon [10:07]
Deborah Kayser – (soprano Chang-O, the Moon Goddess)
Paula Rae (bass flute) / Rosanne Hunt (cello) / Satsuki Odamura (koto) / Peter Neville (percussion)
Simon Hewett (conductor)

Mother Tongue (2005) [36:22]
Piia Komsi (soprano)
Paula Rae (flute) / Sarah Collins (flute & piccolo) / Peter Veale (oboe) / Carl Rosman (clarinet) / Richard Haynes (bass clarinet) / Timothy O’Dwyer (alto & baritone saxophones) / Noriko Shimada (bassoon & contrabassoon) / Tristram Williams (trumpet) / Benjamin Marks (trombone) / Peter Neville (percussion) / Susan Pierotti (violin) / Graeme Jennings (violin) / Erkki Veltheim (viola) / Tim Willson, violoncello / Joan Wright, double bass
Jean Deroyer (conductor)

The Navigator (2008) [79:56]
Andrew Watts (countertenor)
Talise Trevigne (coloratura soprano)
Philip Larson (bass baritone)
Omar Ebrahim (baritone)
Deborah Kayser (Baroque alto)
Genevieve Lacey (alto & tenor Ganassi recorders) / Paetzold (contrabass recorder) / Marshall McGuire (Baroque triple harp) / Erkki Veltheim (viola d’amore) / Paula Rae (piccolo, alto flute) / Peter Veale (oboe, cor anglais) / Richard Haynes (clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet) / Simone Walters (bassoon, contrabassoon) / Ysolt Clarke (horn) / Tristram Williams (trumpet) / Benjamin Marks )tenor, bass trombone, alto trombone) / Peter Neville, (percussion) / Daryl Buckley (electric guitar) / Susan Pierotti (violin) / Sverine Ballon (cello 1) / Daniel Yeadon (cello 2) / Joan Wright (double bass)
Manuel Nawri (conductor)

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