Liza Lim is a composer currently teaching at the University of Huddersfield in England, a hotspot for experimental music. Today I had the chance to listen to her solo cello piece Invisibility, performed here by Séverine Ballon. There are some program notes at the bottom of the video, but I’m going to ignore them for now. Today’s post will be in two short parts: a paragraph after having just watched the video and a paragraph after reading the notes and doing a second hearing (without watching the performance).
First time through (watching): A cello teacher once talked to me about trying to remove artifacts from the sound while playing. I love that turn of phrase. What he meant was trying to limit the unintended squeaks and grunts that a string instrument tends to make when you bow it. For performing common-practice music, removing those sound artifacts makes a lot of sense — the composers often intended for you to produce a clean tone. My impression of Invisibility was of a piece that rejoiced in artifacts. The celebration was most apparent in the portions which used the specially prepared bow. To give just one example, the patches of bare wood against the string tend to produce distinctive whistling glissandi, which intermingle with the sounds produced by the hair. Unlike my squeaks while playing the cello, Lim’s use of artifacts is careful and controlled. The changes in bow location and left-hand glissandi in the normally bowed passages mimic and develop* those whistling glissandi. The splash of tiny, suggestive noises that comes with every note creates a polyphonic richness of texture. The music made me imagine feeling the surface of a bumpy, complex rock.
Second time through (listening): I recommend listening without the video if you have the time, it was a very affecting experience. I was surprised that I kept losing track of which kind of bow was being used and briefly forgot that the final portion was with two bows, which I think is a testament to Lim’s inventiveness and Ballon’s talent. A musical idea which I didn’t really catch the first time around was the semitone harmonic motive. This seems to keep returning (and developing), sometimes in a bare way — a moment of smoothness between torrents of roughness. Those and other contrasts felt powerful, meaningful. The program notes touch on some of the things I mentioned above, but more precisely and eloquently. I love this description: “a landscape of unpredictable nicks and ruptures as different layers of action flow across each other.”
*it strikes me that I’ve used the idea of development in my first two posts now without problematizing it. This seems, unsurprisingly, problematic. Folks tend to use the idea of development in terms of Beethovenian, teleological, linear progression (the classic Intro to Music example is the beginning of Beethoven 5 — “look at how many different ways he does da-da-da-duuum and the way it transforms”). My definition of development is similar, but I want to emphasize that I mean the term in a very basic sense: a musical element that gets repeated in a different way. I think, perhaps, the difference is that I don’t mean development as a progression per se. Development to me does not necessarily lead to an ultimate transformation or a particular end result, though it can, and it’s super cool when it does (it’s also super cool when it doesn’t).