Speak, Be Silent – Programme Note

‘Find the thing and it disappears’, warns the composer Rebecca Saunders. ‘Name the thing and it loses shape.’ In Saunders’ piece a visible trace we hear a piano keyboard squashed hard, before its sound backs away, as though embarrassed; a double bass glissandos downwards, as if being swallowed up; violin and flute essay a note, an idea, but seem to think better of it. Sub-groups of instruments step forward and draw back. We hear sounds brought tentatively into being, attempting to stand on stick-like legs, bearing weight for the first time. A lyrical line, already stretched thin, is coaxed a little further, slowly building in strength.

At the start of her score, , Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir writes to her players:

When you see a long sustained pitch, think of it as a fragile flower that you need to carry in your hands and walk the distance on a thin rope without dropping it or falling.

Her words recall a line at the start of Saunders’ score by the Italian novelist Italo Calvino, from Six Memos for the Next Millennium:

The word connects the visible trace with the invisible thing, the absent thing, the thing that is desired or feared, like a frail emergency bridge flung over an abyss.

Saunders’ sounds, like Calvino’s bridge, are fragile, thrown almost in desperation to reach something before it fades. Yet Thorvaldsdóttir’s thin rope, sustained by bass flute, bass clarinet and strings, spun out into tight melodic tendrils, and pierced by thunderous interruptions from the piano, conveys an inner assurance. Her title draws on the Icelandic word for serenity, as well as its Chinese equivalent, , which may also be rendered as Ann: the composer herself. Traces – in this case of self – can create a sense of tranquility, a safe harbour.

But what of the abyss itself? What empty space do these bridges cross?

We might see an answer in buildings by the Japanese architect Junya Ishigami. Almost invisible boxes of glass, they are held up by forests of thin white supports that give these otherwise empty spaces mass and drama. ‘Transparency is some kind of feeling of freedom, it’s not a physical thing’, Ishigami says of his buildings.

Ishigami

Inspired by them, Edmund Finnis in his Frame/Refrain surrounds a bustling, percussive piano, prepared with strips of blu-tack across its strings, with softly chugging string chords, a trumpet and clarinet duo of short, sliding glissandi, and a slowly warping background of brass and metallic percussion. As the individual parts repeat they circle around each other and the space between them, creating illusions of density and form out of components that seem hardly to be there.

Amidst these worlds of sonic fragility and uncertainty, the blast of brass and gongs at the start of Liza Lim’s Speak, Be Silent seem to sound with a potency from an entirely different place. Yet this is another illusion. Her work also describes a sort of bridge, between one thing and another, one person and the next: what Walt Whitman called ‘a vast similitude [that] interlocks all’. This is a concerto, but Lim’s solo violin frequently melts into or is smelted out of the ensemble surrounding it; the scale of Lim’s commitment to her vision is reflected in how un-violin-like the rest of that ensemble is, dominated by brass, piano and abrasive percussion.

All four pieces in tonight’s concert consider the delicate trick of connecting ourselves to things without them disappearing. Lim prefaces hers with one more trace, one more piece of advice; lines by the 13th-century Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi:

Just remember when you’re in union,
you don’t have to fear
that you’ll be drained.
The command comes to speak,
and you feel the ocean
moving through you.
Then comes, Be silent,
as when the rain stops,
and the trees in the orchard
begin to draw moisture
up into themselves.

Programme

A few moments with Liza Lim

It’s my pleasure to be giving this Friday the UK Premiere of Liza Lim’s violin concerto, Speak, Be Silent.  Liza is a generous composer and collaborator, and I’ve been an admirer of her music for a long time, so it was a particular pleasure to spend a day working on the piece with her, and asking her a few questions in advance of our performance.

the opening of Lim's "Speak, Be Silent"

the opening of Lim’s “Speak, Be Silent”

Sarah Saviet: Hi Liza, and thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us. We are incredibly excited to give the UK premiere of your piece Speak, Be Silent for solo violin and ensemble. Where does the title come from, and does it give any hint to our readers as to what they can expect from the piece?

Liza Lim: The title comes from a version of Rumi made by Coleman Barks:

Just remember, when you’re in union,
you don’t have to fear
that you’ll be drained.
The command comes to speak,
and you feel the ocean
moving through you.
Then comes, Be silent,
as when the rain stops,
and the trees in the orchard
begin to draw moisture
up into themselves.
     – Jalaluddin Rumi, excerpt fr. Mathnawi V: 3195-3219
     version by Coleman Barks 

The piece is a ‘concerto’ – a rather classical formation! But my take on this was to make a piece that plays with ideas of union and separation – to find ways of exploring how rather different things can be in the same space to make a unison and to see how divergence and convergence are in dialogue and relate to each other. After speaking, comes listening … and then the ecstasy of an internal singing.

Speak, Be Silent was commissioned for and premiered by Ensemble Contrechamps in 2015. We will be the second ensemble to perform this piece. What is it like to hear your music played approached for the first time by musicians who didn’t give the premiere, and how is your participation in the rehearsal process different (or similar)?

I’m excited to hear you (Sarah) with Riot Ensemble and your take on the work. It is amazing how different a piece of music can be from one musician and performance to the next and actually, I love the non-static nature of that. Interpretation and style are important components of how all musics are communicated and I think the sonic-time arts are particularly seismographic to who, how, where, and when something is happening – that unrepeatable specialness of time-place-person in the  process of performing and as an intersection of the energies of the people involved, is so incredibly interesting. In terms of rehearsal, every situation can be different – I suppose with a premiere, there is a more open space for creating the language of the work but that quality of ‘creation’ could and should be there no matter how many times a piece has been played – it’s up to the imagination, vitality, and sensitivity of the performers. In rehearsals, I listen!

whatever this is

from Ensemble Modern’s recent premiere of Lim’s “Ronda – The Spinning World”

You frequently write for non-Western (ie non-European) instruments; for example, sheng, Hardanger fiddle, and most recently Walter Smetak’s ‘Sound Sculptures’ (for an upcoming premiere with Ensemble Modern).  In comparison, the instrumentation for Speak, Be Silent consists mainly of Western orchestral instruments. How does your compositional process differ when you are writing for familiar instruments, as opposed to instruments that you are exploring for the first time while writing the piece?

I try to find some unfamiliar aspect to all instruments that I write for – often some lateral perspective, some ‘secret view’ of the instrument in terms of how it’s played or sounds, provides an important point of inspiration to me. The more seemingly familiar an instrument is, the more potential I think it has of surprising me and prompting unexpected creative responses. The cello, for instance, is an instrument very much known to me in an internalized way and I’ve explored many different preparations: of wrapping hair around the bow, or by tying cotton threads to the strings, as techniques to de-familiarize the instrument (anyway, a very well-trodden modernist path!) and through that, found ways of opening up some new aesthetic priorities for my music, for example: an aesthetics of shimmer, or a way of phrasing which hesitates and breathes in a certain way. The element of ‘making strange’ or ‘making unknown’ that might be more obvious when composing for a non-Western or an invented instrument is pursued in all of my music as a way of arriving at some kind of perceptual shift (even if small) – rather than it being about writing for ‘weird’ instruments per se.

In Speak, be Silent, I retuned the bottom string of the instrument to increase the ‘throaty’ quality of the string and this is for me the access point to making a connection between the woodblock (a very basic ‘violin’) and the violin in the piece. I try to find links between the identities of these two instruments using the rasp stick on the woodblock as a bow and having moments in the solo violin where the sound catches and distorts – it’s not a complete match and I keep it quite subtle but in that gap between sameness and difference, I glimpse something which for me is the essence of the piece.

You were recently appointed Professor of Composition at the University of Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music. This is a unique post as you will be closely involved in SCM’s national women composer’s development programme. What advice could you offer towards ensembles and performers who would like to support the development of women composers? Is it significant to simply programme works by women composers, or are there other actions that might be important to consider?

The Sydney University/Conservatorium programme is an exciting one to be involved in because it takes a bold approach to addressing gender inequality.

I think basic inclusion is the first step (otherwise it’s all talk, no action …). I think we’re still (still!) working on a basic shift in perception in terms of gender (and other) equalities, hence the need for tools that change those frameworks – quotas where one commits to inclusion allow one to ‘make’ the result straight away so one can see what that looks like. Through that, you normalize a culture where women and men are given space and access to cultural resources. (When one puts it that way, it really does become very clear why this is essential.)

I think having role models is also important – visibility is a very powerful thing – especially in our age of images. I’m pleased to be working more to address gender equality issues; I’ve been doing quite a lot of mentoring of women composers recently at a grass roots level in Australia as well as a programme with Speak Percussion in Melbourne. I’ve been inspired by my colleagues at Huddersfield University – Liz Dobson and Lisa Colton; by the work and research led by Ashley Fure and others at 2016 Darmstadt, as well as by the work of colleagues like Cat Hope at Monash University and composers like Chaya Czernowin, Olga Neuwirth, like Rebecca Saunders and Anna Thorvaldsdottir who you’ve also programmed in this concert, and many, many others.

Liza garden, Feb2017

Liza Lim, in her garden

Occasionally you make a blog post that includes pictures of your incredibly gorgeous vegetable and flower garden. How do you pick which plants to grow?

I have a very small garden in the front yard – it’s basically 2×2 metres and I like to plant in a very dense way using horizontal and vertical space (that way there are no weeds and the theory is that biodiversity helps keep pests in check – they eat each other!). It’s fun to grow things you can eat and I choose heirloom tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, chillies, beans, greens, and herbs; the flowers bring the bees in; and because it’s the front garden, it’s quite a public space so lots of people passing by stop to chat – it becomes a rather social zone.

That sounds lovely to us – especially to those of us in London!  We’re excited to see you and work with you this week, Liza.  Thanks so much for your time!

Speak, Be Silent

Date: Friday 3rd March, 7.30pm
Venue: The Warehouse, Theed Street (SE1 8ST)

We are thrilled to be bringing Liza Lim’s Violin Concerto Speak, Be Silent to the Warehouse for its UK Premiere with soloist Sarah Saviet.  Alongside Lim’s concerto, this concert includes an array of atmospheric, colourful and virtuosic music including the UK Premiere of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Ró, Edmund Finnis’ Frame/Refrain, and Rebecca Saunders’ A Visible Trace for 11 conducted soloists. A cash bar will be available at the concert.

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Meeting Sarah Saviet

America-born, Germany-based violinist Sarah Saviet is a new member of our artistic board. Hear her live performances of Liza Lim’s solo violin piece Philtre and Jack Sheen’s work for solo violin and ensemble Television continuity poses on Radio 3’s Hear and Now (recording available until October 28th). Sarah has a pretty intense schedule of travel and concerts, so we’re really grateful to her for taking the time to answer a few questions …

riot_sarah2

In which ways have you Rioted so far?

We had a blast last week playing on BBC3’s Hear and Now. Also, I really enjoyed our concert last April with works by Evan Johnson, Nina Young, and Djuro Zivkovic

Teenage tearaway, or nerdy note-learner?

I guess I was pretty nerdy, although not in the ‘note-learning’ sense. I didn’t practise a lot, but read books all the time.

Favourite musician?

Here are several in no particular order: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Arthur Grumiaux, Björk, Nina Simone, Iván Fischer, Olly Knussen.

Favourite performance venue?

A friend’s loft in Berlin, where I like to give house concerts. The last time I played there it got a bit noisy – in addition to my friends, there were two babies and a massive dog in attendance.

People have said this about me …

Sarah has way too many stuffed hedgehogs.

Salad cream or mayonnaise?

I really dislike mayonnaise.

I would most like to Riot about …

If we’re talking about Rioting with the Ensemble, I’m very much looking forward to playing Liza Lim’s Speak, be Silent with the ensemble as well as bringing David Bird’s new violin + electronics piece to London in February.

Rioting in general … well, let’s see what happens with the US election in November. I just sent in my absentee ballot.

Many thanks Sarah! We’ll order some salad cream in for your next visit!