As part of the 30th anniversary celebrations of the ELISION Ensemble, Professor Liza Lim and Professor Aaron Cassidy have written major new works that bring together guest soloists—the Chinese sheng expert Wu Wei in Lim’s How Forests Think, and leading trumpet improvisor Peter Evans in Cassidy’s The wreck of former boundaries—with the virtuosic, innovative talents of the musicians of ELISION. Though the pieces differ in many ways in their soundworlds and their approaches to notation, they share many important common threads. Both works integrate various forms of improvisation and openness, and both works include novel instrumental techniques developed in collaboration with the performers. Perhaps more significantly, both works explore emergent, networked materials and forms, as Lim writes, ‘like tendrils looking for places on which to clasp and entangle themselves’.
The wreck of former boundaries
Cassidy’s work is ostensibly a double trumpet concerto, conceived for the unique talents of Tristram Williams and Peter Evans, though the material for the supporting ensemble of clarinet, saxophone, trombone, double bass, and electric lap steel guitar is often no less soloistic. The work is in many ways about the idea of the solo and related traditional concerto models, drawing on simple, formal roles and relationships—all of the instrumental behaviours in the piece can be reduced to either solo, duet, cadenza (both notated and improvised), accompaniment (again incorporating improvisational components), or refrain, with these roles superimposed and juxtaposed in fluid, shapeshifting recombinations. That process of recombination is central to the form of the work, in which solos and small chamber groupings emerge and dissolve, flittering between independent solos & cadenzas and dependent, contingent ensemble formations, the membrane between leading and following or soloing and accompanying always porous and pliable. It is, in the words of Ornette Coleman, a work in which the players must ‘find their own unison’.
The work is also the result of Cassidy’s recent experiments with musical curves, arcs, bubbles, and foams, foregrounding an undercutting and liquidation of geometric, architectural, and latticed methodologies and structures in favour of sculptural, painterly, reactive, and emergent ones. It is a work that sets movement, energy, force, and velocity against various states of friction, resistance, viscosity, and elasticity, and that plays out in particular in an approach to the notation of rhythm that subsumes counting and subdivision, instead prioritising the fluid relationships between speed and duration arising out of the flickering, gurgling, swerving multi-channel electronics that run across the work’s 35 minutes.
How Forests Think
Lim’s ‘How Forests think’ reflects on the work of anthropologist Eduardo Kohn who writes about forest ecologies as the ‘living thought’ of human and non-human selves.She says:
Each of these selves may have its own subjectivity, creating the world with its own registers of knowledge, sensation and meaning. These selves organize into communities: in ancient forests, a stump may be kept alive for centuries by the surrounding trees through underground fungal networks that nourish the old connections and keep a song going. One might think of a forest as a choir or certainly as an ensemble. Stories, dreams and thoughts inhabit multiple forms in a living matrix; they ask us to look beyond our limited human gaze and limited human time-span.
‘How Forests think’ is music made from assemblages of instruments whose qualities are like tendrils looking for places on which to clasp and entangle themselves. Its forms are emergent, like plants growing toward light and water; like mycelial strands entwining with tree roots in a co-evolving internet of plant-life. The music emerges out of criss-crossing conversations patterned like roots, vines, fungal networks; or like airborne, insect and animal-borne cross-pollinations (the breath, the buzz, the scratch, the songs), where one thing looks for best fit with another.
Lim worked closely with the Chinese master musician Wu Wei to develop contemporary approaches to the Chinese sheng, an instrument with a 4,000-year old lineage and rich cultural symbolism.
The instrument’s cluster of bamboo tubes is activated by the musician’s breath that vibrates internal reeds.
Extraordinary for me is that the sheng’s many techniques for creating fluttering and oscillating sounds can be produced both on the out-breath and the in-breath. This flexibility of sound production is simply impossible to achieve on standard Western wind and brass instruments and the sheng player can achieve a rare breathing unity between this sounding object and their own body. There is something intensely organic in how the interactions between breath and reed and bamboo pipe give rise to results that are not completely predictable. The aesthetic beauty of the instrument lies in this fluid relation between breath and response that opens up a space for a poetics of attention.
At various points in the work, the music enters into a more improvisational space where patterns of breath become more intensified – at the end of ‘Mycelia’, bass flute and alto saxophone musicians are asked to ‘tell a love story’ by vocalising through their instruments. In ‘The Trees’, the score is made up of ‘islands’ of text instruction and musical notation and the placement of events relies on the musicians’ awareness of their own and of the ensemble’s breathing. The intention is create conditions for patterns of responsiveness to emerge from the group.
The project was supported by a significant grant to CeReNeM from the University Research Fund at the University of Huddersfield. Both works will be premiered at the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music (BIFEM) in Australia by ELISION on 3 September 2016, with further performances by ELISION at the Zürich Tage für Neue Musik and the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in November. The works will be released on CD by HCR in 2018.