As part of the Sydney Spring Festival by Liza Lim
3rd Annual Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address 2007
15 September 2001
The Studio, Sydney Opera House Studio
I am Shane Simpson and I am Chairman of the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Composer's House trust. I was also Peggy's lawyer.
On behalf of New Music Network, I am delighted to have been asked to induce this year's Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address.
The New Music Network established the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address in 1999 in honour of one of Australia's great international composers. It is an annual forum for ideas relating to the creating and performance of new Australian Music.
The first Address was given by James Murdoch, friend and biographer of Peggy and the founder of the Australian Music Centre. Last year Barry Coyngham delivered the address prior to taking up the position of Professor at Australian Studied at Harvard University.
The NMN is delighted that Liza Lim has accepted the invitation to give the 2001 address. A former recipient of the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Fellowship, Liza has established a career as one of Australian's most distinctive composers, and has received outstanding international critical acclaim.
Liza Lim's work as a composer ranges from concert music to opera and site-specific installations. In Australia, she has worked extensively with the ELISION Ensemble over 15 years and made work with artists such as Barrie Kosky, Shelley Lasica, Michal Kantor, Domenico de Clario and Judith Wright.
Internationally, she has ongoing relationships with the Ensemble Intercontemporain, Ensemble Modern, Arditti String Quartet and German radio Stations Sudwestfunk, Westdeutscher Rundfunk Cologne and Radio Bremen.
Her opera "Moon Spirit Feasting" which premiered at the 2000 Adelaide Festival will be presented by ELISION at the upcoming Melbourne Festival.
On Tuesday, she goes to Berlin to install a video-installation work made with artist Judith Wright at the Hebbel Theatre and in October the Sudwestfunk Orchestra premieres "The Tree of Life".
She is currently writing pieces for The Song Company in a collaboration with traditional Chinese musicians and a work for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra for the inaugural season of their new concert hall.
Third Annual Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address
"Peggy's Ghost - multi-cultural identity and creative renewal"
In 1995, I had the pleasure and privilege of staying in the Peggy Glanville-Hicks House in Paddington (just off Oxford St). One of the things that people kept asking me was "have you bumped into Peggy's ghost yet?' So many people asked me that I hoped and expected that she would appear - I imagined her with one of her celebrated brandy sodas in hand, perhaps with Poo, her poodle that was buried in the backyard, in tow. I didn't have any night-time visitations from Peggy sadly but, I have bumped into other aspects of her legacy as an artist.
Peggy took part in one of the great cultural shifts of the twentieth century in the West, namely that of looking to other cultures outside of the Western canon as a source for creative renewal. In the 1940s and -50s she was part of a group of composers in New York dubbed "Les Six d'Orient", comprising Colin McPhee, Paul Bowles, Halim El Dabh, Lou Harrison, Alan Hovhaness and P.G-H, investigating non-western musical materials. Her operatic works, The Transposed Heads (1953), Nausicaa (1961) and Sappho (1965) were the major manifestations of this exploration and drew their vitality and inspiration from the modal melodic styles and assymmetric rhythmic patterns of Indian and Greek music. Writing for Vogue Magazine in 1966, she said, Îit seems possible that the third phase of musical modernism in the twentieth century will be concerned with bringing together the assets of East and Westâ1.
This attention to a "multi-culturalism", in the form of a bringing together of "east"' and "west" was also critical to succeeding generations of Australian composers. Peter Sculthorpe, Barry Conyngham, Anne Boyd and Helen Gifford as well as many others looked particularly to Asian models, as well as other "ethnic" and aboriginal musics, as an important step in defining for themselves a notion of an Australian identity.
As an Australian composer with a South-east Asian Chinese background, you could perhaps say that I straddle the East-West boundary of Australian musical identity politics in quite a different way to the composers I've mentioned. After all, I am from the "other" culture though one couldn't say that therefore I have a simple inverse relationship to European cultures. But I am aware that the "hyphenated identity", Asian-Australian, positions me quite differently in relation to acts of cultural borrowing. The relationships between notions of where I am and where I look towards are I think, less stable, more contingent, more ambivalent.
And so I'd like to talk a bit about my own experience and artistic practice before making some more general remarks - about art/music as a way of thinking symbolically and how this is one pathway for investigating the question of why we need to keep making art at all.
Multi-culturalism as a concept has been part of cultural policy-making in Australia for over twenty years. It is a perennial lightning rod for controversy and has now become that particularly Australian object of derision - the "politically correct idea". How else can we think about this term? How can it be renewed? How can we go beyond simple oppositions in defining its meaning - "east/west", "self/ the other", "familiar/foreign" etc - and how can a broader understanding or conceptualisation of what "multi-culturalism" means, provide insights towards a process of creative renewal?
First, some personal reflections: Over the last five years I've sought to reconnect more fully with my ancestral culture in works such as my "Chinese ritual street opera" Yuè Lìng Jié (Moon Spirit Feasting), the video-installation work Sonorous Bodies and a large ensemble piece, Machine for contacting the dead. This exploration is something that I have had rather complex feelings about. Feelings connected with both geographic and linguistic exile from the notional "home country" but also made more disorderly by my experiences in both South-east Asia and Australia where Chinese communities have maintained and elaborated traditions and festivals no longer celebrated in a post-cultural revolution China.
Australia, the country, is known as "the antipodes" - a place diammetrically opposed to other regions on Earth (specifically Europe). It's a place where one is often made conscious of one's relationship to "somewhere else". Ideas too, are often defined in terms of this kind of migrant relationship as much as things in themselves. As I have continued to explore my idea of "Chinese culture" from a place like Australia, I've increasingly found myself regarding "China" as a symbol for parts of an interior landscape within which I am negotiating a number of different journeys.
One important aspect of this interior landscape is the existence of numerous "boundaries" - a very Chinese structure I've come to discover. These "boundaries" are not so much barriers which constrict action but rather, I consider them permeable "threshold lines" which admit movement into ever-receding spaces. To develop the metaphor further, one way of defining these Chinese structures observed from an Australian cultural space is that these "boundaries" are also "fault-lines" around which things slip through, collide and shear off into fragments that metamorphose beyond any simple comparison with the original.
I deliberately set out to explore the fault-lines of cultural hybridity in my opera Yuè Lìng Jié (Moon Spirit Feasting). Based on the story of the moon goddess Chang-O and structured around the rituals of the Hungry Ghost Festival as practised in Penang (Malaysia), I described the work as a "Chinese ritual street opera". As it went into production for the 2000 Adelaide Festival, I started to call it a "magic Chinese puzzle-box". Floating on a barge on the River Torrens, the stage-set was a box in which Chinese dialect opera traditions met contemporary music. It contained a vaudeville and puppet show with aspects of the shlocky Hong Kong movie and seedy Bangkok show-girl culture, all of this colliding with trance and ritual action. Adding to the cross-cultural mix of the opera production were a number of "installations". Along the river walkway leading to the performance site were incense and food offerings to the ghosts. Facing the barge was a shrine to Chang-O. Directly in front of this, a table was set for the "eight immortals", providing the best vantage point for the spirits to view the opera and laid out with a banquet of noodles, rice, pork, sticky buns, sweets and cans of Guinness.
One very special moment for everyone involved in the production, occurred when the shrine was blessed by two Buddhist monks. They brought a level of authenticity to the production that we hadn't quite expected. Suddenly, a shrine that was part of the set design, became a functional and activated spiritual space. In fact, we had only half set-up the shrine with a statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, below which was placed a figure of "the drunken monk" with his proper offerings of beer and cigarettes when the monks arrived. They were not at all perturbed by the juxtaposition of figures and just got on with their blessing in which they asked for protection and blessing for the company. Rather than being some strange abstract, mystical event, it felt very "normal", simple, direct and grounded. On one level, it also felt extremely Australian. It seemed perfectly reasonable to have monks chanting sutras outside a rowing club whilst burly rowers (many of whom are Vietnam war veterans who row as therapy for stress), went in and out of the club. Then there were school kids, joggers and cyclists passing by adding to the chaotic inter-cultural mix. Yet somehow, every element seemed to harmonise into a whole. Even though we were not performing in the context of a traditional festival in a community with a shared cultural heritage, I think we did create our own strange, temporary community.
"Memory" and the idea of ritually evoking or propitiating the spirit world are themes that recur throughout all my compositions. Many of my projects have been concerned with ways to somehow connect with a spirit realm or access thoughts, emotions and desires of the past. And in recent years, the theatre of Chinese ritual has been a strong inspiration. In the last few years however, I feel that I've made a journey from an overt exploration of this ritual culture as in the opera Yuè Lìng Jié towards much more abstract distillations of the aesthetic systems underlying Chinese thought.
Since the opera I've made other works such as a video-installation called Sonorous Bodies and a piece entitled Machine for contacting the dead which was commissioned by the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Sonorous Bodies and the middle section of Machine. (called "Memory Body") explore in quite different ways, aspects of the meditative stillness of qin (Chinese zither) music. In qin music, silence and the sound of the musician's touch or caress on the instrument are central to the performance practice. [The connoisseur of the qin listens to sound of the plucked string but even more prized, is the sound of the subtlest rubbing of the musician's finger on the string after the actual sound has decayed into silence. This incredibly subtle noise is considered the "breath" of the instrument. It's an aesthetic of listening that focuses on the spiritual dimension of music making.] My music took its poetic inspiration from this tradition but I didn't create an overtly Chinese sounding world at all.
So, rowdy street opera and rarefied meditative silence - both of course come under that umbrella called "Chinese culture". As soon as one starts looking closely at what that culture is and what it might comprise, one sees that it not a unitary thing at all. The rough and ready contemporary opera performances offered to the spirits in Penang are a world away from the perfections of Beijing opera and their ritual context would certainly be regarded as a relic of feudalistic superstition in modern China. From a European point of view, this very hybridity would perhaps be regarded as an impurity, less "authentic" and less "Chinese" than something coming from mainland China. In reality, there are many "Chinas" and Chinese cultures. And this opens up, for me, ways in which the definition of multiculturalism can be quite fruitfully expanded.
Multi-culturalism is one of the great myths in Australian society - I mean that in the sense that it is one of the stories that we like to tell about ourselves - that we're an open, tolerant society that embraces cultural diversity. People always point to the diversity of cuisines as evidence of this - Australian cultural theorist Sneja Gunew calls food "the acceptable face of multi-culturalism"2. Of course, with the light, come darker impulses within our community - under the civilised, happy surface of restaurant-going one can smell the sizzle of cultural diversity as threat. You can tell there's an election coming up when both sides of politics engage in a cynical manipulation of public opinion and demonisation of asylum seekers. Memories are short - my Aboriginal neighbours love winding up taxi drivers in conversations about "how boatloads of criminals and political refugees are coming here, taking over our way of life" and the punchline of course is, "yeah the ones that came in 1788".
Multi-culturalism as an ideal cannot take us very far I believe, unless we also acknowledge the many territories that co-exist within a culture and by extension, the self. More and more, I am also coming to see multi-culturalism as a way of being in the world as an artist - a way of working that not only negotiates journeys between the boundaries of different cultures but also works with differences within a culture. I would like to examine some of the possible meanings and resonances of this understanding and tease out some of the wider implications and perhaps more abstract gifts that it offers to artistic practice.
To embrace a "multi-cultural" approach in one's artistic practice is to encounter multiple perspectives. One is constantly confronted with the questions, "what position or positions am I speaking from?" and "how is authority constituted?" It provokes a structural change in oneâs thinking. One begins to dissect one's assumptions about the structures that underlie identity-formation and how these things inform the distribution of meaning and power. The world is much less stable and the political dimension of every action becomes more apparent. I have three favourite examples of how "other worlds" can offer quite radical strategies of understanding to the popular subjects of language, numbers and money. What is common to each story is that the symbolic or "art" aspect and the "artifice" of the structures of language, numbers and money are fore-grounded. Each example happens to be related to a Chinese perspective but I could also have included some aboriginal stories, for instance in relation to the subjects of time and education.
When I was researching materials for my "ritual opera" I became fascinated with the subject of Chinese pronouns and how grammar or grammatical structures manipulate one's understanding of identity. Chinese is a grammatically uninflected language in relation to person, that is, verbs are not conjugated as they are in Indo-European languages. That is, verb forms don't change whether one is speaking from the viewpoint of "I", "you", "he", "she", "it", "we" or "they" and in Chinese poetry for instance, these pronouns are usually completely omitted.
This grammatical fluidity strongly shaped Beth Yahp's libretto for the opera. In Scene 6, "Chang-O Flies to the Moon", the stories of the moon goddess are passed through a series of grammatical translations in a symbolic reclamation of different parts of her self. The singing subject "she" transforms into "I" through to "you" until at the end "you" (her shadow presence) comes into an embrace and unity with "I". In spoken Chinese, the pronouns "he","she", "it" are represented by the same syllable "ta" but are distinguished in their written form. I was astonished to discover that these written forms and specifically the written form of the 3rd person feminine, "she", was only invented at the beginning of the 20th century. Previously, the written form for "ta" (meaning "he", "she", "it") was written in an ungendered form denoting "human" with specific gender indicated by the context.
To create the written character "she", one component of the old word was lopped off and replaced with a feminine radical (sign). What this meant was that in creating the new written form "she", the old ungendered word (he, she, it) was converted into a masculine pronoun whilst still maintaining its meaning as a "universal" form - as is the case in a language like English.
This addition to the written language was made by Chinese writers wanting to translate texts from European languages and the changes have become part of the mainstream vocabulary of modern Chinese. In other words, the pronoun "ta" cannot now be translated back into its previous state. Lydia Liu, a theorist in linguistics and gender studies has made a fascinating study of this. She talks about how the act of translation has hypothesized or "made up" an equivalence in meaning across languages and how this is an interesting mirror of other kinds of exchanges that "reproduce the colonial relations of power". Liu points out rather provocatively, that "English and the metropolitan European languages have not experienced a similar need in modern times to adapt to the formal characteristics of the other languages by eliminating, for example, one of its gender categories in a reverse mode of operation."3 [eg: French scholars don't alter the grammatical structure of the French verbs to translate Tâang dynasty poetry]
My second story is about numbers. It's a story that the Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz tells about eleven Chinese generals in a war who've reached a crisis point in battle. They have to decide whether to attack or retreat and after a long discussion about strategy they take a vote on the course of action. Three of the generals vote to attack whilst eight are in favour of retreating and so they agree to attack because "three" is the number of unity (unanimity).4 They won! [Telstra story - 88c a minute call-rates to China (88 = double happiness/ fortune); when price dropped fewer people used the service. Telstra thought a lower cost would get more business but in fact their bottom line was affected.]
In Chinese culture, the employment of numbers to count or measure things is really regarded as the least valuable or most banal of its uses. In this culture, it is the qualitative approach to numbers that has been developed over its quantitative functions. The Chinese "art of numbers" places value on their use as carriers of symbolic information which is quite different to their statistical use as in a western scientific sense. Rather than disregarding the extraordinary case in a statistical survey, this approach focusses on the particular case existing in a particular time.
[There are parallels between the Chinese approach and older western traditions of numerology. Actually quantum physics has reached the point where scientists are recognising the link between subjective consciousness and so-called "reality" so there seems to be some kind of full circle between east and west.]
What I find interesting about the symbolic approach to numbers is that it demonstrates a way of thinking that emphasises dynamic relationships between events and the "quality" or "spirit" of the context. The I-Ching is another example of this principle of synchronicity in action. One asks a question and throws three coins three times to arrive at a symbolic number pattern. The number pattern gives you information about the nature of your question and suggests processes by which one can resolve certain issues. The device of the so-called "chance" element of throwing coins is actually a way of opening up one's mind so that one can perceive links between apparently unrelated things. For me, there are many analogies between this and the processes of composition and creativity in general.
My last story is about money. Money in its purest form could be defined as a "tool of exchange", a reciprocation that speaks of relationship.
One person whose art practice I greatly admire is the Taiwanese-American artist Lee Mingwei. Whilst still studying at Yale University, he began a series of works called "Money for Art". The first version of this, made in 1994, involved a series of interactions over a year with passersby that he met whilst sitting at a café. He would invite people to sit down and ask if they were interested in having a piece of original sculpture, the only proviso being that they would give him their phone number and allow him to remain in contact. The artwork was an origami sculpture made from a ten-dollar bill. Typically, it would take him about forty minutes to make the piece during which time they would chat and then exchange phone numbers.
When Mingwei talks about this work, he has a set of story-board slides to illustrate each stage of the work which one will have to imagine.
The first board shows the ten-dollar bill sculpture. The following one is divided into nine squares each showing someone's hand holding the sculpture and each labelled with a name and a profession, for instance, "Jennifer, waitress"; "Kan, student"; "John, homeless" etc. After six months, he rang each person to find out what had happened to their sculpture and the resulting storyboard showed again, hands holding the sculpture but also a photo of a pair of moccasins (Kan) or ice-cream & bananas (Jennifer), where these people had spent their sculpture to buy things. This led to interesting discussions with these people on whether something could be money and art at the same time and about the value of the artwork. Mingwei himself felt pleased that some people had felt free to turn the sculpture into something they needed rather than being precious about it.
Even later in the process, other transformations had taken place with more people exchanging the art for goods or where the sculpture had been lost or stolen. One of the interesting cases was of "John, homeless" who still had his sculpture and for whom it had become an incredibly prized possession. It had become rather battered because he kept it in his wallet and often brought it out to show people. His attitude was that he felt special and proud to be able to be involved in an artwork and to own this aesthetic object - its importance far exceeded its literal monetary value. Therefore he felt he would never spend it even though he was under considerable pressure from those around him to use it. Mingwei still meets up with him from time to time and makes a new one when the old one wears out.
Mingwei made another version of "Money for Art" in 1997. This was for an exhibition at the Lombard Freid Gallery in New York where rows of open shelves displayed a hundred origami sculptures made from one-dollar bills. [The materials budget obviously didn't extend to the $10 bills.] Visitors were invited to take one of these so long as they left something in exchange with, again, a card with the person's name, profession and phone number. They were free to determine the value of the exchange. Mingwei says, "some of the more unusual transactions involved a bra, an active bankcard and a note from a self-proclaimed thief, who left nothing."5 When Mingwei rang the owner of the bankcard, she gave him her bank pin-number saying that since she felt that the project was about trust, she would also offer that trust back to him. He said that he did go to the bank and check her account though he didn't take any money out.
Lee Mingwei's work is engaged with dissolving distances between everyday life and art, between the spiritual and secular. In this art which makes direct connections between artist and audience, he is opening up a space for multiple encounters with the unpredictable nature of human life. I admire the agility, the awareness, humanity and openness of his practice and the unpretentious way in which it demonstrates the fundamental interconnections rippling out between people and things.
This is art that explores the idea of "relationship" on a person-to-person basis and also invites an imaginative collaboration with inner experience. It's informed by an energy of renewal which is able to embrace unpredictability and complexity, yet it's also simple in its fundamental premise of communication.
Art/ music as way of thinking symbolically
Language, numbers, money - these are powerful tools that shape our world, shape how we see ourselves, and our relationships with one another. My three stories try to illustrate that there are other ways, less straightforward and more ambiguous ways, of thinking about and deploying these tools. The other aspect of these stories is that they highlight the strategic function of these tools by uncovering something of their internal mechanics or codes.
These tools can operate, can make their transactions, because we accept certain things about how they function. In the process however, their symbolic function (the fact that we construct their meaning-value), is often rendered invisible, neutralised or taken for granted. As soon as one steps outside the normalised perception of these things, one sees that there might be other options, more fluid ways of constructing the world.
This is the arena where art comes into being. Art teaches us a way of thinking that is fundamentally symbolic. It encourages us to delve below surface appearances to a place where the ground is shifting and meanings are transient and difficult to pin down in absolute terms. In that place, one's identity becomes plural - one can say "I" in many voices. Like "multi-culturalism" in our wider society, this upsetting of identity, this plurality of meaning, can also awaken anxieties and provoke intolerance.
Vietnamese film-maker and composer Trinh T. Ming-ha says: "Literal and linear readings . are championed and validated as the only ones "accessible" to the wide number, in all media work, whether documentary or narrative." 6 "Accessibility, which is a process is often taken for a 'natural', self-evident state of language. What is perpetuated in its name is a given form of tolerance and an unacknowledged practice of exclusion."7
Art and specifically music, can be a way of thinking in itself - it does not necessarily have to be "about" something - whether an emotion, a picture or a story. It can inhabit a multi-place and does not necessarily have to rely on strategies of opposition and confrontation, us and them, rejection versus affirmation and so on, to establish its order. In its symbolic nature, art can be a way of embracing life's paradoxes and complexities - a portal into experiencing life differently and with heightened attention.
Creative renewal - why do we need to keep making art?
But why do we need to keep making art? Why isn't it enough to just keep reflecting on the artistic achievements of the past? What keeps art alive is its ungovernable dimensions and the ways in which it resists systematic forms of closure. The essence of Art lies exactly where it cannot be completely explicable or accounted for and in this way it points towards the quality of the infinite.
One definition of art for me is that it demonstrates the limits of centralized conscious knowledge. One cannot rationally know everything about it nor can it be totally exhausted from the one position. I believe that this is the area of Art's true freedom and it is a freedom that needs to be continuously expressed. In this sense, the making of contemporary art is a profoundly optimistic "evidence" both of the ongoing necessity of art, and of our presence in the world. We no longer live in the same village all our lives with prescribed pathways for work, play and worship. We live in a mobile and increasingly interdependant world (the hyper-, virtual-, global-, rapidly changing post-modern world), where people have many choices in constructing their identities, histories and traditions.
Our contemporary world challenges us to continually renegotiate questions of identity and history. I think a more complex and open-ended definition of multi-culturalism offers us new ways of making sense of the inter- and intra-cultural territories that constitute our presence in the world. In music, a non-binary approach to understanding the processes of cultural exchange could release multi-culturalism's productive potential as a tool of political intervention and could give fresh meaning to one's artistic practice.
To engage with Art is also to engage with territories of exchange between giver and receiver. At the heart of the exchange is an interdependency that can simultaneously explore sameness and difference - it is an active site for wonder and for passion.
In Nadine Amadio's film about Peggy Glanville-Hicks made in 1990, P.G-H: A Modern Odyssey8, one gets a very strong sense of a woman, a composer, who lived a life of passion and lived the passionate life of the artist to the full. Despite her frail health during the filming, Peggy was no ghostly presence. Peggy's legacy to us is as a model of the artist as gift-giver. As a woman she breached multiple barriers in order to practise her art. As an artist she journeyed over terrain that we call "multi-cultural". But perhaps most important of all, her example helps to open a door to understanding that the spirit of our times is inherently cross-cultural and that to be an artist is to not take anything for granted in the interior realms of meaning-making. Working against fixity and stagnation of identity in the in-between spaces of creative action, one finds an infinite momentum for creative renewal.
1 Peggy Glanville-Hicks, "Music: how it's built", Vogue, March 1 1966, p.210.
2 Sneja Gunew, "Feminism and the politics of irreducible differences: Multiculturalism/ethnicity/race" in Sneja Gunew & Anna Yeatman eds., Feminism and the Politics of Difference, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1993, p.13.
3 Lydia Liu, "The Question of meaning-Value in the Political Economy of the Sign" in Tokens of Exchange: The Problem of Translation in Global Circulations, Duke University Press, Durham & London, 1999, p.34.
4 Marie-Louise von Franz, On Divination and Synchronicity: the Psychology of Meaningful Chance, Inner City Books, Toronto, 1980, p.83.
5 Lee Ming-wei, artist's talk, Queensland Art Gallery, September,1999.
6 Trinh T. Ming-ha, When the Moon waxes Red, Routledge, New York & London, 1991, p.86.
7 Trinh T. Ming-ha, p.228.
8 P.G-H: A modern Odyssey, Juniper Films, 1990.
Other Reading: Ien Ang, Sharon Chalmers, Lisa Law & Mandy Thomas, alter/asians. Asian-Australian identities in art, media and popular culture, Pluto Press, Sydney, 2000.
Thanks to Anna Cerneaz and Marshall McGuire from the New Music Network and the Sydney Spring Festival for inviting me to speak and a very special thanks to Judith Foster from the Australian Music Centre who helped me with research materials about Peggy Glanville-Hicks.