“In some of my pieces, I feel like there are lots of sounds that have emerged just from interacting with the physicality of the instrument, that I would never have found or noticed if I hadn’t sat down and just played around with things.”Sylvia Lim
Sylvia Lim (b. 1992) is a composer based in the UK. Her works are intimate, exploring a small amount of material in depth; she is interested in the materiality of sound, notions of close listening, perception, rawness and instability. Recent commissions include music for Ars Nova Ensemble Instrumental + Riot Ensemble, EXAUDI, The Hermes Experiment, and Prague Quiet Music Collective, among others; Sylvia was on the LPO Young Composers Programme and Psappha’s Composing For Piano scheme of 2019/20, the Royal Philharmonic Society Composers Programme as a Rosie Johnson/Wigmore Hall Apprentice Composer in 2020/21, and orkest de ereprijs’ 28th Young Composers Meeting 2022. Sylvia currently teaches at The Purcell School and Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she completed her PhD ‘Exploring organic decay through sound’.
Patrick Ellis caught up with Sylvia, discussing unstable sounds, the physicality of instruments, creating extended techniques through play, communal listening, making fewer decisions, and more…
Patrick/PRXLUDES: What are your earliest memories of music?
Sylvia Lim: I think it was listening to 90s pop bands like the Backstreet Boys, but also classical pop – Josh Groban, Charlotte Church – that was what I listened to growing up, because that was what my family were listening to. I remember my parents would put music on when we were about to go to bed. I think music was in our house quite a bit and I used to play the piano, but I think I got more interested in music through school ensembles and through friends making music as well.
And how did you get into composition? Was there a particular moment that sparked curiosity to write music? And further down the line, what was the moment that made you commit to studying it in higher education?
I think my dream as a child was actually to be a singer. I have a really terrible voice, so that would never have happened. But I just liked the idea of sharing music with people, so I tried to write my own little songs, but then in school I think I really just enjoyed composing for coursework. And then I had the chance to write a musical with my friends, so we did that. I thought initially I wanted to study composition in higher education because I wanted to get better at writing musicals. But then I encountered lots of different things at Guildhall while I was studying there and that led me into a different direction.
What drew you to Guildhall, London and the UK as a whole at the time?
For me, the drama department at Guildhall was a big factor, and just the chance to collaborate with people from other disciplines. London has an active music scene and there’s lots of people travelling in and out. Where I’m from, Australia, it’s a long way away [from other places], so I guess I just wanted to see what it would be like living in London and being exposed to lots of different things.
Did the West End play a part in the move as well?
Yes it did. -laughs-
You stayed at Guildhall during the whole duration of your studies – what made you stay there from undergraduate through to PhD level?
I think for me, even though I was at Guildhall for nine years, I had lots of different teachers, so it still feels like it was quite a varied time with lots of different perspectives. I feel like I was learning something new each year and it’s such a supportive community at Guildhall. I appreciated the continuity and the fact that there were people who knew me and my music well, therefore the feedback that I got from them I could trust as coming from an informed view of my context. I felt very comfortable there, but I could be pushed and challenged in good ways. I think that’s why I stayed, and there’s a really nice energy there, this willingness to try things out and see what happens.
I’m really glad to have studied with Paul Newland. I think there [were] a lot of things in my practice that I was trying to work out and didn’t know what to do about. He pointed out so many helpful things. For instance, in my undergrad, I just took ages to write anything. I was overthinking things, and thought that thinking about composing was composing… -laughs- I would turn up to lessons with no material to show my teachers. Paul was helpful in providing strategies to compose more quickly, and to help me engage with sound directly in my compositional process – and that was more exciting for me, being able to compose something that was more immediate and tangible.
The key thing here is that my music is often timbral, and I’m interested in finding sounds that are quite unstable. For me it was really hard to imagine what they would sound like, and that was why I was composing so slowly. My brain couldn’t cope with making decisions about sounds that I couldn’t quite imagine in the first place. So switching from that to meeting up with players, recording them, layering them on Logic [Pro] – that was a helpful shift for me.
You said Paul Newland talked about some ways to get you writing. What kind of methods were those, what’s an example of a method he suggested?
He helped me try more playful techniques, where I didn’t have to decide every single pitch or rhythm moment by moment. I think [I] looked at some Birtwistle and his rhythmic techniques, also playing with numbers or creating a rhythmic gamut, where I could just work with a more limited number of decisions, where the music would almost write itself. I think that was what I was doing in my Master’s. But I think for my doctorate I moved away from that as well. I wanted to make fewer and fewer decisions, and so my more recent music is about perceiving what is already there and framing it, rather than creating something from scratch and making all of those decisions about duration, pitch, etc.
When listening to a lot of your music it has a lot of timbral detail. Was this from working in close collaboration with other performers? Would you have active collaborations with the performers you would work with? Was there workshopping over a period of time?
As part of the course at Guildhall there was workshop time anyway, but what changed was that I decided to be more proactive in involving the performer earlier on in the creative process. I thought it was really exciting that they brought so much knowledge with them about their instrument, because we found things together in the space that was definitely new to me, but also sometimes seemed to be new to the performers. And that felt like a nice exchange in our meeting, that we could both take away something from it.
A turning point for me was when I had to write this chamber orchestra piece called Reframe, which was for around 20 people. I found that really stressful, because I couldn’t work out how to manage such a large group of people when composing. So I thought, “I need to break it down”, so that I can hear the individual parts and make something out of that; so I tried to meet up with most musicians before the workshop and spent an hour with each one. I gave them a list of sounds to try and we would go through them, and I would record all of those sounds. And then I would come home and compile them, layer them on Logic just to work out what the possibilities were and what sounds I wanted to focus on or discard.
Another part of that, actually, is I started improvising on instruments myself. In my undergraduate it was more harmonies and melodies that I would improvise around, but then I shifted towards using extended techniques and approaching an instrument in a more carefree way, being curious about what sounds could happen. It didn’t matter so much if I couldn’t play it properly, I was just trying to make sounds that I enjoyed and following what was intriguing to me. I think that aspect of it has definitely followed through in some of my most recent pieces, and that’s branched out. Before I would just improvise on the piano as that’s my instrument, but now I’m happy improvising on the cello or the violin. I can’t make polished sounds, but I can make the sounds that I’m interested in and that’s okay for me.
I guess also having a go with the instruments yourself, you can feel the physicality of it, and that as a composer would give you an understanding of how it works, but also as you said find sounds and different possibilities to, say, if you were at the piano playing a melody.
That’s it, it’s about the physicality of the instrument. I know there are lots of composers who create such beautiful music without having to improvise on the instrument or anything like that, and I think that is wonderful. But for me and the kind of music I write, without fumbling around on the instrument, the options for what the instrument can do seem very abstract to me. It’s hard to compose that way for me. In some of my pieces, I feel like there are lots of sounds that have emerged just from interacting with the physicality of the instrument, that I would never have found or noticed if I hadn’t sat down and just played around with things.
I notice that a lot with string instruments. For instance in Pulsations, the violin is prepared with a bit of cork wedged between some of the strings. I’ve asked the violinist to bow the cork, but then I noticed that it is really close to the strings, so you can layer both the bowing of the cork with some of the overtones from the strings. You kind of need to see it to know that the option of bowing the strings is possible at the same time.
Having those workshops and seeing the physicality, as you said, leads to possibilities that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. It involves the performer in the creative process as well, it makes it more of a rewarding experience, from composer to performer, to commissioner, etc.
I think there is a challenge with improvising on your own instrument, particularly with these unstable sounds and extended techniques. Of course, they vary depending on the instrument and performer. One of the exciting things is transforming sounds I’ve found on my own instrument to a sound that works for another performer on their instrument; sometimes that can be tricky, but sometimes that can lead to new sounds as well, and that is really nice when that happens.
With flicker and flare, both for piano and composed in 2020 and 2021…flicker was written for Benjamin Powell for Psappha’s Composing For… scheme – from my memory Ben was very receptive and collaborative, and was willing to try anything. I remember from the introduction session they said that there is no stupid question. So for that scheme how did that piece [flicker] develop and what was it like working with Benjamin?
It was really exciting working with Benjamin, he was very open with trying things out. I came to him with this technique of doing a tremolo with a harmonic glissando on the [piano] strings, and we just tried it in lots of different registers and at different speeds. I noticed that sometimes he would let one of the notes sound as a normal note instead of a harmonic. I think he did it by accident, but I loved it, and so I wrote that into the score. There were lots of these moments which weren’t planned but that were really exciting to me, so then we tried to unpack those a bit more. We just tried lots of different versions, and then ordered them in a way that made sense to me.
How was it to transform this cell of ideas with those “accidents” into a complete piece? What were challenges with structuring the material and fleshing the idea out?
One of the challenges was that there was not much material, it was only this tremolo of harmonics which were on two pitches. I think one thing I found hard about that was how to make the piece feel focused, but not boring – making sure that there is always something the listener can latch onto that is slightly different and reframes the same material in a different way; focusing on specific partials versus letting it vary a bit more, or changing the speeds so that we hear the individual harmonics more clearly. Those are very subtle shifts, but they do make a big difference in the way that we perceive the material.
I think one challenge was making it flow in a way that wasn’t clunky, because I think when I’m working with variations of the same sound it can be very block-like and it can sometimes feel like an exercise if I’m not careful. For this particular piece, I wanted to make it feel more organic and in flux, with things moving gradually from one thing to another.
Onto flare – in the programme note you say that it is based around flicker. With Ben Smith, what was it like working with him? Was it written in the lockdown and was it a different type of collaboration?
I think he emailed me to ask if I would write him a piece because we have similar interests in phenomenology. When I was working with Benjamin Powell on flicker, we happened to try the material out on these particular low pitches. I thought there was more to explore, so why not use this opportunity with Ben Smith to explore that register? So that’s how we got the starting point for flare.
It was over lockdown, which meant that we did all of our collaboration over zoom, which actually worked surprisingly well. We sent recordings back and forth, and had live zoom sessions. I didn’t actually get to hear the piece played live until the second time Ben played it. So the first time he recorded it for Durham University’s MUSICON concert which was online, and then the second time it was live at Guildhall.
What was it like listening to something that was made over the lockdown for the first time?
I was sitting quite far back and it does sound different because of the size of the room. I think the recording makes it feel more intimate and you can really hear the details in a very close way. When it’s played live in a larger space, we hear all of those different partials interacting and blending a bit more before it reaches our ears, so I think it definitely felt different.
To go back to the collaboration process, do you have a piano at home or were you relying on recordings from Ben?
I have an upright at home, but it could only get me so far. I could not access a grand piano so I sent Ben notated fragments and quite specific things for him to record. I also used pianoharmonics.com – a map of piano harmonics – which I relied heavily on to show me where the harmonics were located on the strings. I had a lot of discussions with Ben on what was possible; whether things would work physically – if it was too far for him to reach.
Was there any technique that you found on your upright piano that went into the final version of the piece?
I don’t think so in this instance, but there was a particular sound that I had recorded from Benjamin Powell for flicker – there were certain harmonics that were coming out, but I didn’t know how to recreate them. So I sent Ben Smith a list of things, hoping that we would find it, and then when we did, I was like, “That’s it! We need to notate that and capture it.” But then there was something else that Ben Smith did – I think he was just working through the list – but there was this gesture he played that I hadn’t intended, a way of moving away from the sound, and I loved it so that went into the piece too.
In the same year that you wrote flare, you worked with the Miyabi Duo (Hugh Millington and Saki Kato) to compose a work for guitar duo titled same but different – and one of the core features of the work is that you have one of the guitars prepared and then in the second movement one of the guitarists uses their voice. Were these ideas that came from the workshops or was this an idea you had going into the collaboration process?
I had access to a guitar, and I was just fiddling around with that by myself. I made recordings and sent them to the Miyabi Duo to check if it would sound similar on their instruments, because I wasn’t sure with the preparations. It was also the first time I had written for guitar in such a focused way. They were very responsive and quick with their replies, there was a lot of me sending recordings and them sending some back on their instruments just to check.
How did you come to use the cotton bud with the paper handles?
I was really inspired by Tobias Klich’s grüntrübe Ritornelle beim Verlassen des Territoriums. He prepares the guitar with two spoons. I was really intrigued by the sound and how it divides the guitar up into separate collections of pitches, on either side of the preparations.
I tried a lot of different preparations on my guitar, but the cotton bud seemed most attractive to me because it creates this gong-like sound. It is also easily accessible and light. Most crucially, I don’t know how to play the guitar – so I was trying to find ways to create sounds I was interested in, that wouldn’t require me to have proper guitar technique to play them. So I think that’s why I went to preparations, because it slightly evens out the playing field in a kind of weird way. Obviously I respect all of the skills that instrumentalists work on and hone over many, many years, but the preparations just gave me a bit more confidence to approach the guitar and to try different things to find sounds that I liked.
It is in two movements and with the affiliation with movements you typically have an odd, rounded number. What was the reasoning behind having a two movement work?
So the first material I had for the piece was the start of the second movement – ‘lullaby for the end/beginning’. But that material seemed like it wanted to come away from something else that was a bit more active. So I knew it needed to go a bit later on in the piece, and had been told that the work needed to be ten minutes long. I worked on this “lullaby” first and then had to go back and work out what active material could fit with the first movement, whilst still connecting it to the second. So trying to work backwards. I was driven by a musical challenge that needed a musical solution.
A problem with working that way though is that it’s hard to then make the first movement not feel functional. Looking back on the piece, I still feel that the second movement is my favourite. What I appreciated about it was the sparseness of it and the singing. Maybe in my compositional journey, I wouldn’t have thought that I would have [written] a lullaby – that seems quite surprising to me – but it’s what came out through the interaction with the guitar. I think it’s because I could only go between two notes at a time, going back and forth, so it came out of that – being simple and practical out of my own limited playing.
It’s nice that it stemmed from you playing, working in that way is very personal.
I think that the compositional process for this was purely musical, however there was a lot of stuff going on in my personal life at the time. And so, I think the intimacy of that and the fragility was a big factor in what came out. There was also an artwork by Liang Shaoji called Bed/Nature Series No. 10 (1993). It’s something I come back to often, actually, for various pieces. It’s a collection of miniature beds made out of copper and wrapped in silk by silk worms. There was something incredibly delicate about it which I was drawing on for this piece.
The idea of something soothing that you would sing to a person who is incredibly vulnerable, and for me at the time, my Uncle was going through a really rough patch and his health was deteriorating. So for me the lullaby was connected with the end of life, and the beginning of life beyond that. That kind of informed the piece. Even though it wasn’t something I decided to write about, it came through in the end.
The final piece that you’ve sent a score over to me was Overlapping Transformations, commissioned by the Prague Quiet Music Collective. First of all, how did that come about?
So, Ian Mikyska who directs the ensemble, I went to Guildhall with him and we shared quite similar aesthetic interests. For instance, at the time, I was interested in disintegration and then eventually did a doctorate in decay, and at a similar time he was also writing about the aesthetics of impermanence; so we had talked about these things before. That was a couple of years back. So it was a really nice surprise to then be contacted by him to write a piece for his ensemble. Because of that shared context, I knew that I could trust the players more and to leave more of the shaping of the piece to them. I’ve given each player a map with specific things that they can explore, like changing the speed of a multiphonic trill, getting rid of some pitches, maybe only exploring the bass notes. I think this is perhaps one of the most open-ended pieces that I have written. I’m glad that I took that risk with them.
Was the fact that you knew him prior to that fact that you could take that risk?
I think so, but also because Ian is an incredible composer and a very attentive performer. I hadn’t met the other players, but I did listen to a lot of recordings. The ensemble has quite a clear statement on what they see their strengths as being and I felt like it would be a good match. I think that’s why I felt comfortable handing more of the decisions to them.
In your programme note, you explain that you wanted the performers to have freedom where it would shift and change in the piece. How did you find it navigating something so timbrally detailed in something that was so open ended?
I think it was hard, especially for the electric guitar part, because it was very timbrally specific and that came out of my own improvisations with my own electric guitar. With these things it’s hard to write down the instructions in a way that looks good on the page. [Sometimes to be clear to the performers] it can seem wordy and [a] bit dense, and the crucial thing with this piece was that Ian wanted to display the scores alongside recordings of the piece in an exhibition and so I was very aware of the importance of the notation reflecting the sound – so that was difficult.
[Another challenge was] also how to describe things. In recent pieces, I’ve made little recordings of me on my instrument where possible and I’ve embedded those videos into my scores, so that the performer can have a look. But with the score in an exhibition it’s hard to convey that on the page. I’m sure it would have been fine to display the video alongside that, but I actually wanted to make it all work on the page, so I had to take a picture, but even then the picture didn’t look super clear. -laughs- We just had to discuss things as well; we sent messages to each other just to clarify things. I feel like sometimes with extended techniques, it’s okay to talk with the performers as it’s a form of communication that is available to us.
Because the scores were on display for the people to see, was there a concern to get everything clear for the performers, but also for the audience to understand and appreciate the look of it? Was there an element to get the score to look aesthetically pleasing in a visual way as well?
I would say that primarily this score is still functional – its function is still more important to me than how it looks. I would love to explore notation, making it beautiful for its own sake. I don’t think I’ve done that yet, and would love to explore that, but I think that in this piece it didn’t quite reach that. As we were talking about earlier, I haven’t figured out a way to explore timbre in a detailed way while having a clean, beautiful score.
This was for a project where each of the composers that they approached had to create a work that was inspired by an artwork on display at the Prague City Gallery, and you were assigned Aleksandra Vajd’s ‘The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations’. What kind of elements from the artwork directly inspired you for Overlapping Transformations?
So, it’s two lines moving diagonally and changing colour halfway. I really liked this idea of things in flux and things that are transforming. So in my piece, I wanted to explore the boundaries of when one sound changes into another.
Because it was all about transformation and transitions, I was curious about what the ensemble would do if those decisions were not fixed by me – because it relies so much on what happens in the moment, and the performers’ own listening and curiosity of what they are doing and what is happening around them. So I wanted to leave that up to them. Even though there was a really specific atmosphere I wanted and a specific set of materials, I also wanted to move out of the way a bit more, so that there was more room for the performers to relate to their material and to find their own connections with it.
I think that’s something that’s become more important to me. Even with flare, with Ben Smith, there are passages where it is up to him to find his own journey within constraints, but I wanted him to listen really carefully to the harmonics he was producing and to find sounds that he enjoyed. I liked how in a performance situation, I am hearing that for the first time, along with the audience and maybe in some cases with the performer. I like this communal listening where we are discovering something together.
Have these recent pieces that we’ve discussed formed the basis of what you are doing now?
Yes – I would like to work out how to hand over more space to the performers to listen and to know their materials, and to find new things about them that I wouldn’t have planned or imagined. So I’m working with a cellist called Natasha Zielazinski, who I’ve worked with before on a piece called remnants, but we’re currently working on a prepared solo cello piece with cotton bud.
I’m also working with a Melbourne-based ensemble called Rubiks Collective on a multidisciplinary work about the strange beauty of secluded environments and that is exciting because there’s an opportunity to write for ondomo, which is a portable/mini ondes martenot. I don’t really know what I am doing, having never written for this instrument before, so it is a very steep learning curve, but I am enjoying it.
Is that collaboration being done over zoom because of the time difference?
We’re still quite early on in the process. We had our first workshop the other day, but actually I was there in Australia on holiday to see my family anyway and that just worked out really well. That was great because we had a four hour workshop, and that’s just so rare. They’re really open to having more workshops too, so I’m just so grateful for the importance they place on workshopping things and having flexibility with their composers.
Learn more about Sylvia and her practice at:
- Tobias Klich, grüntrübe Ritornelle beim Verlassen des Territoriums (Murky green ritornellos when leaving the territory) (2012)
- Liang Shaoji, Natural Series No. 10/Bed (1993)
- Five Uncertain Situations, Prague City Gallery (2022)