“How you deal with materials is very important, but it’s not just what the musicians are doing, what the sound is doing; it’s also how else you can discover and what else you can gain from the music.”

Lise Morrison

Lise Morrison is a South African composer based in The Hague. Her works deal with repetition, extended form, and the effects of material and pacing change in a fragile environment of carefully exposed sounds. Her work has been performed in The Netherlands, Switzerland, South Africa, the UK, Russia, the United States, Canada and Serbia, with notable performances taking place at the Lucerne Festival, Unyazi Electronic Music Festival, Orgelpark Amsterdam and Gaudeamus Muziekweek by ensembles and soloists including the Ives Ensemble, Slagwerk Den Haag, Orkest de Ereprijs, the New European Ensemble, Ensemble Modelo62, Ensemble Mise-En and the Bozzini Quartet. Lise holds a BComm and a BMus from Stellenbosch University in South Africa and an MMus from the Royal Conservatoire of The Hague, where she studied with Calliope Tsoupaki, Huba de Graaff, Mayke Nas and Martijn Padding.

Patrick Ellis sat down with Lise to discuss her debut portrait album No Grief without Joy on Sawyer Editions, focusing on the process of selecting works for the album, South African colloquialisms, “super-instruments”, David Bowie quotations, and the nonlinearity of artistic development…

Lise Morrison, ‘The Actors’ (2023), from the album No grief without joy, released on Sawyer Editions.

Patrick/PRXLUDES: You have your debut portrait album, ‘No Grief without Joy’, out on the Texas based record label, Sawyer Editions, which focuses on five works composed between 2016 and 2019. What were your main compositional developments and discoveries during this period?

Lise Morrison: That’s a good question, because it’s not that long of a period actually. Of course — you will know as a student — so much happens, the changes are quite extreme. It feels a bit more extreme when you are in a study or university context.

The earliest piece on the album, Dololo [Nothing], was composed in the vein of what I used to do back at Stellenbosch [University], really considering the ensemble and everyone’s role [within it]. Taking turns and producing material within the ensemble as individuals. However, one of the big considerations later was what the synergy between all the players at the same time can produce. So instead of “a little bit for you, a little bit for the other instrumentalists”, you combine everything and see what else can come from it. 

I also think [there were] considerations [with] how much material I used for sure. It’s much slower changes of course, it’s typical of The Hague. -laughs- You would get a lot of similar answers from other students and composers from The Hague. But for sure, focusing on less material and developing, and having the discipline to stick to one idea.

The album focuses on these five pieces, but it wasn’t conceptualised as such; I was asked to produce this album by Sawyer Editions, but there were many pieces in consideration. A lot of pieces resonated with the label and in the end it came down to which musicians and ensembles gave consent. It is interesting because this selection happens to encapsulate these four years, which were fruitful for me as a composer it turns out.

Regarding the record label, when did you first come across them? Had you heard some of their releases prior to Kory Reeder approaching you? Or was it out of the blue?

Indeed, it was out of the blue. He contacted me and I noticed that we shared a lot of mutual contacts; I follow a lot of the people he has been working with, like the Wandelweiser collective and Another Timbre. In the end I checked out the label and they seemed great, and it was nice to make a new connection and friend in Kory and discover his work.

There was an interview you did a few years back and you mentioned Wandelweiser – and in a way, you do personally touch upon that in your own work, and it’s quite nice to have a label that has similarities or connections to those things. I guess, it makes your work feel like it can also belong within this other thing…

For sure, and as different my music could be considered to be from Kory’s or to anyone else’s in the Wandelweiser collective, it’s nice that there’s this inherent or very below the surface level connection I guess — we appreciate the same things, although it’s aesthetically quite different. 

With the Wandelweiser collective… I remember I joked about this when I just started studying [in The Netherlands]. It was the first concert that I attended in The Hague, [which] was a festival of Antoine Beuger’s music; it was extreme for me [at the time], coming from a very traditional education in Stellenbosch. But somehow it really opened up my thinking, it laid a sort of a small foundation. It is something that I very much appreciate, but I stand on the outskirts of it.

You mentioned this earlier, the five works were selected based on permission. Was there any process or weaving down after that?

Yes indeed! Most of the pieces I had on my website were from a few years ago, but let’s say there were 10 pieces on this list which he would have been happy to release, but we had to narrow it down — otherwise it would have been too much for it to make sense as an album. I made my choices based on what he would have liked, which to say, was generous of him, to consider so many of my works. So I made my choices based on that and when we compared our lists I went to the performers.

Did Kory come to you asking for a maximum duration and number of compositions? Or was it quite flexible? 

Very flexible, indeed. I think he does a lot of albums with really long form pieces, so perhaps this was something new for the label, to have five chamber music pieces with a shorter length. 

Earlier on, you mentioned that you were concerned with the different roles with which each instrument was playing in the ensemble. From listening to Dololo (Nothing), the earliest work on the disc, the core material is largely based around the mbira, and then the rest of the ensemble “locked in” and out of sync with the percussion. What was the idea behind that? And how did you come across writing that piece?

I was a student of Martijn Padding. As I started planning the piece, he said, “Why don’t you look at my piece Couple [for percussion]” — where he paired a prepared marimba and a set of gongs, to create a changed sound for the marimba, I believe to eliminate the strong sense of marimba’s equal temperament tuning.

And I kind of did the same — in the sense of combining the guitar and gongs — to alter the sound of one instrument to imitate the “clunky” sound of the mbira, while at the same time having them move along through the piece as a “super-instrument”. The piece turned out completely different from how it started, as it usually does, but I consider it to be a product of that time in my life.

The title of the piece is almost jokey, if you say “Dololo”, it’s like nothing, zip, nada, whatever… It’s kind of a colloquial South African English word. [The work] ended up being a very subdued, very delicate, very quiet piece, and if you’re South African you might not expect that from a piece called “Dololo”.. But I found that mismatch a bit interesting (and the meaning still works) and I decided to leave it that way.

Would you say that this work was a turning point to your writing during your studies in The Hague? To be the sort of spring that then led you on to what you did after [more focused and singular material music]?

In a way. That was I think the first piece of my masters, and the last piece of my masters was another pivot. So within two years a lot has happened. It was a turning point for sure, but only the beginning of the speeding up of my learning and experiences. It was a time for trying out everything. It was also my first piece working with a professional ensemble, The New European Ensemble. It was totally about delivering, preparation, the things that you have to consider and how you have to communicate in rehearsals, etc.

What was it like working with the New European Ensemble during that time? From my own experience and from other people in The Hague, they are known for being very thorough in rehearsals… 

They’re all extremely good so you have to be sure of what you are writing. As a student, you often try something and you’re not exactly sure why. So I had to be super clear with the communication — because they can absolutely do everything, but also they can bring their musicianship to it. 

I had a good experience working with them. Like with any project [at The Hague conservatory], you have a day long workshop of just trying whatever you want, then a week of rehearsals months after, once the piece is completed.So that’s the other great thing about the New European Ensemble: they are virtuoso musicians, but they know how to work with developing composers, and they are generous with their time. 

The second work, also composed in early 2016 towards the start of your masters, Study for Marimba and Thunder Sheets, was composed during a workshop week with Hugo Morales. So I take that the writing process was done in a short and intense amount of time? Was that the first time that you had written a piece of music in a short space of time with the musician in the room for the whole time? 

Yes and no. I think I’ve done projects where I had to compose something within a certain space and on the spot, but that was in a theatre context. So this would have been the first time we had made something on the spot, we put together a graphic score and eventually refined it. Essentially made in collaboration with Jonathan [Bonny]. At that point I most likely preferred to compose with pen and paper at home, writing in silence. But it was quite nice being able to do that, finding a solution in the moment.

And with the use of the thunder sheets — how did you source those things and was that something that was encouraged in the workshop?

The workshop was for both percussionists and composers, so we hung around the percussion studio for most of the time. A lot of people did much more wacky things, but many of us focused on “hacking” or extending the traditional percussion instruments like the vibraphone or the timpani, and in my case the thunder sheets. I was interested to find their resonating frequencies and I wanted to try transducers in a work since before the workshop. Perhaps a simple idea, but I immediately found these fourths between the three sheets, and they started rattling so nicely. I remember in rehearsals [it felt] incredible to be able to change the oscillator up and down in order to find the resonating frequencies, and you could build chords from it. The sheer volume of when you find that frequency is just what they can produce without touching. I kind of wanted the marimba to play a concerto (at least visually) with these three thunder sheets at the back being the orchestra accompanying. 

The characteristic of the piece is the swells from the thunder sheets, which as you mention in the programme notes, emerge at different lengths and moments. Was that a thing that was pre-planned as a system to get ideas out or was it more a trial and error over the week? Or did you have to make quick decisions on the timings?

Yes exactly, the latter. The swells, waves, instead of just a crescendo form, I thought this is a good way of interacting between me and Jonathan. It was just a practical consideration in the end. I think it also just worked the best, both of the instruments in volume and dynamics can do these swells very well, and that’s the way to follow each other. I thought if I have a week to do it, it’s a good shape for the piece.

Moving onto The Actors, which you composed towards the end of your Masters. From that same interview that you did a few years ago, you mentioned that this was a new approach at the time, when you recorded Sofie [De Klerk, accordionist] and Fede [Federico Fòrla, oboist], and then manipulated the material in Logic or another software…

The whole piece is only acousmatic. I would have loved to have done a live performance. There was a plan to do it in the pandemic, a live version with four oboes, but that got cancelled. But besides that, it was only an acousmatic piece for this concert, as they needed a piece for an installation that could be looped throughout the whole concert. Indeed, I recorded them separately and used and manipulated it into this piece, very much stretched. 

I guess I wanted something more timeless, given the nature of the installation. It was a mirror corridor in the arts building, and with outfits hanging in front of it at a certain height, so if you walk through you could become like an actor, let’s say. So I thought this piece would work well with the space that the mirrors create. I’m not sure a lot of people heard the entire piece because they moved through the space very quickly, but that was the thinking behind the piece.

Was the multi-tracking again to do with the mirrors and the costumes — was that a tie in? Doing this acousmatic layering and structuring transformed it into something else and beyond…

Yeah, to take it further than the two instruments. You almost don’t hear it as an accordion, the way I recorded it was lo-fi, so you get a lot of texture in the sound — not a clear typical accordion sound. A lot of breath, and the lower frequencies really rumble a lot. At some points it sounds like the sea. The oboe doesn’t even sound like an oboe in some places, because it’s so stretched. I must say though, Fede played it so beautifully, these very delicate swells and decrescendos. The stretches gave it more space and made it something else. 

With the editing and structuring, was there a process? Or did you consolidate the audio, going through it very thoroughly? 

What I was doing at the time was making a lot of chordal pieces — like a lot of us. -laughs- And that’s what the score was for them, to play through all of the notes. Then I could play around with it [the audio] and align it in a way so that it was staggered in a way that it created these melodies. It started out as this vertical thinking, but then I composed it horizontally. But as I mentioned, the composing part started after the recording.

Touching on the recording… What was the material that you wrote for the recordings?

Chords for five voices — and because they did it in their own time, it very easily developed from there. Because there was no time limit, as it was not going to be performed, I wanted to push myself with the duration. Listening to the recordings informed the duration and I broke free from the original duration.

Lise Morrison, ‘Mamela, Mamela, Mamela (Listen, Listen, Listen)’ (2017), performed by David Bester.

Onto Mamela, Mamela, Mamela (Listen, Listen, Listen), which was commissioned by Lieva Starker in Birmingham — how did that come about? Did you know each other prior? 

Indeed, we studied together at the same time in Stellenbosch [University] in Cape Town. She was maybe a few years younger and now I know her well. She married one of my good friends who was at Oxford at the time; so the two of them were in the UK, and she commissioned a piece. It was a nice album of South African solo violin pieces, Weerspieëlings, including a piece by Kevin Volans, and another The Hague alumnus Pierre-Henri Wicomb and so forth.

Was that piece developed again or later revisited? Because I’ve seen other soloists perform it and recorded it online…

Yes — Lieva commissioned it and first performed it, and then shortly after I had my Master’s graduation concert coming up. One of my best friends [David Bester] was studying violin at Antwerp [Conservatorium] at the time, so it was a nice idea to bring him over here [in The Hague] to perform it. Since then, he has picked up the piece and has performed it quite a bit. I am very grateful that he has played the piece so many times and has taught it to his students.

When listening to the piece, I observe that it is essentially like a series of short sentences — almost like a monologue — based on some small tributes, some small recollections and some other reflections/reiterations (and the conversations between them). Could you elaborate on that?

It starts off with sounds that come from the violin when you’re not playing those notes, that’s why it is recorded very closely, just to hear the squeaks, etc. And then eventually it breaks into this very lyrical piece, with lots of call and response, and at the end there’s even a David Bowie quote, so it is really drawing from different memories of things that I like and different quotations. 

In a way, because you are quoting from different places from different times, was it a reflective project? You were coming to the end of your Masters and in the case of Lieva, she was coming to the end of her Bachelors degree… were there thoughts of making something that encapsulates everything up to that point?

Perhaps, yes. That’s a nice way of looking at it. When I listen back to the piece, it’s as if I went back to an approach of “a little bit of this, a little bit of that” — [a] kind of “show what you can do” — which is an approach that I had been avoiding, but in the end I finally embraced…It’s always difficult to write for a solo instrument; the form of it is everything, you can’t embellish it with orchestration. So I just let these restrictions that I had put on myself go.

What was the David Bowie quote? -laughs-

It’s from Starman! It’s the melody he hums or sings towards the end of the song (from 3:16). The violinist whistles it at the end of the piece.

Onto the final and most recent piece, Five Times Recycled, which you composed at a composition course in Tchaikovsky City, Russia…

It was essentially made there. Within two weeks we were asked to compose something and work with the musicians and shape it, which I did with Ivan Bushuev. It was a very nice experience, a big part of the piece was recording the cassette tapes and altering them to create the first movement, so we worked a lot on that. The second part is this nod to [Alvin] Lucier’s I am sitting in a room in the sense that the flautist records themselves, and then records the cassette and the performance, and then it grows from there. It’s also nice with the album version of this piece, that Sara Constant has conceptualised it in her own way and made a unique version, which I love. 

In the second movement, the material almost decays with the recording where by the end it’s very lo-fi. What was the decision behind having two movements? I always find it to be an interesting and intriguing choice to make as a composer…

I’m starting to like that more and more [two movement pieces]. I think the second movement was going to be the whole piece, but maybe it’s that worry on my shoulder telling me “No! You need to compose more, you need to actually write notes on paper, not only have a situation [piece]”… I have a soft spot for combining and layering things so much that it becomes something else, and that’s what happened here.

So for the first movement, it starts as this uber classical piece and ends as a noise piece, which is maybe interesting to some. So for sure, it was the plan to have one movement, but I now like the fact that there are two and that they’re not so related. 

Do you think there’s maybe a slight reaction against the hyper-focused concentrated works that are encouraged in The Hague? 

Yeah, maybe. Because it was written as part of a course (or academy), I thought  “I want to try this way and I want to try it that way”, and the story can go two ways – I can use the cassette tapes in these two cool ways, so let me try both. I wanted to take as much as I can learn from the experience, because it was available in that context. 

You mentioned early the process, using the cassette to degrade the sound recording of the flute…

Which is different each time, because Sara’s cassette players are very distorted – very cool. There are some crazy sounds that come from them. The ones I used before were much more timid, it’s interesting how they’re really different, more so than with traditional instruments.

I guess also, each performance will be different because of the different moments that performer pushes the button, or the cassette used, the player or just the performance itself. It’s not open ended, but it’s got a lot of flexibility for nice differences.

It also depends on what gets recorded. I remember it was performed in Moscow in the Philharmonic: someone’s phone pinged because they got a message and this got recorded onto the cassette during the performance, so you heard the ping dissolving through each iteration of the recording, so that became part of the piece. 

Lise Morrison, ‘Notturno’ (2020), performed by Clara and Thomas Ferreira.

How have you developed as a composer since this set of works?

I don’t know if the growth of a composer is such a linear process. It’s hard to define or describe. I remember Martijn said that certain pennies will drop throughout your life — things I learnt or discovered as a younger composer will only become clear later on. Maybe it’s not as linear as that, but it’s a good question. (Maybe I’m just scared to answer it.)

How you deal with materials is very important, but it’s not just what the musicians are doing, what the sound is doing; it’s also how else you can discover and what else you can gain from the music. Do I want to reach people with it? Maybe not reach people as in “bring the masses to the concert hall” (but that’s also fine). But do I want people to feel something or do you want them to be challenged? I would say yes to all of the above, but maybe now I’m more considering who I am writing for and whether I am enjoying my own music. So that’s the biggest change. I am now able to admit that I didn’t like what I was making — I was only doing it out of a sort of obligation — and now I’m wanting to write music that I want to listen to. I don’t always get it right, maybe there’s a big deadline in the way, but for me that is a big consideration now. 

What artistic concerns from these pieces remain for you now? 

All of them [the pieces] really came from something asking me to write something specific, with all of these limitations to it. And I still have to weigh that up… am I composing something that I really want to do? I guess we’re both in that part of our careers, where if you want to make something happen you have to design the project yourself, do the proposal and get the funding and so forth, and then you can get to the creative part.

But what I’m taking from this time is finding solutions ‘in the moment’. Thinking about the marimba piece — it’s okay to stick to your initial instincts, to try to write something that you really enjoy at the moment. Being disciplined in what you write, be aware of the places your music can go, but try and keep it contained. I appreciate music that doesn’t change very fast now, much more than I did before. Maybe that comes from a period of a lot of change in my life. But I appreciate these pieces that keep you in one space. It doesn’t necessarily have to go anywhere. This was the stuff that I was investigating back then and that I still keep on thinking about now.

The cover of the record, you had different images that you were brainstorming, were those images taken by you?

They were taken by a good friend of mine who lives in Johannesburg, Pieter Coetzee. We’ve been friends for more than ten years. He’s a film photographer on the side, and I just approached him, because it was interesting for Kory to have this connection to a South African artist. And a lot of his work suited the visual aesthetic of the label as well.  And he was generous enough to give me a lot of photos of his for me to choose from.

And what was the final image that you decided upon for the record? 

In the end it was a window frame, from Pieter’s bedroom back in the day. I think it’s a striking image, there were many great images, but in the end we decided on that one.

And do you think it has any metaphorical links to the selection of the pieces? It’s like a gaze into a certain time…

This one for sure, I like that it has a frame — the album has a frame with a frame, like it’s something that you could look into. I don’t like [the] term “portrait album”, but I guess the cover is a window into this portrait of my work.

Lise Morrison’s debut album No grief without joy is now available on Sawyer Editions – check out the album here:

Learn more about Lise and her practice at:


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About Author

Patrick Ellis (b. 1994, London) is a composer, performer and curator based in Oxfordshire, UK, who has had his music presented across Europe, North America, Asia and Australasia.

Since February 2023, he has served as the Co-director of the online Contemporary Music Blog, Prxludes, where he contributes articles and interviews composers who have included Ivan Vukosavljević, Sylvia Lim and Lise Morrison, as well as the musical duo, Avenue Azure.

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