Introduction by Roger Reynolds to the SEARCH Project.

"The endurance of uncertainty"

Liza Lim
Edited by Karen Reynolds

Copyright  © 2000 Liza Lim and the Composition Area, Department of Music
University of California, San Diego
Published by Permission

Online publishing and editing by Karen Reynolds
All Rights Reserved.

SEARCH   EVENT   I, 15 April 2000,   University of California, San Diego

The following TEXT was commissioned by the Composition Area, Department of Music, University of California, San Diego for its SEARCH initiative. The TEXT / TALK is copyrighted and appears in its original presentation here. While links TO this TEXT or recording from other sites are welcome, no part of this TEXT may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic storage or retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the copyright holders [Please contact Roger Reynolds: to facilitate this.].

When I was asked to speak about 'the musical future', I felt an enormous dizziness -- which culture's music, whose future? Which system of ordering time could I call upon to calibrate any speculations I might make? An increment of time in the Gregorian calendar has been accorded global significance as a critical moment for reflection and anticipation, even though this millennial turning does not accord with the beliefs of a good majority of the world's population. In the Jewish calendar, it is 5760, for the Muslims, 1420 and the Buddhists, 2544, just to mention some of the major world religions. The significance of the year 2000 demonstrates the immense and continued universalising influence of Western (Christian) culture. But it seems like a good moment to also remember that teleological arrangements of past, present and future along a historical continuum are only one kind of model amongst many by which one can locate human presence.

In many indigenous cultures, for instance amongst the Australian aboriginal nations, an understanding of the cyclic nature of existence prevails over a linear ordering of time. The past is a continuous presence and can be activated and shaped as readily as any event in 'the future'. Actually, when I say 'time' in relation to indigenous Australian culture, I really mean 'place'. Geographic location and a personÕs genealogical connection to a site are the factors that order Indigenous events and narratives rather than a time sequencing that can be expressed in calendar-form.¹

Another example of a non-European chronology lies in the world-view of the Indian Shaka era. Here, time is structured as successive cycles of creation, destruction and regeneration so that 'past' and 'future' theoretically meet at a 'point zero' of ultimate creative potential. According to Hindu, Buddhist and Jain thought, individual lives are subject to countless cycles of rebirth before the soul attains liberation, suggesting a model of multiple futures.²

John Hay in the introduction to a collection of essays called 'Boundaries in China', writes:

'In the Chinese tradition, for example, there were not only linear and cyclical constructions of time, but also an entire dissolution of linear time in the idea of a perfected state (fostered by utopian views), and a limited heterochronicity, in which several pasts could be contemporary with the present.'³

But at this juncture between the 20th and 21st centuries, there are many signs that the Western teleological view cultivated since the Enlightenment is less and less able to act as a matrix for our lives in an increasingly complex and fragmented world. Once upon a time, one's sense of self grew from familiar signposts -- the communal life of one's village, one's family, prescribed pathways for work, play and worship, a set of circumscribed experiences. Now it seems that we inhabit a world where the self can freely construct multiple and fluid identities; where a person can live partial or parallel histories or draw upon a number of different cultural heritages. In the Western post-industrial world, virtual reality technologies dominate the expression of every aspect of media culture (advertising, film, television, the internet), mirroring back to us a picture of ourselves as hyper-fictionalised beings.

It is perhaps a world which artists have always inhabited in some way: in-between spaces, transitory spaces with permeable borders and shifting landmarks; an imaginary landscape in which patterns of connection can over-ride any fixed immutable identity. There are important differences in intent and possibility however between a virtual reality culture that often seeks to focus energies on control, commodities and consumption and a culture of the imagination that can interrogate difference and find radical expressions of freedom in a world of increasing surveillance.

Time schemes are culturally and historically contingent. Conceptions of time arise from and reflect the psycho-social orientation and world-view of a community. And composers, as artists of time, have worked with the texture and organisational potential of the properties of time as it is reconceived in every age.

The history of the Western musical canon has seen a transition from music's structural reliance on the temporal orders of ritual, text and movement (the mass, dance forms, the narrative drama of opera) to the notion of tonality as an abstract language, itself a way of organising and qualifying large spans of time. John Cage's work is emblematic of the twentieth century's 'shift in frame' in redefining the arena of music to encompass an array of superimposed spatial and temporal orders. How does a listener hear a sound at 4'34"?

In our relativistic age, science has shown us a world that is a 'system of systems' where each system is inextricably entwined, each conditioning the others. In this network there is a convergence of infinite relationships, past and future, real or in potential, multiplying the dimensions of space and time. We also have a view of extreme subjective action where the observer and the act of cognition intervenes to modify the phenomena being observed. Scientific exactitude morphs into the structural imprecision and chaos of life.

My dizziness increased as I thought about all of this: what is it that we can offer as artists? What endures? What tools might be useful in navigating a world of ever-multiplying systems upon systems?

And so I turned to the I-Ching -- that ancient Chinese instruction manual which examines the phenomena of change -- to see what perspectives it might offer on all this. Throwing three coins six times I arrived at the hexagram Heng -- Duration. It seemed an appropriate and composerly hexagram. Duration -- a formulation of time -- a measurement of continuing action -- a measure of the action of time flowing.

Heng Ð Duration

'Duration is a state whose movement is not worn down by hindrances. It is not a state of rest, for mere standstill is regression. Duration is rather the self-contained and therefore self-renewing movement of an organised, firmly integrated whole, taking place in accordance with immutable laws and beginning anew at every ending. The end is reached by an inward movement, by inhalation, systole, contraction, and this movement turns into a new beginning, in which the movement is directed outward, in exhalation, diastole, expansion.

Thunder and wind: the image of DURATION

Thunder rolls and wind blows; both are examples of extreme mobility and so are seemingly the very opposite of duration, but the laws governing their appearance and subsidence, their coming and going, endure. In the same way the independence of the superior man is not based on rigidity and immobility of character. He always keeps abreast of the time and changes with it. What endures is the unswerving directive, the inner law of his being, which determines all his actions.'

And in the 'Appended Judgements', it reads:
'Duration shows manifold experiences without satiety.'4
The hexagram 'duration' gives us a picture of meaning sustained by a process of ceaseless transformation -- potentiality to actuality and back again. It is a picture in which the most complex of phenomena, operating with differentiation/return as one of its axes is able to maintain a dynamic stability. Thus objects and activities are transitory and inevitably decay. Yet the processes that move through those things, the energies that are expressed through them, are potentially infinite and continually find new expressions.

The commentary to the hexagram suggests to me a number of 'tools' by which one can investigate this action of time that can enfold 'manifold experiences without satiety'. The key words in the text are mobility or lack of rigidity, alertness to the conditions of the time, and the ability to respond to change guided by an inner intelligence. In the following discussion, I will give these 'tools' slightly different names: 'uncertainty', 'openness' and 'relationship'.

1. Uncertainty

The first 'tool' is what I describe as 'uncertainty' -- that which is beyond precise measurement or determination. So often, in the way our society is structured, there is the feeling that if something can't be measured, it doesnÕt exist -- there is still a reliance on mechanistic patterns in which 'reality' is only visible within a preordained system. I'm interested in the moments when the system falls down. What happens when our 'gods', that is, our inbuilt assumptions and personal myths, fail us? Uncertainty -- neither 'yes' nor 'no' -- is a difficult but incredibly creative state.

To value 'uncertainty' is to pay attention to a state of being which is precarious; a process that is often slow, groping, bewildering and which distils many nameless sensations. It involves waiting, watching and calls upon responses that are not predetermined. I believe that particularly in our technological age where systems of control and determination are so all-pervasive, one of the radical tasks for artists is to enter into a dialogue with 'not-knowing'; to make space for the unquantifiable and for things which resist systematisation.

Another way of looking at 'uncertainty' is that it is a provisional state, an in-between state, where paradox, that activated mode when dualities are transcended, can connect us to something that's alive, real and renewing. Paradox is a powerful tool for 'breaking through' blockages in thinking and feeling. Rather than fixate on something in one direction, it allows us to widen our gaze. Suddenly, what was once 'stuck' on a point of definition can be overcome by seeing the relationship between opposites.

The Chinese sage, Chuang Tzu, living in the 4th and 3rd centuries before the Christian era, wrote from this dynamic perspective. One famous story is called 'Three in the morning'.

'A monkey trainer went to his monkeys and told them:
"As regards your chestnuts: you are going to have
three measures in the morning and four in the afternoon."
At this they all became angry. So he said:
"All right, in that case I will give you four in the morning and
three in the afternoon." This time they were satisfied.'5

The monkeys had their own unknown reasons for preferring four rather than three measures of chestnuts in the morning. The trainer rather than being fixated on his arrangement was able to arrive at a solution because he could see the complementarity of the elements of the situation.

An example of a musical work which revolves around paradoxes is Helmut Oehring's 'Dokumentaroper' (1994/95). This is a 'documentary opera' written by a composer born of deaf parents whose first language was sign language. It's an opera in which there are some singers who can hear and some who canÕt and whose subject is the question: 'why people have language and interpersonal relationships at all?'. Its subtitle is 'Bitte sagen sie mir ihren namen noch einmal, ich habe ihn bei der vorstellung nicht deutlich verstanden' ['Please tell me your name again, I didn't understand your introduction clearly'].

Helmut Oehring is a composer but regards the medium of film as more important than music. He says, 'For me, seeing is more important than listening. Seeing, for me, is inseparably linked with language, discourse, communication. I think and dream in gesturesÉ I never thought of becoming a musician or composer. In the meantime writing music has become of existential importance to meÉ'6 The relationship between silence and sound springs from an unexpected context in that for Oehring, both sound and silence are always a kind of translation from a visual/spatial language.

[musical example: 'Dokumentaroper', Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin, conductor -- Roland Kluttig]

Another unexpected meeting of language-contexts is found in Bangarra music:
Since the mid-1980s, Indian-English bands have welded together the vernacular Indian pop music of Hindi film culture with rap and dance styles to create a wildly popular club music. This is a music that springs from the cultural contradictions of the youngest generation of the Indian diaspora living in England. Although they regard themselves as English, their appearance will always set them apart from the dominant culture. In a sense, Bangarra is about creating an identity for themselves on their own terms, synthesising a mosaic of cultural forms.7

[musical example: Bally Sagoo -- Chura Liya]

2. Openness

The ability to work creatively in a way that can simultaneously embrace elements from apparently opposed categories, presupposes the quality of openness -- an improviser's flexibility and alertness to the possibilities of every present moment as it arises. The improviser's art is to play with unstable, dynamic fields of information. It requires the most delicate interplay between intuition and memory, continuously adjusted along multiple lines of communication.

One interesting aspect of improvisation for me is the creative potential of 'mistakes'. By 'mistake', I mean an uncontrolled deviation from the predicted pathway. In performance, a sudden silence when two pages are turned by mistake, a slippage or memory lapse, a sound that intrudes from beyond the performance space; in composition, an unintended co-incidence of materials, the misinterpretation of an idea -- all these could potentially lead to interesting musical situations. By recasting our attitudes to 'mistakes', we can make use of the sudden energy created by a bifurcation in the pathway.

Someone who I return to again and again to learn more about the possibilities of 'going with the grain' of mistakes is the Polish writer Bruno Schultz.
Bruno Schultz's collection of fictions entitled 'The Street of Crocodiles' evoke landscapes in which the familiar takes on unfamiliar guises. Animals, furniture, the quality of light and shadow in a room, take on anthropomorphic characters; locations suddenly metamorphose, opening up into strange and extravagant other worlds. A familiar street turns into an unknown passageway, the wrong door leads to unknown rooms in one's apartment, a thirteenth month pushes its way into the calendar, one's relatives turn into electronic devices -- all these deviations from the norm spark counter-narratives which take over the story telling like creepers in a lush rainforest.

For example, in the short story 'Cinnamon Shops', a simple walk across town on a winter's night becomes a tentacular experience in which one finds oneself traversing a series of unexpected environments.

'It is exceedingly thoughtless to send a young boy out on an urgent and important errand into a night like that, because in its semi-obscurity the streets multiply, becoming confused and interchanged. There open up, deep inside a city, reflected streets, streets which are doubles, make-believe streets. One's imagination, bewitched and misled, creates illusory maps of the apparently familiar districts, maps in which streets have their proper places and usual names but are provided with new and fictitious configurations by the inexhaustible inventiveness of the night. The temptations of such winter nights begin usually with the innocent desire to take a short cut, to use a quicker but less familiar way. Attractive possibilities arise of shortening a complicated walk by taking some never used side street. But on that occasion things began differently.'8

And so on, into ever more fantastic and fluid situation...

Some music:

This is a CD called 'On second thoughts' from the Austsralian group, Machine for Making Sense. The group comprises Jim Denley (flute, saxophone, voice); Chris Mann (voice & text), Rik Rue (samples and tape manipulation), Amanda Stewart (voice & text) & Stevie Wishart (violin, hurdy-gurdy with live electronics and voice). The CD was made in 1994 and is divided into 26 sections which are designed to be shuffled when replayed (most CD players now have 'shuffle-play'). The group also improvises with both these and other randomised CD samples in concert.

Here's an improvisation/listening exercise: listen to this whilst imagining the directions in which you would take the music at any given moment. Try and keep these multiple strands of music going in your mind for as long as possible whilst still being aware and reacting to new events as they arise.

[musical example: Machine for Making Sense, track 2]

[In the meantime, twenty years have passed whilst you followed the pathways of the music being created in your mindÉ The intensity of your attention to each moment may have created a complex inner temporality where time started to deviate from a unitary structure -- standing still, contracting, then dilating, expanding, then doubling back on itself...]

Carried away by the possibilities that open out at every moment, a person, an idea, a sound finds itself in territories rich with transformative potential. A so-called 'mistake', for instance, rather than being a lonely and rejected figure, finds itself at home amongst a network of associations. If we could only shift our frames of sight, of listening, of perceiving, we might find many more turning points which open up into amazing sites of play.

3. Relationship

This last category is not so much a 'tool' as the 'animating factor' that gives meaning to the actions of the other two. 'Relationship' speaks of the act of exchange, a reciprocation of feeling, of coming into an intimate correspondence with another.

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 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.


Story 2

story 3

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 again 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. 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.9

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. Visitors were invited to take one of these so long as they left something in exchange with, again, a card with the personÕs name, profession and phone number. They were free to determine the value of the exchange. 'Some of the more unusual transactions involved a bra, an active bankcard and a note from a self-proclaimed thief, who left nothing.'10

(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 didnÕt 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 which explores the idea of 'relationship' on a person-to-person basis and also invites an imaginative collaboration with inner experience. It's informed by the energy described in the I Ching as 'duration' -- able to embrace complexity, yet also simple in its fundamental premise of communication. It renews itself at every moment.

The future?

The notion of history as progress is over. Away from the grand narrative of events threaded like beads on some master time-line, one is left with the messy forms of one's own history. From this vantage point, 'the future' is a contingent concept in fuzzy focus and beyond my speculation. The monkeys that were happy with four measures of chestnuts in the morning might or might not change their minds tomorrow. My only certitude is of the endurance of uncertainty itself and the possibilities that it offers for working with mobility, openness, alertness and inner intelligence.

But, in the present, what might we offer as artists? Hopefully, an art/ a music that one can build up a relationship with over time (another name for 'depth' perhaps); art which acts as a catalyst for experience, a catalyst for making a connection with one's inner life. The exterior form of an artwork is finite and eventually breaks down or is discarded, but the conceptual and emotional spaces it proposes as part of a set of relationships are potentially infinite and can be rediscovered again and again.

As something comes to an end, something else is just beginning...



1Mudrooroo, Us Mob; History, Culture, Struggle: An Introduction to Indigenous Australia, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1995, p. 184-6.
2Michael Brand & Gulammohammed Sheikh, 'Contemporary art in India: A multi-focal perspective' in Beyond the Future, Catalogue of the Third Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 1999.
3John Hay, ed., Boundaries in China, Reaktion Books, London, 1994, p. 4.
4Richard Wilhelm, (German transl); Cary F. Baynes (English version), I Ching or Book of Changes, Arkana, London, 1989, pp. 126-127, 546.
5 Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu, New Directions, New York, n.d., p. 44.
6from CD booklet of Helmut Oehring, Dokumentaroper, Wergo 6534-2, p. 35.
7 Conversation with Suhanya Raffel.
8Bruno Schultz, Celina Wieniewska, transl., The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, Picador, London, 1988.
9 This information is from an artist's talk given by Lee Mingwei during the conference of the Third Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Brisbane, 1999.
10Beyond the Future, Catalogue of the Third Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Arts, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 1999, p. 210.


1. Helmut Oehring, Dokumentaroper, Wergo 6534-2.
2. Bally Sagoo, 'Chura liya', from Show Us Your Hits, MAMBO03.2.
3. Machine for Making Sense, On second thoughts, Tall Poppies, TP034.