Reassembling the cosmos

Matthew Lorenzon: Liza Lim's opera, Tree of Codes

Tree of Codes

Tree of Codes

Tree of Codes

The word “COSMOS” is faintly visible against a curved white backdrop. The word is split, “CO” on the left-hand wall and “SMOS” on the right. You can’t read the whole word at once; from one half to the other your eyes traverse scaffolding holding a pile of green fabric like a mossy hillside, a cluster of rubber faces, double-belled brass instruments and a magnificent bird’s head mask. It is as though Tree of Codes’ composer Liza Lim and the artist Massimo Furlan have cut out the middle of the cosmos, leaving this stage of apparently unrelated images. It is the audience’s job to reassemble it.

Tree of Codes is based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s sculptural book of the same name, which was created by cutting words out of Bruno Schulz’s collection of short stories, Street of Crocodiles. Just as you can see words from multiple pages through the holes in Foer’s Tree of Codes, the overlapping images of Lim’s opera can be assembled in different orders. Faced with so much ambiguity the audience (or at least those with whom I spoke) brought to it the glue of their own personal experience. For me this was evident from the opera’s first sounds: the chirping and warbling of bellbirds and magpies. While these calls are immediately recognisable to anyone who has taken a walk in Australia’s temperate rainforests, I wondered whether the audience in Dresden’s Hellerau Festival Theatre heard the almost-electronic sounds as birds at all.

The musicians of Ensemble Musikfabrik dribble into this laboratory of the mind and don white lab coats and biohazard suits. They exchange greetings and congregate around the tables, picking up their modified instruments. Carl Rosman playing the Mutant Bird lets out uncannily avian calls on the nose-flute. Among the musicians move the principal singers Adela (Emily Hindrichs), the Son (Christian Miedl), two actors playing their doubles (Anne Delahaye and Stéphane Vecchione), the Father (Yael Rion) and an Octopus constructed from inflated black plastic bags (Diane Decker).

Tree of Codes

Tree of Codes

Tree of Codes

A primary constellation can be identified among the images: that of a son coming to terms with his father’s death. This story furnishes the opera with its denser musical textures, such as a death march played on the twisted, augmented brass instruments. But the music is in large part sparse and charged with a meditative concentration. The magnetic voices of Hindrichs and Miedl carry the exposed attention.

Despite the interest of the opera’s cut-up/assemblage form, some of its most powerful moments are those of singular focus, including when the Father dons the bird-head mask. On his shoulders the mask takes on a beady-eyed and intelligent stare. He stands downstage with his arms outstretched like skinny wings, looking decidedly like a plucked bird. At the end of the opera the Son sings a frantic solo while rattling and tooting toy instruments spread around him. “I accepted the experiment of life/ I submitted to the frenzy/ the scraping danger./ I endured the urge to joy.” I can’t think of a better description of Tree of Codes.

See Liza Lim speak about the inspiration she drew from Jonathan Safran Foer and Bruno Schulz and watch the performers in rehearsal.

Read an interview with Lim on the Australian Music Centre website.

Cologne Opera, Tree of Codes: Cut-outs in time, composer Liza Lim, Ensemble Musikfabrik, Hellerau Festival Theatre, Germany, 26 Oct

RealTime issue #136 Dec-Jan 2016

© Matthew Lorenzon; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

7 December 2016