In Conversation with Nicole Lizée

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Called a “brilliant musical scientist” and lauded for “creating a stir with listeners for her breathless imagination”, award-winning composer and video artist Nicole Lizée joins Spitalfields Music on Wednesday 5 December at Trinity Buoy Wharf. The Riot Ensemble perform the UK premiere of her Black Midi for chamber ensemble in a concert showcasing some of Canada’s most cutting-edge composers.

What was your inspiration for creating your piece Black Midi, and where do you find inspiration as a composer?
I find inspiration from a number of places, many of which are extramusical. I’ve written a piece devoted to the iconic image of the ‘brain in a jar’ associated with laboratories and mad scientists in sci-fi movies. I’ve written pieces inspired by the pioneers of stop motion – an imagining of what the early incarnations of stop motion might sound like. I’m inspired by rave culture, glitch and malfunction, obsolete analogue technology, and even camera lenses. I wrote a piece dedicated to the Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 lens that Kubrick used in his famous candlelit scene in Barry Lyndon, sonically interpreting what that lens could sound like. In Black MIDI, Lynch, and Black Mirror were an inspiration in terms of the approach to film style and narrative. I wanted to fabricate a world from a very limited reference point – that needs the live ensemble to bring it to life. I wanted to build on the iconography of Black MIDI – its appearance and the way it sounds are idiosyncratic – but while the live ensemble does acoustically emulate ‘thousands of notes and systems crashing’ at certain points – it’s just the starting point, and the interest lies in making up the rest.

Although originally commissioned for a symphony orchestra, how will it being performed by a smaller ensemble differ in sound/experience?
Re-orchestrating my existing pieces is something I enjoy doing – it’s a further form of experimentation – a kind of circuit bending of a score to see what else can happen. A smaller ensemble means finding different ways of producing sound to meld with the soundtrack. Rather than relying on an entire string section to add weight to a theme I look to combinations of players – or think of each instrument as one ‘section’ – and limitless in its capacity to produce unexpected colours and expressions.

What are your thoughts on the way that space affects music; as the piece is going to be performed in an extremely unique East London venue – London’s only Lighthouse – how do you feel this might affect the music, or what excites and interests you about this?
I love that the piece will be performed in this lighthouse. I’ve seen photos of the venue online and I’ve read some of the history. This strikes me right away as something filmic and adds to the mysticism and drama of the work. I do like working within the concert hall context and finding ways to transform it. But alternate venues, particularly ones with non-musical connotations, bring a different energy and perspective. There are no musical preconceived notions like there can be in a concert hall. There was no way this lighthouse was ever intended to host a music concert and it’s always exciting when objects, locations, etc. are used in different ways other than those for which they were originally intended.

Listen to the UK premiere of Black Midi on 5 December at Trinity Buoy Wharf at our event Heart and Breath as part of the Spitalfields Music Festival.