Library Residency // The Sound World of Nicole Lizée

June 20, 2018

By Lisa Conway

I heard of Nicole Lizée and her work long before I actually heard her work - friends who composed contemporary or experimental music kept telling me I’d be excited about it. There was mention of all sorts of electronics, Ataris, glitch, turntables, orchestras, omnichords, films, even karaoke, but I didn’t fully comprehend the rigorousness of her craftsmanship, or the singularity of her voice until I started preparing for this piece of writing.

My Nicole Lizée journey began with This Will Not Be Televised - a piece for 7 players (chamber ensemble) and turntables, and also the current title of her website. TWNBT was commissioned by the CBC, and chosen to be part of the 2008 UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers’ Top 10 Works. It is also the title of a physical collection of works - a CD released by the Canadian Music Centre’s Centrediscs label, featuring longtime collaborator DJ P-Love. Devotees might be aware that P-Love is a DJ and producer who has worked with Kid Koala, among others.

It is hard to fully grasp just how remarkable Lizée’s work is until one dives into her scores - meticulously extensive and precise, and complete with technical performance notes and instructions. On TWNBT, it is suggested that the strings are amplified (miked) in order to achieve an ideal blend with the turntables, and the amount of monitors required are specified.

Lizée always includes a list of required records, sides, and cues for the turntablist - this particular piece includes an eclectic catalog of gems from the likes of Kenny Loggins, the Wu-Tang Clan, Van Halen, Kate Bush, The Sound of Music Soundtrack, Duran Duran, and Heart, as well as a Stereo Test Record (specifically “sine wave in A”). Even the cover art of each album, a stage plot specifying the seating arrangement of the performers, and the placement / location of each speaker and monitor are included.

An excerpt from the score for TWNBT featuring the DJ part and the indication to cue/play Duran Duran. Copyright Nicole Lizée.

TWNBT kicks off with a warbly glitch, developing into a buzzing of tense fast-moving strings as snippets of garbled recordings move forwards and backwards, appear and disappear. It’s calm and confident in a world of its own, yet often disorienting. Sometimes there’s even a groove, though never for long.

After living in this work’s somewhat surreal universe, it seems fitting that Lizée has dedicated a whole piece to David Lynch - aptly titled David Lynch Études. Filmmakers in general have importance in and influence Lizée’s work - she’s also composed Hitchcock, Kubrick and Tarantino Études. As if to further cement this link, in 2016 Lizée was selected to be mentored by Howard Shore as part of the 2016 Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards.

The DL Études, much like Lynch’s films, are strange and slightly unnerving, yet charming, somewhat nostalgic, and often even funny—graphically, the score features the adjacent illustration as an homage to Twin Peaks. Opening with a scene from Wild At Heart - starring a young Laura Dern and a suave Nicolas Cage - the piece builds on a loop of Dern’s frantic feet stomping on a mattress before moving to a wacky disintegrating show tune-like number by Ray Wise. That ditty is followed by the crooning of Nicolas Cage (serenading his love via Elvis ballad at a rock show), which evolves into to the desperate shudders of Naomi Watts. My favourite moment happens about 13 minutes in, where Lizée expands and develops Robert Blake’s cackling stutter into an almost groovy ostinato.

David Lynch Etudes by Nicole Lizée, performed by Eve Egoyan from David Rokeby on Vimeo.

As per usual, the score is extremely detailed and exact, including lines and visual cues from the film to ensure the player is accurately in sync with the visual, as well as technical suggestions and routing information.

A glimpse of the tech rider for the David Lynch Études providing specific details for staging and projections. Copyright Nicole Lizée.

Some notation from the David Lynch Études featuring the introduction of the foot stomp rhythm, copyright Nicole Lizée.

Despite my longtime fandom of David Lynch (I even own a set of Twin Peaks trading cards), the piece that I keep returning to is Bookburners, a stunner of a work for cello and turntable.

I’m sure you’ve already guessed that the score for this is as methodical and careful as ever, and it most certainly is - listing the required inputs and outputs, the exact monitor configuration that is ideal for the cellist, notes about reverb and reverb levels, the brand and model of recommended delay pedal, and proposed techniques for the turntablist, such as “push on record to create rapid vibrato” and suggestions on blending for the cellist - “harmonics should blend with sample: floating, hovering”.

An excerpt from Bookburners. The wavering line on top of the cello stave indicates the use of delay. Copyright Nicole Lizée.

An excerpt from Bookburners with the signature flare featured in the turntable part. Copyright Nicole Lizée.

Perhaps Bookburners moves me so much because I have a familiarity and relationship with the samples - snippets of cowboy yodeler Slim Whitman, and spaghetti western legend Ennio Morricone - though I don’t think that is the case. The recordings are manipulated to fully reside in Lizée’s world and become one with the cello, resulting in a truly sublime and singular blend. It’s magic.

I also recommend incorporating this piece of music into your life.

Lisa Conway is one of the 2018 CMC Library Artists in Residence and will be contributing a series of blogs profiling works by Canadian composers. Visit the community page on the CMC website regularly for new content.