Meet Monica Lim, Master of Music (Research) in Interactive Composition student

Monica Lim. By Eamon Donelly.
Monica Lim. By Eamon Donelly.

Monica Lim’s practice investigates the composition of sound through movement. Her electromagnetic piano, created in collaboration with composer and lecturer David Shea from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and electronic engineer and computer scientist Mirza Ceyzar, was recently announced the third-place winner of the prestigious Guthman Musical Instrument Competition in The New York Times. Here, Lim discusses her ongoing research within the Master of Music (Research) in Interactive Composition.

Hi, I’m Monica, I’m a research student in Interactive Composition. I chose to specialise in Interactive Composition, which eventually presented itself as my path. I studied Arts/Law in the 1990s. I played classical piano from a very young age and wanted to continue studying music, but there wasn’t an option at that time to study music with another degree or as a breadth subject. So I went on to work as a tax consultant. It’s only been in the last eight years or so that I suddenly felt this need to compose and I was lucky enough to be in the position to step back from the business and devote a lot of time to music.

It was a surprise to be selected as a finalist in the 2021 Guthman Musical Instrument Competition and then to win third prize. The process of creating an electromagnetic piano started because David Shea, lecturer in Interactive Composition at the Melbourne Conservatorium, showed me a video of a version that had been built by someone in the UK. As a pianist, it was so interesting to consider the new sonic and technical possibilities of electromagnets. The magnets vibrate the string, allowing it to sustain indefinitely, thereby overcoming one of the biggest constraints of the piano. We wanted our own version but it wasn’t something that we could just buy off the shelf. By chance I met Mirza Ceyzar, a genius inventor who works out of his garage. So throughout the next year, we managed to rethink the design so that the electromagnets could be run off a single controller unit, eliminating the need for complicated set-ups and allowing it to be easily transportable and modular. We got some funding from the APRA Amcos Art Music Fund and built the first prototype.

Although I’m a composer, I’ve never felt fully satisfied working purely with sound. Perhaps it’s a synaesthetic thing but I’ve always seen colour with pitches, so I need something visual as well. Most of my work is collaborative, working with film directors, artists or dancers. I’ve worked quite a lot with Indonesian artists, partly because of my cultural background but also because I have a real affinity with the energy of the artists there.

There have been a few pieces of advice that that have really stuck with me throughout my career. First was my late mother-in-law’s philosophy: if you do not improve you are actually going backwards because everyone else is going forwards. She was a very astute businesswoman and I think that philosophy is applicable to any type of learning. Particularly at my age, I find that people can get stuck in a comfort zone and not take risks; as an artist I think that can be a dangerous thing.

Another great piece of advice was from a fellow artist who told me that everything becomes comedy in the end. Basically, even if it seems like the biggest problem in the world right now, you’ll laugh about it given enough time.

There are so many amazing things people are doing with technology, knowledge, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and new instruments fuelling creativity. There are so many things that used to be only possible with expensive equipment or specialists that are now easily accessible to anyone with access to internet. For me, the most exciting thing about this field is the breaking down of these separate fields of knowledge in programming, VR, sound, visuals, production, distribution. I am excited about the level of sharing and the openness of artists to let others have access to their knowledge. If I ever need affirmation about the human spirit, I go to GitHub.

Most of my works have been collaborations. For White Night festival in Melbourne, I collaborated with two other Interactive Composition students, Jack Burton and Patrick Telfer, and lighting designer Josh McAuliffe on Synapse. We recreated a model of synapses in the brain with three kilometres of electroluminescent wire and EEG sonification. It was an ambitious work, and every time we hit a problem, we just tried to solve it, or ask someone for help.

It has been the same process for a new work with Arts House in Melbourne and for the Guthman Musical Instrument Competition. For the Arts House project I am working with two choreographers – Melanie Lane from Melbourne and Rianto from Indonesia. It sprung from a film that I made with Indonesian director Garin Nugroho called Jagad (Universe). We are also working with live cameras so there are video and projection specialists involved. The work is in development and will hopefully be presented early next year.

I am working with Arts Centre Melbourne on a project for the next AsiaTOPA. It’s a collaboration with Melbourne percussive artist Matthias Schack-Arnott, Garin Nugroho and Rianto. It is centred on the sacred Javanese Bedhaya dance, but with a contemporary treatment. I’m really excited about this one because there is so much history and significance with this dance. It used to only be performed at the king’s coronation and has mystical origins.

I worked on a collaboration with cognitive neuroscientists here at the University. The former, late, Head of VCA Art Kate Daw introduced me and Head of VCA Dance Carol Brown to Marta Garrido from the Cognitive Neuroscience Lab. Marta has a keen interest in dance and Carol, like me, is really interested in interactive technology. Marta does research on cognition, particularly looking at neurodiverse cognition with Autism Spectrum Disorder and schizophrenia using tools such as EEG and functional MRI (fMRI).

We were interested in how scientific research could inform the artistic process and how a creative output could also provide a different pathway for others to approach the science. We decided to work with motion sensors on the dancers to control the sound, creating a feedback loop of movement-sound-movement. We are working towards a public workshop at the new Science Gallery Melbourne later this year where we will present a performance of the work and have an opportunity for the audience to ask questions and try out the sensors.

I create using gesture-led composition. I use movement to create and control sound. So I’m composing sounds, but through the medium of movement. This can be intentional human movement, for example by working with motion sensors on dancers, or it can be movement with no intention, such as a kinetic sculpture moving with the wind. In a recent work that I did for Ensemble Offspring, the composition was generated in real-time by balls bouncing off shapes and triggering notes that had to be performed by live performers.

I’m interested in this because I like the idea of compositions that are not static, that change every time they are performed. I also like the idea of relinquishing control to something else, whether it is another human collaborator or natural forces. The unexpected happens, and those moments can be incredible. I suppose I am aware of the limitations of my own imagination and use these interactive technologies to go beyond my limitations.