It All Began with a Toy Piano: An Interview with Elizabeth Lim

David Johnston

2012 Composer-in-Residence Elizabeth Lim


We continue our 2012-13 Composer-in-Residence e-chats with Elizabeth Lim. Elizabeth talks about how her musical journey began with a Christmas present, her compositional inspirations and challenges, choral writing and upcoming projects.


It seems your musical training began at an early age. Could you provide us with a brief musical bio?

So when I was three or four, I received a toy piano for Christmas. It had probably two and a half octaves in total, but the volume could be turned way up. I guess I made too much noise with it because my parents decided to enroll me in piano class so I could actually play real music. I loved learning to play the piano, but like most kids I hated practicing. I’d spend more time fooling around on the keyboard than learning my scales and Handel exercises…and after I could read music, I started writing notes down onto paper. My handwriting was really horrible, so I’m thankful my piano teacher saw some potential in it and decided to give me composition lessons.

You compose for a wide range of instruments, ensembles and orchestras, in addition to film and voice. Is there a common approach in composing these various works?

Yes, there is – I try to think of drama in all my works. It’s not always easy, and some pieces are more successful than others, but I guess I’m a little traditional when I say I tend to write with a narrative in mind, even if it’s really abstract. By narrative I mean that I love working with themes and melodies – I try to have a recurring theme in every piece I write, no matter what the medium. Still, my instrumental concert music tends to focus more on structure rather than themes. The challenge of not having a film or text is that the composer has too much freedom. So I’ve really started outlining my pieces more, so I can deal with the bigger picture. When I work with text or film, the challenge is different. I think about the best ways to highlight the words or characters while also adding something of my own.

You’ve already amassed an impressive catalog of works. What keeps you motivated and inspired? Do you have to keep a rigorous schedule?

Like anyone, I have good days and bad days. A deadline helps keep me on track, but I try to keep a list of projects and give myself “fake” deadlines. For me the hardest place to be is always right after I finish a piece. It’s somewhere between the euphoria of being done and the dread of having to start from scratch all over again. Starting a new piece is tough, so that’s why I try to keep a list of things to do. It makes it easier if there’s a plan!

You studied with noted composers both at Harvard and Juilliard. How did they shape your musical growth?

At Harvard I studied with a different professor every year, so I really tried to absorb their different backgrounds and experiment with my own style. I really got my foundation as a composer and worked on technique. Whereas at Juilliard, my teachers have made me stand back from all the details and look at the big picture, like structure and form.

You’ve recently been focusing on writing choral music. What is it about choral writing that you’re particularly drawn to?

I play the piano, so growing up I didn’t really have experience playing in an orchestra or band. Instead, I sang in choirs, so choral music has always been close to my heart. I also love working with text because it allows for much musical imagery and narrative. Having text as a construct also forces a composer to be creative in his or her own way because the text can really be limiting or liberating, depending on how you approach it.

You plan to compose several choral works for your Residency at Bloomingdale School of Music. Could you describe your project in a little bit more detail?

I have a commission from Philip Brunelle and VocalEssence, so that’s first on my list to complete. I’ll be setting text to poetry by Rita Dove, who was the Poet Laureate in the 90s. Very excited about that project, as her poetry is gorgeous and lends itself to music in so many ways. I also want to write some sacred choral works. One of my favorite extracurriculars at Harvard was singing with the University Choir, and we learned so, so, so much music. Choral singing really began in the Church, so I’m hoping to contribute something to that canon, especially since listening to a good choir in a cathedral is such a gorgeous sound. I also just finished a commission for baroque cello, and am working on another piece for Pierrot Ensemble. Once I’m done with all those pieces, I think I’ll compose a piano quartet, more choral pieces, and maybe something for children!

What’s next for you?

Working on my dissertation, of course, but mostly composing. One of my teachers at Juilliard recently told me that not having class or lessons can be a great thing for a composer because it helps him or her find his voice, so I’m looking forward to a lot of artistic growth and development, which will hopefully be reflected in my music.



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