Paper (Sculpture) – repetition, alignment & creating your happy place
We explore paper as a sculptural medium with San Francisco-based artist Zai Divecha. We discuss what the transition from metal to paper felt like as well as what kind of world Zai is conjuring with her creative practice.
Learn more about the origin story of paper, the art of paper-folding and check out this documentary on paper artists.
You’re sitting in a dimly lit theater. You slip off your coat and sink into the cushy red velvet seat, taking stock of the people in front of you, figuring out just how obstructed your view of the stage is going to be. The hum of people getting settled reminds you of every other show you’ve ever seen, and you let that layered memory steep a little bit.
You turn to your neighbor, asking them what they thought of the last show. You ask them if they’ve ever fallen for a material. You swap love stories.
You scan the audience and notice an older man with a baseball cap and a yellow legal pad; he’s taking notes. He looks like a mix between Mr. Miyagi and the Monopoly Man. “I think that’s the producer’s Dad!” you whisper to your friend, who originally said they don’t really listen to podcasts but here they are, at another show with you.
You look up at the ornate ceiling and let your mind wander, your eyes tracing the crystal chandelier high above. Meanwhile, Associate Producer Liz de Lise is in the wings with a clipboard and headset, letting the live orchestra know we go live in ten. Yes. Material Feels is on Broadway and you are there in the audience with a mini thermos of overpriced wine and extremely quiet snacks that you will only open during intermission.
Welcome back to Material Feels, where we explore the intimate relationships between creative people and the materials they have fallen in love with. I’m your host, Catherine Monahon. I’m an audio storyteller and writer based in Oakland, California. Associate Producer Liz de Lise composes original music for the show inspired by each material; we are going to wrap this episode with a track inspired by the two-part January and February episodes on time, so be sure to listen to the end!
Before we dive in, I need to thank you. I probably should pay more attention to analytics and be better at marketing and strive for ten thousand downloads and yadda yadda but honestly, I’m pretty sure I’ve got the same two hundred and seventeen people coming back to this theater over and over. For some shows, that number is considered so tiny. It’s kind of vulnerable to share, honestly because it’s so far from the big numbers you want if you’re gonna monteize an audio show. But I feel like I wanted to share that number because honestly… I’m honored you keep coming back. You’re special as hell, and as far as I’m concerned, we’ve got a full house, and the theater is my happy place.
So let’s do this.
Material Feels is sponsored by Brown Sugar Botanicals. Brown Sugar Botanicals is Oakland’s black, queer and trans founded CBD company, proudly crafting herbal CBD infused products grown by resilient communities. As of March 5th 2021, Brown Sugar Botanicals has closed their online shop to tend to a new period of growth, and will reopen on May 1st, 2021. In the meantime, go follow their journey on Instagram @brownsugarbotanicals, and make sure to follow their community updates at: brownsugarbotanicals.com/community–
Zai: Sometimes it feels like a negotiation, especially when I was learning how to do this kind of fold. Uh, it felt like, okay, you, this one part of the paper you need to go up, you’re a mountain, but right next door, you’re a Valley. You can’t both be mountains. You’re a mountain and you’re a Valley. Can you please just go, please?
It really felt like a negotiation of like me trying to persuade the paper to do it. And then they’re like, okay, fine. We get it. We get the picture. We’re mountain here. We’re Valley here, mountain here, Valley here. And we’re, we’re good from now on. And I just think that you have to learn how to do it with your hands and you have to teach the paper how to do it. Paper is a flat plane. Yes. And you are in the business of transforming it into like all matters of things.
Catherine: I love thinking about you in conversation with the paper.
Zai: the more I do it though, the less, it feels like that because I’ve developed much better systems for creating the actual pleats and the actual folds. So now I have a system where I know if I do this, it’ll do that. If I put pressure h ere, it’ll react in this way. So I feel like we understand each other more.
My name is Zai Divecha. I’m a paper sculpture artist. Um, I’ve been a full-time artist for about five years and the first three, no, first two, I was working in metal. And then the last three I’ve been working in paper exclusively.
Catherine: And what do you do with the paper?
Zai: I mostly fold it into like geometric patterns, but I’ve also experimented with rolling it and making little cones. Incising so cutting little flaps, uh, crumpling, um, I’ve experimented with a bunch of different techniques to transform that paper.
Catherine: Zai is a San Francisco-based artist I know through a good friend… the same friend who, consequently, has let me borrow her van, Gigi, for self-directed residencies like the one that I mentioned in Fire and Time (Part 1).
Stepping into Zai’s apartment, I felt like I had stepped into a largescale version of one of her artworks. Zai works exclusively with white paper, playing with light and shadow. Herr folded paper artworks are geometric and intricate. A few were hanging on several of the walls; her apartment was full of neutral tones, beige and white blankets, natural wood furniture and plenty of negative space for my eyes to rest on.
It felt airy and light, but also ordered and structured in a way that made me feel safe.
Zai came down the stairs like a electric fast-talking colorful vibrant exclamation point! And even though I had met her before, her jubilant personality was extra palpable that day. Maybe it was because I wasn’t used to seeing people (this was the first time I had visited someone else’s house in a few months), or maybe it was because I expected the person living in this minimalist, monochromatic environment to kind of…talk like this and just be really be grounded in their chi. I mean, I think Zai is grounded in her chi, it’s just that her ground, in that moment, felt a bit more like a bouncy trampoline to me.
We started talking about her discover of paper as a material after having worked in metal for some time, particularly her focus on geometric patterns.
Zai: When I started experimenting with paper, I realized, Oh my gosh, I can actually make these kinds of forms much more easily and quicker. And, um, yeah, it felt like a whole new way to explore the same kinds of patterns and motifs that I was already really drawn to, but in a medium that just felt much more exciting and, um, yeah, just like stimulated with more possibilities.
Catherine: How does it feel when you look at a, at a geometric pattern that you like?
Zai: Uh, it feels like mesmerizing and calming and intriguing and balanced, and I don’t know, it’s just, it feels calming to me. All kinds; they run the spectrum from, you know, man-made or human made. And do you metric and regular, like, you know, when I was a little kid, it was bathroom tiles. I remember like sitting on my elementary school, uh, toilet and like staring at the tile pattern, you know, like with a magic eye, when you, um, you start a pattern, you kind of look through the page and then you’re the two fields of vision align. And, you know, it looks three-dimensional. I would try to do that with the bathroom tiles and be like, okay, stare beyond the floor and see if I can get them to line up the two different patterns to line up. Um, but more recently I’ve been interested in organic shapes, like cloud patterns I’m really into, um, I went to Joshua tree for the first time, a couple of years ago and found, you know, those cactus skeletons. It’s like when the cactus, you know, decays and rots and usually the bark that’s left looks for a certain kind of cactus looks like when it has all these little holes, it looks almost like a netting, um, with beautiful holes.
Catherine: Zai is citing quite the range of inspirations: textures, shapes and patterns that are complex and varied. The breadth of her inspirations speak to the versatility of paper as a sculptural material.
Here’s a lil’ overview of the material at hand.
Paper is made of plant fiber, specifically wood. The bark is stripped away from the tree; the wood is chipped, pulped, meshed, screened and dried. Depending on the type of paper, the pulp may SIVED in a certain way, pressed, sized and chemically altered.
Paper has been an integral tool for communication since its inception over two thousand years ago in China.
It has been a method for correspondence, record-keeping, documenting important knowledge, rituals and stories.
Paper is also a surface for drawing and painting, which a whole nother topic: how carefully formulated fibers interact with different dry and wet mediums.
For this episode, we’re going to focus on paper as a material for folding, cutting and creating dimension.
The art of paper folding is technical, geometric, and playful. Paper folding has roots in ritual, dating back to the 6th century when Chinese monks shared paper with Korean and Japanese folks. Over time as paper became less of a luxury item, it began to be used to create auspicious tokens and gifts.
Then, during the (eh-do) period in Japan (the 17th century), it became the norm to fold paper in both recreational and ceremonial settings. The practice was called orisue, meaning “folded setting down;” the term evolved over time, and the first book on origami was published in 1764. During that time, the art form also evolved in other cultures, specifically Germany and Spain.
Now, we have paper crafting, an expansive art form that is very popular. As a paper crafter, you’re changing a two dimensional plane, a flat surface, into a world in and of itself; you can create dimension, expressive lines. You fold, pleat, cut, glue, stitch, layer or bend to create shadow, silhouettes and depth.
So what draws Zai to paper in particular?
Zai: Honestly, I love it because it feels so, um, so flexible and so creative. I feel like in my hands it wants to be one way and in someone else’s hands, it wants to be completely different. When I’m interacting with paper, it wants to be like orderly and have like some kind of, you know, system, even if it’s an organic pattern. So for instance, sometimes I’ll make, um, you know, little cones that are all identical and they’re all the same size, but then I arrange them in an organic pattern or, you know, I’ll do teardrops in a layout that looks like, you know, cloud patterns. It feels very organic, but each individual unit is very regular and repeated.
So I like playing with different layers of, you know, the smallest unit is very organized. The next level up is more organic and freeform and flowing. And then like maybe the, the overall is more regular. Um, so to me, I feel like it wants to be orderly, but also quiet, a lot of detail, very like repeating elements. Um, but I’ve seen the way that other artists transformed paper and it’s completely different. I know artists, artists who, for whom it becomes, you know, feels really solid. Some for whom it feels really delicate and playful and some feels really bold and inviting and some more, you know, like buttoned up and careful and cautious.
Catherine: You were talking about what paper wants to do in your hands. You’re communicating so beautifully with your hands right now was thinking about just how that in relationship to how you are in the studio and what your hands must be doing.
Zai: Uh, it’s a lot of repeated motions, taking each piece of doing the same score line by hand on, a hundred different pieces. And then I do the same crease on the same hut, you know, a hundred pieces and then they’re stacked all neatly in piles.
And then, you know, I mean, there’s usually some stage where I’m laying stuff out and it’s more like organic and unpredictable movements. Um, but I definitely get into that zone where it’s like, feels like knitting where you’re doing the same small motion over and over and over and over and over again. And then at some point you step back and be like, Oh, okay, this is amounting to a whole, but sometimes I get lost in that stage where it’s like, Oh my God, I’m making the same fold a thousand times!
Catherine: Zai’s perspective on repetition: both peacefulness and frustration, really resonated with me. It made me think about the repetitions in my life that create various patterns. The mini rituals that create the fabric of my day, threads that we weave over and over to form a cohesive fabric. I think about it all as a tapestry, some threads weaving in for longer panels of regularly, others more spontaneous.
Some of my repetitions, like the way I have the exact same breakfast at the exact same time five days a week, are strategies for coping with the rest of my day; making the same giant pot of oatmeal every Sunday removes the burden of choice and the effort of cooking for myself at seven in the morning.
Other repetitions are more organic, tenuous and precious: on your afternoon walk around your neighborhood, exchanging a wave with the same elderly lady who gazes out of the third floor window of that apartment complex. Saying good morning, the same way, to the same person, over and over.
Then there is a monotonous norm until suddenly you look up from your folding, or stitching or however you imagine your patterns, and you look at the bigger piece. You zoom out and realize, what the hell am I doing? Why do I keep doing this!? Is this want I want to make of my time!?
It’s a beautiful thing, though, when you look up from the tiny, miniscule repetitions to take stock of what you’ve done and a positive feeling washes over you.
Zai: The actual act of doing of it is very repetitive. It’s very quiet. You know, each individual action doesn’t feel like very much, but it amounts to this beautiful tapestry with like elegant patterns or system to the, you know, the layout. Um, when I’m in the zone folding, it feels kind of like that, like, Oh, I’m just doing the same little unit and I’m making some small decisions about, do I use this size unit or the size unit? Or do I lay it out this way or that way. And then each individual thing feels so small and consequential, but then when you step back and you see hundreds of them or thousands of them, it, it creates a different feeling.
Catherine: What kind of feeling is that for you?
Zai: I feel calm. I like creating work that feels calm and soothing. I know there’s something about lots of little things grouped together. That feels good to me.
Catherine: At a dinner party, who is paper?
Zai: Um, I think they’re a chameleon. I think they’re that that can hang with the really like quiet, sensitive, deep crowd where, you know, it’s like, you can take some minute to warm up to them, but you can get really deep with them. But I think that can also like change on a dime and hang with the really social, outgoing, highly verbal people with like Winnie quick conversation. I really think they can go in any direction, depending on who they’re with, what their goals are, what the situation is like. Um,
Catherine: That’s it, I love that answer and it makes me think about how like, patterns can be perceived as noise or as like busy-ness. And yet it’s also like peaceful and quiet and still.
Zai: It depends on like how high contrast it is. Like in my work, I work in a pretty much exclusively white color palette. Um, I love the shadows and light alone create the pattern. Um, but I see many artists work with paper where it’s high contrast saturated and it’s colorful and it has a completely different feeling. It can like amp you up or feel energizing. Um, whereas I try to make work that feels more calming and soothing and safe and quiet.
Catherine: I’ve mentioned in earlier episodes, when we were exploring the wool mill or the ceramics studio, that each material has a creative culture that has sprung up around it, built by hundreds (sometimes thousands) of years of creatives, in concert with that material.
The same goes for language: there are dialects, vocabulary words, tones of voices and even elaborate conversations that unfold between a maker and the material they choose to engage with.
Zai: Right now I’m exploring folded curves. So I’d done a lot with straight-line folds. So, you know, geometric sort of polyhedron shaped, um, things and now I’m figuring out how to score a curve line and then fold the paper into a curve. It’s a little bit less predictable. I don’t have as intuitive senses of how to, you know, how to translate the flat sheet of paper to the curve shape that I’m trying to make. And then what it does sometimes I’ll fold the curve and be like, Oh, that’s, that’s not what I expected. This is a completely different shape.
Catherine: I’m going this way. Don’t tell me what to do.
Zai: Yup, exactly. And sometimes I’m like, okay, I can correct for that. And sometimes I’m like, Oh, this is, I’m just going to let this go in a different direction. This was not what I was intending, but I’m going to, I’m going to go with it.
Catherine: When I ask Zai if any new fascinations have come up since the start of the pandemic, she mentions sifting through old sketchbooks.
Zai: Um, I broke my ankle pretty badly in 2016 and I was on crutches for about six months and couldn’t work for a lot of that. And so I spent a lot of time sketching patterns and my a dot grid on it. And I love sketching when there’s some kind of structure and it’s like, okay, I just need to figure out fun ways of connecting these dots in different ways. I love creating rules for myself. Like, Oh, let me draw a, or it looks like a ribbon and I can make 90 degree turns and that’s it. But I can go in any, but I can try to like fill the whole space with this like winding kind of tape. Um, I love having some kind of structure or some parameters for myself and then exploring and doodling with enough. And so I spent a lot of time just doing that kind of repetitive connecting lines in this notebook because I couldn’t work with metal. I couldn’t go into the studio. So, um, I do a lot more sketching during that injury phase than I have any other time in my life.
Catherine: I really appreciated this story, because it made me think of times when for some reason or another, we are prevented from doing what we usually do, how we usually do it. Maybe it’s an extended leave from work. Or we’ve moved and everything feels different. Maybe it’s a new reality living with a disability or an illness. Basically when something changes, out of our control, that is a form of loss. (Um, idk, is this relatable to anyone, kind of like… a global pandemic we are all still dealing with question mark?).
When she was injured, Zai couldn’t do what she was used to doing. And so she spent time doing something relaxing: laying down, connecting dots in a notebook. She responded to a creative impulse, didn’t question it. Objectively, in that moment, there was no “point” to what she was doing. I’m putting points in parenthesis because obviously I think there was a point, and I’m getting to that.) Time revealed that those sketchbooks were not just abstract doodles to pass the time; they were roadmaps for her creative path.
Zai: Definitely quiet. I want to create a world that feels calming and soothing to your senses. I feel like our worlds are so overstimulating as you know, right now, like our phones are constantly beeping at us. We’re getting notifications, we’re getting, so we’re constantly having to tune out noises. Other people’s conversations, working from home. Many people have roommates or partners who are making noise in the other room. Um, I mean, I feel like the whole digital landscape has just, you know, clamoring for your attention at all times. And I would love to give people a few seconds of calm, a little respite, a break from all of that. No color, very low contrast. Um, just soothing for the senses a little bit of break.
I’ve learned that I’m very sensitive to my surroundings.
I’ve learned a lot about how I’m really fueled by interactions with other people. I get so many ideas from bouncing ideas off with friends. I love having studio mates where, you know, there’s some degree of human contact and conversation that happens as part of my daily life.
And I feel so much more creative and relaxed and productive when I don’t feel like I have to constantly be protecting myself from my environment. So if I can create an environment that’s actually quieter, I can focus better. I can think better.
Catherine: Zai’s work is an extension of herself, and an opportunity to create her own reality. I flash back to being in her home, interacting with her amidst her own creations, and it makes sense to me now.
<relaxing music comes in>
Okay. Coming in. It’s like white palette. Do you know? And it’s just like [inaudible], but it actually makes sense because you’re making room for yourself.
Zai: Yeah. I think that’s a great way of putting g it. Yeah. Like when I’ve been to back, when we had parties… I would be at like either a bar or a house party or whatever. And I’d be like, Oh, I just like clam up when it’s so loud. And I had many situations where I was like, I don’t understand why I’m extroverted. I should totally love this.
A couple of years ago that I realized like, Oh, I am very extroverted, but I just get drained the way that many introverts get drained in these big social situations. Not because of the social aspect, but because they’re loud, there’s background noise, there’s background music. There’s lots of conversations. I have to shout to talk over someone and be able to disambiguate crowds and social contact from loud, loud situations. I was like, parties drain me, but not because of the social contact. Yeah. They drain me because of the noise. Yeah.
Catherine: Seriously. It’s like, there’s this language of people, this shared language, as for some people are sensitive, their environments or, um, experiencing illness and disability, like whatever differences, Oh, there’s this shared language. And once you tune into it, it’s like everywhere.
Catherine: But then people who don’t notice it, you’re just like….
Zai: How is this not driving you batty? Right, right. I recently put my finger on why I hate unloading the dishwasher so much. And it’s because I hate this out of plates on plates. It’s the worst. It’s so bad. I am totally fine with loading the dishwasher because you’re putting plates on a rack that’s coated in, you know, it’s a metal rack coated in plastic putting a single plate in is fine. But unloading, it’s a series of like nesting bowls on, in other bowls and plates and other places.
Catherine: This is so weird, literally we’re on the same page.
Catherine: Here is where Zai and I launch into a ten minute conversation where we discover in real time that we are both sound sensitive. We breathlessly share our elaborate strategies for unloading the dishwasher: how to minimize painful sounds while simultaneously expediting the process. I cut this conversation, because, while I found it intriguing and essential to my everyday existence, I didn’t think we needed all ten minutes. The important takeaway there is, once we discovered we shared a common sensitivity, a common reality, we knew exactly what we wanted to talk about and we got right into it.
This was a really important moment of the interview for me. Something clicked. Zai is literally using her creative practice to envision an ideal environment for highly sensitive people like herself: less stimulation, more spaciousness. Her account of her switch from metal to paper as a material made it this alignment even more clear.
Zai: When I was metalworking, I, I love having made something in metal, but I didn’t actually enjoy every step of the metalworking process. And because I’m sensitive to noise and temperature and like, I need to feel comfortable. I hated that I had to wear like two layers of ear protection. Like I often had to wear in your foam earplugs. And then the over that your construction earmuffs over safety goggles, a respirator, um, it didn’t feel comfortable. Now I can actually really enjoy that the process, partly because it’s like a quieter, softer material. The process requires less tools. I don’t need to wear so much protection from the outside world.
Catherine: Not only was the process uncomfortable for her, she had a different relationship with the finished pieces, too.
Zai: I was doing metalworking, I would finish a piece and be like, okay, cool. Onto the next thing. And at one point, someone was like, Oh, so is your house full of your metal? Crucial? And I was like, Oh, no, no. And then I was like, Whoa, that’s, that’s, that’s kinda messed up. If I don’t like my work enough to put on my own walls, why do I have a lower standard for working on creating and selling and building a business around then? I have for my own home, that was such an aha moment when I was like, ah, something needs to change here because I should like my creations so much that I want to see them all the time that I want to be surrounded by them. And that wasn’t the case when I was working with metal.
And so one of the things that prompted me, I think actually that when I realized that one of my new year’s resolutions was I need to start making artwork that I like so much, that I want to have it on my own walls. That was my barometer for that, my guiding light for like, I need to move in that direction. And I saved it. I started working with paper and seeing the fold, seeing the shadows emerge, seeing being able to play with geometry in a totally different way. You know, I would look at this and be like, Oh, this is what I want to have on my walls. This is quiet. This is low contrast. This is soothing. It’s soft. This is what I want on my walls. I would be excited to put this on my walls. In fact, I want to make stuff for my home. And it’s literally several behind you. There’s a handful in the living room. Um, so now when I see my work, I’m like, Oh, I like having them in walls. Like, that makes me feel good. And that was not always the case.
Yeah. And when it, when I wasn’t creating something that I loved, it didn’t feel quite right. It didn’t feel like the puzzle pieces were in the right place. And it feels like they’re now in the right place.
Catherine: Zai had essentially removed herself from what, for quite some time, she hadn’t even realized was a toxic environment. It was just normal, it was how she existed, she went into work and made the pieces, it was loud and heavy, and that’s just how it is. And that movement freed up a lot of energy and emotion to be directed at the things she does love.
Creative practice and communion with the material world can show us what is possible. Zai realized she wanted to be in a quieter environment, an environment where she felt safe to be and bloom. And as makers do, she went about making it.
Because of the way our society has been set up, it is an immense privilege to commune with the material world. But it wasn’t always like this. The arts weren’t always niche, and handmade objects haven’t always been rare.
At the beginning of today’s show, I let you know that you are a part of my happy place: the theater. That’s where Material Feels takes me, even if it is in my mind. Just like Zai creating her happy place through her work with paper, my creative practice creates a safe space for the soft parts of myself, and for the things I care about most.
I have questions.
Where is your happy place? Where do you feel most you, most at peace, most grounded? You might have a few… pick one. Close your eyes. What is around you? Are there people there? What are you doing? What is the light like? The sounds? Is there something happening?
Okay, you have that happy place mapped out in your mind: what activities, places or relationships help you feel present in that place? How accessible is that place for you? What is that feeling, right?
For me, being in the audience of a theater makes me feel extremely connected, not only to the storytellers on stage, but to my fellow audience members. I feel immersed in the story and very present. I feel the freedom of surrender: I’m here, and I let the story take me. I revel in the creative choices made throughout the show, from lighting and the costumes to the choreography, the timing of the orchestra. I laugh out loud, I cry freely. And if I am putting on the show, I am a part of it all, contributing to everyone’s experience.
Tiffani: I love throwing dinner parties, but never a potluck, because I want to curate the experience and I want everyone who comes to feel cared for, and like they only have to bring themselves, because it’s true. My typical M.O for these experiences were to invite a mix of people, some who know each other
My question a few minutes ago about what is your happy place wasn’t only a hypothetical guided audio soundbite. I think that there among an array of happy places in your mind, there is a particular happy place, real or imagined, that grounds you… and in that particular place, whatever is happening there, or not happening, means something. I think that visualization has the potential to tell you a story about yourself…and reveal core values.
I don’t know for sure if other producers use their close friends for intimate voice memos, you should try it, it’s great! Shout out to Tiffani and Mimi who graciously respond to a handful of deep questions and outlined a moment in their life where their core values aligned.
Yeah… I don’t really DO small talk so… Thank you to my friends for meeting me where I’m at, in this very intense place.
I’m still mulling over my own personal happy place, the theater experience, to see if my core values are embedded somewhere in that visualization.
I’m so curious about your happy place. I’d love to hear from you; message the show on Facebook or Instagram, or you can email me, my first and then my last name, at gmail.com. Cats outta the bag. Let the fan mail begin. Because there’s no way you could have possibly discovered that by googling me….that is very private information (it’s not private, you could google everyone you know, don’t do it, you’ll regret it! Love you BYE!
Material Feels is produced by me, your host, Catherine Monahon. I’m a writer and audio storyteller with a background in art education; I live in Oakland, California. Associate Producer Liz de Lise composes original music for the show as well. This episode features sounds from www.FreeSound.org, as well as underscores and music created just for the show, by Liz. The show is a labor of love; and your contributions mean the world. In fact, recent contributions in 2021, made it possible for Liz to go to Brooklyn and do a Tape Sync – that’s when an audio engineer goes on behalf of the storytelling team and records the sound; with the pandemic I couldn’t go to this glassblowing studio; she went and it was incredible and I can’t wait to share the next episode with you. It features a glass-blowing icon who I’ve been looking forward to interviewing for six months. Here’s how you can support us:
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And without further ado, here is an original piece of music composed by Liz, inspired by the first material of the season: time.