A conversation with world renowned composer Elena Kats-Chernin who spent the week creating ten compositions inspired by Australian artworks: "I've never had such luxury in my life!"

Elena Kats-Chernin. Image by Chris Donaldson

Elena Kats-Chernin. Image by Chris Donaldson

Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin is nothing short of remarkable. Her music has featured at world sporting events, on television (one opera called The Divorce was viewed by over one million people in 2015), backed international ballets and popular films, as well as been performed in opera houses and on renowned stages the world over. Elena was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and studied music in Moscow, Sydney and Hanover. She has created celebrated works across nearly every genre, and received awards and prestigious prizes including Green Room, Helpmann, Limelight, Sounds Australian, Sydney Theatre and Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards.

A prolific composer, Elena is never short of inspiration, but doesn't need to escape to some remote island or wander through a bustling city in order to induce and invent new music, like many artists do. No, Elena is most at home, at home with her piano, staring at a painting gifted to her by a friend, and conjuring up countless genius and moving musical compositions. 

And this week, Elena has been surrounded by ten iconic paintings by two revered Australian visual artists, Margaret Olley and William Robinson. While staring at the paintings, Elena has created and notated (by hand) ten compositions in seven days, ready to perform to an intimate crowd at Old Government House in Brisbane this weekend. 

An exhibition of the paintings by Margaret Olley and William Robinson and selected by Elena will be on display at the venue, with images of the works that inspired Elena's improvisations projected throughout the performance.

Music Love had the pleasure of calling Elena half way through the week to see how she was going. 

Elena Kats Chernin. Image by Bruria Hammer

Elena Kats Chernin. Image by Bruria Hammer

If I didn’t have to leave the house, I just wouldn’t go anywhere. Because I’m very happy to just sit at my piano and grab information out of myself... and find a way to go into the depths of my soul and my mind and, if anything, I would maybe read something or listen to something. I don’t need, at all, external information.
— Elena Kats-Chernin, composer

ML: Am I right in saying you've just been composing this week for QMF's Sound of Art event?

EKC: Yes that's right. I'm improvising and composing from the ten paintings I chose from the two artists [Margaret Olley and William Robinson].

ML: How did you come to choose these artworks?

EKC: I look at the paintings and... I have chosen the ones that I knew would induce a piece. And inspire me to write. They are all pretty amazing paintings. [The ten paintings] need to be contrasting. 

I have one with three apples on the table. It's gorgeous and I imagined the apples... marching... So I have to let my mind and my imagination go really far, go on a journey. And sometimes even move away from the painting and have a circle [of the room] and come back. And see where it takes me. It could be that I see a very busy painting full of colour, but the music is very pared back and you just enjoy what you see, and you have time to let your eye wander. Sometimes the opposite is true, where there's not much on the painting, so my music would be busy, and have a pulse.

It's a kind of give and take, pull and push. 

I"m very pleased with what I've chosen. It's very fun. It's nice to immerse yourself for one week, into something... into [another] artist's world. And I'm staying in this amazing apartment... I have a view of the whole city [of Brisbane] and Queensland Music Festival provided me with a grand piano...  and it's amazing. I have never had such luxury in my life.

ML: It sounds like a dream.

EKC: Oh yes, never to be repeated. It's unbelievable

Elena Kats-Chernin, notation and artworks. Image via Instagram/QUTArtmuseum

Elena Kats-Chernin, notation and artworks. Image via Instagram/QUTArtmuseum

ML: When you compose music, do you visualise in this way?

EKC: Yeah, I do actually. I sometimes imagine a picture or light or a story. Sometimes I just feel the emotion, sometimes it's not an image, but image helps me - it just helps my eye focus actually. I just wander. I look around and even having the view here, I actually don't see it, to be honest. I'm looking at the paintings above my piano. [In my home in Sydney] I have a painting above my piano, and I always look at it. It's a fixture... And somehow I need it there. I look at it and it suits my mood every day... to focus on what I'm doing. It calms me down.

ML: A lot of people need to go somewhere to be inspired in order to create something. But do you need to when you are a prolific writer such as yourself? What are your thoughts on that?

EKC: Well, I am the absolute embodiment of a person who hates leaving the house. If I don't have to leave the house, I just wouldn't go anywhere. Because I'm very happy to just sit at my piano and grab information out of myself... and find a way to go into the depths of my soul and my mind and if anything, I would maybe read something or listen to something, I don't need, at all, external information. That's really important to me . I don't need to be stimulated by something else. I can easily write based on the letters of the alphabet. I don't need to be excited by something else. I do force myself to get out of the house, just to be - so as not to become an anti-social person. And I have to travel for work and for concerts and festivals and rehearsals and what not. But if I didn't have to, I'd be very pleased not to. Even here in this hotel, I'm thinking, why would I leave this gorgeous place? It's just such a fantastic apartment and it's actually inspiring. I am surrounded by the paintings of Michael Johnson [Elena is staying at one of the hotels that is part of the Art Series group - this one is the Johnson Hotel]. There are books lying [around] about artwork so it's a hotel inspired by art. I just love that idea! It just makes me happy. Because I often feel art is under-represented in society and in politics and people don't think about it that much. But it's such an important part of our lives. We have to be conscious of it. And just being here, I have the best conditions.

I love what I do. I love writing music, and sketching away, and I'm excited to know about what I'm going to write [next] so for me, I'm very lucky. 

ML: You are described as a prolific writer - how do you structure your days, weeks and life? You have so much coming out of you. When do you have down time?

EKC: I make sure I work every day. But it doesn't mean I'm always creating something new. If it happens by chance, it's great. I write a piece in one week but then I take two months to orchestrate if it's for orchestra. It takes painstakingly long hours to create orchestration when you work out what instrument plays what, what kind of texture [is needed], and then you change your mind, and go back and you expand, you repeat, you cut, and then things start taking shape and you change again.

And for a piece to come full circle from... zero to 100 per cent - it can take six months. But in the meantime, I may be writing a new piece again. I may have written a piece and am orchestrating it, but then I'm writing another piece. I spend four hours on orchestration, two hours of editing an older piece, maybe, or maybe I've arranged a piece for choir - so I always have other things.  Composing is many many puzzle parts.

Sometimes, it's  the opposite - I write a concerto for clarinet and orchestra - I then need to make a reduction, a piano reduction for a solo and pianist. So I go back from the orchestra back to the piano and it changes and it's quite different to the first score. It's just piano - I write for piano first, always. Bu then you go through another phase and come back, It's always a loop of some kind. If it's for choir, I have to look for text - that can take a month to find the right text.

I work all day, and have to attend to emails. People ask me questions like, "What happens in bar 29? Is it short note or a long note, staccato? Or is it loud, is it soft? Maybe it's the right note, but it sounds wrong - maybe it's a mistake..." You know things like this - so I always attend to emails like this right away just because people may be playing it next week and I have to reply as soon as I can. Then people ask for programme notes - writing about a piece - and that takes a while too, because words are not my medium so that's hard for me.

ML: And down time?

EKC: I watch some trashy sitcom. I watch Seinfeld. Which isn't trashy, actually. It's very fine high class comedy. And I find that these days If I look at re-runs I see, oh, they didn't have mobile phones. How did they do this and that? Ah, they all have this one landline phone. Even seeing the colours of the cars people used to drive - light green or orange or yellow. Now we only see white, grey and black cars on the street. I look at the way things look and the way things have changed.

Elena Kats-Chernin at the Johnson, Brisbane where she has spent this week composing works inspired by Margaret Olley and William Robinson's art

Elena Kats-Chernin at the Johnson, Brisbane where she has spent this week composing works inspired by Margaret Olley and William Robinson's art

Elena finds inspiration in everything. Even the colours of cars on Seinfeld. And if you are in Brisbane, do yourself a favour and see the results of her week creating beautiful sounds to accompany beautiful artworks.

The Sound of Art will be held at 2pm, Sunday 16 July 2017 at The William Robinson Gallery, Old Government House, QUT

TICKETS: $79, includes a glass of champagne upon arrival. Tickets here

Sound of Art Music Love Elena Kats-Chernin