You never forget the first time you hear Elena Kats-Chernin’s music performed live.
For me, it was a few years back in Hobart’s Federation Concert Hall. I attended alone, expecting a reliably enjoyable performance from an orchestra I’ve witnessed almost yearly since I was 11, made extra special with renowned singer Katie Noonan joining in for the occasion.
But with the first strike of percussion; the first puff of woodwind that opened Kats-Chernin’s Wild Swans suite, a magical, strikingly unfamiliar world was conjured; it drew me in like the first page of a story about to unravel. And when Noonan released a clear, soaring soprano note over this fantasy bed of music – no lyrics, only unwavering sound – that was it. I was taken.
I’ve since grown familiar with this trademark Kats-Chernin effect, though the listening experience isn’t dissimilar when I launch into The Elena Kats-Chernin Collection, a new release from ABC Music in celebration of the composer’s 60th birthday.
Kats-Chernin was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in 1957; after studying music in Moscow she migrated to Australia in 1975, continuing her education at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and later in Germany. Her work is rife with cultural influences, particularly the styles of Eastern Europe, but it is also uninhibited – Kats-Chernin’s compositions may draw inspiration from French impressionist Erik Satie, or Italian Baroque composer Scarlatti, or even a tango. But they are all undeniably hers. Throughout her career, Kats-Chernin has grown to symbolise the sheer power of contemporary classical music in Australia, and the ability of our artists to learn from the great composers of the past, and craft something new that can compete with – or even surpass – the old.
I consider myself quite the latecomer to Kats-Chernin; perhaps I’m still in a sort of honeymoon phase, though I can’t imagine the allure of her melodies will ever cease. So when The Elena Kats-Chernin Collection arrives in the post, it is a treasure – some of its compositions very well known, and others never before released, but soon to prove equally enchanting.
In this new collection, we can hear the lifeblood of a composer, as well as the communities she has touched throughout her decades-long career.
In this new collection, we can hear the lifeblood of a composer, as well as the communities she has touched throughout her decades-long career. Kats-Chernin’s relevance is not only musical, in the way that she challenges the expectations of loyal classical music listeners and newcomers alike. But her relevance is also in the way she has reached out to her family, friends, and the community we all share. Her narratives have both personal and societal impact, and for this she is certainly one of the most relevant composers in Australia’s history.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I jump straight into CD2 of the box set to reacquaint myself with the Wild Swans suite, which first began as a ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, before the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and ABC Classics invited Kats-Chernin to flesh it out into a 12-movement work. But the piece that follows on this disc is the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which pays homage not to a fantasy, but to the heartbreaking narrative of Kats-Chernin’s mother who, at the time the second movement was written, had been diagnosed terminally ill. In the music, we can hear themes from Chopin – a favourite of Kats-Chernin’s mother, who, the composer reveals, would often play the waltzes to young Elena and her sister when they were children. Memorial Rag, on CD6, was written in 2001 as a dedication to Kats-Chernin’s mother after she passed away. Its lyrics are projected through an invented language, aiding an exploration into the concepts of worlds after death. There is sadness in its apparent acceptance of death, but the event is crafted into something beautiful and uplifting – and, importantly, exploding with life.
Though Kats-Chernin operates as a professional composer with a significant body of commissions to her name – such as Deep Sea Dreaming (CD6) written for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games opening ceremony, and Butterflying (CD3), commissioned for the 2003 Rugby World Cup opening ceremony – the 10 CD birthday album is overwhelmingly candid and human in nature – not only through the music, but through the honest and personal notes in the 47-page accompanying booklet. In 1998, her son Alexander – then 14 – was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Blue Silence, which follows Memorial Rag, shares a new family story, further contributing to the significant autobiographical narrative of Kats-Chernin’s life. This work is certainly one of her more minimal, representing the inner peace or ‘silence’ she envisaged for her son. It was written to launch For Matthew and Others, a 2006 exhibition that included Alexander’s art and was dedicated to people with schizophrenia.
Beyond the stories she shares of herself, Kats-Chernin also contributes to a broader Australian narrative; one of hope and betterment.
But beyond the stories she shares of herself, Kats-Chernin also contributes to a broader Australian narrative; one of hope and betterment. Vocalise (CD3) was commissioned by the Mental Health Institute in Melbourne – the titular voice representing that within ourselves – ‘comforting or warm but at other times distorting or threatening’, the composer explains. Similarly, she was commissioned by Diana Wong to write Scherzino (CD4) for the NSW Doctors’ Association; and by Dr Mal Eutick, for which Victor’s Heart (CD6) honoured the memory of Eutick’s father who’d died while rescuing a friend from drowning. Its premiere was at the Eutick Memorial Still Life Award at the Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery in 2008.
Perhaps one of her most moving collaborations is the Hush CD project, for which she wrote music after visiting the Royal Children’s Hospital leukaemia ward in Melbourne. The Food Chain, Pitter Patter, and Sky Blue were composed for volume 16 of the series, an initiative of Dr Catherine Crock aiming to use new Australian music to calm patients and their families as they enter the health system.
On the cover of this boxed set, Kats-Chernin is described as a ‘cosmopolitan composer’ with the world at her musical fingertips. This is at once accurate and problematic: it describes the way she writes within an incredibly diverse new music sphere, and also makes a subtle nod to the idea that modern dissonance is the musical equivalent to ‘exoticism’ for the high-brow classical music fan. Despite having had many decades to prepare themselves, audiences – apparently – ‘hate modern classical music’. Researchers have claimed that this is because of our brains’ love of structure and patterns; aural elements from which modern or contemporary composers such as Schoenberg or Webern often chose to abstain, in favour of freer atonality. This music is often without catchy or romantic melodies, as we might recognise across the eras from Tchaikovsky or Mendelssohn or Schubert. Instead, it experiments with the idea of giving each of the 12 notes equal priority, and therefore an element of randomness is unavoidable – even if it means the resulting sound isn’t always conventionally attractive. Even popular music commentator Alex Ross puts forward that, thanks to ‘harsh’ compositions from Schoenberg and the like, ‘modern classical music remains an unattractive proposition for many concertgoers’. The critic suggests that the average listener simply can’t stand sitting in a concert hall for an hour, having inflicted upon us a piece of music we don’t immediately understand.
So where does Kats-Chernin fit into this extremely challenging new music narrative?
No matter what musical background you come from, trained or untrained, it’s not difficult to ‘understand’ Kats-Chernin and her ‘modern’ music – indeed, she has been praised for her ability to be ‘extremely accessible’ to a general audience. Even by way of neuroscience, her music does contain patterns, follows (mostly) predictable tonal progressions, and is easy to embrace in an instant. And if this means her music can act as a gateway for the usually disinterested listener to embrace other contemporary compositions, it’s an even deeper success. In these ways, Kats-Chernin breaks the boundary between old and new; between what we understand, and what we can understand if we give new music a chance. In fact, even at her most daring, her territory does not feel so unfamiliar – blending feelings of nostalgia in with the present. This is how she shares her story, and why we stop to listen.
Even at her most daring, [Kats-Chernin’s] territory does not feel so unfamiliar – blending feelings of nostalgia in with the present. This is how she shares her story, and why we stop to listen.
There are some true gems among the previously unreleased recordings, of which there are three discs’ worth in this collection. Many are commissions – some drawing on influences as subtle or wide-ranging as Spanish, romantic, tango, and Russian styles. But the entire collection concludes on a serious note, despite the often-whimsical works that come before. We are bid farewell with Heaven is Closed; written as Kats-Chernin’s response to an illness suffered by her son. With a roaring brass opening and grating high strings, it is easy to hear in this piece a mother’s vicious fight against the threat of harm to her child. Clocking in at 13 minutes, I feel a physical tightness throughout this tense and dissonant work. It’s a strange work to conclude Kats-Chernin’s journey, but perhaps a fitting one, as it removes us from the dreamy, mesmerising fantasy she had previously created, and plants us back into the real world with bravery and realism to take with us on our way.
In an opening note in this album, well-known chef and friend of the composer Kylie Kwong says:
[I] value Elena’s deep, deep sense of compassion and warm-heartedness. She is a person who truly values and understands life with all of its many challenges, as well as its rewarding moments.
The observation resonates beyond Kwong’s own admiration for the composer: Kats-Chernin met head-on the challenge of thriving as a contemporary Australian composer, in a challenging industry. She met the challenge of bringing her artform to the mainstream. She met the challenge of showing strength through music in the face of trauma. And, in a way that we can all understand, the challenge of connecting with – and simply connecting – a nation.
So, Elena Kats-Chernin, happy birthday: your life’s work has rewarded us.
The Elena Kats-Chernin Collection is available now at Readings.