Celebrate Piano Week, was a promotional community project initiated by the Australian division of publisher Hal Leonard and took place in March 2015. Hal Leonard commissioned a piece from one of their represented artists, Elena Kats-Chernin, and made this piece free to the public in the first week of March. Piano teachers, students and pianists from around the world were invited to play the piece in any which way they liked. The time line this year made it difficult to do anything other than play it in our lessons, however, we thoroughly enjoyed learning it and taking part in the project. It was a great way to learn more music by one of my favourite composers, Elena Kats-Chernin. It also gave us the opportunity to talk about a living Australian composer and to think about what it must be like to work as one. With my students, I took the opportunity to get in contact with Elena and ask her some questions about her work. She was incredibly generous with her time and her answers and it gives me great pleasure to share the interview with you here.
Elena Kats-Chernin is one of Australia’s most well known composers and performers. She grew up in Tashkent (which was in the Soviet Union but is now the capital of independent Uzbekistan). She now lives and works as a composer and performer in Sydney. She has written many pieces that have become very popular including Deep Sea Dreaming for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony. Eliza’s Aria was written for the ballet Wild Swans and has become very famous through being played at the beginning of ‘Late Night Live’, a radio show hosted by Phillip Adams on ABC Radio National. The song has also been used in TV commercials, and remixed by DJ Mark Brown.
When did you start learning piano? (Fintan 12)
I was 4 years old and I picked up piano playing from watching my older sister's lessons, I really liked playing pieces that she was learning and it seemed really easy and fun.
How do you compose a piece of music? (Sweeney, 12)
First I think about what instruments I am writing for and how long the players or the commissioner would like the piece to be. It can range from 1 minute small piece (a miniature-as a recent piece for Synergy percussion) to a 40 minute symphony (Symphonia Eluvium for Queensland Symphony Orchestra in 2011) or a two hour opera. So, depending on how long the piece is I try and create a short or long melody (or a pattern) and a set of chords that might go along with that melody. Sometimes it works out right away and sometimes it takes a few days to come up with something that is worth developing. Once the initial material is found, the next stage is create a piece from there, many things change during this process and sometimes it has happened that once the piece was finished, the actual first melody was cut.
What is a rain puzzle? How long did it take you to write the piece? (May Linn, 9)
This piece did not take long to write at all, perhaps a day-it has a resemblance to my piece Green Leaf Prelude, which has similar chords, but has a different pattern of notes in a chord and a very different structure. I had an idea for the chords that shift a little bit each two bars, via a change in one or two notes. I call it a puzzle because, like a puzzle, you should look at it from a few points of view, hence my suggestions to play different versions of this piece: for ex., each bar in reverse order of notes, or start each bar from 3rd note and then play perhaps with two or more pianists/students, each starting on a different or same note in a different octave or perhaps one plays on one piano in staccato and the other plays with pedal on another instrument. Rain: because it felt like drops of water and I think I wrote it on a rainy day.
How did your early life experiences in Russia influence your playing style? (Lucien, 18)
My playing… well, I don't play very often. Mostly, if I am on stage playing piano, it is with Tamara-Anna Cislowska, she is a good friend and a wonderful musician and she can improvise from looking at my sketches, so we have fun playing chords and melodies that are not in actual piece, hence our performances are different from concert to concert.
In Russia I had a very good teacher, but not at the beginning. My first few years I did not have a good technique and my hands got very tired very quickly. When I was 10 years old. I found a new teacher and she spent a year teaching my hands to relax and use the weight of the arm to produce a centred sound, without pushing the keys too harshly. She also valued legato very much and she had a lot of patience. For a year I was only allowed to play easy pieces and many scales and arpeggios, not pieces that I was used to playing and which I really wanted to play, like Beethoven sonatas or Chopin Waltzes. But once that year passed it became easier for me to sustain playing for longer periods. She also taught me to differentiate between playing Bach and Tchaikovsky, for example, to use a different kind of sound between different composers. I also loved watching great pianists like Richter and Gilels, they sometimes gave concerts in Yaroslavl, the town in which I was growing up.
Can you describe a favourite memory of learning piano in Russia?
Having cups of tea with my wonderful new piano teacher Nadejda Nikolayevna. She was very kind to me and yet she was also very strict and I will never forget how I had to play just one note over and over again, I had to play it, keep the finger down and then stand up while holding this position and she would be checking if the weight of the arm is shifting and I had to try and delay the tension in the arm when I sat down again. This was done hundreds of times and with all the fingers of both hands and very slowly. I guess this was a test of patience for me as I was always a fast person and slow things are quite difficult for me. But now I really love thinking about those exercises. They did wonders for me.
How many compositions do you write in a year?
This depends on how many commissions I have a year and how big the works are. Some years I wrote 3 chamber works and in some years I wrote a symphony, and an opera. This year I wrote two operas, two concertos and two 25 minute dance pieces. So, this is the busiest year yet (2015). Am still working on one of the dance pieces.
In our emails you have mentioned that you were writing two operas, a dance piece, performing in concerts, participating in workshops and attending meetings, at the same time you were working on other projects and planning for overseas travel at the same time. I’m amazed that you even had time to read my emails! Is life always this hectic for you?
This year is especially busy, it is not always like that and I feel very lucky that I have so much work and I really love composing. Next year is also very busy, but not as hectic as this one. However, I am planning to have 2017 and 2018 a bit less busy, because I really need to clean up and sort through my archives, I have boxes of paper everywhere, past and present projects!!! I wish I had a bit more clarity in my room. Sometimes scores just disappear and I spend hours looking for them….
You have written music across many instrumental styles. You have written piano compositions, orchestras, ballets, opera, choir, chamber ensembles. Do you have a favourite style to write for?
Actually I love writing for piano more than anything. Such a rich and vibrant instrument! I do love writing for dance and silent film also. But usually I love any genre that I am working on right now. Chamber music is something that excites me quite a lot.
Your music is played by many people, at many different stages of their career or musical development. You have written several collections that are well loved by piano students and teachers. Your works are also played around the world by internationally renown performers. What is one of the most satisfying performances you have seen of your music?
There have been really many, but, because you are in Melbourne, I will name a Melbourne group that I have so far written 2 pieces for and am writing another at the end of this year. Flinders Quartet (string quartet), a beautiful ensemble. I wrote Re-Inventions for them in 2004 (for Genevieve Lacey and Flinders), and then I wrote Joyce's Mob for them, this was a private commission from a lady called Joyce. And my next work for them is a piano quintet. Often with new works it is played once and never again. Not so with Flinders Quartet, they played the above two pieces often. That fills me with gratitude and joy.
The Rain Puzzle is a very haunting piece that seems to resonate in the soul long after leaving the practice bench. The minimalist style of composition creates a sense of mystery for the performers as we try to decipher where the melody is, where the climaxes are and whether there is a narrative that accompanies it. Can you explain why you chose to write in this style for this piece?
You are very kind in giving The Rain Puzzle such a poetic description. I love minimalist style as it gives me a lot of freedom inside a strict frame, I love it that each little feature or change is quite magnified in this particular style. I am attracted to this kind of material and its treatment, very few means to say as much as one can. There is no story as such here, but what is important is the turns of harmony, when it does not quite resolve in the way you might expect it to resolve. I like connecting chords in an unpredictable "unlatching" way, this is a kind of a game for me, to see which chord can move to where… My writing is very intuitive, so when there is a certain form and structure that becomes apparent when you study it, it is not something I think about when composing, it comes as part of the process and I just go by the feeling: i.e. I get to a bar and think, I need something new to say here… in this bar I need to make a turn to the "left" or into a minor key or back to a previous chord.. things like that…. And I keep trying till I find something I like. Often there are pages and pages of music that end up in the bin…
Where would you like to see The Rain Puzzle performed?
In many different places, in people's homes, in classrooms, in halls, I can imagine 30 pianos…. not sure if it is possible to play on SKYPE, sound has to be good and I prefer acoustic to e-piano.