Creative Academic: Composer Cat Hope



Cat Hope is a composer, curator and performer, heavily involved with Australian new music. She is the founder of the Decibel New Music ensemble, which won the APRA/AMC inaugural award for excellence in experimental music in 2011, and in 2013 received both a Churchill Fellowship and the Australia Council’s Peggy Glanville-Hicks residency. Sam spoke to Cat about the relationship between the creative and the academic, and her unique approach to composition.


How would you characterise your music?


I think other people could say better than I – but I can tell you what compositional concepts I am interested in: drone, glissandi, noise, non-traditional notations, aleatoric techniques and low frequency sound. I am looking for a result that can be anything from dynamically noisy to subtly sustained.


As well as developing a prolific practice as a performer, curator and composer, you were recently promoted to the position of Associate Professor at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Edith Cowan University, after a three year Post Doctoral research fellowship. How do you find these two areas of composition and research to be related?


I think all artists are researchers. The way I see it, the difference between a composer and an academic researcher is that one way or another, the academic has to write about what they do – whether it be for reporting, in papers, books or to their students. There are not many composers who don’t research – new techniques, old techniques, possibilities – but my view is that the difference is mostly about framing.


What do you see the role of the composer as in the academic system, culturally speaking?


Academics are encouraged to experiment, innovate and excel as part of their job description as researchers. Someone has to experiment to bring music forward into the future, keep it relevant to contemporary life, and academics are perhaps in a position to do that. Being a freelance composer is very difficult in Australia. If you get an academic job, that can not only support your compositional practice, but also shape it. That has definitely been the case for me. I think the role of composers in the academic system is the same as the one in society – to compose. But it is also to try and hold onto your artistic integrity when you may be pressured to go in directions you wouldn’t otherwise.


Culturally, Australia has so little appreciation or respect for living artists and their contributions to society. There is a chance, with academia, that a composer may provide an opportunity to grow an awareness of the contributions made by all composers. This is what I am trying to do with the Western Australian New Music Archive – a project unlikely to have got up without composers in academia.


What has helped shape your unique approach to notation? What prompted you to work in graphic, rather than a traditional, notation form?


After my undergraduate compositions, I hadn’t found the skills to notate the music I wanted to write or hear. Most of the music that interested me wasn’t notated, or the part that engaged me the most was the un-notated part of a composition. So, I worked with music that wasn’t notated as an improviser, installation artist, songwriter, and noise artist. When I returned to university as a teacher, I found real pressure to notate music, but also a new interest in trying to do that for the music I liked, which hadn’t changed much since I was a student. So, looking at preliminary sketches scores of some of my favourite composers – such as Xenakis, Ligeti, Penderecki, Feldman, Scesli and Lucier – I developed a notation that was influenced by a strange combination of the sketches and final products of such works. For example, Xenakis’ pre-compositional sketches and my final compositions have a lot in common, and some of my scores produce music that sounds a little like Scelsi’s string writing, with their tiny inflections on the stave.


The difference is often about control and choice, and there is still this tut-tut around letting go of aspects of compositional control. I had been making music ‘drawings’ for some time, but wasn’t thinking of these drawings as notations for performance, there were problems reading them in real time, as sound unfolds. I wasn’t sure how I wanted them to be translated into sound. So making a ‘score player’ – originally developed for my works by my long time collaborator Lindsay Vickery – was a turning point for me, as it enabled these drawings to finally unfold in time in a way they became playable. My first ever score of this type, Kingdom Come (2008) was for two laptops. It was just a video of the page going past. I began by wanting to make a score for instruments that weren’t usually scored for. Then we added a play head and other aspects to the player that facilitate rehearsal, part reading, and so on.


There is a degree of openness in many of the works you have written. How do you balance the twin forces of notation and improvisation inside of a compositional practice?


This is a good, and tricky question! By openness, I guess you mean openness to interpretation. I believe that the scores are not as open as they initially seem. Whilst I don’t specify pitches in most of my scores, I have very particular proportional indications between players, and this restricts the choices musicians can make. Then they have to listen very carefully throughout the piece to maintain their ‘proportional position’ in the score. There is often a tension for players being completely faithful to the score, which relies on the communication in the ensemble. I like this tension – it’s something I take from improvisation. So pieces like Longing (2010) or Cruel and Usual (2011) are not as open as they look, and they are actually quite difficult to play accurately. Even the notations in Juanita Neilsen (2012) are quite specific. Choosing pitches doesn’t interest me, but directing and controlling their possibilities does. I like surprise combinations.


I think it’s a misnomer that my music features lots of improvisation. Obviously, The Talking Board (2012), which I co-wrote with Lindsay, is very much a guided improvisation work, but that’s the only one. Maybe be the closest would be the Abe Sada text scores (about to be released in a book published by PICA in July). I find it strange that more composers don’t adopt the aleatoric developments that occurred in the mid twentieth century. I do improvise as a performer, but it’s a different process in my mind.


You mentioned the term ‘noise artist’ as one of many descriptors of your practice. I’ve found the term to be a wonderfully open term to a creative music practice; certainly far more than the term ‘experimental’ in a contemporary context. What does the notion of being a ‘noise artist’ mean to you?


For me, noise music works principally with what other people consider to be the detritus of music – stasis, accidents, line noise, extreme range (pitch and/or volume) and distortion are some examples. But these days, many things once thought of as noise are getting increasingly absorbed into a more mainstream practice – which is something that I celebrate!


You recently received a Churchill Fellowship to study different graphical notation around the world. What did you find from undertaking this project?


I have recently returned from this trip and it was an eye opener. I found out lots of interesting trends, often away from any notation, as composers struggle to find it useful. There were lots of big debates about that. Lots of composers are working with what they call transmission, that is, talking to performers about what they want rather than relying on notation. Elaine Radigue was very inspiring in this sense. Also, there were some really exciting notation projects at IRCAM, in France, but particularly amongst the S.L.A.T.U.R composers collective in Iceland that turns notation in to something more playful.


If you could recommend one work to a young composer to broaden their ideas of composition, what would it be and why?


Whoa – big responsibility! There are so many. For me, the one that opened up doors was Ligeti’s organ work, Volumina. I got a surprise when I saw the score, and it gave me confidence to find my own way. What more could you ask?


For more on Cat Hope, go to


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