BY SEAN BOTHA, COMPOSER
Composer Secrets is our interview series from Sean Botha, whose vision is to build awareness of new Australian composition. These interviews are produced as part of Botha’s PhD research project at the Western Sydney University, through which the composer generously offers us a deeper insight into what drives the creation of music in the modern era. You can support Botha through this Australian Cultural Fund campaign.
Composer and performer Catherine Golden is based in Sydney and it’s safe to say she’s an absolute credit to the music community: she represents a kindness which is often difficult to find. She has a down-to-earth and vibrant presence that can light up an entire community. She possesses a natural talent to play any instrument she lays her hands on, and explores new music by ways of improvisation and listening practices that are groundbreaking.
I sat down with her in late-2016, and we talked nothing but music and collaboration. I picked up the thread of conversation again this year when she agreed to write a new piece of music for strings for my research project, Secrets through a Soundglass.
Where did your love for composition and performance originate?
I would have to say it began during my early childhood. My mother, at that time, was teaching music when I was a toddler. My mum gave me and my sister little violins and basically taught us. I had formal violin training between the ages of 11 and 14. In high school, I started to teach myself guitar […] and bass guitar. Bass became my main instrument and I started playing in local rock groups in my local area.
My mum was a working musician when I was a child, and there was one occasion where she brought me on stage with her bush music band when I was six. She took my sister and I busking when I was four or five years old.
I became more and more self-directed in my music and decided that it was something that I wanted to do in my teenage years.
When did you start to think about composition?
I didn’t seriously think about composition until I went back to Western Sydney University in 2010. I hadn’t thought about composition as a career path until then. In 2013, I did my Honours degree in musicology […] and was focused on the influence of economic factors upon creative freedom in the arts.
Which 20th Century composers have shaped you as a composer and performer?
Kaija Saariaho – her works with not just strings but also woodwind instruments have influenced me. I was [also] involved with a group called North Sydney Strings, which was started by Sydney-based musician and composer Elsen Price, and the work we were doing [was] inspired by Harry Patch. Everyone influences me.
How would you describe your own experimental practice, and how do you push your own musical boundaries?
I try to see what the double bass can achieve. I try to find what types of sounds; as well as beautiful sounds and what type of effects can be achieved. I keep an open mind and sometimes things need to have an experimental approach to find new things. The only way I would know that something will work [is] I would try it myself through aural analysis and physical gesture. Essentially, a session of experimental music-making may not be repeated and it will be a unique work. What needs to happen is I would have to record [the music], to refine it, and maybe notate the work graphically.
Do you use all sounds and concepts to create specific sound-shapes, and how do you use such shapes?
My own compositional work, especially for strings and when looking at what can be achieved, comes from physically trying to make sounds on my instrument and figuring out what can be achieved through various techniques. In the case of non-idiomatic techniques, I feel that I am informed by the groups and performers I see locally and by my own experimental practice.
How does silence or quiet spaces influence your compositional processes and performances?
I see silence in music to be just as important as sound. I also like the perspective of all sound being part of the musical output, and part of the performance – including the gestures involved in playing various instrument types.
It’s evident that your compositional practice involves reflection. Which type of silences and quiet spaces are used when you create a new piece?
The silences are essential and the way the next note is delivered and includes the texture, shape, attack and decay. It cuts or fits into the silence. The silence is part of the music. If there is a pause before the next group of notes and the next musical phenomenon, then that pause is equally important as the next gesture to come.
Do you think that these silences borrow textures from the previous sounds you’ve created?
The memory of what was stated would be lingering in that silence for the listener and the performer. When the idea is developed, changed, or something new added, all different reflections might occur for the listener during that silence. I think that when you listen to music with an open mind and from a creative and artistic perspective, you really want to absorb what is stated with the music. When that silence comes after a gesture has been stated, is the time when you will be reflecting upon what has happened up to that point in the music.
The silence is important because it creates space for the next gesture to happen. If the trail of the previous gesture is very thin, then the silence seems to be thin as well. Whereas if there is a loud flurry of activity and then there is a sudden silence, then that silence may seem to be full, very sudden, and almost potentially aggressive and violent.
What is the most aggressive sound you feel you can create for string instruments?
The most unpleasant thing would be to create screeches and squeal sound while using discordant notes and increased pressure on the strings, [and] moving outside of the 12 tones of the Western scale. The experimental work I have done has been with double bass and cello, and playing behind the bridge, using a detached bow, hitting the strings on the double bass and the position for the bow informs my compositional style. I would call it sonic art to some extent.
Do you feel that your sonic art stems from positive or negative emotions?
Positive: when you’re creating a piece of music, in some ways it can be a story or a statement about a phenomenon. From another perspective, you don’t have to live through every intense emotion when you’re performing. I feel music deeply when I am performing and it is about the notes and timbres. When I am performing experimental string music, for me personally it is mainly positive emotions and hope.
Essentially, physical gesture makes the gestures a full-body experience – being a string player, your whole body is involved when playing.
Tell me about your listening processes when you compose a new piece.
My ears are incredibly open, especially during performance and composition, in trying to find out what can be done with your instrument. I come from a perspective of really listening to the notes, and from a harmonic perspective – but [this] has changed over the last few years. I have an inner world happening when I am listening to music.
The Sydney Art Quartet will perform alongside Catherine Golden, Christina Green, and Dan Thorpe in the quartet’s debut at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in early 2018.
Catherine visualises her music and she pushes the boundaries of her instruments, connecting with the notes, textures and timbres to change the shape of the sounds. Her performance career has spanned across genres such as jazz, blues, popular, rock and classical music. Catherine actively performs two to three times a week with other bands and she teaches various instruments at All Age Music School in Marrickville, where she passes along her musical knowledge and skill to the younger generations. To learn more about Catherine’s work, you can visit her website.
Click here to donate to Sean Botha’s Australian Cultural Campaign, Secrets through a Soundglass.
You can learn more about the composer on the website. Botha’s crowdfunding project Secrets through a Soundglass – including the creation of five new musical works – is live through the Australian Cultural Fund website. Botha is also seeking sponsorship from music bodies and fellow artists to make the premiere a reality in 2018. The Australian Art Quartet is scheduled to perform the music in Western Sydney early next year.
Images supplied. Credits: Amy Benjamin and Kate Young.