Elena Kats-Chernin: “Every composer has a quirk”

Wite-out and cardboard



According to Elena Kats-Chernin, “every composer has a quirk”.

Perhaps the most celebrated quirky composer is French impressionist Erik Satie. Erik liked to wake up at 3.19am on Tuesdays. His personal food pyramid consisted of eggs, grated bones, coconuts, and anything else that was white. And musically, he was no less of a character: he was the first composer to use a typewriter in a piece of music.

Elena Kats-Chernin has foraged through the mysteries of Satie – and presents them in new music of her own: Unsent Love Letters – Meditations on Erik Satie.

Elena tells us her latest album “was an unusual project because it was to do with one particular composer – Erik Satie, an eccentric – and it was, incredibly, almost like an obsession”.

The Uzbekistan-born Australian composer feels Satie was “an interesting man of such interesting ideas and habits, and with a broken heart his whole life”. This new release draws its inspiration from the dozens of love letters found in Satie’s home, written by the man but never sent to his desired.

In an extraordinary achievement, this album – recorded with pianist Tamara-Anna Cislowska – reached no. 1 in the ARIA classical charts, and was also scouted for international distribution by the Deutsche Grammophon label.

Elena, whose music you’ll be able to hear live with Selby and Friends throughout July, tells us about her own eccentricities as a composer. (And whatever she does, we reckon it’s working.)


1. Elena doesn’t always compose at a piano. But when she does, it has to be hers.

I can compose without the piano, but I choose to do it with the piano because it’s more inspiring. And not only that, but I choose to write mostly at my own piano. At someone else’s, it’s much harder. It has a different feel.

Often, people say: ‘Why don’t you get a grand piano?’. But it’s about the convenience of having the music stand in a higher position. On a grand piano, the music stand is flimsy; you can’t write. Whereas on an upright piano, physically it’s much more practical. I have cardboard behind it and can actually press with my pen on the paper and it doesn’t fall over. I have a certain kind of set-up. I’m an odd person.

2. When Elena leaves the house, she brings her wallet, keys – and a piece of cardboard.

I always carry a piece of cardboard with me. I [recently travelled to] Berlin. I’d already packed my piece of cardboard because I thought, ‘I’m going to have a keyboard in my room to help me with some tasks, and I have to have something to put my piece of paper on’. Even on the bus in Sydney, if I think I’m going to do some work, I need something like a hard cardboard or hard folder – though a folder usually gets filled with something. Every time, I’m always so grateful I have it with me.

3. One pen is never enough.

I think every composer has a quirk. I also have to have three of my favourite pens with me in case they run out or I lose them. I have to have my Wite-Out. Painters get used to their brushes, particular canvases or papers. I’m a creature of habit. And I think composers in general like stability.

4. She’ll give you a solid melody (whether you like it or not).

I love making melodies – that’s my favourite thing. So even if nobody wants a melody, I’ll still give it to you on top of whatever else there is! No, I’m just joking. But I really love writing melodies and a harmony that pushes it along. I love playing with what it makes; what it does if you change a note. I love playing with material. I just love composing, hey! I just realised that!

5. And emerging musos, you inspire her.

Every so often, I mentor somebody and look at their work, and it’s so fascinating. [Emerging composers] are always very mature people – they’re young, but they know where they’re going. They’re driven and focused on what they’re doing. It always inspires me and somehow gives me a new outlook. I love that – it’s a new input.

Inspiration from any side is great, but when it comes from a young person, it’s even better.

Elena Kats-Chernin’s music will feature in the Selby and Friends Proud Folk tour throughout July. If you’re in Australia, buy or stream the album on the ABC music website. If you’d like to learn more about Elena’s Unsent Love Letters international release, visit the Deutsche Grammophon website.

Image supplied. Credit: Bruriar Hammer.

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