On the Couch with Elena Kats-Chernin

Elena Kats-Chernin Arts Review On the CouchWho is Elena Kats-Chernin?
I am a composer of classical music living and working in Australia, my life is about creating things that didn’t exist before. That dream drives me every day to work as hard as I can for as long as I can.

I grew up in Russia, in a picturesque city called Yaroslavl on the Volga river. As a young girl I played piano and from the very start I liked to improvise on the keys, thus creating short pieces for piano. Later I studied in Moscow, living in student accommodation, four girls to a room with a piano. We had a strict schedule regarding who would practice on the piano when. This was a very precious privilege.

When we came to Australia in 1975, I studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Eventually I became a full time freelance composer. This is a wonderfully varied life. I write pieces for small chamber groups or for orchestra and sometimes, as in the new HUSH 16 CD project, for voices and string quartet. It is always amazing to hear a piece come alive – in this case sung by Lior and The Idea of North.

What would you do differently to what you do now?  
I am blessed to be doing exactly what I have always wanted to do and I don’t believe in wanting to change the past. Having said that, perhaps I would have liked to enjoy being a child a little more. Back then I always found myself racing from ice skating training to music lessons and back again, all after school and sometimes before school. And then there were hours of piano practice and figure skating competitions.

Who inspires you and why?
People who make society a more compassionate and all around better place, like Dr. Catherine Crock, the force behind The Hush Foundation. She is tirelessly working on new Hush projects, while doing her actual job as a physician at the Royal Children’s Hospital of Melbourne.  She has an immense amount of generosity, humanity and dedication to creating a better treatment environment. The Hush CD projects, have been designed to help raise funds for this purpose and are also played regularly in the treatment rooms.

What would you do to make a difference in the world?
I believe that a household with a piano in it has a much better vibe than the one without any musical instrument. I would love to see more children learning an instrument. Classical music especially is beneficial for improving the mood, brain, learning ability and social skills of everyone. Society would feel immediate benefits from this in my opinion!

Favourite holiday destination and why?
My favourite holiday destination would be somewhere where I can find a piano. I don’t really have holidays; I feel that I don’t need them. I do something I love each day and taking a holiday from that does not really seem attractive to me. However, if I were to go away somewhere to have a rest, I would still like to know that there is a piano in vicinity, so that I could do some work if I wanted to.

When friends come to town, what attraction would you take them to, and why?
You can’t go past the Sydney Opera House, the most significant landmark in Sydney and a place of cultural importance. There is so much beautiful music played, so much ballet danced and so much opera sung. So many great people work there too, and it is a place of which I am always really proud of and love to show off to guests.

What are you currently reading?
I spend my life as a reader of scores, correcting instrumental parts and tinkering with my work. I rarely find any time to read other things and that’s ok. You can’t do it all.

What are you currently listening to?
Although I love to hear my friends play their instruments, fitting in listening to concerts and recordings happens fairly infrequently, I know I am sounding somewhat obsessed with what I do and I suppose to that I have to plead guilty.

Happiness is?
I am the happiest when things do not change too much on a daily basis, when I can work quietly on my projects and when my family is in good health. Big ups and downs are not helpful in making creative juices flow, I like to do the same thing every day in the same way at the same place.

What does the future hold for you?
We have a HUSH 16 CD launch concert coming up: Tuesday 15 November at the City Recital Hall in Sydney and Thursday 24 November at the Melbourne Recital Hall. That is something to look forward to and in a few weeks I am going to hear a premiere of my piece, Singing Trees played by ACO.

New performances make me nervous, excited, expectant.  I always have such admiration for the performers I work with and yet I secretly worry that I’ve made some terrible mistake in the parts or the music score, right up to the first note.

Image: Elena Kats-Chernin – photo by Bruria Hammer Photography