Elena Kats-Chernin: Her Life and Music
Learn about Elena Kats-Chernin, the cosmopolitan composer whose versatility embraces ballet, children’s opera, orchestral and piano music. Part of a profile series throughout March – Women’s History Month – in which we explore the lives, music, and inspirations of extraordinary composers from around the world.
In her early childhood, Elena Kats-Chernin was able to express herself in music even before she spoke: when her older sister received piano lessons, Elena could immediately play every piece – just by listening, without any study of the music.
“I found myself improvising on the piano for hours without any concern for time or purpose. It became my favourite pastime and a Lullaby was my first written-down piece. I got quite adept at notating some of these musings and after a while it was noticed by my music teachers at the Sobinov music school in my home town Yaroslavl. They supported me with extra composition lessons starting when I was 12 years old.” To this day she is committed to a creative process based on intuition. All her works are created at the piano in a process of searching, testing and clarifying.
Elena Kats-Chernin was born in Tashkent in present-day Uzbekistan in 1957 and grew up in Yaroslavl in Russia. Choosing music over ice figure skating, she travelled aged 14 to Moscow to study at the Gnessin State Musical College and migrated with her family to Australia in 1975. After going through the hard school of modernism, primarily through her studies with musicologist Richard Toop in Sydney and later with Helmut Lachenmann in Germany, a general change in aesthetics allowed Elena Kats-Chernin to find her own voice – this was largely encouraged by the open, undogmatic culture of her second home country Australia, which she returned to in 1994.
“After a disappointing premiere, I had given up composing concert music for five years, and instead created scores and soundscapes for drama and dance in German theatres. That ultimately resulted in composing Clocks for Ensemble Modern in 1993, which was my biggest success to date and this convinced me to return to concert music. Another breakthrough moment was the ballet score for Wild Swans after Hans Christian Andersen, choreographed by Meryl Tankard for Australian Ballet in 2003.”
With the Eliza Aria taken from the Wild Swans ballet score, Elena Kats-Chernin became known internationally to a broad audience even beyond the classical music scene: it was used for many years for the animated TV/cinema advertising campaign For the Journey created for the British financial services provider Lloyds TSB. Today, Elena Kats-Chernin enjoys a burgeoning career across four continents, backed by an extensive œuvre in all genres of classical composition. The act of putting pen to paper still thrills her with the anticipation and uncertainty of the musical journey: “I enjoy having an empty page in front of me and knowing that absolute freedom awaits me. There is so much potential in that!”
1. Big Rhap
for orchestra / LISTEN
2. Eliza Aria
for soprano and orchestra
scored for the Lloyds TSB advert / LISTEN
for ensemble / LISTEN
4. Russian Rag
for piano / LISTEN
5. People on Sunday
silent film music / LISTEN
CLICK HERE to listen to more music by Elena Kats-Chernin.
Elena Kats-Chernin’s music can be described as a personal amalgam of different influences; these include elements of minimal music, dance-like patterns such as ragtime, charleston, tango or waltz, classical models, for example from Russian music such as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, or the Baroque, as well as Jewish and other folk music traditions.
“When one of my sons got seriously ill I had to rethink my whole life. That is when my style started to get infiltrated by softer shapes and harmonies, and I began to allow singable melodies to return. I like to choose laconic ways to say things musically, often limiting the use of pitches, chords or rhythms to a very minimal range and seeing where that takes me. I feel that I am still developing the language and sometimes I like to break the direction in which my music is going.”
Ideas for her work can come from anywhere in Kats-Chernin’s surrounding world: “Inspirations are everywhere and about everything. It can be just a single word that someone uttered, or a story I heard, or it can be a flower I see”. She may draw on existing pieces of music, including her own: “Sometimes I look at one of my orchestral works and focus in upon a random moment or gesture. Then I make up a pattern from that. This is a kind of a game that I like to play without any pressure of writing a piece but, sometimes, something really useful comes up in these exercises. I am always amazed how much material has yet to be written and is still possible!”
The communicative element of Elena Kats-Chernin’s musical language and her catchy, unpretentious style corresponds to her open, sociable nature. She feels most comfortable in creative exchange with other people, also when composing. “It helps if I am collaborating with someone who can say ‘Play that bit again you just played a minute ago’ or ‘Can you continue to develop this particular line’. I respond really well to triggers that others throw my way.”
She has collaborated with renowned artists such as Shobana Jeyasingh, Didy Veldman, Mahan Esfahani, Avi Avital, Richard Tognetti, Michael Collins, Tamara-Anna Cislowska, Axel Ranisch and Igor Bauersima, directors including Barrie Kosky at the Komische Oper in Berlin and David Freeman at Opera Australia and conductors including Simone Young, Marin Alsop, Peter Rundel and David Porcelijn. Texts or ballet scenarios provide the structural framework for much of Elena Kats-Chernin’s music, while even purely instrumental pieces often follow an imaginary plot.
The world we live in echoes in her music. Symphonia Eluvium commemorates the 2011 flood catastrophe in Queensland and uses words by Premier Anna Bligh; Human Waves for choir and orchestra follows the theme of migration and diversity in Australian population. The younger generation is particularly close to Elena Kats-Chernin’s heart, as demonstrated by recent and current premieres: a new work for the Melbourne Youth Orchestra and no fewer than three children’s operas receiving stage premieres in the 2019/20 season. Her children's opera The Wind in the Willows, with a libretto by Jens Luckwaldt based on the book by Kenneth Grahame, premiered in 2021 with the Staatstheater Kassel.
Photo: Bruria Hammer