Examining my perception of my own musical world is a challenging task. It is so complex, interweaving and overlaid, always in flux, making it hard to pin down. But I believe I can identify a few key threads that stay constant through this flux, and trace their origins and meanings to events and time frames that may explain how it ended up where it is now.
Looking back at my time as a University music student, I was unhappy. I was in love with music, and was fascinated by how the musical idea could be expressed in so many styles and forms. But in my undergraduate program, there was only one type of music that had value for those teaching me. And they didn’t like my mohawk, punk fashion and anarchist activism, they made assumptions about me. And even within that ‘approved’ music, there were hierarchies. I found my home in new music performance, because the people were warm and welcoming, and what they were doing seemed exciting and open. It was a kind of ghetto, with the most exciting things flying under the radar. I took up a second study in composition, but couldn’t find the right way to express my musical ideas: I would spend hours on one assignment only to get a low mark and no feedback; then I would quickly whip something up the night before and get the highest mark and glowing comments. I couldn’t make sense of it, and so turned my focus to performance where everything seemed more straightforward at the time. But these experiences taught me something very formative: that instinct and spontaneity count for a lot, and if you want something to happen, you just go ahead and make it.
I couldn’t wait to leave University and Australia at the end of my honours year. I always felt like a stranger in someone else’s place. I left Australia and travelled around the middle east and Europe, landing in Berlin just as the wall come down. There, alongside other travellers and transplants, I began a process of musical un and re learning. I picked up bass playing, that led to touring Germany and Italy in rock bands. I played flute in pop albums and Italian pop orchestras. I refound my passion for all types of music through this doing, and the input from all the wonderful musicians that were part of these projects. I began to believe I could maintain all these strands. I wrote my first songs, discovered improvisation, noise music and drone, with a part time day job playing in the opera orchestra.
Cat Hope playing bass guitar.
I spent considerable time on and around Etna, the only active volcano in Europe, which started a long fascination with very low sounds and the way we experience them. I began to explore this fascination across different musical strands: exploring low flutes, writing pop songs on the bass, performing with multiple bass players, making very low sound installations, thinking conceptually about low sound and its role in all kinds of music and production. This is an exploration at the heart of my music today.
On return to Australia I found myself pushed back into the silos again. But I had new ways of thinking and doing. I had learnt more about Australia – culturally and musically – from my time overseas than I had in all of time at University. I fell into academia, first as a teacher and then as a researcher. My time overseas brought different points of view to the design of a music composition and music technology program I implemented there. I completed a PhD entitled ‘The Possibility of Infrasonic Music’ in an art school, which gave me the language, context and tools for thinking about and engaging with low sound.
One thing that has stayed with me throughout my music career is a love of performing, and this love informs my drive to compose. I love the ensemble experience, from chamber music to bands, orchestras, choirs and laptop ensembles. There is nothing like it anywhere else. After long and often arduous solo bass noise tours of Europe in the 2000’s, I decided I wanted to play in groups more than as a soloist. As part of my academic experience, I formed a new music ensemble, Decibel, as a place to explore performance and composition as integrally linked concepts in music for chamber music performance. It focuses on the combination of electronic and acoustic instruments and the presentation of a broad range of music styles and creators. Decibel is more than an ensemble, it was designed to bring a specific group of people together around their music interests, and its explorations take the form of compositions, commissions, software, hardware, performances and written research. I enjoy performing commissioned works, in particular my ongoing project with French composer Éliane Radigue. Performing new music provides me with the stimulus to write for others, and has informed my ongoing enjoyment of collaboration, which has more recently extended to collaborative compositions, as exemplified in my work with French music concrete artist Lionel Marchetti.
I have always dreamed about how things sound, the detail and texture of sounds, and build music works in my mind long before I begin to write them down. When I improvise these days, it is the opposite: I have to clear my mind first, and follow the trail laid out by the first sounds I find myself playing. Early in my career, I was composing music that I would perform myself, sometimes as the basis for improvisation, sometimes as structured compositions, often as songs that I would create and learn by memory. I began formally notating music again in around 2006, some 20 years after my formal music study, when I realised I didn’t want to always be the performer of my own music.
I began with text scores, which enabled more of the freedom I’d experienced in improvisation, and experimented with drawings as a way to write down form, something I had enjoyed about songwriting. Gradually, these drawings became more complex, and I began making them on the computer. In 2009 I found a way to coordinate performers in the reading of these drawings, thanks to the support of the Decibel collaboration, and this began the ‘era’ of composition I am in now, using animated, colour, digitally native graphic notations. I enjoy the complex relationships between sound and colour, movement and form, the sliding scale of choice for performer and compositional control of material that I find in this system of notation. But most of all, I love research and experimentation: I have a drive to seek out new materials and ways of doing things to arrive at new sounds, musical structures and ways of making music with others. The New Virtuosity Manifesto, co-created with my colleague Louise Devenish, is an attempt at trying to capture some of these ways of thinking about music, as I believe many of us are.
Whilst my own music does not employ tonal harmony or traditional forms, I enjoy historical music and tonal music, I get really stuck on certain melodies and harmonies, I hum, sing and whistle a lot. I love 17th and 18th century opera, for example, but I have no desire to compose in way that replicates music and tools of the past, and whilst I enjoying playing historic music, there are others who do play and compose it better than me. There is still so much music to discover, centuries of it, as well as music from the place we live that we don’t know about yet, or have yet to understand and accept. And I have a love affair with electronic music, it has opened up a world of new and unfamiliar sounds that we will be exploring for some time. I have recently been working combining acoustic instruments with sine tones, because I think the tones have a beautiful character of their own, that speaks in different ways when combined with different instruments.
I believe that music is one of the last abstract arts, and has tremendous power to bring people together in a kind of communion. I like to think of music as an invitation to listen, an opportunity to create space. I still consider myself an activist, and often incorporate this into my music, usually as a starting point for the conceptual design of a piece. Over half of my compositions engage with activism in some way, and this culminated in my opera ‘Speechless,’ a large scale operatic work which brought together the range of practices and ideas I have been working with since I began making music. In some ways, I find this the most difficult aspect of my music to explain. I think unlike performance, my composition practice is a kind of protest: against the past, for the future. In it is my expression of belief.
Thses bits of history I provide here serve to highlight how I got where I am now. I realise it may seem strange, given my seventeen year career as a music academic, three and half of these as a head of school, to read me writing so disparagingly of my own student experience. But this, and many other aspects of my formative music years, eventually defined me, and drove me to ensure others would not endure the same fate. My tertiary education was characterised by a lack of diversity, positions of privilege and colonial thinking. I had to unlearn these traits to be the musician I am today, a process that has now turned into a life learning project where I aim to better understand the people and music around me. Today we have the opportunity to create music, collaborations, learning and research experiences that are grounded in innovation, diversity, ingenuity, fairness, equity, respect and openness, and be of our time, place and people. I seek these ideals in all my work – as an educator, composer, performer and general citizen of the world. And I believe we all have an obligation to do so.
VIEW AND LISTEN
is a Civitella Ranieri and Churchill Fellow, and her opera Speechless won an Australian Art Music Award in 2020. Her 2017 monograph CD Ephemeral Rivers (Hat[Art]Hut) won the German Record Critics prize that year, when Gramophone magazine called her “one of Australia’s most exciting and individual creative voices.” She has been awarded the Hamburg Institute of Advanced Studies 2022 Research Fellowship, and is the Australasian partner in the worldwide European Research Council Digital Scores project. Cat is Professor of Music at Monash University in Melbourne.