How composer Katy Abbott makes it matter
In this insightful interview, composer Katy Abbott talks about productivity, gender bias in her field and the importance of a strong support network. Plus, she also reveals the most embarrassing music she listens to (pssst … but don’t tell anyone, okay?).
How do you give it mouth?
I’m not very vocal online (or in the world) in expressing my opinion with words, except with the people close to me. This doesn’t mean I don’t care though. I try to do this with music; highlighting the everyday things: good, bad, mundane; trying to capture the essence of something in music is what I am drawn to and care about deeply. Raising issues through this medium is so satisfying and hopefully allows people space to think sideways – or at least more deeply about life issues.
Do you remember the first piece of music you ever wrote? Can you tell me a little bit about that memory?
Before I was ever close to dreaming about being a composer, I had to write a big band arrangement for the third year of my music teaching degree. Weirdly, I began worrying about this project two years prior.
What is interesting to me now about this scenario is that rather than arrange a piece as per the instructions, I chose to compose a new piece. The university big band played the piece, I got A+ and, upon reflection, I realise the real reason I was anxious about the project was because I actually cared about the outcome (up until this point my level of engagement at Uni had not high at all). This was quite a few years before I began composing ‘proper’ and I wish I’d realised earlier that I cared about creating music.
What are the themes and topics that interest you most as a composer?
I am very interested in connecting with my audience. I try to do this through the small things . . . spending a lot of time thinking about things that make us ‘tick’. Topics could include, human nature, the every-day, the absurd, grief but humour too. I am absolutely fascinated with how we humans connect; people, ideas and concepts.
When I write with text, I often use ‘low-art’ text; lyrics that come from spam, doormats as well as ancient Chinese poetry, poems written by friends.
Tell me about your piece Introduced Species.
This piece takes its launching point from a painting by Melbourne artist Matthew Quick. I love Matthew’s work – it resonates with me. We both has studios at the Abbotsford Convent and I watched Matthew’s progress on a few works, but in particular Intrepid Travellers which depicts the 1992 event where nearly 29,000 bath toys (mostly rubber ducks) fell from a cargo ship into the ocean.
At around the time, I won the Albert H Maggs Award for Composition and was writing a piece for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. I decided to write the work about the North Pacific (ocean) Garbage Patch using the rubber ducks (depicted in the painting) to tell the story.
The title comes from Matthew Quick’s art series Introduced Species and works for this symphony on a number of levels. I introduced to the double bass a microphone, amplifier and delay machine, which gives a lovely effect and ‘messes’ with the other acoustic sounds. I also introduce plastic bags, which some members of the orchestra ‘play’. But, most importantly, in order to symbolise the destruction of our oceans, I add in a few of my favourite melodies from other pieces of mine, and deconstruct and mush them up into the ‘surging, dirge’ of the Trash Vortex music so that they are barely recognisable.
It was exhilarating to write this section of the work.
Take me through the process of writing a piece of music; from conception of the idea to performance.
Ah – where the magic happens?
Always surprising to me about any creative process is that if one is consistent about showing up each day, art gets created. It’s rather like going to the gym; the magic of change doesn’t happen unless one keeps showing up – and somewhere, in an indefinable space, change occurs, or with composing, the state of flow can be achieved.
I often begin a composition by ‘hearing’ the instruments in my head. I then sit at the piano and improvise (badly), often creating small ideas, which I then notate.
At some point, these written ideas get transferred to a notation program and I switch between computer, piano, walking tracks and swimming pool during the musical development. I find moving my body works for what my family calls ‘solutionising’ – somehow I come up with answers to problems even when I didn’t realise I was stuck.
Eventually, a sketch is complete and I begin orchestrating. Mostly this is done at the computer as well as with hard copy drafts – and always preferably with coffee. Often, I work with the commissioning artist on the sketches of the piece, which is helpful in hearing back the ideas I have on the instrument for which it is written.
I never consider a piece properly complete until the first performance of the work. The music is given to the performing artists, there are rehearsals and performances. Hopefully a recording then takes place. Writing deliberately for a recording can be different to writing for a live performance. Working with individual artists is one of my favourite activities of the process but it is one my own that the real work gets done.
Following performances, final edits are done and then the piece is published (usually at Australian Music Centre where I am a represented artist).
Are there any gender biases in your field of creativity? If so, are there any stories that represent this for you (particularly personal ones)? And how did/do you overcome any bias that exists.
In Australian classical music, the industry is very aware of the imbalance of male to female composers represented. I work at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music where there are now two male and two women composers on permanent staff. I think the more women composers there are pursuing music composition, the more it inspires other women to give it go. Talking with actions is my personal philosophy here, rather than words.
One day, I was at work and a technical electrician was doing a lighting check in our offices. I could hear him in my male colleagues’ offices, finishing up and saying thanks for letting him intrude on their space. When he finished in my office, he said the same but added ‘thank you Sweetie’ to the end of the sentence. It was suggested I should have responded with ‘that’s Dr Sweetie thanks!’.
Do your friends or family ever tell you to ‘get a real job’? What’s your reply?
I had a real job before I began composing. I am lucky to have a supportive family and community who, although baffled at first about my announcement to study composition at the age of 27, also encouraged me to run with it. I later began my PhD with no children and finished with three (and finished on time) which shows the level of support I am fortunate to have.
What’s the most embarrassing music you listen to?
Um . . . I’m quite partial to a sing-along to Gold FM at the top of my voice in the car.
Who inspires your work?
Oh, this is an easy question to answer. People who have personal courage. People who choose the hard things, get on with it yet are able to remain soft, open, generous and authentic. I have some amazing people in my life who are like this and these people (and the stories I hear from others) inspire my work more than anything else, except . . .
I am also hugely inspired by the individual tone colour of an artist’s sound. I have been fortunate to work with some wonderfully talented individuals whose tone / timbre either makes me melt to hear it or excites me. This is a great motivating factor to compose for them, to their strengths, to their tone and then to hear them sing /play your music.
Is there something you’re burning to make?
I’m finally making the work I’ve been burning to make.
I’m writing a one-hour festival work for two of my favourite chamber music groups to perform together. It’s called Hidden Thoughts: Reality’s Near Edge. The words for the show come from responses to an anonymous survey where I asked women to reveal their hidden thoughts.
Their responses are the words sung in the piece. Not only were they asked to reveal their hidden thoughts but also what they have learned to be brave about and be braver about. I was fortunate to work with Kaz Cooke (whose text I have set to music in the past – think bum-cracks and nail polish) who helped me devise the survey.
I’m so excited by this idea of Hidden Thoughts that I hope to create many more hidden thoughts projects surveying different groups. I’m thrilled with my next Hidden Thoughts idea too! Like the first hidden thoughts work, its about voicing the ideas / thoughts that for whatever reason cannot be spoken or brought into the wider-world.
What are your top three tips for surviving as a music composer?
Get feedback on your work from people you trust. Sometimes the person does not need to be musical but can feedback ideas or criticisms that inform the next steps.
Be pragmatic. Know yourself and work in a way that suits you from the practical (do you work better in the morning or evening for example) and try to timetable that in.
Say no. Saying no to other things then allows you time to choose or create the projects / opportunities for which you want to say a resounding yes! In other words ‘know thy limits’. No point in burning out. I hope I’m doing this for a long time to come.
See more of Katy’s work here.