Elena Kats-Chernin’s ‘The Spirit & The Maiden’

After managing to secure Kats-Chernin for a video interview between a series of tightly-scheduled engagements across Australia, a local dog now attempts to interrupt proceedings, barking with a stamina that could keep me in Kats-Chernins’ living room far longer than would be appropriate. I renounce my devotion to the digital age for today and do a good, old-fashioned write-up.
As it happens, this is less unusual for the mysterious Russian-Australian composer, who uses only a pen and paper to write music! Kats-Chernin and I talk about her as a composer, a performer and reflect on her childhood.
You mentioned to me you don’t like to leave the house when you’re composing. Where did you write ‘The Spirit and the Maiden’ and where do you usually write your music?

I wrote this at home and I usually write everything at home. It’s the best place for me to think. I like to sit at my own piano, have my own chair and I write with a pen and paper. Many composers write into a computer but that isn’t something I’ve caught on to. I like composing the old-fashioned way. I love being at the piano and improvising, I love finding material that takes me to another world. It’s very difficult for me to compose if I’m not at home… I always need a piano, a pen. You have to have a setup that works. It’s a matter of being comfortable and having light. When I come into my piano room I don’t have to ‘do’ anything, it’s all there. I have manuscript and paper lying around in case an idea comes to me that I’m scared I’ll forget! I’m a creature of habit. I have the same routine every day. I like to get up at the same time every day, start composing early and then get onto more mundane administrative tasks afterwards. That includes editing, working out program notes, emailing, writing out schedules or organising performances. I perform too, I play piano and am involved in concerts all over Australia. I’ve got to plan my travels, there’s a lot to do. These things are of course good, though. They break up the compositional process. Only composing would be too much. I enjoy these breaks to think about things. Sometimes you need to just relax your mind. I leave things for a couple of hours and then come back later. You have spots where you think where is this going? When I find myself with that block, if I come back a couple of hours later and I won’t have the problem anymore. It’s almost like the piano is working it out for me! It’s really nice for me to feel ‘at one’ with my instrument.

The next performance of yours in Sydney will be Selby and Friends’ interpretation of the popular ‘The Spirit and the Maiden’. Is there a particular narrative on which this work is based?

The Spirit and the Maiden is based on several folk stories. It also possesses my own ‘flavour’! The work was evoked through various folk stories that I heard growing up. As a child, I was fond of Russian fairytales. The first story is based on this: when I was little, my family used to visit a place that didn’t have running water. We used to collect water in buckets a few hundred meters away from the house. Every day, my sister and I would fetch the water from the well and the first folk tale reflects that particular activity. It portrays a young maiden who brings water back home in the same way I did as a child. In this story, however, she loses her shawl and it falls down the well. Frantically, she reaches down trying to grab hold of it but instead pulls a young man out of the well! The young man is very beautiful and they’re very taken with each other, so this is how ‘The Spirit and the Maiden’ begins. The young man has been in a way ‘imprisoned’ in the well for thousands of years. For some reason she manages to take him out! Musically, it’s kind of suspenseful, it has a folk-inspired melody.

What are the stories of the other movements?

The second movement is a dance. It’s as though they are now dancing together because they are so happy to have met. However, it’s a very warm day so by the end of that movement, what’s left of him is just a little drop in her palm because he’s made of water. The water-spirit has evaporated, which gives rise to a very sad moment in the piece. Everything reduces and we come to a very thin texture musically. The third movement is incredibly sad and she grieves for the young man who disappeared because, of course, she has lost him. As she leans into the well looking for the spirit, she is pulled down into the well by her grief. She sinks into the water and becomes ‘one’ with the spirit. Beautiful flowers grow there. It’s kind of a sad-happy ending, they’re back where he was for those thousands of years. Musically, the third movement is quite dramatic. It is at first mournful, then we hear rich melodies in the cello and violin and there is a certain ‘desperation’ about them. Eventually, their spirits unite.

Since 2004, have you made edits to the work and is editing your pieces something you do often?

I edit my pieces quite a lot. I often come back and check if I still like things, check if I think they still work, I check lengths and so forth. I’ve edited this work. I thought at one point that one of the movements was too long so I cut a chunk of it. Sometimes even ten years on from a piece I’ll cut a chunk! I keep changing things in my music because they’re like living things. I hear it every time anew.

‘The Spirit and The Maiden’ has proven quite popular! What is it about this piece that you feel performers keep returning to?

It has been performed many times, yes! It seems to be a popular piece. Its success could possibly be attributed to the fact that it does have a definite narrative, a story that is very clear. Sometimes people really like this clarity and to have a feel for what’s going on. Other than this, I’d say the piece comes up in programs because it’s a really good length, and overall it doesn’t feel ‘long’. I’m really pleased that it gets performed and that people enjoy it, I feel very lucky that there are such fantastic performers who are attracted to this work.

Selby & Friends will be performing Kats Chernins’ ‘The Spirit & The Dance’ in June 2017 across Australia. To purchase tickets, go to http://www.selbyandfriends.com.au

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