12 questions with Catherine Likhuta
Cathy Likhuta is an Australian composer. We are giving the first UK performance of ‘Me Disagrees’, which started life as a trio for piano, alto saxophone and flute before being morphed into the symphonic wind ensemble version you’ll hear later this year.
Q: Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
A: My favourite musicians tend to be my collaborators, as we often become friends through the process of working on my music. And they usually inspire me. I tend to work quite a bit with horn and saxophone players as well as band directors, and I really love the appreciation and thirst they all have for new repertoire. It makes it especially rewarding to write for them. When it comes to composers, I tend to like the ones whose music is unmistakably theirs: meaningful, emotional, picturesque and/or dramatic/witty/cheeky/mesmerizing. There are also two composers who are very close to my heart: my former US mentors, Dana Wilson and the late Steven Stucky. I learned from them how to treat students, how to value collaborators, and a million of other things – so much more than just music writing! All of that was free of charge for three years. They are my heroes, and I will always be grateful to them. The bonus is that their music is superb.
Q: How do you think your music reflects your femininity?
A: I’m not really sure. I normally don’t think it does, but at the same time, my music is influenced by my life experiences and many of them wouldn’t be the same if I weren’t a female.
Q: Has the music industry changed to the extent that to be successful as a composer these days, you also need to be a businesswoman?
A: The music industry has definitely changed, and I don’t even know that being a good composer AND a businessman/woman is enough in order to succeed. It is such a competitive, over-saturated market! Self-promotion is a necessity yet so many people can see the slightest self-promoting moves as soliciting. It’s a very thin line, and it’s also very subjective. I would’ve been nowhere without self-promotion, as I had changed three countries in the past 14 years and basically had to start over three times as a result. So I had to contact people every time I would move to a new society, otherwise they would just not know about me.
Q: How would you characterise your compositional language?
A: Jazz-influenced, virtuosic, programmatic, emotional, dramatic, energetic, storytelling and I would like to think engaging!
Q: If you were to describe your music in three words, what would they be?
A: Programmatic, emotional, virtuosic.
Q: What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
A: Money? (LOL)… But to be serious, I’m a “glass half-full” kind of person. The only thing I can think of as really challenging was changing countries and the worries associated with that. But this is also what made me stronger and, in the end, enriched my list of collaborators and friends.
Q: What advice would you give your younger self about preparing to be a composer?
A: I’m very lucky to have no regrets so far!
Q: What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
A: I think it’s very different for every composer, and it’s also different for me with every new piece. One of the pleasures is that (typically) a commissioned piece is being written for someone who is already familiar with my work and really enjoys it (otherwise why commission it). I find it reassuring and inspirational, and I don’t want to disappoint them. The only challenge I can think of is the pressure to perform well. Quite often, I am given the details of the venue/event where a world premiere of the commissioned piece would be taking place. That can be a bit nerve-wrecking sometimes (OFTEN!). For instance, I recently wrote a piece for low horn and piano, commissioned by a very well-known US low horn virtuoso, Denise Tryon. She commissioned it for the world premiere at the 50th International Horn Symposium, THE most important horn event in the world. It was decided that I would be the pianist for that performance, and we had to play it (for the first time) to an audience of about 600 horn players from all over the world. You know, no pressure! Luckily, I found inspiration in all this, the performance went extremely well and I’m very proud of that work.
Q: Of which works are you most proud?
A: My oratorio-drama “Scraps from a Madman’s Diary” (2016); a trio about my mom’s fight with multiple Sclerosis entitled “Lesions” (2017); a piece about Russia’s war in Ukraine entitled “Bad Neighbours” (2017); and a concertino for 5 horns entitled “Hard to Argue” (2014), which was the winner of the International Horn Society composition contest, virtuoso division. Also “Rituals of Heartland” (2017), which is a piece I wrote in collaboration with my then 4-year-old daughter Skylie (she contributed characters and did the artwork); my 2008 piano concerto; my first horn piece “Out of the Woods?” (2011); the most virtuosic piece I’ve ever written called “Motions” (2007) for clarinet and piano; and some others… Sorry to mention so many! I work really hard, with no weekends or vacations, so I always try to only write music that I am happy with and proud of.
Q: How do you work?
A: I compose when my daughter is at daycare or asleep (or with my partner, who is helping a lot). I use piano in my composing extensively, though always keeping in mind the instrumentation I’m writing for, to ensure my music comes out idiomatic (and doesn’t sound like piano music played on other instruments if that makes sense). I use what I call “premeditated improvisation”, which is somewhat similar to free improvisation, except I think extensively about what I want to improvise before sitting down at the piano. I record my improvisations and then work with them, incorporating bits and pieces that I like the most into my works in progress. I really love composing and feel more and more comfortable with it and fascinated by it with every new piece.
Q: What is your most memorable concert experience?
A: I’ve been lucky to have had so many memorable ones! The most recent two would be the US premiere of “Scraps from a Madman’s Diary” in October 2016 and the world premiere of “Vivid Dreams” at the 50th International Horn Symposium just last week. I am always beyond grateful to the performers and audiences for their engagement with my music.
Q: How important is someone else’s opinion of your work to you?
A: It hugely depends on who that “someone else” is. I remember thinking about it a lot in 2007, when I came to the realisation that not a single composer had written music that every person in the world would like. People just have such different tastes! So back then, I decided I should try writing the music that really drives me and that I’m proud of, and also the music that performers can use as an opportunity to further develop their technique and musicality. It’s been working really well so far. The opinion of the performers and conductors who commission my works means the world to me.