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21 January 2016

Kate Neal: Beyond Semaphore

Kate Neal Image: Kate Neal  

Artists' careers seldom follow a direct route. Rather, they take non-linear directions, which is why interviews with freelance musicians are so fascinating - they are, more often than not, artists who have a really solid understanding of what they want to say and how they should say it.

Kate Neal is one of these people. Her compositional voice has an incredible sense of surety about it: it is complex, but also articulate. For several years now, she has been using extra-musical tools, such as gesture, light, choreography and staging, to create musical scores. Her practice has extended into works for Chamber Made Opera (Australia), Crash Ensemble (Ireland), and the US-based SO Percussion, Roomful of Teeth and Yarn Wire. Likewise, her study has spread from Australia to the USA, where she began her PhD studies at Princeton University, and to Manchester, Italy and the Netherlands.

Most recently, Kate has been absorbed in her work Semaphore. A multimedia collaboration with director Laura Sheedy, animator Sal Cooper and choreographer Timothy Walsh; Semaphore is a work that appears incredibly complex on paper. When performed however, the theatrics, animation, music and dance form one very cohesive entity. Semaphore premiered in May 2015 at the North Melbourne Town Hall and, since then, Kate has been preparing it for presentation at the Australian Performing Arts Market (APAM) in Brisbane this February.

For those unfamiliar with APAM, it is a four-day industry-focused event where artists present their works to potential buyers as either a pitch (10-minute spoken presentation for works in development) or a showcase (25-minute performance for works ready to tour). Typically these showcases are condensed versions of the full work, limited in time and resources. Among the many works also being showcased this year are Opera Australia & Barking Gecko's The Rabbits, Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphry's Five Short Blasts and Luke Jaaniste's Trance Piano.

By Kate's admission, a lot of work goes into presenting at a conference like APAM. 'In order to make a 20-minute version of an hour-long piece, you effectively have to make a new work. But it's a way to give people a sense of what it is', says Kate.

I'm eager to hear from Kate what the process of reworking a piece like Semaphore involves.

'It's tricky!' she admits. But although there are challenges there is also some reward to be gained from reworking old material.

'In editing it, the work becomes something else, a new thing. It's also a great opportunity to rework certain sections with a microscopic lens on it. So, in that sense, it's really good to revisit old material and learn from it.'

It's unsurprising that reworking Semaphore is a challenge. It's a particularly intricate work, tied together with notions of signaling, encoding, and encryption processes.

'It's made up of lots of different segments', says Kate. 'There are 16 scenes. Some of those scenes are animation with voiceover, some are purely music, some are with dance, and some are with musicians doing gesture. One of the scenes features an archival interview with ANZAC signalmen spliced together as an audio file with translated signals on the screen. Another is 21 reception bells that are all microtonal but arranged into patterns with dance.'

Among many techniques, one of the compositional tools Kate used has been to translate well-known signals and codes such as the Morse code for SOS (Save Our Souls), 'Why Has Thou Forsaken Me?' and 'What Hath God Wrought?' (the first Morse code sent) into rhythmic patterns and structures. Kate stresses, however, that although this level of complexity exists in the music it does not necessarily need to be understood by the audience to be appreciated. 'These elements are not immediately transparent', she says. 'It's very encoded. As an audience member you don't know every signal or semaphoric gesture and nor should you.'

Looking over Kate's practice, it is obvious that this work has been about the long game. In various forms, and in various parts of the world, fragments of Semaphore have been developed and presented for almost ten years. When you've worked on a task of this magnitude for so long, it can become all-consuming. But beyond Semaphore, Kate is incredibly busy. Like many freelance artists, she feels fortunate that she has managed to sustain this career for as long as she has. She says that the reason she has not finished her PhD is that she has 'no time to write'. I point out that she does not seem too concerned about this. Her response is valid: she's engaged quite thoroughly for the next 18 months and beyond then, who can say? She says she expects the work will run out at some point (I'm not so sure).

Kate's work outside of Semaphore focuses a lot on the visual presentation of music through other mediums.

'In a lot of my work my focus has been on sound and on how sound looks', she says. One of the ways Kate explores this concept is in her work with long-time collaborative partner, animator Sal Cooper. Through their production company, Thin Line Productions, they create 'short vignettes' that are beautiful in their simplicity. These short animations have consistent themes of isolation and solitude, whilst holding up a mirror to corporate culture. In 2009 their work Song for a Comb was the winner of Best Animation at TropFest. More recently, their 2015 TropFest submission Carnival of Affluence is a poignant look at affluence and spending culture.

What Hath II by Kate Neal, performed by the Morbius Quartet (Vimeo).

Looking forward, Kate's commissions come primarily from chamber and new music ensembles. In particular, the theatrical nature of her composition seems to be a natural fit for both percussion and vocal music. Upon her return from Princeton in 2013, Kate took up a position as composer in residence with the Four Winds Festival; a role she describes as 'a lot of hard work but incredibly rewarding'. During this time she made arrangements of ten Cole Porter Songs, which were performed at the 2014 Four Winds Festival by soprano Michelle Nicolle. Other recent commissions include Tomatoes, a work for the Song Company based on the poetry of Michael Leunig, and an upcoming work with theatre maker Tamara Saulwick (with whom she has worked previously on Chamber Made Opera's Permission to Speak) in collaboration with Gian Slater's group Invenio.

Kate's work for percussion is in high demand. Using similar principles to Semaphore, her What Hath II explores encoded methods of communication derived from binary code, Morse code and light coding. Written in 2012, the work was performed in 2014 by New York based ensemble the Mobius Quartet. In 2016 she will begin a commission from Perth/Melbourne-based percussion ensemble the Sound Collectors. Alongside founding members Louise Devenish and Leah Scholes, this work will feature Kate's previous collaborator Vanessa Tomlinson. Also for performance in the near future is a commission for the Viney-Grinberg Piano Duo. 'They're a set of etudes that are long overdue!'

Further links

Kate Neal - AMC profile
Kate Neal - homepage (http://www.kateneal.com/)
'Kate Neal's Semaphore' - a blog article on Resonate (25 May 2015)
APAM 2016 (http://www.performingartsmarket.com.au/)
Tropfest 2009: Song for a Comb by Sal Cooper and Kate Neal

Subjects discussed by this article:

Leah Blankendaal completed a Bachelor of Music (Honours) at the University of Western Australia, followed by a Master's degree  in Communication Studies (Sound Design), during which she submitted her dissertation as a large-­scale sound installation artwork A Thousand Facets in collaboration with photographer Darren Smith. In addition to flute, Leah also performs regularly on piano accordion in a contemporary setting. In 2012 she was awarded first runner-up for the RTRFM Music Award at the Perth International Fringe Festival, for her piece L’Histoire Du Tango. She currently produces Music in Melbourne on 3MBS Fine Music Radio and tours with Middle Eastern ensemble Kaisha.


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