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26 September 2018

Five questions to Catherine Likhuta

Catherine Likhuta Image: Catherine Likhuta  

AMC's Associate artist, composer Catherine Likhuta has a strong connection with the US, which started in 2005 when she first moved there from her native Ukraine, prior to moving permanently to Australia in 2012. She visits the US regularly for performances and residencies - last year, she was preparing for the US premiere of her oratorio-drama Scraps from a Madman's Diary with a week-long residency at the University of Georgia, and in September 2018 she finds herself at Cornell University's main campus in Ithaca, New York. In this interview, she explains why she came to be there, and shares some thoughts about one of her favourite instruments to compose for: the horn.

'My husband Artem, who is a senior lecturer in mathematics at the University of Queensland, is on sabbatical leave. He did his PhD at Cornell, and it is such a beautiful welcoming campus and community that we didn't think twice when it was time to decide where to spend his sabbatical leave. We are loving every minute at this gorgeous place. Now, Artem is semi-jokingly saying that it has become my sabbatical instead of being his, as I've got so many performances and collaborations all across the country happening in the next few months. Travelling from Australia is tricky, and as a result - since I am in the US for a more prolonged period of time than just my usual one or two-week visits - many people are offering me opportunities to visit them and work with their composition students, horn studios or wind bands while I'm in the area. I feel very rewarded as an artist that people half-way across the world show genuine interest in my music and what I have to bring to the table as a composer, performer, educator and collaborator.

Q You have various events of your music coming up, and I understand there's a little bit of a horn theme there. Would you tell us about the works in question, and who is going to be playing them?

Catherine Likhuta: I Threw a Shoe at a Cat (2017) for solo French horn,
performed by Peter Luff (Youtube).

A Yes, thank you very much for asking about my horn music, as I'm always very keen to talk about it! Writing for horn is one of my specialities and areas of interest. To date, I have written twelve virtuosic works featuring horn, three of which were supported by grants from Australia Council for the Arts (thank you!). During the first week of August, I attended the 50th International Horn Symposium, held at Ball State University in Indiana. This is the annual event for horn music, gathering the best performers from around the globe, and it was such an unforgettable experience to be part of it. I participated in two events there: the world premiere of my most recent piece for low horn and piano Vivid Dreams, commissioned by the low horn virtuoso Denise Tryon from Cincinnati, and a lecture-recital about my horn solo piece I Threw a Shoe at a Cat with my friend and collaborator Peter Luff (deputy director at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University). Both Denise and Peter are stunning performers, and I feel so lucky that they enjoy my music and that I get to write for people of their calibre.

As for the upcoming horn music events, on 14 October my piece Snapshots (2012) is being performed at the 2018-2019 Mid-South Horn Workshop by one of the featured artists, Adam Wolf. Then, on 18 October, Bad Neighbours (2017) will be one of the featured works at the Bowling Green State University (BGSU) New Music Festival in Ohio. It is an annual festival of contemporary music, which I attended in 2009 and 2010 and was completely blown away by, so I'm really excited about this upcoming performance. Not to mention that it will be performed by the horn studio of Andrew Pelletier, the newly elected president of the International Horn Society. Andrew will play the first soloist part.

Snapshots (2012) for horn and piano - Catherine Likhuta and Adam Unsworth
live at the Queensland Conservatorium of music in 2014.

Later in October I'm doing a Midwest tour with Peter Luff who will come all the way from Brisbane! Peter and I have been collaborating for over five years now, and he has commissioned and premiered five of my works to date. For our various recitals, we will be joined by world-class horn soloists, such as Adam Unsworth, Andrew Pelletier and Alexander Shuhan. All of these recitals will feature my horn compositions, and the one on 22 October at the University of Michigan with Adam Unsworth will be a 2-hour event of all of my music for horn. It will also feature the string and woodwind faculty from that school. The event will feature three premieres: the world premiere of the horn trio version of Tangle and Tear (originally commissioned by Plexus and premiered by them earlier this month at the Melbourne Recital Centre), the US premiere of Lesions, and the world premiere of a new version of Bad Neighbours (for two horns and piano). It promises to be a very exciting event for us. In November, Adam Unsworth and I are doing an East Coast tour, hitting New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and other places in that area. We will be playing Bad Neighbours, Lesions, Snapshots, I Threw a Shoe at a Cat and several of my other horn works at all of these events. Bad Neighbours is a concerto inspired by the current war in Ukraine, Lesions is about my mother's decades-long fight with an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis, and I Threw a Shoe at a Cat is a dedication to a very close friend, so I am especially looking forward to performing these works that are special to me.

Q You've composed for horn and various wind ensembles before - did it happen by chance or is it because you are attracted to the sound of these instruments?

A I think it's a mix of both. People who were the first ones to commission me to write for horn (Adam Unsworth, University of Michigan) and for wind ensemble (Cynthia Johnston Turner, Cornell) did so after hearing my music for other instruments and ensembles, and I think it was a combination of them liking what they heard and imagining what my style of writing would sound like in the medium they were working with. I trusted them, as they were experts in those fields, and so I thought if they felt like I could contribute something valuable to their repertoire, I should do all I can to not disappoint. As I started writing for horn and learning about it, I fell in love with its beautiful rich sound and all the different ways a composer can manipulate that sound through the use of various techniques and mutes. Horn is one of the most difficult instruments to play and to write for, but it's also one of my absolute favourites (if not the favourite). It just has this incredible storytelling ability, where every single note can say something meaningful and deep. Plus, in my experience, horn performers are always thirsty for new repertoire, so it's a rewarding experience to write for the instrument knowing the works will be sought after.

Collaborating with good performers is almost a necessity when writing for horn, as you have to check that everything works; no matter how many works for horn you have written or how much you've read about the instrument, there are always little things here and there that just might not work as well as you hope. Horn is just that kind of an instrument. But for me, that only creates an opportunity for closer collaborations and friendships with my horn performers and within the international horn community, which is very rewarding.

Wind ensemble provides a composer with an extremely rich colour palette, and it is every bit as powerful, nuanced and diverse as symphony orchestra, with the added bonus of the traditionally richer and larger percussion section. It is a highly competitive compositional field, and so I feel very privileged and lucky every time I am asked to write for this medium.

Catherine Likhuta: Scraps from a Madman's Diary (2016) - a secular oratorio
for wind symphony and chamber choir. Premiere at the Queensland
Conservatorium, with the Australian Voices (Youtube).

Q You are a pianist yourself, and also have a degree in jazz piano - is being a performer a central part of your musicianship, or just something a composer does?

A To me, my piano performance is a crucial part of my compositional practice and identity. In Ukraine, where I obtained most of my professional training, one could not be accepted into a conservatorium composition program without having some sort of a performance degree. And I am very grateful for that. I think it makes a composer connect with performers on a deeper level, and it is reassuring and empowering to be an expert in one more field of music, in addition to composition. I also use piano extensively in my compositional practice on a daily basis (including free improvisation) and also participate in performances of my music both in Australia and overseas. Having the composer involved in performances of their music gives the rest of the performers this extra insight that can make all the difference. And, of course, my jazz piano background comes through in my compositional language, which is always fun for me to channel out.

Q You have been successful in forging working relationships, leading to performance opportunities - this is not easy for emerging composers, nor female composers. What's your view about these challenges - and what are your thoughts about how to overcome some of them?

A Coming out of the Ukrainian school, where female and male composers are represented equally (I know, turns out it is possible…), I didn't realise being a female might affect my professional opportunities. Well, it does. I actually only realised it after having moved to Australia.

I have never felt personally rejected on the basis of being a female composer, and I think all of my collaborators couldn't care any less whether I'm a guy or a girl. They dig my music so they play it and commission it. Too easy. At the same time, if you look at the concert programs (especially in Australia, sadly), the vast majority of selected repertoire happens to be by male composers. To the point where the same ensemble/organisation would commission a dozen or more works from the same single person (male) and not a single work from any female composers. That just seems silly to me. There is no reason for it other than the culture and habit (and mateship?).

We have heaps of fantastic female composers. People in charge just need to work a bit harder to adjust their repertoire and include works by females to achieve the fair ratio. The concert-goers won't be disappointed. And to the new generation of female composers, I would like to say that they are entering the field at a very exciting time of positive and active change! It's starting to happen. Female composers are starting to get the recognition and representation they deserve. It will take time, but it is happening!

Now, when it comes to emerging composers of any gender or background, I could say a few things. Firstly, remember it's a marathon, not a sprint; mastering your compositional technique and developing your own unique voice takes a while. Do NOT think about commission fees, winning competitions or making money with your music. This is not the best way forward. You need to use your early composing years to practice your writing. Many young composers ask me what they should charge as a commission fee and how they can obtain commissions, when in my opinion they are not yet ready to be paid. Composition training is a long process. Don't try to rush it. And finally, your performers should be your everything. Learn from them, ask them for (constructive) feedback and criticism, create the scores and parts that will make them happy. I learned the most from my performers.

Q What else is on your desk at the moment - works, projects or collaborations?

A I am currently writing a wind ensemble piece Home Away from Home, commissioned by Jason Noble and the Columbia University wind ensemble. It will be workshopped in NYC this November and in Chicago's Midwest Clinic in December, and then premiered early next year in Carnegie Hall. Upon coming back to Australia in January 2019, I will be working on a saxophone concerto for Michael Duke and the Sydney Conservatorium Wind Ensemble (John Lynch, conductor), which will be premiered in April 2019. Both of these works will be published by Maestros With a Mission, a brand-new Australian band music publisher, who are interested in equal gender representation. They are just starting out and have many exciting and important initiatives and projects planned for the near future. I believe everyone in the Australian musical community will hear about them soon, and I am very grateful to them for being one of the advocates for gender diversity in programming and publishing. We need more organisations like this worldwide.

There are several other projects on the horizon for 2019-2020, including works for band, horn, saxophone and also strings, both in Australia and overseas. I would like to use this opportunity to say a big thank you to every single person who performs my music. Without my performers, it's just a bunch of scores.

> Catherine Likhuta - AMC profile (biography, works, events)

> Catherine Likhutaa - http://www.catherinelikhuta.com/


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