Catherine Kontz is a Luxembourgish composer. She writes operas, ensemble and solo pieces for festivals, organizations and individual artists. Her approach has inspired musicians to specialize in contemporary music. Catherine also co-fronts her avant-pop band French for Cartridge and founded her own record label, Dinner with Daisy Records.
Catherine studied at the Music Conservatory in Luxembourg and Goldsmiths College in London. As part of her PhD, Catherine produced and directed her mime opera “MiE”. All six performances were sold out. She committed three years to composing and developing “Neige”, her first full-length opera, which she directed in 2013 to great acclaim. Catherine lives in London with her husband and their daughter.
What is it like to work as a composer? What’s your process?
As a composer I write music on commission. I usually get commissions from institutions, performers or festivals who request a new piece. I think a long time about pieces before I write anything. For every commission I get I have to think about how to make the best possible piece for that performance space or ensemble. Usually, I’m given three elements: the duration of the piece, the instrumentation and the deadline. Everything else is variable. Often performers or festivals commission a piece. A festival might need a piece for a specific formation, so they’ll request a piece for harp, piano and flute for example. The deadline is usually the first performance date, which is already set. In addition, there’s the deadline by which the performers need to have the music so they can learn it in time. The content is quite free, but it also depends on the performers. They might be professionally trained musicians or children or amateurs. They may have never played any contemporary music before even though they may be advanced students at a music conservatory.
I wrote a couple of pieces like that for harps. They were meant for harpists who haven’t really had any contact with contemporary techniques and contemporary music. These musicians are often a little afraid in that regard because they’re used to playing Bach and Mozart. They live very much in the old world. I also have to consider that when I write. Those are all little challenges. It’s like a puzzle. For the harps for example, I did a graphic score. There were ten harpists and each of them had an A1 score that they had to customize. So they learned the score by painting it. I made it like a children’s book in the sense that you could pull out little items.
The piece is called “Anthill” and it’s about ants. The musicians all started from the same point, ant colony A, to which they all belonged. The piece started with the chords of colony A, so they all had the same chord to start off and then they could go their own trails and ways and pull out little bits of notated music to move to different points in the score. It was very free afterwards. They each had a clock as well and the rain ‘interrupted’ every few minutes. So things were happening within a tiered structure.
It also meant that there wasn’t really any right or wrong. It was like a game and they could explore as much as they wanted. They could even take it in their own time. It was just written like that. So it was not this unplayable score. They completely lost their fear of contemporary music with that piece. Some of them have now specialized in contemporary music, which is really nice. All of them got the hang of it somehow without being too afraid.
Later on I did another piece for harpists that had to be for any number of harpists. We did it with 48 harpists during a harp convention. It was wonderful. But the challenge there was that the harpists ranged from professional to beginners. There were little harps that have levers to change the intonation and there were the big pedal harps. They play slightly different styles and require different tuning techniques. So it had to be a piece that they could all play together, learn it in one weekend and then perform it for a concert Sunday evening. It also had to be interesting for all the different levels. It’s a challenge that makes you think.
How did you approach that?
It often helps, especially people who don’t know much about contemporary music, if the piece has a title at least or if it’s about some theme or topic they can relate to or understand. Since I had written one about ants and it worked well, I thought I would do one about birds and migration. I made a score that consisted of sixteen A3 sheets. It was like a map. The musicians could pretend to fly in groups and also decide to fly North-South or South-North or back and forth, migrating one way or the other by reading the score upwards or downwards.
The beginner part was on the left side and the material on the sheets became gradually more difficult towards the right. So the little ones could do the first lot of four pages and the older ones would do the others. They could walk on land, fly over the sea and even land on islands…There were three types of “flying” (Flapping Flight, Bounding Flight and Gliding & Soaring) that required the harps to be played in specific ways. The tunings were given for each part of the piece. The soaring technique, which used glissandi, represented for example the way birds use hot air currents when they migrate. I read a lot about it, became a kind of superficial expert and incorporated what I liked into the piece. The islands had little codes for different experiments. So they could add a screw between the strings and make it buzz for example. But they could also bypass the islands. Some only wanted to be on the islands. Overall, it got them thinking that they were birds and they would fly, and somehow it worked really well. Again, it took their fear away and it was interesting for the older ones because there were difficult parts for them and the parts for the beginners were very easy. It was great and challenging.
I love that you take something people relate to, something more palpable than the idea many people might have of contemporary music…
Yes, contemporary music is very abstract – like other music as well. But because it has also lost the tonality it’s becoming even more abstract. If you then call it “Piano piece number 13” there is really nothing to hold on to. It becomes almost too serious. I don’t really like that. There’s already a lot of music like that, I don’t really need to add to that. In my music I often try to find new structures and new ways of thinking – also for myself. I like taking a concept or an animal…and then it’s usually about the way they live. I found ants so interesting for example. A colony lives for about ten years because the queen lives ten years. When she dies, that’s the end of the colony. But each ant only lives one year. So the ones you see outside are just at the end of their one-year life. They’re the foraging ones. Before that they just stay inside the nest.
What’s interesting is that the knowledge gets passed on. You talk about a young colony when it’s the first years of that colony and the ants know less. So if there’s danger, they’re not sure what to do. But if an ant belongs to a nine year old colony for instance, even if the ant isn’t one year old, it knows everything. They can pack up the whole thing in minutes and move the queen. They pass on their knowledge, which I found interesting. They also have rivalries with other colonies. A few ants from colony A might go to the site of colony B and close the hole with stones and leaves so that the sun doesn’t come in. Colony B then thinks it’s still night time and they don’t come out. As a result, colony A gets to forage for the best food.
I love that you find inspiration in nature and that you don’t present music and nature separately but you’re saying: this is how the animal lives and I want you to feel it in the music.
It’s especially funny for me because I’m not a nature girl. I just like the theory of nature. My family even jokes that one time I said – and I don’t stand by that anymore – “I can do very well without nature”. But I meant going into the woods and camping…I don’t have any need for that, really. But I love it from an academic point of view: the scientific aspects, the ways things are organized and the way everything works. I love reading about it and seeing it on TV and in documentaries.
It’s very interesting that you’re using theory and science of it to inform feeling…
It’s true that I’ve written quite a few pieces about nature. Recently, my piece “Papillon” was performed. It was based on the family called “Papillon” and their correspondence, so it actually had nothing to do with butterflies. I also wrote a staged piano piece about moths, which is really about moths. It’s called “Like a moth to the light” and was also performed recently. I worked with lighting designer Kristina Hjelm and scenographer Ellan Parry. We filled the stage with light bulbs hanging from the ceiling at various heights. The pianist, Cathy Krier, became the moth. She wore a big coat and she got so close to the light that she even took a light bulb into her mouth. At the end of the piece, the moth dies.
It was interesting because friends of mine came to the concert. They don’t really know classical music or go to many classical music concerts – they just come to see my things. The pianist played a lot of Baroque music, Ligeti and my piece. The preconception would be that these people would like the classical stuff much more than the contemporary pieces. They didn’t. They really liked the Ligeti and my piece because they could relate more to them. Mine was so theatrical that they could understand it, which was great. They found Ligeti interesting. It was musica ricercata – he adds one note to every movement. Once you know that you understand the structure somehow. Bach – though it was beautifully played – left them kind of cold. It was too abstract, they said. Rameau, whose music is classical and grounded and contains nothing to hurt the ear, was too ornate for them. It’s interesting because that’s the opposite of what every concert promoter or programmer would think their audience wants or needs. They might not need that at all.
So through the story of the piece, you’re trying to give the audience something to hold on to. Visual elements, moths, lightbulbs – they create a story that makes the piece less abstract.
Yes, I think that’s important but it’s also not essential and it depends on the piece. I don’t always add theatrical elements and I don’t put them there to make up for the music. Someone once said about my pieces “but the music can stand up for itself!”. And I thought, well yes, I think so too, but I think of everything together and it’s even better with the scenography. I sure hope that the music can stand up for itself and it’s not just some incidental theater music. But the comment was meant in a nice way.
I think nowadays there is so much on offer and people don’t really know what to listen to or go see anymore. They’re confused. There’s too much stuff. And if people make the effort to come to see a concert live, I personally think that you have to offer them something more than they would get from listening to the CD at home. It might just be the famous pianist sitting there live in front of them and that’s fair enough. But from a composing point of view, I do like that it’s something you don’t get from the CD at home and it’s worth going to see a performance because you will only see it like that at the venue. And it won’t be the same on film. You have to have been there. I think that’s important. To make it an event, a happening.
It’s true, there’s so much to choose from and a lot of mass produced stuff, which might be considered the opposite of creating an extraordinary experience.
Right, there’s definitely a market for very popular music. Just the fact that people need new things all the time and it’s not necessarily life changing when you hear it – it means that maybe there’s also a market for something that is a little bit more refined. But in pop music it’s the same: when you go see a show you want to see a show. You don’t want to hear a karaoke version of what you heard at home. That’s not as interesting. You want to know they thought about the lighting, how the stage looks…
The shows are very elaborate now…I’m thinking of Simon and Garfunkel in Central Park where you had two simply dressed guys on stage. The focus is on their singing, the voices, the music. Now they have elaborate costumes, smoke machines…
Yes, of course this can also go wrong. Sometimes, when you have great songs and great performers, all you need is to put them on stage in jeans. If you don’t have such great performers, you need a lot of video in the background to keep people interested. But I think that in the pop world they definitely think about putting on a show, no matter how. Either the performer alone is enough or if not, they do stuff. In the classical world they think that if they put Beethoven on the program, it’s going to attract people somehow, even though many have the CD at home. I don’t think it’s enough anymore and certainly not to attract younger audiences.
My music for example can be enjoyed by anyone aged 10 onwards – sometimes even younger depending on the piece and the context – and not only 60 onwards. In classical music in England, they call it the sea of grey – the string quartet that looks into the audience just sees grey. It’s terrible, I mean, where are all the young people?
To get people interested you have to make it interesting for them. So I just write what I would like to go see, basically, and then hope that other people also want to go see that. For me it’s also not enough to put on a Haydn symphony. I don’t really have time to go see things that are not very special.
It shows in your music. You combine ideas, life, science, music, storytelling…that makes it really interesting.
I try. I do my best. But apparently, it’s inspiring sometimes to people. And I love working with young people who’ve not played contemporary stuff before. They’re apprehensive and think it’s going to be too difficult. They don’t know if they can do it and it’s really fun to then be able to inspire them. And some even want to go on and do more of that, that’s great! It’s really satisfying and fun! A few of that initial group with ten harpists (the piece with the ants) have almost specialized in contemporary repertoire. One of them went on to study in the United States and they performed “Anthill” there at the Eastman School of Music. So I sent them ant scores and I got photos and a video. It’s really fun!
You look so happy just talking about it.
It makes me very happy. It’s a really nice world. I talked to a journalist a couple of weeks ago and I told her about the moth piece and the Papillon piece and another piece…I get very excited talking about my pieces. And then she said: “And now I have to go back and write about politics and all this awful stuff in the world, you stay in your bubble!” I make my own world around me.
In a way you have to…
If I have the chance to create something, I’m going to create something I like, you know. My opera that was performed last year took three years of my life. The subject matter included many issues: philosophy, relationship between teachers and students, going from being a teenager to being an adult, love and death…all sorts of things. It was very emotional. There were a lot of subjects to deal with and think about but there was nothing too dark. Making a film or writing a piece with a really awful, nasty, hard and depressing subject matter – you have to be so involved and live with that all the time, I don’t think I could do that.
I think I’m too involved in it to take on anything like that and I’m not interested, actually. So I’m not going to write any crime stories! I can take Hercule Poirot, but beyond that… I would find that very difficult. So I try to choose things I find interesting – it’s often from Japan actually. Just because I like that they think so differently, the opposite usually of what we think. I find that really fascinating and I try to understand it and get my brain to think like that.
So when you say ‘from Japan’ – do you mean Japanese music? Japanese writing? Painting?
It can be anything. It’s not necessarily the music. For example, I wrote a piece about Geta, the Japanese wooden clogs. I also wrote a piece called “Four and a half Tatami” about Japanese architecture. They don’t think of a room in square meters but in terms of how many tatami mats fit into it. The mats are laid out in a Feng Shui way. Four and a half is the size of the traditional tea room. It’s a square. So I wrote a performance piece for a violinist with a score of 3 x 3 meters, which is four and a half tatami. The violinist was standing on it while playing. The writing was big enough for her to read while standing and she walked on it everywhere. That was fun!
What else…well, my recent opera “Neige” was set in Japan. I also did a piece on the tea ceremony – the Japanese tea ceremony and the English, which is ceremonial in a very different way. It was all about tea but the score was made like manga. The performers could choose what they played and when. That was a fun one. I also wrote a piece called “Takarabune and the Seven Gods of Luck” which was a solo electric bass piece about the seven gods of good fortune they have. So there have been a few pieces. Japanese thinking has often inspired me.
How do leadership skills come into play in your everyday life?
There are many facets to the work. One is the writing part, which I do alone at home. I don’t have much contact with other people during that process and just need to get myself to work well. During the performance stage, especially with ensemble pieces or operas, I take on not only the role of composer but sometimes also the role of director. There, I have to inspire the performers to do their work as well as they can and try to communicate my vision. I have to lead them through the process – that definitely requires leadership skills.
So, part of your role is to inspire others?
Yes, I would say that as a leader that’s the most important thing. Your task as a leader is to motivate people to perform at their best. If you can inspire that motivation in them so that they’ll want to support the project and not put a spanner in the works, you will get the best possible outcome. Of course, you have a vision, you know where you want to get to and how to get there. But it’s by inspiring people to work with you, have confidence in you and follow your advice and opinions that you can actually reach your goal. If the people you work with don’t believe in you or aren’t inspired by what you say, it’s very difficult to get them to collaborate in a proficient way.
How do you motivate and inspire others? Are there specific tools you use or is it your enthusiasm for the project? A combination of both?
When you, as a leader, are very convinced of your project and have a passion for it, it’s almost contagious. People then want to follow you because they can see how passionate you are. But you still have to adapt to the people working with you. It’s not just about inspiration but, as a leader, you have to be able to read people. You have to communicate and judge what they can and cannot do, and believe in their capacities. You need to aim high – even higher than what people think they are capable of and then coach them into that. You also have to be quite diplomatic. Of course there are different leadership styles and everyone has their personality. I’m sure there are leaders who shout a lot at people and think it’s a way to get what they want out of people. But I think that’s counterproductive. As a leader, you set an example. So if you work long hours, everyone else is also likely to work long hours. If you go home at four and expect others to work until ten – that’s not going to happen.
How would you describe your communication style?
It takes a very long time for me to get to the point of shouting. Sometimes there’s just one drop too much and then I shout at somebody. Because I never shout and no one expects it, it has such an effect, it’s amazing actually! It often happens once during a project. With my project “Neige” last year I didn’t shout at all, which was lovely. But with my previous project, the mime opera, there was one point where I actually shouted. Everyone was present and the guy I shouted at became very small. He was sitting there with his beer, being lazy, not wanting to play the piece again and still not playing the right notes, so I just lost it. I think people are still talking about it because I usually have a soft nature and they weren’t expecting it.
But I always know what I want and that comes through quite strongly.
Are you blunt?
I say things directly but not in a hurtful way. I try not to make people uncomfortable. If something isn’t right, I’ll say so. But I’ll say: this isn’t quite right yet, let’s try this, let’s try that or why don’t you do this…It’s about the way you say it. It’s important to be diplomatic because otherwise you can make people feel stupid and very uncomfortable. They’ll feel like they can’t do anything and then you’ll get less and less from them. They’ll shrink away, become shy and the whole thing falls apart.
As a leader it’s important not to feel the need to assert your power by making everyone else less confident. You are in power anyway since it’s your project. There’s no need to rub it in. But there are people who have the need to show that they’re the boss just for the sake of it. I find that very disturbing. Some conductors can be like that. Not all, but it happens.
In your capacity as a leader do you work with other leaders as well?
Yes. Often, because I’m the composer and the initiator of the project, I get to have the last word. But the projects are very much collaborations and I work with the lighting designer, scenographer and all sorts of people. I accommodate their needs and let them, I hope, do their job and go through their own creative process.
I tend to work with the same people because we get along very well. They understand my ideas and take them further and improve them because it’s not my domain but theirs. For example, I work with Ellan Parry all the time. Whenever I need stage scenery, costumes or something theatrical, I usually ask her because she really gets what I have in mind and then makes it amazing. I can rely on her.
That’s another thing. When, as a leader, you know you can rely on the people you work with, that’s a luxury. Otherwise you have to check everything all the time and it can become stressful, especially if it’s not how you wanted it to be and you end up doing everything yourself.
Have you ever worked with another leader whose leadership style consisted of crushing everyone else to assert his or her own power?
Yes, I have.
How did you deal with that?
In that particular situation, it meant that the project was not as good as it could have been because the end result was that all the musicians were quite scared and timid. They didn’t feel free anymore. They just wanted it to be over instead of being at their best when they performed. It was inhibiting. At that moment it wasn’t my place to intervene in any way, but I didn’t like it.
It happens in the theater a lot as well. One person on the team will just bully others. It can happen, like in every other institution. I don’t think it’s good leadership.
It’s the same when you teach and lead students. There are teachers who completely destroy their pupils by criticizing mistakes all the time or making them feel like they can’t play their instrument anymore. After a year of lessons like that these pupils won’t be able to play anything anymore. It happens a lot in teaching. Bad teaching styles are also a form of bad leadership.
In music there are many leaders but not everyone is trained to be or even wants to be a leader. When you’re the leader you also have to be able to take the responsibility. You just have to get everything done and there are people who will not want to be in that role.
How do you approach problems that might arise between collaborators or participants?
You have to judge each situation separately. It can be something very small and it’s often a misunderstanding rather than an actual fight. It can be about job descriptions, one person thinking they’re doing something or thinking someone else is doing it. But both of them will probably come to the leader complaining about each other. So you hear both sides and then you have to come to an agreement with everyone. You’re the referee and you have to solve the problem. So you might clarify who does what, restore harmony between them or fire one person. It depends on how grave the situation is and what’s needed. That’s also something a leader has to deal with.
Have you ever fired anyone?
No, but I have thought of firing people. There were a couple of situations where I was very close to firing someone. I’ve been very lucky and most of the time I work with people who are really wonderful. I either select them when they audition or when I hire them, or we might have already done a project together. It’s very rare for me to have to work with someone I somehow don’t get along with or who is just really bad at what they do. It hasn’t happened much. So fortunately, I haven’t had to fire anyone. But if it was necessary, I would.
The project becomes a priority.
Yes, you go quite far to make it as good as you can – if you believe in it. The project becomes like a baby everyone cares about. Sometimes things happen in life that are more important and then you think: OK, this is only a project. You take a step back and realize you can relax about this now because it’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t happen. But when you get drawn into it, it can become the only thing you think about.
When you thought about firing someone, what kept you from actually doing it?
The project would have suffered more from bringing in someone new at that point than keeping this person who was difficult to deal with in many respects. It was actually for the project rather than for the person. Again, you judge the situation and obviously you don’t tell anyone. You have to be much more diplomatic than that, but that’s sort of what you’re thinking.
So you have to find the line between what to say and what to keep to yourself in order to not to damage the efficiency of the project.
Right, it’s all a very fragile balance. Every project is different – different people, different situations. You’re also confronted with stress because the project might start with everyone working well together but there comes a point when the tension rises across the board. Everybody stresses about something because the deadline is approaching. You have to finish and it’s not done yet. During those moments you see how the team really works. If it can take it or not. You might need to take a break or go out for a drink with everyone so they can just talk about something else and be normal people with each other in order to work better later. You just have to see what is most important in any given situation.
These are some of the external challenges you face in your field. How do you deal with internal challenges like insecurity and self-doubt?
Well, it’s a creative process. In a way, you always doubt a little, but I’m very sure about every decision I make. As long as you’re not afraid to fail, you keep going until you finish. There’s always the risk that in the end it might not work. But you can’t do very good work if you always play it safe. There won’t be anything new in your work. So one side is always a bit of an experiment and it will probably go well, but it might not. The leader has to be able to take that risk.
…And then be OK with whatever the outcome might be.
Yes. You work until the last minute to make it great. Then, if the performance doesn’t work the way you thought, that’s a shame but you have to be OK with that. It can happen. If all the critics think it was awful, then that’s just how it was.
If I’m very happy with a piece, I don’t really care what anyone else thinks because it was exactly how I thought it would be and I’m very excited about it, even if all the papers say it was really awful. That has happened. This one time in London we had worked really well on part of an opera and the performers sang beautifully. The journalist who wrote about it thought it was the most ugly music he had ever heard! I thought that was almost a compliment, you know. In a case like that you think it just wasn’t his thing or he didn’t get it – it doesn’t matter. If you are happy with it, the rest doesn’t really bother you. You just can’t use it on your website much.
But if I’m not happy with it and everyone loved it, that’s much worse. People then say “It was lovely!” and I still think: it was not.
Right, because then you’re not at peace with yourself. If you’re at peace with yourself, other people can say whatever they want. But if there’s something nagging…
…it’s not satisfying and you feel like you failed. Maybe it was good enough for everyone else, but it wasn’t for yourself. It’s disappointing. What’s quite nice is that I’m a perfectionist up until the performance and then I usually manage to let it go. It has its own life and I can’t do anything anymore. I sit there and I watch it or listen to it. There’s nothing I can do if it goes right or wrong. I can just sit tall and lean forward or sink into my chair – depending on how it goes. I’m not the kind of person who then goes around and says “that note there was wrong” or “you should have done this”. It’s not the time to do that – you can’t go back anyway. You just have to be content with what you got unless it was really not what you wanted for some reason and then it’s just a bit disappointing. I’m not like…was it James Brown? His musicians were fined for wrong notes. When he heard something that was off he would say “gotcha!” and that musician got paid less for the gig. He had excellent musicians but I’m not quite sure about the leadership there.
How do you inspire yourself?
I don’t do anything in particular. It usually just comes. I might read something somewhere – which can be anywhere – and something will click. It can also be something someone says and I start to connect things until I suddenly have an idea for this or that project. But I don’t meditate or do anything like that.
So the motivation is there and then through your interests – be it reading, listening…
…or just sitting down. When I have a project I need to start writing right away but I don’t really know what it’s about or what I want to do, I just sit down and try to think about what I want to happen and what would be interesting to write. Then my mind starts to wander. It’s a little bit like a child who is bored and thinks “what do I want to do?” and suddenly they see something in the room which leads to something else and then they start to play and pretend they’re in a house. Your mind just kind of goes there.
Train journeys are fantastic for that sort of thing. If you have three hours on a train or plane by yourself with nothing else to do…the train is even better, it’s the sound. You just get a lot of ideas.
It works subconsciously…
Yes, it’s this monotone thing in your ears. It makes you focus on other things. But now I usually travel with my little daughter so it’s not quiet. I’ve never really had any kind of writer’s block. You always find something to do. Some days you are more inspired than others.
How do you deal with the days when you’re not as inspired?
It’s like every other job. Part of it is an art form and part of it is craft. So I still know how to generate notes and write something even if I’m not so inspired. That will give me some material which then leads to something else and suddenly I’m inspired to do it. You just have to get started.
Right. Inspiration comes through action.
Exactly. And now my working hours are a bit more defined because I work when my daughter’s at the nursery, so between 10am and 5pm on certain days. There’s no time to say I’m not inspired. I better be inspired immediately at 10 o’clock! If I really don’t feel like writing anything I’ll send a few emails first -there are always things to do. And I don’t spend every day writing either. I would want to but there are so many other things to do. It almost feels like a luxury sometimes when I actually have time to write.
You just have tools like that. That’s also what I learned over the years studying composition. You don’t wait for some spark to come to you.
Header photo credit: Benji Kontz Interview: October 2014