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Love tokens performance and talk with Elena Kats-Chernin

Elena Kats-Chernin, composer and performer, 13 May 2010

KIRSTEN WEHNER: Welcome to everybody. My name is Kirsten Wehner. I am a senior curator here at the National Museum of Australia. It’s a great pleasure for me to welcome you today to the Museum and particularly to welcome Elena Kats-Chernin, our composer and performer for today. It’s a great pleasure to welcome Elena back to the Museum.

Back in 2008, the Museum started to think about commissioning a composer to create a piece responding to the Museum, to its collections and to its exhibitions, and we were very lucky to persuade Elena to take on that job. She created a piece called The Garden of Dreams which was premiered here at the Museum for the first time in May 2009. It’s about a year and the Canberra International Music Festival has come around again, so we thought this was a lovely opportunity to have Elena come back and try a little bit of an experiment for the Museum – this is the first time we have had an occasion like this where we have had someone perform music in the gallery spaces. We will see how it goes. There might be a few interesting sounds floating around during the performance, but I think we will all cope.

As many of you know, Elena is one of Australia’s premier composers, born in Russia, and trained in Russia, in Germany and in Australia. One of the really amazing things about Elena and what makes her such a great fit for the Museum is the way in which she has worked in such a wide variety of medium, not only composing music for orchestral performance within a traditional concert performance but also working extensively in theatre, in dance working with Meryl Tankard, one of our wonderful choreographers, doing music for silent film, for the Sydney Olympics and for the 2003 Rugby World Cup, which is an amazing fit – a very interesting wide range of work. We were really pleased when Elena could bring the Museum into her range of composition and performance. We will have to do an evaluation later to see how it measures up against the World Cup.

When we talked to Elena about composing a piece for the Museum, one of the things we asked her to do was to respond in some way to the Museum’s collection. The piece that she created, The Garden of Dreams, included two movements that were particularly responsive to parts of the Museum’s National Historical Collection. One of the movements was responsive to these objects behind me here, which I hope you can see. These are convict love tokens; that is, they are tokens that were created by convicts who were about to be transported to Australia. When someone in the United Kingdom was convicted of something like stealing a handkerchief or highway robbery or treason, after being convicted in the court they were held often at Newgate Gaol before being loaded onto a ship to be taken to the Australian colonies.

Many of those convicts, while they were sitting down in Newgate Gaol, spent time making what are now called love tokens and what in the nineteenth century were often called leaden hearts. Convicts would take a cartwheel penny, which was a large quite soft penny, and beat it flat and erase the picture of the sovereign and the design on the other side and replace it with a small message of remembrance and love. I don’t know if they also knew that actually removing the face of the sovereign from a penny was itself a felony. I think maybe they didn’t really mind too much any more; they were going anyway so may as well go with it.

These objects are incredibly touching now, because they are often the only objects we have left that relate to the convicts themselves, their own personal experience of being transported to Australia. They would have taken the penny, smoothed it off and either stippled or engraved it. Engraving, as you know, is cutting into a piece of metal with a sharp tool. Stippling is creating a pattern which taking something like a nail and hitting it with a hammerhead. I mention stippling particularly, because Elena responded particularly to stippling. In the piece she is about to play, listen out to the stippling. I think you can hear it quite well.

So they created these pennies and wrote messages for their loved ones, and then they left those pennies with people in England before they were actually transported to Australia. I thought I would read you a couple of them because they are really quite moving. Many of them are quite standard. They say things like: ‘When this you see, remember me and bear me in your mind. Let all the world say what they will, speak of me as you find.’

Others are much more personal. We can actually tell that they are from very particular convicts to members of their family. For example, there is one that is marked from Charles Tonks to his wife Esther Tonks which says:

May God bless and protect you and the child. Live long and die happy in the sincere prayer of your unhappy husband. Do not forget me though lost to your sight and to roam far away be my doom, still my thoughts are with you by day and by night and will be ‘til I land in my tomb.

It is so touching; I always choke up. There is something in Elena’s music. It will be very interesting to keep those ideas in your mind as we listen to the piece. Elena, I don’t know if you would like to say anything more to introduce the piece. I will hand over to you and maybe a welcome for Elena. [applause]

ELENA KATS-CHERNIN: Thank you very much for this wonderful introduction. It was a great pleasure to write this piece, because the first time when I visited to do research for this piece it was amazing. I was so impressed by the variety of objects and by the history and the whole building - everything amazed me. Coming back home and thinking what am I going to actually write the piece about was very hard because there was a lot of choice. And for some reason I got attracted to this love token because it represented everything - romance, loneliness, memory, something sentimental. Obviously love is part of romance. That was very important to me and somehow it inspired me to write this one movement.

I have to say that this piece was written for orchestra. Now I will try to compact it into a piece of music for the piano, so it is quite different. The very beginning of the piece is what you described as like stencilling the words into the coin, And the sound I imagined - of course it is not exactly how it actually sounded, I am sure - somehow representing for me the impression of that sound was the xylophone doing something like this [high notes played] I would like to ask one of you to do this, is it possible? Because it’s an orchestral piece it has a lot of layers. I have only two hands, I don’t have three hands. One of them has to do this, the other hand does something else and then the other does something else. If anybody would do that, it would be great. When I do this [indicates], you stop, and at the end it comes again. [high notes played] I will do it with you together at first and then we start. Basically I do it for four bars and then I go off and you continue.

[Music played]

ELENA KATS-CHERNIN: Thank you very much.

KIRSTEN WEHNER: Wonderful, thank you Elena. We have a bit of time for some questions either relating to this piece or perhaps more generally to the composition. Does anybody have any questions they would like to ask?

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: I was surprised that the music sounded very happy, whereas being deported to Australia is a very eerie and horrifying thought to me.

ELENA KATS-CHERNIN: I always think of escape in the thoughts – first of all, it is probably mischievous. As you say, it’s a felony taking away the design of the coin. It’s both. Being an optimistic person I try not to dwell on the tragedy of it and it is more hopeful. I prefer to think in hopeful terms rather than tragedy. That may be a criticism and I understand that absolutely. I can see that. When you write a piece of music you have lots of sides to a story and you pick one particular side. Of course I could have gone a completely different way but somehow it inspired me more to something happy because when you think about a loved one and you stencil your thoughts of love, you try to send a person a message of hope, optimism and playfulness, because I think love is also playful. I don’t know, I think that is kind of one side of it. I tried to put romance as well into it. It’s a very interesting thought, thank you. A composer does self-talk a lot. I constantly re-evaluate my own work and think, ‘Did I say the right thing? Was it really right?’ Maybe it was one sided.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: It sounded like an expression of love and uplifting.

ELENA KATS-CHERNIN: But also when it’s with the orchestra you have a different colour and it’s not maybe as happy as this. It is still quite fast. It is actually very rare that I write a piece in a major key. It is one of the very few. It is probably one of five pieces and I have written about 300 that’s in a major key. I like to look at things opposite to what you expect, but that’s kind of my way of writing.

KIRSTEN WEHNER: It is so interesting you say that, Elena, because what I am always struck by some of the messages on these tokens is that people are essentially asking someone to wait for them. It says, ‘Yeah, I am going to be gone for about ten years, but can you wait for me basically until I get back,’ which I always think is incredibly optimistic.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Elena, you are probably an honorary Canberran. The ACT government recently in its budget offered a $1 million prize for an orchestral symphonic work. Have you heard about it? Would you consider entering?

ELENA KATS-CHERNIN: Is it really true? I have not heard of it.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: It is true. It was announced in the budget.

ELENA KATS-CHERNIN: I think there is no composer in the world who has ever received that much money for anything. It usually goes towards the orchestra itself. I don’t know; I have no idea. I get commissions and if the project is interesting for me I never look at the money first. The money comes always towards the end and I usually say to my agent, ‘you deal with it,’ because I actually don’t really like to talk about it so much. I think the work itself is already pretty great. But this is my profession and it is what I do for a living so somehow it all kind of works out. Of course, a piece about Canberra would be great, yes. If somebody approached me I will consider, but it hasn’t happened. It’s interesting news. I haven’t heard this.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: I believe it’s to celebrate the centenary of Canberra.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: Elena, what you said about there being different sides to it – I lost contact with a loved one for over 20 years. They got one side and then they finally got my side. I said there are two sides to every story. I found it very interesting the way you phrased it. Then they replied very maturely and said in their opinion there was actually three sides, because you get both opinions and then the person makes up their own mind. I hope that makes sense.

ELENA KATS-CHERNIN: That makes sense, yes, that’s true. I always say composing a piece of music there are always three: composer, performer – again it is both me here – but then the listener is the third. That’s what makes the piece of music, and then the opinions can change according to how everybody listens. Sometimes when I am listening together with you, I listen differently, I think differently and somehow it changes your mind. I play differently here than I would be in a concert hall or at home. Also the place changes you, so that’s actually the fourth dimension. It makes up a big difference. It makes up your mind. You are looking at this and maybe now I would also think differently. It’s interesting. But it depends really what’s on the coin.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: Elena, you have this in mind, and how do you start? Do you think of a theme and start embroidering on that and developing that – or how do you start?

ELENA KATS-CHERNIN: I improvise a lot, but actually this particular piece did start like that [high notes played]. I thought how do I represent the stencilling and what comes after? I could have done the piece obviously like this. [Music played] But that would have been more common. For some reason it didn’t feel right to do it so I made it in the major key.

But this is how I started and then the chords came on. Then it takes a few days until you have different elements. Like a puzzle I like to have a few ideas and I number them as A, B, C and then I say, ‘After A maybe E will come,’ so I put it together and I kind of juggle it. With the orchestra you have colours so you can repeat something but with a different colour or a different register. And also I build it up in the orchestral version where it’s very little at first and then it builds up and builds up and gets bigger, and then it pulls again. It is pulled back quite a lot so it’s actually quite sad when it goes [music played]. So it’s quite sad towards the end. As I say, I believe we are very complex people and emotions are complex. Pieces are not as simple as they appear at first.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: There would be a lower sound in the cello or the bass or whatever?

ELENA KATS-CHERNIN: I didn’t have much brass but I had a little bit, but more mellow sounding. It was mostly strings, piano and percussion.

KIRSTEN WEHNER: Now we are going to go on a little trek, a little journey, because the second half of the program is in the Gallery of First Australians.

Date published: 12 July 2010