“If you cannot swallow a piece of food, turn round and throw it somewhere.” Erasmus, 1530.
“Never tilt your chair back on two legs. Never push food onto a fork with your finger. Never eat with your mouth open.” Mrs Beeton, 1859.
What initially drew you to the idea of working with cutlery as a sound source?
Initially I thought cutlery might be a sonic area worth research and investigation. I’ve certainly used a lot of glass and glasses, goblets, bowls and metals in previous work, so perhaps cutlery is a natural extension of that. A lot of my pieces also start with a sort of visualisation – how does it look as it sounds, or how does the sound of it look? I always imagined these racks of pitched hanging cutlery framing the space, but I didn’t know what that would sound like. I would also say that some recent work has dealt with content issues regarding social etiquette, rules regulations and gestural syntax in non-verbal communication, (What Hath 2012; Self Accusation 2013; Permission To Speak 2016). Never Tilt Your Chair adds to this body of work.
Percussionist Leah Scholes in Kate Neal’s Never Tilt Your Chair. Photo © Sarah Walker
In the cutlery world, what sounds are you most attracted to? And what are most useful or interesting when you’re composing?
It’s been a great discovery and education process into the world of cutlery. Most of the cutlery I’m using is EPNS – electroplated nickel silver. This is because most other cutlery didn’t sound that great (sterling silver, stainless steel, iron, other silver-plated metals). EPNS cutlery originated in the 19th century and became popular as a base metal for cutlery, silverware, zippers, keys, jewellery and musical instruments (flues/clarinets). In 1913, the British metallurgist Harry Brearley discovered stainless steel and this metal has come to be the predominant one used in cutlery today.
I was ever more surprised at the complex sound world of differing pieces of cutlery. Forks came to have a special attraction (especially the serendipitously named fiddle-backs, so named for the handle shaped like a violin) as well as the deep resonance of large flat-blade knives. The piece contains two-, three-, four- and five-tine forks, as well as several large ladles and a variety of serving implements, some dating back to the early 1800s.
How did the selection process work? Were you very particular about each piece of cutlery you chose?
Well, like all these things, once you start down a road there is no end. I collected around 350 pieces of cutlery and used about 170. Trawling through ebay, Gumtree, swap & op shops and antique dealers was time consuming but rewarding. I came to be efficient in knowing what would be useful or relevant. EPNS is a heavy metal and usually the weight of a piece would point to sound quality, but not always.
Kate Neal’s Never Tilt Your Chair. Photo © Sarah Walker
What are some of the challenges of composing for ‘non-standard’ instrumentation like cutlery?
I think in this case that the sonic environment of the cutlery can be complex and bracing. It’s possible that this sound world gets tiring to the ear. In order to counteract that I composed quite simple music, writing specifically for each scalic form, using rhythm and melody to somewhat distract from the constant ‘ding’ of the object. Fortunately, the content and gesture associated with the utility of the objects offered another area of research and development in the composition.
What are some of the new instruments created for the work?
There are two main instrument designs: Racks (3) and the Chandelier. The Chandelier has 58 carefully selected and placed pairs of cutlery including some rare and antique pieces. The off-set motor on one arm causes the cutlery to jiggle, the position of each pair creating complex beating patterns. Lighting Designer Bosco Shaw built the final design and set cold light in the arms. The Chandelier was also used in Chamber Made Opera’s Permission To Speak in 2016.
The three racks each have 30 odd pieces of cutlery arranged in type (knife/fork/spoon) and pitch. The three racks range from lowest to highest, and thus each cutlery type has a 4-5 octave range over the three-rack spectrum.
Will there be other sound sources in addition to cutlery and table-ware?
The piece is mostly cutlery with some glass-ware (desert compotes). The desert compote is interesting as it has a serrated edge on the lip of the glass (to signify to the diner not to use as a drinking vessel). The serrated edge has proved sonically useful.
Composer Kate Neal
There is a certain theatre in dining etiquette. How do you explore this in your work?
Henry VIII used his hands to tear off large pieces of beef from a roast set before him, throw the meat on his board, chop off smaller pieces and shovel them in his mouth. Such table manners were acceptable until the publication of books on manners by Castiglione (1478-1529) and Peacham (1576-1643).
Mrs Beetons Book of Household Management, Isabella Beeton 1861, has been a wealth of all things to do and not do at the table. She offers extensive social and dining etiquette, concurrent for the middle class of the time. Her first chapter The Mistress also offers advice on how to be a prudent wife and run a good household. A stifling read, her cooking advice can also be odd, for example boiling pasta for an hour and forty-five minutes. She also has a distaste for the unfamiliar saying that mangoes tasted like turpentine, lobsters indigestible, garlic offensive and potatoes “suspicious; a great many are narcotic, and many are deleterious.”
These and other texts were used as research, primarily to stimulate sonic and visual material.
I understand there is a strong theatrical element to Never Tilt Your Chair. What will the visual experience be like for the audience?
You know, this is a new work, and a new instrument, and I would say at this point the work rests somewhere between the music and visual art worlds. The theatrical aspect is present but always in the service of sound. The piece is in three sections, the first being at a table (the setting is neutral, not overly formal) with the performers executing table gestures and cutlery patterns, the second with the desert compotes and the third at the racks, letting the cutlery sing for itself.
Never Tilt Your Chair Back on Two Legs is at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts April 10 – 11