Composer Elena Kats-Chernin and Recorder virtuoso Genevieve Lacey on reimagining J.S. Bach’s inventions.

Two of Australia’s most celebrated musicians, the country’s preeminent recorder virtuoso Genevieve Lacey, and acclaimed composer Elena Kats-Chernin, talk about their collaboration for the new album, Reinventions, released by ABC Classics.

Genevieve: How did the idea for the Reinventions project come about?

I’d always wanted to work with Elena, as I’ve loved her music for years. A mutual friend, Chris Latham, kindly introduced us, and generously facilitated the commission of ‘Re-Inventions’.

Musically, the idea of the work emerged at the end of a wonderful afternoon, improvising with Elena. I visited her place to introduce my instruments and myself, and after hours of playing and talking together, I played something that reminded her of a Bach invention, and then marvelled as the Re-Inventions idea took shape in Elena’s head, ears and fingers, right before me, with uncanny speed and clarity.

How did you choose particular Inventions and what parameters (or limits) did you set yourself?

Elena: My first introduction to the Inventions was as a very small child.  When I was about 5-6 I was at home alone most of the time, having not yet started school. My parents were both working and my  sister was already at school. We had a piano at home which my mum often played. She had a lot of sheet music and I took it upon myself to read through it all while I was on my own. One of her books was the Bach Inventions. I was captivated, intrigued and delighted by them immediately. I loved the counterpoint and harmony. I played many of them myself and was attracted particularly to the six that I chose for Re-Inventions.

The first Re-Invention is based on the Two Part Invention no. 8 in F major.  I loved the bubbly nature of this piece. To me it is like a fountain of inspiration and joy. The next is no. 4 in D minor. I found the main motif extremely hypnotic and I really like the way Bach used only two chords in the first section. Next is the A minor no. 13. I think this has always been my favourite. When I was a child I thought it sounded like a machine. The C major no 1 came next, it has a freshness yet serenity, which really appealed to me. Then the E major no 6 is like a little mystery, there are so many chromatic turns and revelations. The last was the G major no 10, I like the virtuosity of this piece.  For my Re-Invention I took only one bar as the basis for the whole structure.

I didn’t set myself any specific limits with this material. I tend to use small fragments rather than extended sections in my reworking. More than the notes themselves, my imagination was ignited by how the music spoke to me personally and what emotional world I felt Bach was trying to capture. I chose tempi that I felt were interesting, and sometimes even changed the key from major to minor or even the key itself to suit what I imagined for Genevieve and her recorders.

Playing an ‘ancient’ instrument, how important is it for you to embrace and help create the new?

Genevieve: The most exhilarating and challenging projects I have the privilege of being part of, involve working alongside composers. My instrument’s history is dear to me – recorder players inherit a wealth of beautiful music, which inspires and informs much of what I do. But if the instrument is to continue to be played and heard in centuries to come, it’s my responsibility to do whatever I can to support its present and nurture its future. So the creation of new work is of vital, joyful importance to me. Working alongside some of the most fertile imaginations and formidable musical intellects in contemporary music is something that never ceases to astound and humble me.

What are the particular pleasures of working with pre-existing material as opposed to, say, writing from a completely blank page?

Elena:Whether the composer is working with  pre-existing material or starting from scratch, we are always faced with a blank page.   I set out to reinvent these pieces and so although I used the material as a starting point, it became more like a perfume or memory throughout the music rather than a set of rules or boundaries. The pleasure of using Bach is the wonder of the music itself. He is incomparable as a composer and has always been one of my great heroes.

How did you go about deciding what would sit best with Elena’s Bach?

Genevieve: This came out of conversations with my friends Flinders Quartet, whose CD this really is. Flinders have a strong history with Calvin Bowman, who has a long relationship with Bach, and I was keen to ‘borrow’ a Mozart flute quartet or two, so we plotted a course between all these elements and Elena’s piece. And truly, the credit for the creation and programming of this CD goes entirely to Flinders – I’m simply their delighted guest.

You’ve reimagined a number of composers over the years. Alongside Bach, who else’s work inspires (or might inspire) you to fresh feats of creation?

Elena: There are plenty of composers whose music has both touched me and compelled me to write myself. I’ve been inspired by works of Schubert,  Chopin, Piazzolla, Mozart and Poulenc to name a few.  I think composers filter the world around them and whether consciously or subconsciously are influenced by many things including the present state of music and the past. My music will always reflect my viewpoint and my history. I can’t pinpoint where my inspiration comes from but I know that all these factors are contributing to my works every day.

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