Project Check-In: The First Steps

Project Check-In: The First Steps

Over the next two months, composer Catherine Likhuta will talk us through her creative process. First up? Getting the project started. 

Catherine Likhuta
Brisbane, Australia

Project Check-In: The First Steps

Over the next two months, composer Catherine Likhuta will talk us through her creative process. First up? Getting the project started. 


So you're working on a new commission! What's it all about?

I’m currently writing a chamber concerto for six French horns entitled “Bad Neighbours.” I was born and raised in Ukraine, so you can guess which bad neighbours I have in mind… Originally it was supposed to be a piece for two horns and piano, commissioned by Horn Hounds (Peter Luff and Ysolt Clark, Qld Conservatorium). Peter asked me to write this piece back in mid-2014, just as we finished a very successful horn project together. Incidentally, that was soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, and of course, I was shaken up by the events in my homeland, where all of my family still lived. Those events inspired the title and the idea for the piece. Due to my very busy composing/performing schedule at that time, the project was postponed until now. To be honest, I didn’t expect for the title to still be relevant three years later… But enough politics, let’s get to the core of the project. 

“Bad Neighbours” is a 12-minute concerto for two professional horn soloists and an advanced student horn quartet. The piece will be premiered by Peter, Ysolt and four of their most advanced students at the 49th International Horn Symposium in Natal, Brazil at the end of next month. This is a very high-profile performance opportunity and arguably the best place for one’s horn work to be premiered, as the audience will be comprised of some of the leading horn players from all over the globe. So yeah, no pressure for me… The project is supported by a grant from the Australia Council for the Arts, for which I am very grateful. This is my second horn project they are supporting.

As the piece is inspired by a war and invasion, it is to have many musical dialogues and arguments, as well as an overall sense of tension, determination, sadness and mourning. But above all – fighting for freedom. I am embracing my ethnic heritage in this work, consciously incorporating Ukrainian folk modes and angular rhythms from folk dances. Mixing it with the characteristic elements of my style, such as jazz influences, metre changes and virtuosity, creates a very interesting fusion, in my opinion.

It’s a very exciting project for everyone involved. Many of Peter and Ysolt’s horn students have played my music in wind symphony concerts and horn ensemble workshops, and six of them were involved in the world premiere of my oratorio. They are excellent young horn players, and it is my pleasure to be writing for them. They seem very excited about premiering this work, which inspires and motivates me greatly in return. Performers are always my biggest inspiration and creativity boost.

Where in the writing process are you right now?

I am three minutes in, i.e., I have the score for the opening three minutes completely ready. I just sent it to the performers so that they could start learning (as time is a factor). I always write the final version of every bar before moving on. I hate to come back and revise, so I work on the material until it’s 100% to my liking. It’s not a very common approach to composing, but it works very well for me.

I have mapped out the plan for the rest of the piece, and made lots of little sketches and improvisations which can be found everywhere on my desk, my phone and my computer.

Like many other artists, I guess, when I’m composing something I’m very excited about (which is the case at least 98% of the time), the creative process completely floods my life. I need to get up in the middle of the night to write down some ideas, I sing through the material unwillingly on my evening walks, and the main ideas for the structure often come to me when I’m on a bike ride (not to mention grocery shopping, shower, cooking, etc.). So pretty much everywhere except for when I’m actually sitting down at my desk and deciding: “Okay, let’s do this! It’s time to write some music!” That doesn’t work very well. I instead have to run to my desk and write down the ideas that had come to me when I was doing other things. Kind of fascinating to see how the mind works sometimes…

I have to work on this piece pretty much 24/7 at this point, since the date of the world premiere is approaching very quickly. At the same time, I absolutely love writing for horn! It might just be my favourite instrument to write for. Composers are sometimes intimidated by it, as it has the reputation of being a very difficult instrument to play. But horn can actually do much more than one might think, as long as you really get to know it well. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with some of the world’s best horn players (Peter and Ysolt, QSO Horns, Adam Unsworth, and several others), and I’ve learnt so much about the instrument from my collaborations with these incredible musicians. They can play anything that is possible on their instrument, and I embrace that when writing for them. As a result, my horn pieces are highly virtuosic and are aimed mostly at professional players, but that is the case with almost all of my music.

How are you balancing all the things you've got going on right now - study/work/writing/being a mum?

Hmm… Not sure! For me, the key to not failing everything and losing your mind is prioritising. At the moment, I made this project my number one priority, and I am trying not to think about anything else. Composing is my main work, but I also do some teaching, and I love teaching composition. This year, I keep my teaching load very low -- one day per week this semester and no teaching at all next semester -- as I have 4 very important commissions to work on. If one day I get a job in academia, which I very much would like to happen, I will redistribute the roles of teaching and composing. I think nothing is more important for young composers than a dedicated teacher, and I will always make sure to be that teacher for my students.

I have put my PhD on hold for the next several months. I am nearly finished with it, but I need to dedicate the proper amount of time and brain energy to do it properly and to be fully satisfied with the outcome. I decided to do a PhD after 8 years of free-lance composing. In a way, this makes it easier because I feel very confident about what I am doing. But at the same time, it is much harder to make time for PhD-related research, as my composing schedule is (luckily!) pretty busy. And then I also perform, occasionally record CDs and do some touring…

And yes, being a parent is almost a full-time job in itself! I’m trying to spend as much time with my little girl, Skylie (3.5 y.o. now), as I can. She grows up very quickly, and it is important not to miss out on all the fun and beauty of the first years of her life. Work is very important, but so is she! Plus, I am very fortunate to have the most supportive husband one can wish for, who happens to be a very dedicated father. And, I can actually work much more efficiently now than before Skylie was born. You just learn to value every single minute you get for composing (and for sleep!).

 Photo: The Australian Voices and QLD Conservatorium Wind Orchestra performing Catherine Likhuta's oratorio "Scraps from a Madman's Diary.