“It’s the interaction between what I’ve created and what that performer is gonna create that I thrive off.”

Catherine Mole

Catherine Mole is a UK-born artist and composer currently studying Composition at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire under Andrew Toovey, Andy Ingamells, and Kirsty Devaney. Much of Catherine’s recent work centres around visual arts and graphic scores, with her interests revolving around synesthesia, interdisciplinary research, and the independence of the performer through abstracted scores. Catherine spoke to PRXLUDES about some of her recent projects, her use of graphic scores, and her views on art, criticism, and her compositional process.

Catherine Mole, ‘Layers of Pages/Pages of Layers’. Performed by Rebekkah Lycett and Joe Spinoza as part of IMPASTO – A Musician’s Sketchbook, Birmingham, 2020.

Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Catherine! Thanks for joining me today. Firstly — how are you? Where are you based at the moment?

Catherine Mole: I am in Birmingham at the moment; I managed to get back to my family home for Christmas, and then made the quite poor decision to come back to Birmingham the day before Boris said “don’t go back to university”. -laughs- So, I’m here with none of my housemates, which is interesting. I live in the countryside back home — we live on an old farm, it’s just fields everywhere — so to go from that to living in suburbia, with lots of houses and lots of people,… it’s a big change. But it could be worse.

How have you found your creative output, being alone in Birmingham? Has it helped?

I think it’s helped massively. Which is weird, but the lockdown has given me an excuse to just not do all the things that keep me busy outside. I love going out, I love going to shops, I love sitting in coffee shops, but you can’t sit and paint a graphic score in a coffee shop. So it’s forced me to fully immerse myself in a world where I just have to do it because if I don’t, I’ll just sit and stare at a wall for six hours. My creativity has come out of its shell through all of this, it’s put me in a position where I keep doing things because it gives me something to do; but also, I’ve mass-produced paintings and they’re everywhere. -laughs-

I think that’s great! You might as well if no one’s there. Are you deliberately trying to paint “scores”, or pieces that relate to your compositions, or are you kind of letting yourself roam free?

My paintings are a bit of both. Some of what I do is graphic scored stuff, otherwise, a lot of it consists of paintings that are then my inspiration for the pieces. When I think of an idea — I don’t tend to think of ideas, to be honest, I tend to paint and then I get an idea, or I draw something and then think “oh, that would be cool!” — it’s really important to me to have that visual first. I was saying this in a class with Howard Skempton the other day — that it’s so important for me that my inspiration is something I can physically hold, and I can physically feel the texture, smeary bits, nice bits… it’s got dark, it’s got light, it’s got grabbable content to it. We were talking about other peoples’ sources of inspiration; they would write a story, or do a mind map, and I’m like “Nah, throw paint at something and see what happens”. -laughs- It’s much more of a physical way for me, which is nice.

Having something tangible and physical is a really cool way of getting your thoughts in order. It’s probably more productive than staring at a Sibelius screen…

I don’t use Sibelius anymore for my more creative projects. I used to swear by it for everything – thinking I needed to be slaving away behind a computer screen, and that was how I was going to write the music that would get concerts. I started to dabble in graphic scores in my second year. A lot of people were like “what is that?” — the classic response that 75% of musicians will give you when you give them a graphic score. And then Rebekkah Lycett’s major project came around – she asked if I would write something for the concert as she had seen a graphic score of mine performed in a Birmingham New Music concert. I kept saying yes to everything last year so was always very busy. -laughs-

So then I made ‘Layers of Pages // Pages of Layers’. Bex’s project was all to do with synesthesia — when a sensory or cognitive pathway causes an involuntary experience in a second sensory or cognitive pathway — Bex did a collection of paintings, then Joe [Spinoza] did transcripts of what those paintings musically meant to him, and each painting and transcript was given to a composer. Some people wrote some really nice music, and I decided to draw some shapes on plastic sheets that layered over the original painting — hence ‘Layers of Pages’ — and it was for Bex and Joe to play. As the piece starts they would lift off a page at a time, and then interpret the lines and shapes that they could still see. The plastic was transparent so you could see all of it through on the first page, and as you turned the pages over, you got less and less content; the way I perceived it was that the piece would start with this dissonant, crunchy clash, and gradually turn into something quite pretty. I liked that idea because it was different from what you would quite often hear; you’d often have nice sounding things that would gradually get more dissonant, rather than grit that then gets smooth. I think that came out really well, that piece, and I’m still very proud of it. It’s beautiful in its own way, and the process for me was really interesting, as Bex had never performed a graphic score before.

Joe Spinoza and Bex Lycett perform ‘Layers of Pages/Pages of Layers’ by Catherine Mole. IMPASTO – A Musician’s Sketchbook, Birmingham, 2020.

I always find performers’ interpretations of graphic scores; there’s always layers upon layers of abstraction there. Is that something that you tend to focus on within your work?

To me — because I’m quite an artistic person — the score of the piece, the actual notation, is probably the most important part. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about the music, because I do… -laughs- But it’s the interaction between what I’ve created and what that performer is gonna create that I thrive off. I had an analogy for it: a graphic score is like a paper bag. You can undo it to get what’s inside, and you can mess around with it all, and do it back up and it’s still a bag. Standard notation is like a cardboard box, but to get into it you’ve had to rip it open. There’s no way you can fix it again. It can’t become something again; it is what it is, you gave it to the performer as what it was. You can’t change it because it’s standard, it’s written, it’s precise. So what I’m saying is with that paper bag, you can take what’s in it out, you can put whatever you want in it, you can make it into something yourself as a performer.

That definitely makes sense. Is there anything or anyone in particular that influenced that outlook for you?

I adore Marina Abramovic — as a creator, as a female figure in history. She blows my mind; she did a TED talk, and it was fascinating. It was all about ‘Rhythm 0’, a piece where she stands in a room with a table of objects, and the audience is allowed to do whatever they want to her with the objects. She gets sexually assaulted in every performance of this; they cut all her clothes off, hold guns to her head, even cut her throat. In this TED talk, it’s her talking the audience through the experience, like they were there – and it’s moving. I’ve watched it about ten times now. I started reading the comments, and they’re all saying horrible things about Abramovic; I don’t understand half of them — I tried to do some research — but half are about pieces she’s written or composed that people have taken in negative ways. It always shocks me how art can be so easily misread, to the point where people jump on a bandwagon of hate to bring down artists. Abramovic inspires me as she continues to create art completely regardless of what critics say about her — I think she is unapologetically her and I admire that.

Of course. I find it shocking how the existence of some people and some works of art makes them feel they have to go on a moral crusade to destroy it.

But it’s art, you can’t be offended by art…

Let’s tell that to the people who destroyed Barnett Newman’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue’

I get offended by things — I’m not sitting here saying I don’t get offended — but to be offended by something that is art, something that is produced for pleasure. I write music because music’s nice, I do paintings because the paintings look nice. I know some art is very political, I know some art and music can be very controversial, but at the end of the day, it’s art. No one’s forcing you to watch it, no one’s forcing you to be a part of it. No ones pinning you down and saying “you must tell me your opinion on this” — it’s your opinion; fair enough if it offends you, but that shouldn’t give someone the power to say you’re a bad artist, you’re a bad person. Why, because you got offended?

There’s definitely a line between valid criticism and blind hate, and unfortunately much of the online world hasn’t learned that yet. -laughs-

I’ve never been on the receiving end of hate online, I’m not famous enough for it. -laughs- But imagine if you were that person who was getting death threats, who was getting allegations made about them online, people grasping at straws just because they don’t like them. Especially when it’s attacking someone’s art.

The reason I say all of this is because I got told the other day that I take criticism of my work too personally, in the sense that I struggle to be objective about my pieces. I agree, I do, but the reason I do is that I put my heart and soul into it, and it’s mine. One of my tutors always asks me “have you shown anyone what you’ve done yet?” and I’m like “no…” -laughs- It is more that I don’t want to… it’s my work, it’s private. It isn’t completely, but until it’s finished, it is.

It’s private until you want it to be published; surely you have right of consent over your own art.

Of course. Criticism is a difficult one for me; I have always struggled with criticism, especially when it’s not constructive. I find it difficult when people don’t like graphic scores and aren’t willing to open their minds to understand them. I think it’s sad. That’s why it does affect me; I know that there’s nothing I can say or do for that performer to make them understand, and that upsets me. I’m completely happy for someone to turn around and say, “I’ve done masses of research on graphic scores, I’ve played all of these pieces, I don’t like doing it”, that’s fine, you gave it a shot. It’s the people who say that’s not real music… It knocks me down a bit.

Catherine Mole, ‘Through Cumbrian Hills’. Performed by Orchestra of the Swan, Birmingham, 2019.

At the same time, it also means you know who your audience is, you know who supports your work and what you do.

It’s okay, cause then I have people in my life, like my musical friends, who are like “this is great, keep doing your drawings, keep painting stuff, keep being cool…” -laughs-  The reason I do what I do is that it’s me. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t want to. No one told me to do a music degree; my parents have supported me through it.

Was there anything in particular that spurred that shift to creating graphic scores?

Something just didn’t sit right with me through the end of my first year, going into the second year. I did a piece for Orchestra of the Swan; I am extremely proud of that, I think it’s beautiful, but it doesn’t feel like me, and I don’t know if it did at the time. Looking back on it, I think it’s really strong, I think I did a really good job of it, but it’s not me. It’s not my creative style anymore; I don’t love it in the same way I love my graphic scores. I’m fond of it; it was a big deal for me, it was the first orchestral thing I’ve ever done, and I think it’ll always have a soft spot in my heart because of that. But it’s not the same as that excitement of having no clue what’s gonna come out of those performers. When I give a performer a graphic score, quite often I don’t want to work too intensely with the performer once I’ve done that. I do a lot of pretext for the score — explaining how you should play it — and I’ll answer a few questions, but as far as it goes to helping them create musical content from it, that’s not my responsibility. I’ve done my bit, I’ve put it in a little parcel and given it to you; they can do what they want with it. I’ve put it in a paper bag.

“It’s the interaction between what I’ve created and what that performer is gonna create that I thrive off.” Catherine Mole, in conversation with PRXLUDES

I completely understand that. There’s something more collaborative about that, in comparison to the almost dictatorial edge of standard notation…

With my Orchestra of the Swan piece, I knew what was coming. I wrote it. I put those notes on that page where I wanted them. But most of what I do now is hand-drawn, I don’t think I’ve used Sibelius in a very long time. But that means I have no clue what anything sounds like… -laughs- I know some chords are nice and some chords aren’t nice — dissonance and consonance — but I think I get a little adrenaline rush out of the performance being so real, so raw. I remember someone asked me “how do you know which recording to publish of your graphic scores?”, and for me, it’s normally the first one. That initial rawness of the response is what I want.

You could almost compare it to jazz, in a sense…

It is! You put yourself in an environment, and it’s all like woooOOOoOOOoooh… -we both break down in laughter for a few moments- I remember sitting in The Spotted Dog on a Tuesday night and you’d have no idea what you were going to hear because it happens there and then. I’d go back the next week, and they could be playing the same material for all I know… it’s all so in the moment, and you can’t get that from writing music down. To me, it’s about the performance; if everyone is so engaged, why does it matter if you play the wrong notes? You’ve created that atmosphere that you can’t get in any other way. There’s just something special for me about graphics in the way that you can’t predict what’s coming.

Catherine Mole – Postcard Paint responses. Performed by Gina McDonald, Birmingham, 2019.

There’s something to be said in favour of abstraction, generally, in every medium of art.

It makes me excited to listen to it, and peoples’ reactions when I give them the scores. I’ve got a few people who I always give my graphic scores to; a little selection of performers I know are gonna smash it because I spend months working on an idea for that individual performer. Having that established relationship with them helps to create something beautiful and personal.

That’s always interesting, writing pieces with specific performers in mind, because different personalities will perceive scores differently. I remember you wrote a piece with that premise in mind?

Kind of! Postcard Paint was my first graphic score; I composed that was towards the end of my first year. I wrote three pieces of standard notated music for piano — and my friend Gina McDonald performed them, and we recorded them and edited them. I sent the pieces off to loads of people, and everyone did little paintings on postcard-sized pieces of paper, that were all their responses to the three initial pieces that I’d written for the piano. The postcard-sized response paintings then created the content that I then selected to create the graphic score for the final piece.

So I got three paintings from everyone. All my family did one, most of my flatmates did, a lot of my friends and some of my tutors did. I then pulled out parts that spoke to me from the paintings and thought  “that’s cool, I want that” — I drew it all out on A4 pieces of paper, but there were about thirty of them; the score was the length of the corridor in my flat because that was the only way I could lay them out flat as my room wasn’t big enough. I remember my flatmates were all like “are you okay?”… and I was just crawling on the floor down the corridor, sticking stuff together. It was great. I had a wonderful time. -laughs-

What do you reckon is the best thing about the process of working with graphic scores?

I think my favourite part about doing graphic scores is getting to make it and hold it. I still get goosebumps when I bind a score for the first time; I don’t know if this is an experience for everyone, but I remember the first time one of my pieces got bound with plastic and a cardboard bit on the back, and I was giddy. I got so excited because I felt like an actual composer. It’s that whole, like, “this is a thing I’ve created. It’s real, it’s in my hands. It’s not just theoretical anymore”. I bind everything when it’s done, because, for me, that’s the “it’s done”. Closed, neatly done, in a box. It’s sort of like closure on a piece; because quite a lot of what I do is graphic, you can’t ever really finish them, you sort of keep going for the rest of your life, adding bits of paint, or more drawing… it’s a constant. So the binding stage for me is important because it does put an end to the tinkering.

Do you see your work as being “done” when the score is done, or is the element of performance necessary?

I think I see my pieces as done before they’ve had performances sometimes. But that’s because a lot of the focus is on the score; I went through a stage of writing pieces that at the end of the instructions, it says “once you’ve finished this piece, turn around the score and show the audience” — because, to me, they needed to saw it as well, I wanted the audience to understand where what they heard came from.

It’s almost like a program note, but the program note is what they’re playing.

Yeah, completely. I’m working on pieces more now where it’s filmed and on a projector above the performers, so the audience can see the decisions being made as they’re happening, rather than at a later date. I think it’s really rude as a composer not to explain things, and not to answer questions on your work. I think that makes the whole stigma around graphic scores worse. I’ve always said that if someone’s got a burning question — if they want to see my graphic scores because they don’t understand them — I’ll sit and show them, I’ll sit and talk through it with them. I’d rather be in a position where I’ve helped someone else to understand graphics in a better way, and not be scared of them — because I know a lot of performers are scared of playing them. I’d rather be the person that makes it easier for them.

More of Catherine’s work can be found at the links below:


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Zygmund de Somogyi is a composer, performer, and writer based in London, and artistic director of contemporary music magazine PRXLUDES.

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