“I see [visuals] as very integrated into the piece, and the process. I feel like some people make visuals that you don’t need to have with pieces, but mine are very integrated — one doesn’t work without the other.” -Kat Wallace
Kat Wallace is a British composer whose work has been played across the UK and Germany. Kat’s recent works have centred around the natural world, capturing ambience through truly innovative and haunting soundscapes; she has studied at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Humboldt University of Berlin, and Cardiff University, and her compositions have been performed by ensembles including Fidelio Trio, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Avazad Duo, and the National Youth Orchestra of Wales. Kat spoke to PRXLUDES about her recent research project for violin and interactive bow, her relationship with film and visual media, and her sublime compositional process capturing the essence of nature.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hey Kat! Hope you’re doing well — how are things? Tell me a bit about what you’ve been working on recently…
Kat Wallace: Things are good, thanks!
I’ve been working on this exciting research project called METABow at the moment. It’s run through Birmingham City University, and I’m working with [composer] Dani Blanco, [violinist] Maja Pluta, and [researchers] Tychonas Michailidis and Roberto Alonso. Tychonas and Roberto have developed a violin bow that’s got sensors in the heel, [with] accelerometers, gyroscopes, and a couple of other sensors which all send data to max for live. Tychonas has then written [max] patches which can learn gestures from the data… I’ve been particularly playing with a patch called ‘Still’ — you hold the bow still in a certain position, and it can learn that in that position it needs to trigger an audio file or effect. We’ve also been playing around with moving gestures, like twisting the bow whilst playing and tilting it…
That sounds so incredibly interesting — and it’s been lovely to see how you’ve played with these patches in your piece. How exactly did the gestures translate into musical material?
So once we had taught the bow the gestures we fed it through Ableton— and the sensors allow us to control a bunch of effects in Ableton. I had various levels of delay, reverb, [and] distortion added to [the violin], and I had pre-recorded audio that was controlled by the bow as well. We’re developing these pieces at the same time as the technology is being refined, which is quite exciting. The bow itself isn’t in its final stage, it’s very much a “work in progress” type of thing. Now that we’ve done the initial “trying to get it to work” [phase], we have a bit more of an idea of what does and doesn’t work in a performance context. Which gives us a better idea of things moving forward.
Let’s talk about the piece itself; how did the score and the text function with regard to the piece? I saw that you made the decision to show the score as part of the documentation…
So the text I used in the METABow project comes from a sketchbook which was written by one of my friends. The original form of the text is in the sketchbook — most of it’s written in oil pastels, some of it [is written] in pen, [in] varying colours, varying sizes — it feels like a very raw form of the text, and I thought it was important for the performer to see it, and also for the audience so that’s why I integrated the score with the sketchbook. At this stage in the METABow project, we didn’t have the ability to [create] audiovisual [elements] with it; in the future, it’s been mentioned that we can control visuals with the bow, so I had been thinking of taking some photos of the sketchbook and layering images over each other, creating some sort of film with the text to go with the effects. I think that’d work quite nicely, but it’s still in the ideas stage right now.
Are the text and the score intrinsically linked?
The text and the score are very linked. It’s kind of composed in sections; I’ve got the audio clips of [the text] being spoken, and then the music is composed very specifically to each one. I’ve tried to pick out pitches from the way she says [the text]. It’s not done very precisely — it’s just me sat at a piano, going “this works with this”. At the moment, I’ve dictated an order to play [the sections], but I don’t know whether to make that a little bit freer, and whether it could be played in a different order… It’s not a narrative, it’s not a story, it’s just individual statements, in a way. I think I could probably describe it as nonlinear.
It’d be interesting to know about how the notation works, both within the score and with the technology.
The notation’s an interesting thing; I’ve almost not developed the notation properly, because I’m working so closely with Maja. The notation is almost like a secondary thing when developing a piece like this. [When] you work so closely with performers, you often don’t write things down properly, because they know what you mean.
Especially with METABow, right? There’s no set rule, because you’re making the rules.
Yeah. For a final product, I would definitely work on the notation and refine it; it’s just not super-duper-precise [now].
Is this kind of performer-driven process something you’ve explored further in more recent works? I know you’ve recently worked with the Avazad Duo…
I’m not sure, because both of them have been sort of weird experiences, with a lot of Zoom/Teams meetings, and doing things online. This phase of the METABow project ended up being nearly entirely online and all the in-person stuff needed to be done in a very short space of time. I met up with Maja on the Sunday, and we spent an hour going through the piece without the bow; she practiced the movements and the music, and then we spent three hours recording it on the Monday. It was all very fast and everything else had been done online over Teams — and none of us were completely sure if it was going to work how we wanted on the day.
With Avazad, I had an initial Zoom call with them, and then after that I was sending them bits of progress, they would check over it and see if it was okay, and every now and again they would send me recordings. We would layer them on top of each other, so we’d get a good idea of what it would sound like…
Tell me more about the piece you wrote with the Avazad Duo; how did you approach working for the santoor?
The first part of the piece was definitely like “I need to figure out how to work with the [santoor]”; I had to learn what it could do before I started going through all the creative stuff. I looked at the technical stuff — like how you tune it, what sort of tonality it normally uses, and what is idiomatic for the instrument. I listened to a lot of traditional [Persian] music, just to see what it normally does. I also listened to stuff that the duo themselves have done, to get a sense of what they tend to play. Once I had the idea of how the santoor worked, I was like “right, now I can go onto the creative side”.
Going into the compositional side — how did you conceive the piece as a whole?
I can never seem to remember where I start with pieces. It all seems to happen in one big blur, where everything’s happening at the same time. I was very aware that I needed to create a video to go with the piece; that was always in my head, because it will be [premiering] on YouTube, so I wanted some sort of visual to go with it. I’ve worked with film in the past, so I wanted a concept that involved something I could film. I [also] knew the duo worked with microtonality, and it’s something that I’ve been interested in trying for a while — I only properly discovered microtonality last year — and I was like “if I’ve got the experienced players, maybe this is [a] good time to try it, rather than throwing it at players that don’t normally work with microtonality”.
You mentioned you conceived the piece as an audio-visual experience first; was that a practical or conceptual decision?
It was the practicalities of it, but it is also something I’m interested in. If it wasn’t something I’m interested in, I could go for the typical documentation — getting videos of the performers recording (or just having a still image) — there is no obligation on you to have a pure audio or visual experience. It’s just something I like doing. I’ve gotten a lot more into film in the last year, so it’s a skill I wanted to use.
How do you see visuals in relation to your compositional process? When did you start exploring visuals?
I see [visuals] as very integrated into the piece, and the process. I feel like some people make visuals that you don’t need to have with pieces, but mine are very integrated — one doesn’t work without the other. I like having them intertwined, [so that] they only work together.
I guess the first [experiment] was [a] piece I wrote last year called ‘When the Ash Falls’. I wrote it for Thallein Ensemble at [Royal Birmingham] Conservatoire, which has sadly not been performed because of covid. -laughs- It’s the unfortunate fact of nowadays for large ensemble pieces. That piece was inspired by a series of books, and because of the inspiration of it, I wanted to sort of guide the audience’s imagination whilst listening to it. I took a selection of individual words and filmed myself drawing the words using charcoal on black paper. I really liked the sound of the charcoal on the paper — I think it really works well with the piece.
It’s a real shame to not be able to hear it performed. How has your relationship with visuals developed since?
‘Waves, Tides, Ripples’ [with the Avazad Duo] is the biggest [piece] I’ve done since [‘When the Ash Falls’]. [Film is] not an element in all of my work, but every now and again it’s something I like to do. I think I do one or two pieces a year with it. It’s different for every piece.
Tell me a bit about your guitar quartet you’ve recently premiered; did the concept for the piece also concern elements of performer agency?
Yeah it did — the guitar quartet was an interesting idea that turned into a really fun project. The concept of the piece was sort of a reverse of all these online pieces everyone was doing where things would be out of sync. I was even potentially going to do a piece with a whole orchestra’s worth of people, but split into three bubbles because this year [we] haven’t been allowed to have the orchestra together! I would have had them stream from different rooms into one room. The logistics of that would be that I couldn’t compose a piece that needed to be rhythmically accurate… So I was thinking of that idea, creating music that didn’t have to be in sync, trying to figure out what worked in that way, things that didn’t need to be played in time. Then we got [the] opportunity to work with the [Guitar Department] in person — because they were in our bubble [at the conservatoire] — so flipping the entire idea on its head of “okay, I’ve got four people in the same room, how do I make them play deliberately out of sync?”
So I was trying to find material that I could give these guitarists, where they wouldn’t necessarily have to play strictly in time with each other. [It] turned into giving them a lot of freedom in how things were rhythmically placed. They all played from a score, but the score didn’t have any notated rests — it just had gaps between the notes. It was completely up to the guitarists to interpret how long these gaps were, but they could also see what the others were playing, so it was relative. If one [player] had a note at the start of the bar, and your note wasn’t until the middle of the bar — or the middle of the system, because there weren’t any bar [lines] — then you would wait until you heard the notes that come before yours, but it wasn’t defined how long that [would be]. It was completely up to them to decide it.
It’d be interesting to see how you’d get that effect with the rigidity of a lot of notation software…
Actually, after lots of workshopping the piece, we found Sibelius had done something quirky at one point — normally each beat is very well lined up on Sibelius, but it had slightly displaced one of them. Even though they were meant to be lined up, they weren’t, and that created the interesting idea of “oh, what if I deliberately did this, wrote it by hand, and slightly shifted some notes to the left or the right, so it’s up to the guitarists whether they play them together or not”? I tried it to do it in a very deliberate way; some notes are lined up as perfectly as I can [write them] handwritten, and some notes I gave this ambiguity where they could choose whether these notes were meant to be played together or not. The beauty of it was when they were playing it, they were working together to make sure this piece stayed together; but also, they were sometimes working against each other. Some people were trying to deliberately not play notes with each other — you’d have one person be like “no, I will play my note with you”, and the other person going “no, I’m playing it first”… -laughs- It’s a really fun dynamic, almost like a mini-competition between them. It would happen differently each time, because they could change it each time they played.
Have there been any overarching concepts you’ve been focusing on with your compositions in the past year?
Lately, I’ve been drawing a lot of inspiration from nature, and the natural world. It definitely started more as a subconscious thing; I started having these themes in my work, and a lot of people would notice and be like “is this your thing”? I’ve started to embrace it in the last year; though it definitely started in 2019. Before then, I didn’t really have that influence, [but] there were a couple pieces where it started happening, and then eventually I started actively looking for inspiration in nature.
What is it about nature that inspires you?
I think I just enjoy taking inspiration from what’s around me and I have generally lived in very green places where I can go for a walk in the countryside any time I want. I actually found Birmingham a very difficult place to live in for the first year. -laughs-
I completely understand how that’d be a difficult change for you. Are there any projects you’ve come up with recently that have tried to reconnect you with nature?
I came up with this idea for a long-term project I wanted to do about swallows, [and] swallow migrations. It started as an idea I came up with on a walk — looking to see what was around me — and I [thought] “I’ve never studied migratory birds”. I spent a lot of time researching the routes, and how [long] it takes them, how far they go… I couldn’t really find any detailed data on their routes which surprised me, but swallows are tiny and very hard to fit with GPS trackers. -laughs- A lot of the data is just ringing1 data and even if you manage to ring a swallow in Ireland and catch it again in South Africa, you don’t know the exact route it’s gone to get there. I think it’s a developing field; they know more details than they used to, but with my crude scientific research, I couldn’t find a really detailed map of it.
How did that research develop into your musical output? I know you’ve written a few pieces with this kind of theme…
The original aim was to write a large-scale orchestral work that was quite hefty, over half an hour long… I hadn’t decided on the full length, but I wanted it to follow the migration journey of the swallows — though writing for orchestra this year, and having it performed, was becoming increasingly difficult, so I decided to break it down into sections, and almost do research pieces for each section of the journey. In November, I wrote a piece for Thallein Ensemble [for] seven saxophones and four percussion; I looked at the start of the journey [for the piece], looking at the swallows roosting before they go. They all tend to gather in the south of England — they live throughout the country, but they all [come together] in roosting grounds before they head off properly. I found a lot of recordings of them roosting, and you can hear their calls, getting ready to go.
That sounds fascinating; how did you manage to get a hold of the audio for that?
I found a really good archive of loads of field recordings of barn swallows, and loads of other birds as well. I spent time listening to [those]; I ran them through loads of software to see if the software could make any musical sense of them, and basically, no… -laughs- They’re very complicated, pitch-wise. So I [sat] at a piano and tried to work it out for myself. I don’t have any sort of perfect pitch, so it’s just an approximation, but I aimed to get the general feel across rather than the exact [pitches]. They have a tuneful aspect to their calls, and they also have a percussive aspect to their calls… So [I used] a combination of saxophones and percussion to get that feeling across. I wanted to make sure they worked together, almost as one [instrument].
There’s a certain ambience to the way you use orchestral instruments like that. Are you trying to develop this linearly, or is it a “take what you can get” type approach?
I think I’m doing it opportunity by opportunity. I wrote a piece called ‘Desert Migration’ for the Fidelio Trio on this idea and I looked at the section of the journey over the Sahara Desert [for that]. I like this way of [working]; maybe I won’t actually put it all into one big piece. I’d like to orchestrate it all at some point, but maybe it won’t be continuous — maybe it’ll just be movements. But I quite like this method of writing in sections and looking at individual bits of the journey.
Tell me a bit about ‘Desert Migration’; how did you translate this idea into the piano trio format?
I tried to come at it from a fresh [angle]; I tried to not think too much about the piece I’d [already] written. I took some of the harmonic material to link the pieces, but originally, I wanted to make sure there was a distinction between them and I wasn’t writing the same piece twice. I did go back to the swallow calls, but not in the same way; I was focusing more on the melody of them, and how they would best work on violin and piano. I did start the original idea for orchestra, and that [motif] was originally on flute, but I think it works well on several different instruments.
I was also looking at various other elements of the desert. I’ve got a sighing motif in the cello to represent the raw heat of the desert, [and] I’ve got a high tremolo in the violin that’s related to the heat… It becomes more and more unstable as the piece goes through, as the birds tire. I think the journey’s fairly easy until the Sahara Desert, and then it [becomes] exhausting and difficult as they go through that.
It’s interesting how the motivic development went from purely emulating swallow calls to also bringing in other elements from their world…
Yeah. I do want to represent the journey, and I think you’re not going to be able to do that without representing the environment in some way, and how the environment is changing around the birds.
What’s next for this project? What’s the next stage of the journey you’re planning to compose?
I think I might keep an eye out for orchestral opportunities — they’re quite rare at the moment — and I think, ultimately, I’m looking for an orchestra that wants a substantial work written for [them]. -laughs- But I think up till then, I’m quite satisfied writing for [smaller ensembles]. I might write a string quartet… I’ve been meaning to write something for string quartet, but I haven’t [yet]. I think I might look at opportunities that are available that I do come across, and write the next bit of the journey, whatever that might be.
I can’t decide what [stage] I want to do next. I had a bit planned for South Africa, but I think that would be something I’d compose in the final push. I think I want that to be one of the last things I compose; with that being the end of the journey, I think it makes the most sense to compose that last, so I can include bits from everything that’s happened. Maybe I would pick going through France or something. -laughs-
Kat’s work can be found at:
- ringing: the practice of catching birds, attaching a ring to them, and releasing them for the purposes of tracking.