Thursday, November 20th, 2014
By Tim Hansen
Composers are generally a diversely intellectual bunch. In addition to their music training, it’s common for them to have undertaken some other form of study or have an abiding curiosity in a non-musical field that gives a specific flavour to their art.
JFund awardee Kathy McTavish has a C.V. that, when compared to that of even the most cheerfully miscellaneous composer, is remarkable. In addition to the standard fare of being a classically-trained cellist with studies in composition, she holds a masters degree in mathematics, completed coursework in a PhD program examining Theoretical Ecology, and, somewhat unexpectedly, was an active graffiti artist for many years. And rather than keeping each of these aspects of her intellect in neatly separate compartments, McTavish is actively seeking ways to bring all of these passions into one unique artistic output.
For instance, McTavish describes the work in Theoretical Ecology as being “very similar to music theory. It’s a search for patterns and dynamics – a vertical, chordal, network view coupled with a horizontal, linear, melodic analysis.” During her work in Theoretical Ecology, McTavish experimented with simulating the shifting dynamics of food webs through time, and in doing so she was struck by the similarity between generative systems and music composition. “This felt like a different way of looking at orchestration and generative algorithms like the fugue,” she says.
McTavish’s work supported with the 2013 JFund is a multi-sensory, immersive installation called høle in the skY. The core of the work is concerned with climate change and extinction, and is told through interlacing the stories of Martha, the last passenger pigeon who died in 1914 in the Cincinatti Zoo, and an anonymous girl growing up on the Iron Range of Minnesota as drawn from Sheila Packa’s book “Night Train Red Dust”.
Working with the New Music quartet Zeitgeist, McTavish “told the quartet stories through words, sound and moving images”. As a group, composer and musicians explored the various sonic possibilities offered by their instrumentation of two percussion, piano and woodwinds. McTavish recorded samples from this initial meeting, then layered and manipulated them to create what she describes as “a geologic record / layered memory / artifacts from the anthropocene”.
For the live performance, McTavish created “a landscape” made of text, video, and sound that enclosed the four musicians. Audience were free to wander through the space, amidst the performance, the media and physical copies of the text.
“Much of my work expresses the broken yet luminous world,” says McTavish. “As both a musician and a mathematician, I am fascinated by multi-threaded, dynamical systems and chance-infused, emergent patterns. As a queer artist I am interested in the ways we construct personal stories / myths and the infinite, bendable between.”