Composers: Leah Kardos

Australian-born composer Leah Kardos is in the process of taking her place in the already sizeable club of composer/performers, and is another harbinger of the days now where the worlds of new classical and indie music are barely separated by a blurred-over line. Initially a founder of the band Helzuki, she currently has 2 other indie acts: My Lithium & Me and Spider & I. Along with these activities, she also has been writing film scores and occasionally assists other bands with orchestral, choral or chamber arrangements on their songs. Recently the composer decided to make a self-recorded CD of short compositions threaded together as a thematic statement on her life and relationship with her first love, the piano, and this was what became Feather Hammer. Having had Leah as a great acquaintance on Twitter, I realized that I needed to do an interview with her soon before she hired a publicist. 😉

CM: You studied piano, and then stopped to go into composition. What exactly was it that transformed you to the world of composing?

LK: It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when I knew, or what the catalyst was exactly. I remember getting to a point in my piano studies when it all became a bit serious – I was practicing 4 to 5 hours a day and the repertoire was really challenging. I had been waiting all my life to play my favourite pieces – Chopin’s “Ballade No. 1”, Ravel’s “Jeux d’eau” – and as I rehearsed these works I overwhelmingly felt both in awe and deeply inadequate. At 19, with no life experience and no real understanding of the world I was bringing nothing to the table and I was deeply dissatisfied by that. Around that time I began writing my own music, and looking back I can see that the motivation was to express myself in an honest way, since trying to do it through performing other people’s music felt like I was faking.

CM: What is the difference that you’ve found between composing for yourself and composing for film scores?

LK: The biggest difference is the presence of a brief and a client to work for. The soundtrack supports the visual image and narrative and, in a way, it is easier to write because you’re aim is clear and you’re usually (happily) limited in terms of style and arrangement and what the director has specifically asked for. When working for myself I find it’s more difficult to be sure of things. It’s easy to get into a strange headspace when working in a vacuum; I’m constantly asking myself “What are you trying to say, here? Are you being honest?”. I usually end up removing half the notes I write.

Sweet Dreams (My Brother’s Keeper soundtrack)

CM: The album Feather Hammer is quite a great creation from you. Would you say the album is supposed to be a suite or a collection of separate threaded pieces that are the expression of your journey as a pianist?

LK: The original idea was for a “concept album” that used production techniques in a ‘composerly’ way – I suppose that that means I wanted to focus on timbre, texture and sound positions and proximities as the main expressive elements and not so much the actual notes. I remember deciding on making it a piano album while walking to college listening to Aphex Twin’s ‘Nanou 2’ and thinking to myself “I could totally do something like that, why haven’t I done something like that?”… I got home that night and mapped Feather Hammer out on a big sheet of paper – all the things the piano means to me, what my native musical language is, the memories I could articulate and the stories that were worth sharing. I was surprised by how much stuff was in there, how closely entwined my composing today is to my experiences as a performer earlier in life.

As soon as I knew it was going to be a piano record I knew I wanted to build it from muscle memory improvisation. I’m a big fan of Terry Riley’s New Harp of Albion and Bill Evans’ Conversations with Myself, both are albums which were improvised but also contain a sonic twist, and, when I listen to them, I feel close and connected to the composer as a person. I hoped that if I approached the material honestly, Feather Hammer might turn out a similar way. I wouldn’t say the collection represents my journey as a pianist, if anything it’s about how my musical experiences have influenced my creativity up to this point.

CM: Can you talk about some of the pieces on the recording? Starting with:

“The Waiting” and “The Waiting (Reprise)”
LK: These pieces are really just different versions of the same thing. It started out as a idle improvisation that I captured as MIDI – the G minor scale figures are what I was playing while I was ‘waiting’ for the more clever and inventive ideas to flow. A lifetime of practicing scales and 5-finger exercises has left a deep impression on me, so often my fingers reach for those shapes and patterns automatically and it’s a source of composer self-loathing in a way – too simplistic, not original. The first version is the arrangement with the piano part taken out, just a void while we’re waiting for something to arrive. It’s how I felt as a young performer. The reprise is like an acknowledgment and acceptance of the state of things.

“DFACE (Practice this Video)”
It’s about that moment when you start to understand how notes combine to create colour. I remember feeling quite ecstatic when I first understood how you could build beautiful extended chords by stacking up major and minor 3rds. As a student you gobble up the lessons and digest the information, it becomes part of your core.

This was an old, very Satie-esque, improvisation from a few years ago originally created as an accompaniment to a theatre piece. I decided to revisit it, pin down some of the motifs in a rough score and make the piano act like a ‘band’ and accompany itself. I remember at the time I had been listening to a lot of Sufjan [Stevens] and was trying to play the piano as if it were a banjo.

I just love the sound of pianos through walls. I wanted to record something where two pianos were playing from different locations, but playing together. Turns out achieving the effect is a lot harder than it is to describe! I really like the idea of accidental music, how sound proximities and ambient effects can make the listener want to construct a narrative. You might suspect there’s an interesting story behind what’s happening here, it invites you to listen closely.

“Remnant 1” and “Remnant 2”
They’re called ‘remnants’ because I made them out of left over parts. Hopefully more than anything they both reflect my sonic fascination with the piano.

In “Remnant 1” I wanted to use dissonance in a textural way, and make a lighthearted comment about how experimentation doesn’t have to be so serious all the time… but it ended up being all about that groove. Which is fine! This piece has the most “prepared” sounding piano which was actually recorded as a series of separate sound effects, and later made into a sampler instrument.

“Remnant 2” is a collage of all sorts of bits I collected from the project. I wanted it to sound like an ensemble of players having fun and not a producer tinkering in a studio. The end result, I think, was inspired by Graham Fitkin’s band, who I’ve seen play a few times over the last few years. I’m a bit of a Fitkin fan girl, and although he’ll probably not appreciate this being said, whatI love most about him are those smiley middle-class white guy grooves. This is my version of that, my middle-class white girl music school percussion ensemble jam session. Energetic and a little bit cheesy.

A nod to ‘Opening’ from Glassworks here. The piece is comprised of piano parts recorded at 3 different distances, superimposed as layers which created some really interesting frequency masking effects. In some places it sounds like a humming choir is singing a counter melody inside the oscillating harmonies, at other times the odd higher frequency will break through sharply from behind the notes – somehow making the music feel more emotional for me, as if it were unstable and fragile.
I had always intended for the multitude of voices wishing and apologizing. I wanted it to be a cathartic for the speakers, for me and for the listener. Towards the end of production I made an alternate version of this track without the voices that featured a location recording of a busker that I very nearly used. My PhD supervisor Rob Davidson talked me into keeping the voiced version and now I’m really glad that I did.

CM: You also have My Lithium & Me, and work with other artists and bands with their orchestral arrangements. We’re in the age now where we are in a quandry trying to figure out what “classical music” is or what to call it, plus you also have people like yourself composing this music and have your other projects, plus people like Bryce Dessner and Glenn Kotche are always involved in both indie rock and composition (Even a twitter friend of ours, Nick Norton is doing this as well). If it isn’t already, do you think eventually this is going to be the norm for “the world of music that is composed”? Or am I reading too much into it? 🙂

LK: I’m not sure. Maybe? I can only speak for myself and say I feel very indifferent to the idea of style boundaries. I just want people to enjoy the music I make, no matter what they’re into. Sometimes I blanch at the labels – whether you’re a composer of classical music, modernist, popular, alt or indie, tonal or atonal, an arranger, producer, experimental sound designer, interactive performer… the label I identify most with is ‘music enthusiast’. Obviously there are certain techniques and styles I’m not as good at, but if the idea or feeling I want to communicate is best expressed through a style-associated reference then I won’t hesitate to use it. Technology obviously helps in granting access to some of these things. I also think engaging in commercial paid work forces you to embrace being versatile and find joy working in different contexts.

CM: Any future and/or dream projects, or dream collaborations you’d like to share with us?

LK: I really hope my next project is a suite for acapella female vocal trio and technology – I’ve been collecting some oddly poetic spam emails for the last 5 years and I’d love to organise them into a text. My dream group to work with on that would be Juice Ensemble. I’d also love to write something for the Piano Circus – that one is on my musical bucket list, along with doing a remix for Nonclassical and dancing on stage in an animal costume at a Flaming Lips gig.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: I will try to get pics once it happens!)

Black Mouth of August (III-Silent Movie)

Official website

Leah’s Bandcamp page
You can purchase Feather Hammer on this page, as well as Leah’s recording as My Lithium & Me You Can’t Hide Beat

Leah’s Soundcloud page
Many more of Leah’s compositions are on this page.


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