Catherine Ashley is a tireless proponent of new music for one of the oldest musical instruments. I met her for a chat at the ECU Mt Lawley Campus where she prepares to undertake a Masters Degree.
You are a musician who has used the harp in a variety of contexts, from playing in a rock band to being part of classical ensembles. Yet you are very invested in the Perth New Music scene, playing with GreyWing Trio and doing solo improvised sets. What attracts you to experimental music practices?
I feel like the time has come for the harp to move in more directions than it has over its history, and a lot of harpists are starting to find these new areas. There has always been a stereotypical image of the harp… classical music, the angels with wings or the folk musician… other instruments have moved into new music and the harp has kind of been left behind. I love breaking away from stereotypes and finding different sounds and different ways to use the instrument, it offers so much potential outside its traditional use.
Who are the contemporary harp players that inspired you?
Zeena Parkins, whom I am doing some research on at the moment, I think she is absolutely phenomenal and a real pioneer. Anne LeBaron has done some exciting things not only with the harp but in composition generally. And of course pop artists like Joanna Newsom who was a huge inspiration for me when I was in high school. Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby are also incredible jazz harpists.
Interesting to note they are all female musicians
The harp tends to drive that, there are predominantly more female artists than male artists and there are different theories as to why that is… Queen Marie Antoinette for example was a harpist, and this drove the ladies of Paris and continental Europe to study the harp. There are many prominent male harpists but it has always been a female dominated world. Which is interesting because you need a considerable amount of strength not just to be able to move the harp, but to be able to play it… finger dexterity, gross motor skills, core strength… there is a lot of strength involved in playing this instrument.
Does your classical background and technique inform your approach to improvisation?
I feel very lucky to have had a classical background. My harp teacher (Anthony Maydwell) was very picky about technique, he also encouraged me to explore various modernist works from the early 20th century and that propelled the way in which I improvise. I guess not consciously but I do use some of those ideas and idioms in my own work.
Recently you joined violinist and composer Jon Rose at TURA’s annual regional residency in the Dampier Peninsula, visiting the communities of Lombadina and Djarindjin. How was the experience of working with him and collaborating with the local people?
To start with Jon Rose, he is an incredible musician and I feel so lucky to have spent those few days with him. He is very generous with his time and advice, we had many long chats about his and my own work, we discussed different music philosophies… it was a wonderful experience to work with him.
I feel like working in those remote communities has been one of the top experiences of my life. I had never been to the top end of our country… the people we met were just incredible, the kids are eager for this cultural interchange that TURA provides, and they were blown away when Jon played for them.
What was the residency about?
The residency was a work by Jon Rose called “Wreck”, an old car wreck is rigged up with metal and things welded on the sides, huge cables suspended over the top and then bowed like a violin, obtaining different pitches and harmonics; the rest of the wreck was used like a drum kit. “Wreck” was then developed into a musical piece involving people from the community, we also had a sampler with sounds of cars being started, doors being slammed… so I was triggering all kinds of samples and beats. There were garish flashing lights and smoke machines that the kids loved every time they went off.
You are a creative artist, an in demand musician and a mother. How do you balance all these different responsibilities?
That is something I ask myself everyday! (laughs) It’s a combination of things; I try to think where do I want to be in a few years and try taking steps towards that each day. I ask myself what is the next right move and it has to include my daughter because my life affects her life and vice versa. It’s a lot of juggling… a lot of time management, sometimes not enough sleep, a lot of driving around madly doing things until late at night. But we push through and everything is a new experience that guides the next experience.
Going from the personal to the wider community, how do you find Perth as a place to make music?
In some ways Perth is a wonderful place because we are very concentrated in the musicians that we have, being isolated makes a breeding ground for creating without being overly influenced by external things. But we also loose so many creative artists that feel there are not many opportunities here. I am often blown away by the quality of music we have in Perth, and people from around the world often comment on that.
In your teaching practice, what do you as aspire to instill in your students?
That is a complex question (laughs), like most teachers I want them to love music, I want them to love playing the harp, not necessarily to become a professional musician but simply to love having the harp in their lives. I like to challenge my students to explore different music, to be aware of the things the harp is capable of, the different styles in which you can play. I want them to be very aware of the harp community; I was one of the initiators of the WA Harp Society, I organize harp camps and run the WA Harp Centre, selling music and strings, things which were almost impossible to find in Perth before. I try to get my kids engaged not just in the technical aspect of music but in the wider context of the community.
What projects do you have at the moment?
The main project is getting ahead with my research, I am looking at harpists that are both performers and composers and how they incorporate interactive electronics in their works. I'm also playing at TURA's Scale Variable “Soundstorm” concert on the 2nd of November at the State Theatre; running harp workshops and master classes in Albany at the end of October, and playing in Shark Bay mid-October as part of the 400th anniversary of Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog landing in WA. I have also been commissioned to write and perform a harp concerto with Decibel Ensemble in September next year.
Find out more about Catherine and her upcoming projects on Catherine Ashley – Harpist: https://www.facebook.com/catherineashleyharpist