DSO Conversations: Cathy Applegate


For our fourth interview in our DSO Conversations series, we corresponded with General Practitioner, composer, published author, and DSO’s Principal Cellist, the multi-talented Cathy Applegate. Cathy’s musical compositions encompass a broad range of forms, including orchestral work, film music, a ballet, choral pieces and a piano concerto. Her latest work, Conversations about the Impossible will have its world premiere on Sunday 9 August as part of DSO’s ‘Metamorphosis II concert. Ahead of the premiere, we chatted to Cathy about her creative process, what inspired the new piece, and the impacts the pandemic has had on her life and musical practice.

Many of your compositions draw on Northern Territory environments for inspiration. For instance, The Wetlands Suite, which has eight movements, each depicting an animal found in wetlands in Australia’s Top End, or Arafura or Gecko’s Tale. What is it about Northern Territory environments that draws you to them and drives you to want to capture them in musical form?

Australia’s Top End is an incredibly exotic and beautiful place. I left suburban Melbourne and moved to Darwin in 1983 with really no idea of what to expect. I found this lush, green city with frangipani fragrance and a sparkling turquoise sea. I’d known the desert country around Alice Springs, but tropical Darwin was a new experience altogether. The landscapes and people were completely inspiring, and I revelled in exploring the city and the wilderness further afield.  It was natural for me to begin to express this through music and writing.

I also draw inspiration from the medical experiences I have had working in the NT. Doctors are invited into the most private aspects of people’s lives and I have learnt a lot about the human condition over the years. These learnings have been reflected in my creative work, especially in my writing, where I have explored many varied themes: the importance of the arts, reconciliation, asylum seekers, the environment and domestic violence to name a few.

Tell us a bit about your composition process. Do you start with an idea, a refrain, a melody? How does the music unfold for you?

The idea is the seed and the composition grows from there. At the outset I spend a lot of time thinking about what I am trying to achieve or convey through the music; I try to distil and clarify the ideas. Other forms of art such as poetry, visual art, or dance can be very helpful at this stage.

For me, there are two distinct parts to composition or writing – the first part, where I aim to get the ideas down, and the second part, which is the editing and revision stage. There are many practicalities to consider. I aim to write music that’s easily accessible and can engage the intended audience. The performers are also at the forefront of my mind; the music must be playable but challenging and interesting. Some commissioners have been very prescriptive – a dot-point list of what they want in the piece. Other times I have been very free to explore new territory. Usually there are some limits in terms of duration and instrumentation.

You’ve mentioned that the inspiration behind Conversations About the Impossible was a painting by Darwin artist Kate Eagle that features a fox in a suit and mermaid having a serious yarn on a veranda. What sort of things did you imagine they would talk about? How did you go about transforming this into music?

This piece of art is so interesting. I was drawn to it immediately when I saw it at the Nightcliff Markets some years ago. It reminded me of the many conversations I’ve had with other artists, conversations that weave around and have a life of their own. Dreams, ambitions, impossibilities. This was my starting point and I extended the idea to be more reflective of conversations in general. The parallels between human spoken and musical languages fascinate me: phrases and sentences; short statements; final summaries; consonance and dissonance. There are similarities more broadly too; form and structure within music draws from human life experiences.

Can you talk a little bit about the upcoming DSO concert ‘Metamorphosis II’, where Conversations about the Impossible will premiere? What is it like to hear your work performed by other musicians? 

I am incredibly honoured to have had Conversations About the Impossible included in this up-coming concert. For me, a work is not complete until it has been performed. We have such brilliant musicians here in Darwin and I feel so lucky to have them bringing this piece to life.

Conversations About the Impossible does not have a central theme or melody; instead it is made up of several short motifs that are introduced and reappear at various stages of the work. My idea was to weave these motifs in and around each other, as would happen in a conversation. The work is written for Pierrot Ensemble: flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Each instrument is treated as an independent voice, having equal importance as they dance around each other to create the whole.

You often seem to be inspired by other art forms for your music and you are also a published author. Could you speak a bit about how music and literature relate to one another? Are composition and writing similar processes or do you find them quite distinct?

Music and literature are similar in that they are both mediums that convey feelings and ideas; they often tell stories, although music is the more abstract of the two. They go together for me – I may use a piece of writing to generate a musical idea or vice versa. The longer works in both areas require more formal planning in terms of overall structure.

The same process also applies to both: there is a creative phase and then the hard slog of editing and refining.

How did you come to musical composition? Do you think the Northern Territory is a good place for aspiring composers to be?

I have always composed from the day I could climb up onto the piano stool and put my hands on the keys. It seems to be in my DNA.

The Northern Territory has been good to me and the local music community has given me many opportunities over the years. I remain incredibly grateful to the Darwin Symphony Orchestra and the Charles Darwin University for their role in nurturing my compositions and performances. The community here is open-minded and embraces new works. In Darwin, it feels as though anything is possible. Certainly, there are benefits to being in a big city, but if I had my time again, I wouldn’t change anything.

Finally, while COVID-19 is predominantly behind us in the NT (at least for now), it’s certainly been a strange few months. Many musicians were hit particularly hard by the restrictions and DSO, as you know, were unable to rehearse or perform. How did the restrictions affect your life and musical practice? As a GP you would have continued to go to work, but did you find the restrictions changed your approach to creating music?

I have found these months difficult. In my musical life, rehearsals came to a holt, gigs were cancelled, and I moved to teaching my cello students via Zoom. The situation certainly called for adaptability and resolve. It is gratifying to see these restrictions slowly lifting and it’s been so lovely to catch up with my orchestral colleagues once again. Composing benefits from isolation, so this part of my life has been unaffected.

I had set myself up as a solo GP in February, so COVID-19 called for some rapid adaptions to my new practice. I have amazing staff, and together we have been able to continue caring for our patients, many of whom have found the COVID situation very distressing. Telephone consults have been helpful, and we had some firsts – we conducted a vaccination clinic in the front yard!

On a more personal note, I am finding it hard not to be able to visit family interstate or overseas. It is a difficult time for our country and so many uncertainties still lie ahead. The arts have an important role to get us through the challenges ahead.

Cathy Applegate’s Conversations about the Impossible will have its world premiere at ‘Metamorphosis II’, the second of two vibrant chamber music concerts DSO is presenting in conjunction with Darwin Entertainment Centre as part of Darwin Festival