Catherine Fearns’ new album “half life” has just been released with Blue Spiral Records. She is a British composer living in Switzerland. As keyboardist and guitarist for acclaimed all-female heavy metal band Chaos Rising, she is a busy songwriter in the field of extreme music. However she is also a classically-trained pianist, with a fascination for the surprisingly close links between classical and metal music. In exploring these links, she has developed a unique and exciting style of composition. Catherine is also an award-winning novelist, and for her, writing and composing are all part of the same storytelling process.
We met the artist for an exclusive interview that you can find below.
Welcome Catherine and thank you for this interview.
When did you start composing – and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I came to composing late. I trained as a classical pianist, and studied/performed the repertoire of all the great composers when I was a teenager; however I then quit music and hardly touched a piano for around twenty years. After the birth of my fourth child a few years ago, I started taking electric guitar lessons as a hobby, and this rekindled my love of music. I discovered the world of rock and metal, joined an extreme metal band, and began writing songs on the guitar, which gave me the idea to return to the piano. When I sat at the piano I found that everything I had learnt all those years ago was still there in my fingertips (if a little rusty!); but now I had the confidence to try composing my own music too. So it was via heavy metal that I returned to classical music, and there are surprising similarities between these two seemingly incongruous genres. It has been fascinating to explore these similarities in my composition.
What do you personally consider to be incisive moments in your work and/or career?
Learning to play the electric guitar five years ago was an important milestone. It takes courage to be an adult beginner, because there is a certain amount of humiliation involved. I felt like a child again, filled with a sense of wonder and energy at this new world made available to me, and I realised that it’s never too late to start again in life, to follow your true passion. I had become almost afraid of the piano, because of the feelings of regret that it sparked, but now I had the courage to face those feelings and turn them around. Another milestone was buying my silent grand piano, because this allowed me to practice again in the evenings, with headphones, despite having a house full of children. Joining all-female metal project Chaos Rising was a turning point, and I’m very grateful to Chaos Rising founder Stéphanie Nolf for that opportunity, because until then I had never considered writing my own music. And then a huge step forward late last year was having my sheet music published by Universal Edition and my album released by Blue Spiral Records. So I am really at an early stage of my composing career, but I am very excited for the future.
Can you tell us something about your last release “half life”?
‘half life’ is an album of eleven solo piano works. The piece which gives the album its title is inspired by the ‘half life’ of a radioactive atom – the time it takes to decay to half its power. And since I am at a half-way stage of my life, I am interested in the concept of exponential decay, and hoping it does not apply to humans! I’m very fond of using scientific analogies in my work. The pieces are all based on very personal stories and feelings; in fact I originally wrote a poem to accompany each piece, but in the end I decided to let the music stand for itself. The titles are all in lowercase, in the ‘non-committal’ style of the French impressionist composers, because they are meant to be suggestions and I am happy if listeners find their own meanings. I would describe the style as ‘post-classical’, but certainly not ‘ambient’. The pieces are short, because I am a rather impatient person; I don’t like long songs and I never play background music; these pieces are designed to be listened to actively and to quickly evoke a certain mood or image. They are also designed to sound improvised and even ‘naïve’. I approached the composition process with a beginner’s mind, trying to forget everything I knew about music theory in order to free myself to let loose the full potential of the instrument.
The music was composed very quickly, because once I started I was filled with inspiration. I compose away from the piano, with a pencil and manuscript paper, because I find the instrument distracts me from what I hear in my head.
How long did it take to prepare the album?
The music was composed very quickly, because once I started I was filled with inspiration. I compose away from the piano, with a pencil and manuscript paper, because I find the instrument distracts me from what I hear in my head. It’s always a fun moment when I finally try a new piece on the piano, and I discover whether or not it actually sounds the way I imagined. Then I improvise on it and it sometimes goes in new directions.
‘half life’ was initially written as sheet music for others to play. I did not imagine releasing it myself until I recorded the samples for Universal Edition, and realised that I could do it. The recording was also done fairly quickly, on my own piano at home. I was very lucky that Blue Spiral Records shared my vision and offered to release it as an album.
What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
I am still learning how to improvise! I learned to play the piano very rigidly, very much tied to sheet music, and the advantage of that is that I am very quick to sightread. However I never learned jazz techniques or improvisation, and that was a huge limitation. Playing the guitar in a band, for which the music is never written down, gave me a new sense of freedom which I am now trying to apply to the piano. In fact my composition came from the process of learning how to improvise. A paradox is that the best ‘improvisations’ (from Van Halen guitar solos to Chopin Impromptus) have of course been finely honed so that they sound spontaneous when in fact they are the opposite – meticulously prepared.
The role of the composer has always been subject to change. What’s your view on the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of composers today and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
This is a big question that I have never really thought about! I kind of wish I had thought about it more when I was a teenager, and perhaps I would have made different career decisions back then, because I do think that music has the power to effect change in the world, to help and inspire people. But the hard fact remains that it is very very difficult to make a living as a composer, and most musicians I know have been forced to keep music as their second job only. So another big question is: how can society integrate composers? I am only just beginning to think of myself of a composer, and I will certainly consider what my role should be.
What equipment do you use to compose your music?
I have a Yamaha C3 Silent grand, which has excellent touch and can be used as as MIDI controller as well as for audio recording. For the ‘half life’ album I used a VST plugin called Modartt Pianoteq, which allows you to model a range of grand piano sounds, with an incredible level of detail in terms of the microphone placement, touch, pedal etc. I also have a Roland FA08 keyboard which has a huge range of sounds, although I can often find all the sound effects I need within my DAW, Logic Pro. So if I’m travelling I can do a lot with just my tiny Novation Launchkey MIDI controller. I am confident to do my own sound engineering because of the experience I have had recording many different instruments and styles for Chaos Rising. Having said that, I would like to record my next album in a studio, because it would be great to leave the audio to someone else so I can really focus on my piano playing. For sheet music and tabs, I use Noteflight and Guitar Pro. If I get into more complex orchestration in future I will probably need to use a larger scoring software such as Sibelius, but for now I have everything I need.
How, do you feel, could contemporary compositions reach the attention of a wider audience?
There is so much demand for original music these days – for film, TV, computer games, commercials, podcasts – that contemporary compositions already reach a wide audience. However they don’t take centre stage. As an extreme metal musician as well as a classical musician, I am well-used to having a very niche audience for my music. But it is a shame that classical music is still seen as ‘high-brow’, when it could be so accessible. Just as it is a shame that extreme metal is often seen as ‘low-brow’ when in fact it is highly technical. I don’t think either of these genres will ever have wide commercial appeal. But key for me is ensuring that all children have access to a music education; expose them to different styles of music and they will have that for life. I taught some music appreciation classes at my kids’ primary school, and they loved to hear about Mozart and Chopin – they didn’t find it boring at all and several asked to take up piano lessons afterwards.
Could you tell us something about your future projects?
I have already begun work on my second album, which will be for piano and guitar. I am very excited to be receiving my signature 7-string guitar from Gini Guitars this spring. Although the 7-string guitar is usually associated with very heavy music like deathcore, it has a lesser-known delicate side, and I have some great ideas for combining the two instruments. I have begun to receive some commissions for soundtracks, and it would be wonderful if I could monetize my composing work more this year. But either way, I plan to learn more about orchestration, and create more expansive and ambitious compositions. I will of course continue writing and producing songs for Chaos Rising. And who knows, COVID-permitting, perhaps there will finally be some live performances…
Where can our readers find more information about you?
Blue Spiral Records profile: https://www.bluespiralrecords.com/catherine-fearns
Universal Edition sheet music: https://www.universaledition.com/catherine-fearns-8092