The International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) Blog

Encounters with Contemporary Women Composers 3

Posted in Theresa_Sauer by iawmblog on May 9, 2010

In Rushworth, Australia with a population of 1000, there’s a woman who is doing incredible research concerning musical scores and composition.

Carmen Chan recently had an exhibition at the Shepparton Art Gallery entitled, ‘Do You See What I Hear? Exploring Cross-sensory Experiences in Visual and Musical Arts by a Variety of Interpreters of Graphic Scores.’ At this exhibit were five scores, an audio-visual production of Benjamin Boretz’s ‘Talk’, and some junk instruments she had collected. Two of the scores were exhibited with music, where viewers could listen through headphones, and there was also a performance where visitors played all five scores.

Carmen’s research project is centered at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia where she is doing post-graduate studies.  She is mainly interested in how unconventional notation acts as a guide to improvisation. This originated from her experience as a performer in percussion, which eventually led to score making and, in a broader sense, composition. By inviting the public to interpret music from visual materials, she is essentially promoting experimental music making activity. Carmen says, “I was influenced by reading about Cornelius Cardew and his Scratch Orchestra, and I’m trying to explore avenues that allow experimental music activities to happen within a broader community.

I wanted to know more details about her background. She received training in percussion performance at the University of Melbourne under Tim Hook.  Next she went to Musikhögskolan i Piteå in Northern Sweden with the intention of practicing ‘standard’ repertoire in isolation.  There, she met Gary Verkade, a Professor in Organ, and studied improvisation, interpretation, graphic notation, history, analysis and as Carmen says, ‘everything music’. She began to make her own scores when she was studying Cardew’s ‘Treatise’ with Verkade.

She thought that the most exciting score at the exhibition was the one on the wall and it was completely unplanned, but it worked really well in terms of asking viewers what music they could play ‘from it’, and then inviting them to give it a go.  She also put pianos – one upright, one junk, and one prepared in front of the score so people could read the score as they played.

I asked Carmen about the junk instruments and why they were included in the exhibition. She replied, “The junk instruments worked fantastically, both ‘visually’ and for the ‘exotic’ value for music making. The reason for using non-traditional instruments is to disassociate potential interpreters with the idea of trained professionalism, in order to promote creativity.

Carmen is planning on moving this project from the gallery setting at a University into a more community-minded setting, which does not have values of status and authority associated with it.  She is very hopeful to engage with more people.

And so, I wished to pursue this idea of scores and the concept of composer. What actually makes a composer? Carmen says, “I suppose I’m not entirely sure about being called a ‘composer’, because I don’t compose music as such, I just make scores, and invite people to interpret them.  I’m more of a score-maker, if that’s a word.”

But what do you think about that? Does a score need to have detailed or even minimally guided direction for performance in order for the creator of the score to be considered a composer?

…new territory being explored by an amazing woman in an amazing place.

The recordings of interpretation will be broadcast on Radio Monash soon…for more information on Carmen please visit

Theresa Sauer is the author/editor of Notations 21, an anthology of innovative visual notation from around the world. She is the Director of the Notations 21 Project. She lectures, curates exhibits, produces concerts, and also composes music using innovative music notation. She is in the process of developing a documentary about Notations 21.

For more information visit: website and blog


One Response

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  1. Julie said, on June 23, 2010 at 10:58 am

    It is really cool to see women becoming more involved in composing. I especially love contemporary work and what Carmen does seems great! I also am really excited about composer The Angel, who I just found a great article on, she composed the film Gaia, and is now working on Season 2 of HawthoRNe. I can’t wait to see what she does with it!

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