A distinguished Czech organist and harpsichordist, Kateřina Chroboková has gained recognition at home and abroad alike, and of late has also drawn attention as a composer. Her album KATT (SU 4189–2) presents her as a superlative performer of music by J. S. Bach, Arvo Pärt and Oliver Messiaen, as well as her own pieces. The disc is unique in terms of the repertoire, interconnecting the individual works through their spiritual focus, while at the same time being multi-genre, featuring music of a variety of styles, eras and forms, including the artist’s singing on her own compositions. It was recorded on the four-manual organ in Echternach, Luxembourg.
What makes the organ at the Echternach Abbey basilica so special?
I was seeking a suitable instrument on which I could play a wide repertoire spectrum, since, in addition to the Johann Sebastian Bach works, the album contains pieces by Arvo Pärt and Olivier Messiaen. I consider Messiaen a true musical wizard who made use of an enormous range of timbres and registers. Accordingly, I bore in mind that the organ to be used for the recording had to be large and possess intriguing sonic properties that would allow for highlighting the qualities of all the pieces – Messiaen’s, Pärt’s, and mine as well. As an organist, I strive, similarly to these composers, to make use of the immense range of sounds the organ can produce. That is why I opted for the organ in Echternach.
How did you discover it?
I knew the organ owing to a friend of mine, and had played it a few years previously. I got to know the instrument’s high quality, so I was happy to have the opportunity to record my album in Echternach.
You often say – and your performances serve as proof of it – that you aim to promote the organ as such. Do you think that the 20th- and 21st-century music to which you have considerably devoted is suitable for this purpose?
I am of the opinion that the promotion must be done more within a context than only by means of specific compositions. Hence, I strive to captivate the listener by, on the one hand, an unusual repertoire – both as regards concerts and CDs – and, on the other, by presenting individual works in an uncommon context. Especially when I have my mobile instrument with me. I would also like to address the listeners who are not familiar with that instrument.
Could you give us an example?
Bach, for instance, was a genius, with his works splendidly promoting the organ. I deem him the spiritual father of organ music. Yet I also think that promotion is more effective when I present it in a different, novel manner, in different connections, such as by means of juxtaposing it with contrastive pieces or combining it with other artistic forms or multimedia. I really liked the projects I saw during my studies in the Netherlands. My professor, Reitze Smits, for instance, created a performance of this type with the renowned contemporary dance company Rosas. He played some Bach works and the dancers improvised to the music.
You studied abroad; you regularly perform in many countries all over the world. Has the organ been experiencing a renaissance of late? I have this impression when taking into account the number of composers now writing for the instrument.
The organ has indeed been paid increased attention to, yet, all the same, it could be greater. While I was still studying in the Netherlands, I tried to motivate a few composers to write organ pieces for me. At the time, composers from all over the world had gathered there and were also at the school I attended. So, composers from Mexico, Indonesia and Greece, for instance, created music for me. Yet, at the same time, I would encounter composers who were afraid of the organ, many of them holding the instrument in a sort of awe. Many have created audacious works for all kinds of instruments, yet whenever they face the organ, they are very conservative. And they explained that their attitude was due to this very awe. As an organist, I am well acquainted with the variety of possibilities and the potential the instrument possesses. I kept on doing my best to show this to the composers, urging them to try this or that … So much so that I ultimately ended up starting to write music myself.
When you sing, your voice becomes an integral part of the instrument…
Well, yes, that is my objective. I do not view myself as a singer, let alone a classical singer. I rather use my voice as an additional organ register. Accordingly, I make use of various timbres of my voice, sometimes whispering, at others singing to the full, almost roaring…
How did the audience – music professionals and ordinary listeners at the hall – respond when you first employed your voice in public as a part of your composition?
I didn’t initially plan to present my pieces within classical festivals, so I wasn’t overly concerned. The way I sing is my own intention. Yet I must admit I was quite apprehensive of the classical audience’s reaction. Nonetheless, their response was open-minded and unexpectedly positive. And I was taken by surprise and happy to see the audience’s enthusiasm at the premiere of my piece Veni Sancte Spiritus for organ, voice and orchestra at the Smetana Litomyšl festival. People also told me that they found the colour of my voice intriguing and that they liked the unconventional manner in which I used it in combination with the organ.
Some passages of your compositions come across as being the fruit of improvisation. Is my impression right?
Yes, it basically is. All my original pieces actually started with improvisation. One day, I arrived at the church in Slavkov, where I was scheduled to give a concert, and spontaneously began to improvise. A possible reason was that the organ there had so enthralled me, its timbre in particular. I remember that the tone quality was unusual, the instrument hardly sounded like an organ, rather being reminiscent of a flute, something like the Pan flute. And the other organ pipes sounded like a Celtic instrument. I found it all absolutely fascinating, so I just plunged into improvisation there and then. And at that moment, I realised that I really enjoyed it, that all of a sudden I had begun creating my own music. It was a true epiphany for me. So my very first piece was the result of improvisation. Subsequently, I remade the score, recasting it into its definite form. This very first work of mine is featured, under the name of Slavkof, on the KATT album.
Do you also improvise at concerts?
I plan out the programmes of my concerts, to which I strive to adhere. I know how the performance will proceed, what its drift and effect will be like. I have it under control, and that’s the way I like it.
What inspires you?
It’s a continuous process; I’m surrounded by plenty of stimuli. I can be inspired by interesting people, intriguing music or instruments too. A specific instrument, its timbre, often serves to inspire me, and then I start to improvise, remember certain motifs, which thus gives rise to a new composition.
Your album has been named after you. How did you arrive at the KATT moniker? You have alternately used both your real name, Kateřina Chroboková, and KATT, yet it does not seem to be accidental. Do I understand it correctly that as a rule you have used KATT when you perform your own music?
Yes, that was my original intention. But I am now shifting elsewhere. I will first answer your first question: I am called Katt by my friends – as a variant of “Kateřina”. The idea of performing under this name came from my friend Thierry Origer, the one who took me to the basilica in Echternach, where he was serving as an organist. In Luxembourgish, the name “Catherine” is “Kätt”, yet I don’t put the umlaut above the “a”. The name thus started to be used before I had actually begun composing my own music.
And you then made use of it as your artistic pseudonym?
When I started to write music, I said to myself that it would be good to differentiate between my own creations and the classical works I perform. As I have mentioned, at the time I didn’t think that I would be playing my pieces at classical festivals. After all, I was venturing on various experiments, which included using my voice! So I decided to be KATT when presenting my own music, and to remain Kateřina Chroboková when playing classical works.
But you perform your pieces at classical festivals too!
Yes, it is true. They have started to invite me. So I thought I should interconnect the two spheres, assuming that if I succeeded in presenting my own creations on classical and other platforms people should know me as KATT, an avant-garde composer and musician who does novel things. One of my long-term aims is to get the two worlds together and win over for the organ an audience other than the traditional one. Young people who wouldn’t usually come to a classical organ concert, for instance. Perhaps the audience should know who Kateřina Chroboková is, and who KATT is. Hence, I will try to use just a single name from now on.
After all, your album is titled KATT and features music ranging from classical to alternative.
It was actually the idea of the Supraphon producer, Matouš Vlčinský, who suggested that the album be titled KATT. I have already written to concert promoters, asking them to use this name only.