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Catherine Laws
Professor

Profile

Biography

Catherine Laws is a musicologist and a pianist specialising in contemporary music. She studied Music at the University of York, and her doctoral thesis, Music and Language in the Work of Samuel Beckett was awarded in 1996. Towards the end of her doctoral studies she took up the position of Lecturer in Music at De Montfort University, Leicester, subsequently moving to Dartington College of Arts in 1997. She stayed at Dartington for 10 years, working as Associate Director of Music from 2000 and also leading the College’s interdisciplinary MA in Performance Practices. In 2007 Catherine left full-time academia to focus more on performance, taking a part-time Fellowship in Artistic Research at the Orpheus Institute, Ghent. In 2010 she returned to the University of York as a lecturer, while also continuing as a Senior Artistic Research Fellow at the Orpheus Institute. She was promoted to Professor of Music in 2020.

Catherine performs and records regularly, often working closely with composers on new pieces. Her 75-minute solo multimedia performance piece, Player Piano, developed in collaboration with four composers, two theatre makers, and a film maker, was premiered in 2016. She has recently developed a series of piano films with Korean film maker Minyung Im, reconceiving for film a number of piano pieces developed collaboratively with composers Juliana Hodkinson, Edward Jessen, Annea Lockwood, Roger Marsh, and Paul Whitty.

Catherine has published widely on aspects of contemporary performance practices, especially in relation to processes of collaboration, embodiment, and identity. Voices, Bodies Practices: Performing Musical Subjectivities, co-authored with William Brooks, David Gorton, Nguyễn Thanh Thủy, Stefan Östersjö, Jeremy J. Wells, came out in 2019 (with a linked repository of artistic work), and the edited volume Performance, Subjectivity, and Experimentation was published in 2020. Catherine also works in the field of word and music studies, with a special focus on the role of music in the work of Samuel Beckett and composers’ responses to his texts. Her book ‘Headaches Among the Overtones’: Music in Beckett/ Beckett in Music (Editions Rodopi, 2013) was the first monograph on the topic of Beckett and music.

Departmental roles

  • REF Lead; Department Research Committee
  • Performance Supervisors' Committee
  • Scholarships Committee

Teaching

Other teaching

  • The Body in Musical Performance.
  • Performance and Context: the relationship between what we do in musical performance and the contexts in which performance takes place.
  • The Piano Today
  • Writing into Music/ Music into Writing
  • Performance coaching; The Assembled (Departmental experimental music ensemble); Department Piano Ensemble.
  • Perspectives on new music (especially experimental music) from both theory and practice.

Research

Overview

Catherine Laws is a musicologist and a pianist specialising in contemporary music. She has two primary research specialisms: research in and through performance and word and music studies (particularly the relationship between music, language, and meaning).

As a performer, Catherine is active in the field of new music and experimental music theatre. She is particularly interested in the inherent theatricality of musical performance and the interaction between body and instrument, but also in piano sound: touch, tone, and resonance. Her most recent project is a large-scale, solo music theatre piece, Player Piano, developed in collaboration with four composers, a theatre maker and a film maker. Other recent recordings include a film version of when the wind blows by Juliana Hodkinson (composed for Catherine), a new version of Annea Lockwood’s Ceci n’est un piano (for piano, recorded text and electronics), recordings of music for two or more pianos by Morton Feldman and John Cage (with Philip Thomas, John Tilbury, and Mark Knoop) on the label another timbre, and a recording of head down among the stems and bells (for amplified, prepared piano), by Martin Iddon (also for another timbre).

Catherine’s practice research is focused on processes of embodiment, subjectivity, and collaboration in contemporary performance. In addition to her current post at York, she is a Senior Artistic Research Fellow at the Orpheus Institute in Ghent, where she leads the research cluster Performance, Subjectivity, and Experimentation. The aim of this cluster is to examine how subjectivity is produced through performance practices associated with new music: who is the ‘I’ that performs, and how is that ‘I’ embodied in performance? In particular:

  1. How can experimentation with processes toward performance draw out, or foreground, subjectivity in action, and aid our understanding of its production?
  2. How do the dynamic relationships between performers, other artists, materials, and historical and cultural contexts contribute to the emergence of subjectivity?
  3. How do the processes of performance reflect and produce gendered and cultural identities? How do these issues relate to understandings of creativity and identity?

The cluster has produced a range of research outputs, including performances and compositions alongside written outputs. Two books have recently been published:

Voices, Bodies, Practices: Performing Musical Subjectivities (Leuven University Press, 2019): this book, with linked open access repository of artistic outputs, was co-authored by Catherine, with William Brooks, David Gorton, Nguyễn Thanh Thủy, Stefan Östersjö, Jeremy J. Wells. 

Performance, Subjectivity, and Experimentation (Leuven University Press, 2020): this book, edited by Catherine (and containing a chapter on her own work) has linked artistic outputs.

Catherine’s own research project in the cluster, entitled ‘Being a Player: Agency and Subjectivity in Player Piano, explores the nature and extent of performer agency, particularly as manifested through the interaction of body and instrument in the space of performance. It uses the process of developing a new, collaboratively devised performance as a lens through which to scrutinise these matters: as part of the research, Catherine developed a 75-minute multimedia performance piece, Player Piano, incorporating pieces by 4 composers (one by Annea Lockwood, plus three new pieces, collaboratively-developed with Edward Jessen, Roger Marsh, and Paul Whitty), all for piano but, in very different ways, exploring and the scene of piano performance: the relationship between performer and instrument (and other sound-making objects), the interactions with the materials and space of performance, and the production of performer identity through these networks of interaction. Catherine developed an overarching scenography for the piece, incorporating theatrical action alongside (or drawn into) her piano playing; this was subsequently refined with the help of theatre maker Teresa Brayshaw and in relation to films by Wendy Kirkup. Player Piano was premiered in York in 2016 and has since been performed in the UK, Belgium and Sweden.

Catherine has recently developed a series of piano films with Korean film maker Minyung Im. Some of these are film versions of the compositions developed for Player Piano. In each case the aim was not simply to produce a film documenting performance of the piece, but rather consider the filmic context and reconceive the ‘setting’ accordingly.

Ceci n’est pas un piano: film version of composition for piano, recorded voice and video by Annea Lockwood; original version 2002; this version with text by Catherine Laws, 2014; film 2020). Catherine Laws, performer. Film by Minyung Im; sound by Jon Hughes.

Ten Bellows (piece developed collaboratively with composer Edward Jessen). Catherine Laws and Hannah Butterfeld, performers. Film by Minyung Im; sound by Lynette Quek. 

Touch and Go (piece developed collaboratively with composer Roger Marsh). Film by Minyung Im; sound by Lynette Quek.

under and under (piece developed collaboratively with composer Paul Whitty). Catherine Laws, performer. Film by Minyung Im; sound by Lynette Quek.

when the wind blows by Juliana Hodkinson. Catherine Laws, performer. Film by Minyung Im, sound by Lynette Quek.

Other films:

Chambre 119 (for amplified voice, piano, toy piano and CD playback), composed for Catherine Laws by Edward Jessen.

Companion (for two toy pianos and voices), composed by Edward Jessen, for Catherine Laws and Anna Myatt.

Disjointed, a collaboration with composer Bill Brooks and percussionist Damien Harron (produced as part of the research project ‘Sounded Gestures, Enacted Sounds’).

Catherine’s research into the relationship between music and language is concerned with the ways in which composers and sound artists respond to the work of writers – whether by setting their texts to music or otherwise ‘translating’ aspects of their work into sonic practices – and vice versa: the ways in which twentieth- and twenty-first-century writers have taken music as a starting point for their work. Catherine’s research in this field focuses especially on the musicality of the work of Samuel Beckett and composers’ responses to his texts. She has published a range of articles on these topics, including studies of Beckett-inspired music by Morton Feldman, György Kurtág, John Tilbury, and others. Her book, ‘Headaches Among the Overtones’: Music in Beckett/ Beckett in Music (Editions Rodopi, 2013) was the first monograph on this topic. Her most recent research in this area includes study of Beckett’s radio work for the BBC in the late 1950s and the significance of his work for early British experiments with radiophonic sound.

Publications

Selected publications

Books

Laws, Catherine (editor and contributor), Performance, Subjectivity, and Experimentation,

(Orpheus Institute Series), Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2020.

Laws, Catherine, and William Brooks, David Gorton, NguyễnThanh Thuy, Stefan Östersjö, and Jeremy J. Wells, Voices, Bodies, Practices: Performing Musical Subjectivities, (Orpheus Institute Series), Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2019.

Laws, Catherine, ‘Headaches Among the Overtones’: Music in Beckett/ Beckett in Music. Amsterdam/ New York: Rodopi, 2013.

Laws, Catherine (editor and contributor), The Practice of Practising (Collected Writings of the Orpheus Institute 04), Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2011. 91 pages.

Laws, Catherine (editor and contributor, book and accompanying CD), On Listening (special issue of Performance Research vol. 15/3), London and New York: Routledge, 2010. 126 pages.

Laws, Catherine (editor), On Beckett (special issue of Performance Research: vol. 12/1), London and New York: Routledge, 2007. 150 pages.

Chapters in books

Haddon, Elizabeth and Laws, Catherine, ‘Playful production: collaborative facilitation in a music ensemble context,’ in Timmers, R., Bailes, F., and Daffern, H. (eds.), Together in music: Participation, coordination, and creativity in ensembles. Oxford: OUP, 2021 (forthcoming).

Laws, Catherine, ‘This Is Not A...,’ in Redhead, L. and Glover, R. (eds.), Collaborative and Distributed Processes in Contemporary Music-Making, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018, 167-84.

Laws, Catherine, ‘Imagining Radio Sound: Interference and Collaboration in the BBC Radio Production of Beckett’s All That Fall,’ in Addyman, D., Feldman, M., and Tonning, E. (eds.), Samuel Beckett and the BBC, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, pp.103-138.

Laws, Catherine, ‘Music in Beckett’s Nacht und Träume: Vocality and Imagination,’ in Bailes, S. J., and Till, N. (eds.), Beckett and Musicality, Farnham: Ashgate, 2014, pp.233-254.

Laws, Catherine, ‘Embodiment and Gesture in Performance: Practice-led Perspectives,’ in Crispin, D., and Gilmore, B. (eds.), Artistic Experimentation in Music: An Anthology, Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2014, pp.131-142.

Laws, Catherine, ‘Experiment in Practice,’ in Crispin, D., and Gilmore, B. (eds.), Artistic Experimentation in Music: An Anthology, Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2014, pp.565-574.

Laws, Catherine, ‘Samuel Beckett and Music,’ in Uhlmann, A. (ed.), Samuel Beckett in Context, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp.266-278.

Laws, Catherine, ‘Morton Feldman’s Late Piano Music: Experimentalism in Practice,’ in Laws, C. (ed.) The Practice of Practising, Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2011, pp.49-68.

Laws, Catherine, ‘Beckett and Unheard Sound,’ in Caselli, D. (ed.), Beckett and Nothing, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010, pp.176-191.

Laws, Catherine, ‘Feldman – Beckett – Johns: Patterning, Memory and Subjectivity,’ in Heile, B. (ed.), The Modernist Legacy: Essays on New Music, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009, pp.135-158.

Laws, Catherine, ‘Beckett – Johns,’ in Ben-Zvi L. and Moorjani, A. (eds.), Beckett at 100, New York: OUP, 2007, pp.230-245.

Laws, Catherine, ‘Beethoven’s Haunting of Beckett’s Ghost Trio,’ in Ben-Zvi, L. (ed.), Drawing on Beckett: Portraits, Performances, and Cultural Contexts, Tel Aviv: Assaph, 2003, pp.197-214.

Laws, Catherine, ‘Morton Feldman’s Neither,’ in Bryden, M. (ed.) Samuel Beckett and Music, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998, pp.57-86.

Articles in journals

Laws, Catherine, ‘Beckett, music, intermediality: John Tilbury’s Worstward Ho,’ Samuel Beckett Today/ Aujourd’hui, XXXII (Special Issue: Beckett and Intermediality), 2020, 116-128.

Laws, Catherine, ‘Moving Bodies, Piano Body,’ Performance Research (Special Issue: Issue 100) XXV/2, 2018, 351-4.

Laws, Catherine, ‘Beckett in New Musical Composition,’ Journal of Beckett Studies, 23/1, 2014, 54-72.

Laws, Catherine, ‘Beckett and Kurtág,’ Samuel Beckett Today/ Aujourd’hui, XV, 2005, 241-256.

Laws, Catherine, ‘Aspects of Form and its Significance in Contemporary Music,’ Performance Research, X/2: On Form, 2005, 135-146.

Laws, Catherine, ‘The Music of Beckett’s Theatre,’ Samuel Beckett Today/ Aujourd’hui, XIII, 2003, 121-136.

Laws, Catherine, ‘Music in Words and Music: Feldman’s Response to Beckett’s Play,’ Samuel Beckett Today/ Aujourd’hui XI, 2001, 279-290.

Laws, Catherine, ‘The Double Image of Music in Beckett’s Dream of Fair to Middling Women,Samuel Beckett Today/ Aujourd’hui IX, 2000, 295-308.

Laws, Catherine, ‘Performance Issues in Composers’ Approaches to Beckett,’ Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui, VIII, 2000, 143-158.

Laws, Catherine, ‘Richard Barrett’s Ne songe plus à fuir: Beckett in Musical Translation?,’ Samuel Beckett Today/ Aujourd’hui,  VI, 1997, 289-302.

Laws, Catherine, ‘The Problem of Donna Anna: “Risk-Free Identification”?,’ Women: a cultural review V/3, 1994, 279-289.

Full publications list

View all Catherine's publications at the York Research Database.

Catherine Laws

Contact details

Dr Catherine Laws
Lecturer
Department of Music
University of York
Heslington
York
YO10 5DD

Tel: +44 (0)1904 32 2453