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

DSO Conversations: Stephen Pevely



In these unsettling times, it’s important to stay connected and to continue sharing our experiences. To this end, we started a interview series called ‘DSO Conversations’, where we chat to musicians about how they have dealt with the changes brought about by COVID-19 and how they are adjusting to the ‘new normal’ now that restrictions are lifting. For our third interview, we talked to DSO’s Resident Conductor and Principal Clarinet Stephen Pevely. Stephen has been part of DSO since its inception in 1989. When he is not playing in or conducting the orchestra, Stephen works as a geologist. We corresponded with him over email about the impact COVID-19 has had on his life and musical practice, and about his experiences with DSO over the years.



Tell us a bit about your life and work. How has it been affected by COVID-19?

I work for Energy Resources of Australia who process uranium ore at the Ranger mine just beyond Jabiru, 260 km from Darwin. The mine is finally closing at the end of the year after nearly 40 years of operation, so apart from the usual geological stuff around ore reserves, I have been getting involved in the many mine closure projects that are happening. Closure and Rehabilitation will continue out to the end of 2026 until the mine is finally incorporated into Kakadu National Park.

Like many of us, I have been working from home instead of the office in the CBD over the past few months. I’ve quite enjoyed it, especially when my two teenage boys burst into the “office” after school and say “Hello Dad!” and then the tranquillity ends. I have good connectivity with the work servers, so I can do most of what needs to be done without leaving the house. I have a weekly catch up over coffee with colleagues in the CBD office who are still there, albeit in reduced numbers. For me the whole COVID-19 situation has been similar to being here over Christmas when Darwin normally clears out, except the weather is drier! With a land mass of 1.4 million square km and a population of ~240,000, the Territory is in a fortunate position compared to, say, the UK, where all my siblings and relatives have been doing much tougher isolation restrictions.

How has COVID-19 affected you as a musician? Did you find more time to play at home and were you still able to connect with musicians? What have the biggest challenges been?

This is where COVID-19 has really slowed things down. I would normally be out two nights a week at least (and I know of musical colleagues who are out playing four nights a week!); Mondays with DSO (both myself and Natalie) and Thursdays conducting the Arafura wind Ensemble (AWE), so I have missed the playing, conducting and socialising. However, both Natalie and myself have welcomed the respite from the weekly rush to make rehearsals. It has made us reflect on how hectic our pre-COVID routine really was. The family have occasionally got together to play some clarinet quartets (as both our boys play clarinet of course), and I have done some practice to get some reeds and an embouchure going, but never enough.

You first joined DSO when it was founded in 1989. How has it changed or grown over the years? What do you enjoy most about being part of the orchestra?

The DSO in 1989 (pre-crippling public liability insurance premiums) was very different. Our Artistic Director Martin Jarvis had some great schemes to take the orchestra on tour all over the Territory and we all went with ‘boundless possible’ unquestioning enthusiasm. We were, I think, a larger, more youthful band and did an exhausting number of concerts a year, which included quite advanced repertoire considering our overall capability. But, for me, it was the perfect training ground to take in all this great orchestral music I had heard and loved as a younger player. The more we did, the more I wanted! The longer tours especially stand out and were great fun to be a part of.

Over time, I feel DSO has matured into a tighter, more refined entity in concert performance, as new conductors have honed our musicianship. Having a professional management team continues to enable all this, but as a largely volunteer ensemble we still come together to make music for the pure enjoyment of it and that positive dynamic is what our guest musicians from interstate always comment on. Given our extreme geographic isolation and fragile demographics, it’s really miraculous that we are able to stage such truly marvellous concerts. We are still subject to the vagaries of available talented and committed community musicians, but they continue to join and sustain our numbers and we are still here in 2020. I met my wife, Natalie, in the orchestra and after over 25 years we still play in it together. It’s still a huge part of my outside-work life and when I do get to conduct it, well, that’s when I try to bring all I’ve absorbed over the past 32 years to the fore.

As we gradually move towards to the ‘new normal’ and DSO begins rehearsals for smaller chamber music performances, there are opportunities for musicians to immerse themselves in this part of the classical repertoire. What excites you about this, both as a player and a conductor? What are the main differences between playing in a chamber music ensemble as opposed to a full orchestra?

As a devotee and performer of chamber music involving winds for almost 40 years, I’ve always felt that the DSO has never dedicated enough time to exploring this genre.  The ‘new normal’ is a great and overdue opportunity to do so and to showcase the talents of the hugely capable wind, brass and percussion musicians who inhabit the back two rows of DSO. I hope to use my knowledge of it during upcoming performances, when I will direct and lead some of the best of the repertoire for winds. The musical intimacy involved in the playing of chamber music is very special. That’s not to say I am not looking forward to the excitement of once again being part of the full orchestra for a Shostakovich symphony or Respighi tone poem. There are also some wonderfully intimate moments for the wind section in most large orchestral works, so the two musical forms are often intertwined!

What are you listening to at the moment?

Unfamiliar Beethoven! I was asked by our Artistic Director Jon Tooby to take the first socially distanced post-COVID rehearsal this week while he completes his 14 days quarantine in Darwin. We played through both Beethoven’s Egmont overture and incidental music from Goethe’s play of the same name, and his Symphony No. 2 in D, so I’ve been immersed in those scores. This is the first time the DSO has ever played through this less popular symphony or Beethoven’s virtually unknown incidental music. For both myself and the orchestra, it was a reminder that there are still hidden gems that are only truly revealed to musicians through performance. I think all of us came away from rehearsal exhilarated and moved by the absolute genius of his music. Not a bad way to spend a Tuesday night!

Do you have any thoughts on how DSO and other musical groups can keep reaching out to the community during times of crisis?

There have been some fine examples of innovative musical streaming during the lockdown, including DSO’s ‘Portraits’ series and the entertaining gigs during the Nightcliff Seabreeze Festival. It’s now a great time to bring our music to the community at large, as they emerge from isolation during the best time of the year to be outdoors in the Top End, hopefully eager to be entertained by the many forms of high quality community-based music. The Arafura Wind Ensemble have been engaged by Darwin City Council in their own ‘Band in the Park’ twilight and Sunday series for 2020, which will bring some great popular tunes to green spaces throughout the Darwin suburbs. We also have four concerts at the iconic sunset venue at Café de la Plage near the Dripstone cliffs with vocal soloists Fiona Wake and Shalom Kaa. Then there are the upcoming intimate chamber music concerts that DSO has planned. How good is the Territory in the dry?!


Meet your guide!


Shalom Kaa


We are delighted Darwin’s own Shalom Kaa will be our guide on our next musical adventure, Around the World in Eighty Minutes.

DSO sat down and chatted with the multi-talented artist and entertainer about what he’s most looking forward to on the upcoming journey, as well as what he’s been up to since relocating to Darwin in 2015.






Tell us a bit about yourself.

SK: I come from a very talented family of Maori musicians, which is a awesome way to grow up. Since moving to Darwin, I’ve had some so many awesome opportunities including theatre, music directing, production, dance and more recently, stand up comedy. At my recent cabaret show at Darwin Fringe Festival, I proposed to my partner of 17 years. He said yes – thankfully!

How will your last experience collaborating with DSO differ to the what’s been planned for Around the World in Eighty Minutes? What’s special about this event?

SK: I’ve loved singing with the DSO in previous events, and I’ve even been a video tech and stage manager for them! As Host for this event, I’m looking forward to having some fun with the audience and the orchestra. Around the World in Eighty Minutes reflects our multicultural community down to a tee!

What do you love most about working with DSO? 

SK: To be honest, when I first moved to Darwin, it’s was hard to believe that an orchestra this good, with a population this small, in a town this remote, was even possible. And as high as the calibre is, their sense of community remains intact.

Can you tell us which stop on the upcoming musical journey, Around the World in Eighty Minutes, you are most looking forward to and why?

SK: I have to say Japan. I have seen Taiko drumming before and for me it’s pure theatre. However, I am very much looking forward to the Australian finale!

What are you listening to at the moment?

SK: Postmodern Jukebox. I’m a huge fan and even got a chance to sing with then when they were at the Darwin Entertainment Centre.

What’s the main reason you think people should book a ticket to this unique orchestral ride around the globe? 

SK: The world is truly a small place now. Yet, as connected as we are digitally, we are also quite disconnected. So, for eighty minutes, this is a great way to reconnect, though the joy of music.


Shalom Kaa is a multi-talented artist who has always had music and singing in his life. He grew up as part of a large Maori family of musicians who performed throughout New Zealand. Since arriving in Darwin in 2015, Shalom has played and sung in lead roles in musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Chess. He is also the Music Director for Darwin’s first LGBTQIA choir, True Colours Chorus. Shalom made his acting debut in 2017 in The Crucible and in Darwin Theatre Company’s production of A Black Comedy.  He was the Artistic Director for Darwin Chorale’s Beatles Cabaret in 2016 and ABBA Cabaret in 2017, and in 2018 he wrote and directed Voices of Remembrance: A Territory Story of War and Peace. In 2019, he won Peoples Choice Award and Best Producer for his cabaret show Purple Plastic Maori and also won Artist of the Year at the Darwin Pride Awards. He is the host of the entertainment series The Seen NT and is also one of Darwin’s hottest new stand-up comedians.