PhD student Meta Cohen plays at the intersection of queerness, theatricality and sound

PhD candidate Meta Cohen is a composer, sound designer and dramaturg.
PhD candidate Meta Cohen is a composer, sound designer and dramaturg. Image: supplied.

Meta Cohen (they/them/she/her) is a composer, sound designer and dramaturg with work spanning music, theatre and interdisciplinary art. Meta’s music has been commissioned by ensembles such as the Sydney Children’s Choir, Luminescence Chamber Singers and Mosaic Voices, and performed in diverse venues ranging from London Synagogues to the Sydney Opera House.

After completing a Master of Dramaturgy at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne, they commenced a PhD in theatre.

We spoke to Meta about their creative practice, 'interdisciplinarity', queerness and some exciting current projects.

Hi Meta, can you please introduce yourself, your creative practice, and tell us about your connection to the Victorian College of the Arts?

Hi! I’m Meta, and I’m a composer, sound designer and dramaturg working across music, theatre and performance, but also occasionally other disciplines. I did a Master of Dramaturgy at the Victorian College of the Arts a couple of years ago, and I’m currently doing a PhD in Theate.

My first practice is as a composer, and I definitely come to theatre from this background. I’m particularly interested in the intersection of theatricality and sound, and my work focuses on sonic dramaturgy and musical thinking in theatre making.

I understand that you’re passionate about bringing queer, interdisciplinary work to stages – can you speak to some highlight projects?

It’s an aspiration! Often, my work has been ‘either queer or interdisciplinary’, but I’m really interested in exploring the intersection of ‘queer + musical + interdisciplinary’ more in the future.

The ‘queer’ in there refers to my interest in projects that explore LGBTQIA+ experiences and involve collaborators who identify as queer. I’m particularly keen to make work that not only explores queer themes, but also thinks about queer theory’s anti-normative ideas in its form, structure or making process (see Alyson Campbell and Stephen Farrier’s writing on queer dramaturgies).

As to the ‘interdisciplinary’: so far, what that has meant to me is doing projects that blur the boundaries between music and theatre, or theatre and other disciplines, but I definitely want to expand on this in the future. One example I can think of is theatre that is not ‘musical theatre’, but works like music: a couple of years ago, I worked on Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights – it’s a libretto to an unwritten opera, and so the text is very poetic and not at all ‘play-like’. It doesn’t have stable plot or character, and you don’t have any of the traditional footholds of naturalist theatre.

My choral piece (i)dentity is another exploration of this from the musical side: it is set to a Gertrude Stein text that is somewhere between a poem and a play. I’m particularly interested in creating performance that isn’t pressured to conform to the confines of ‘theatre’ and can be a bit looser with form (and particularly musical form). I’m currently working on a new piece of music theatre that really explores this.

But I also love to collaborate with artists from other disciplines – for example, the wonderful painter/performance artist Katya Petetskaya, with whom I’m currently working. In the past, I’ve worked with projection artist Luke Hespanhol to create a piece that triggers sound-responsive projections – I’d love to do more work like that.

Your new queer song cycle, commissioned by ABC Classic, is highly anticipated. Can you please elaborate on the work.

I was very lucky to be able to work with the wonderful Divisi Chamber Singers and pianist Coady Green on this new piece. We first worked together on the premiere of my piece (i)dentity as part of their Compose Queer program.

a love is a love is a love is really a love letter to queerness and the LGBTQIA+ community. It’s a cycle of queer love songs – or perhaps more accurately songs on love, as I was reluctant to write a set of ballads and wanted to challenge what you might expect from a love song. It was really important to me that the pieces explore different kinds of love.

Queerness has historically been censored or relegated to the margins, so I wanted to insist on queer sexual desire and romantic love being present, centred and witnessed. Equally important, however, are other kinds of queer connections: platonic love; friendships; kinship between queer people; and perhaps more deeply a love of queerness itself and the experience of navigating the world as a queer person.

I worked with four amazing queer Australian poets to explore these different intersections of queerness and love and encouraged them not to shy away from the complexities these might raise. The title of the cycle – an homage to Gertrude Stein – reflects these complexities. Riffing off ‘love is love’ – a phrase often crucially used in equal rights campaigns as a strategy to make adversaries of queerness or see our love as 'equivalent' (or perhaps equally ‘worthy’ of the term) – this cycle instead looks to position queer love as not ‘equivalent’ to straight love, but rather its own rich world.

One queer love is not another; queer love cannot be flattened into one homogenous group, so while these songs might share the common thread of queerness, each one can only evoke the particular experience of its makers. These pieces are not made to be a monolithic representation of queer love: they are an invitation to continue exploring its infinite different facets.

The cycle will be released this year, and I’m very excited!

How do sound design and dramaturgy collide/collude? Is there a story behind how these disciplines came together for you?

It’s kind of amazing when you start thinking about this, because really, the question becomes ‘how do they not?!’. For me, the music came first – I’m a composer by training, and I bring this practice into my theatre work. But I see them as utterly interwoven: I often say I compose like a dramaturg and do dramaturgical work like a composer.

Edgard Varè€se called composers ‘like all artists, […] organiser[s] of disparate elements’. To me, this sounds a lot like dramaturgy. I think most dramaturgy is about looking at the way a work is ‘composed’ or organised; how all the elements of a piece work together to create an experience – and that doesn’t have to only apply to musical work. David Roesner and Matthias Rebstock have written some great books on this, looking at applying musical forms and techniques to theatre-making, or creating theatre work that is dramaturgically driven by music. So you might look at the rhythm of a lighting change, or the dynamics of a movement, etc.

My research focusses on musical thinking in theatre-making, and its queer(ing) potential, so I love thinking about this stuff!

Is there anything else you’re excited about in the coming year?

Well, in January we open promiscuous/cities at Theatre Works. I’m working with a wonderful team, led by the inimitable Alyson Campbell, to finally bring the Australian premiere of this fabulous play to the stage. We did a different production in London, but this is the first time a (public) audience has had the chance to see the show in Australia. It’s a beautiful piece – a symphony of a single night in San Francisco and all of the movements, connections and subcultures that overlap constantly in a buzzing metropolis. I’ve been really lucky to work with a team that values sound a lot, so it’s utterly interwoven into the fabric of the show.

My piece Swerve is also going to be performed at this year’s Homophonic as part of Midsumma Festival. It’s going to be such an amazing program of music by queer composers – I am so excited to be included. This piece is very special to me – it was written as part of the RESPECT Project, which matches queer composers up with queer elders in regional areas.

I’m developing some new works over February and March, which I’m also very excited about!