One of Australia’s most popular artists, Elena Kats-Chernin is renowned for her smart, witty music and prolific output. Now on the eve of her 60th birthday celebrations, a visit to her Sydney home finds a composer who seems to be accelerating rather than slowing down.

Boxes of filed sketches, publicity material, scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and reviews line her hallway, waiting to be sent to the National Library in Canberra. But Kats-Chernin’s escalating success, she confesses, means she hasn’t been as diligent about documenting the last ten years. So how did she become a household name?

Elena Kats-Chernin Elena Kats-Chernin. Photo © Sam Grimmer

Kats-Chernin’s childhood was spent in Tashkent in the Soviet Union (now the capital of Uzbekistan) where she was first introduced to music by her mother, an eye doctor named Bertina. “She loved music passionately,” the composer explains over a cup of tea. “For her, music was just everything.”

As an infant, Kats-Chernin was late learning to speak, but a musical talent soon manifested itself. When her older sister started to learn piano, she would sit in and listen, and by the end of the first or second lesson, when...