Composer Conversation: Ross Edwards with Paul Stanhope, Artistic Chair of the Australia Ensemble UNSW
Ross Edwards joined Artistic Chair Paul Stanhope recently from his house in Sydney to discuss his work, Incantations, for wind quintet. We hope you enjoy hearing from the composer, and on behalf of all of the members of the Ensemble, thank you for connecting with us online.
0:06 Introduction – Geoffrey Collins
Hi, this is Geoff Collins from the Australia Ensemble. I’m thrilled to introduce to you one of Australia’s most distinguished composers, Ross Edwards. Ross joined us recently from his house in Sydney to discuss his work, Incantations, for wind quintet. I hope you enjoy hearing from the composer, and on behalf of all of the members of the Ensemble, thank you for connecting with us online. We look forward to being back at UNSW as soon as we can
Paul Stanhope: So, Ross Edwards, thank you for Zooming with me this morning, and for the great chance to talk with you about your wonderful wind quintet Incantations. I’m sorry that the Australia Ensemble audiences will be missing out on a live performance this year – I’m wondering if maybe we should retitle it to Incarcerations rather than Incantations.
Ross Edwards: [laughs] Yes, maybe.
PS: But here’s hoping we’ll be able to put it in a program some time in the future for the audience to hear it live. The good news is, though, on a lovely ABC Classics recording, called Incantations, and it’s a collection of your chamber music, and also that recording also features the commission from the Australia Ensemble, Animisms.
RE: The first piece, isn’t it?
PS: The first piece on the CD. So it’s well worth our audience, if you’re tuning in to this little blog spot, then do go and check out the recording on Spotify, or in fact you can even still buy a physical CD, which I think is amazing.
1:45 Style of Incantations
PS: So, Ross, my first question goes to the style of music that we hear in Incantations, and there are a few descriptors of this style. We can say it’s of a dance-like nature, lots of little repeated cells, and frequently there’s some up-tempo moments, very quick and bright music. Vibrant character on the whole, but there are also some more melancholy and reflective moments. So this style of your music first emerged in the early nineteen eighties with your piano concerto, and a now very famous piece, Marimba Dances. This music caused some shock among critics and other composers at the time, particularly those who were committed to a European avant-garde way of thinking – I’ll note though that audiences were much more welcoming of this music at the time. Could you give us some insights on how you found yourself writing music like we hear in Incantations in this way, and what were the paths that led you there?
RE: We should first say that you’re probably the world expert on my music, you know more about it than I do, having written your Masters thesis on it.
PS: So a disclaimer in there.
RE: It’s very appropriate that you’re asking these excellent questions. I think that the wind quintet Incantations was written in 1985 I think – am I right? Something like that. And it was a commission from Musica Viva, and I was a bit dismayed when they asked me to write a wind quintet to be honest, because they are difficult. Anyway, I got right into it and I thought ‘well, I’ll experiment with a few different things’, because before that I had been writing very, sort of, skeletal works which came out of the environment – I’d listened very closely to the Australian bush, and some of the shapes and patterns had come out of that, but I’d had a complete sort of cleaning out of everything I knew beforehand. I’d got rid of what I had decided was a boring old avant-garde from Europe, and I was trying to find something that related to us, to me, and to Australia. And so at that point, I had really gone to an extreme with these pieces. They did work in the concert hall, but I sort of thought ‘well, I can’t keep doing this’. So, the shapes, the patterns, the general intent of the music I transferred to another style, and I think the first pieces I did with that was the infamous Piano Concerto. I just wanted to do something completely different; if you’re going in one direction, I find, sometimes you want to run in the other direction, because you’ve done it too much. So, I admit I wanted to get up the nose of the boring people who were pushing European music as well, and I did that very successfully.
PS: It’s one of the most classic lines in a review, is that ‘the kind of piece that gives A major a bad name’.
RE: It wasn’t even A major, but still, it did give a bad name.
PS: They got that wrong too, exactly. But it’s one of those lines that you dream of as a composer, for a bad review, that’s a classic one.
RE: Yes, it’s one of my best. Or worst. So, it reflected how I felt at the time. I was sick of listening to the minute details of an environment, and I wanted to embrace the whole thing – all its colour and its vibrancy, and so that’s what I did, and people have gradually accepted it, even those sorts of people who write criticisms are less angry about it now. Some still are going. But then, having done that, I started to write music that was suitable for the concert hall and retained the spirit of what I’d been trying to do, which was trying to put people under, to mesmerise them, I was fascinated with what might happen. I’d been investigating all sorts of chant, and Sufi music, etcetera. Relating that to the insect chorus, and that’s really how I came to write Incantations. The name came much later actually. It was originally called Maninya III. But Incantations seemed to fit it because of the repetitive nature of the music. So that’s what I did. All these little interlocking particles, these overlapping phrases of insects, frogs and so on, that fascinated me at the time. And gradually I was getting birdsong into it.
7:36 The Insect World of Incantations
PS: Yes, the birdsong sort of comes a little bit later, doesn’t it? But, just unpacking a few things here for our audience when we’re listening to it then, how does, you mention the insect chorus, I think we can get a general idea of the bright colours and the vibrancy of the natural world from the piece really easily. Can you tell us how the influence of the insect world manifests itself in the patterns in this music?
RE: You can’t actually hear the insects, but you can hear something like it. Drones became very important in my music, and so I do think of cicadas in these pieces. And of course the style has gradually changed, it’s been overlayed with all sorts of other things, but this was an early example of it. The Piano Concerto was more discursive in some ways, I think, in narrative. Marimba Dances was just a little motley piece that I put in a drawer, and then suddenly it was being played all over the world. Because it’s so difficult, I think, percussion teachers used to give it to their students for exams and so on. Anyway, so those pieces were seminal insofar as the apparent change of my style is concerned. I still regard it as related to the earlier pieces, like that clarinet piece The Tower of Remoteness, and so on, which were very still and not going anywhere. These pieces are still not going anywhere, they’re focused on the present. The wind quintet particularly – not so much the other two.
PS: I think for audiences it can be useful to have a listen to a piece like Prelude and Dragonfly Dance, which I think makes the insect chorus really quite vibrant, and then listen again to Incantations and then you can kind of hear how those patterns – sometimes it’s the unpredictability of the patterns, I think – that is the thing that relates closely to what you’re saying is the insect patterns.
RE: These insects are quite unpredictable, I mean, cicadas will suddenly change. Yes, that’s a good one, Prelude and Dragonfly Dance.
10:01 Australian music in the 1980s
PS: Really, at this time in the nineteen eighties, there was this wave of exploration of simpler harmonic patterns, that you’re using here and more vibrant rhythmic patterns that were kind of forbidden by the avant garde world. This is kind of a follow up to the first question: was there something about Australia in those days that allowed composers this freedom compared to, say, if you were stuck in Munich or Vienna or something and felt the need to follow the pattern that had been set up in the institutions. Is there something about Australia that gave you that freedom to explore?
RE: Yes, definitely. I felt that I really didn’t want to follow the European pattern because I thought, ‘here’s an opportunity to do something a bit different’. And I wasn’t that I thought I needed to, it came from inside, and I found myself doing it. So, I became a heretic, gleefully, and I suppose the drones probably… I found myself, when I was living up the coast, I’d walk around and I’d listen to insects, and I was really very taken with cicadas, because they were so mysterious. And I related them to drones in so much music that’s close to the earth, which obviously the European avant garde wasn’t. It got right away from it, which brings us back to the environment and the importance of it in my music. It taught me a lot, from relating to world music, and our insects.
PS: Thankyou, that’s a wonderful explanation of that process, and I think, as an observer, I would say that you’re amongst the first new wave of exploring this kind of music and recreating, renewing music in this area. It’s interesting that it’s in new world countries such as the United States and Australia that have kind of forged in this direction first.
RE: And that’s the West Coast of the United States – the others are still behind. [laughs] Caught in serialisation and so on.
PS: I think there’s a lot of diversity still happening in the US. One of the things that Alex Ross, for example, observed was that music is no longer sort of a train with composers trying to get from the rear of the train to the front of the train. Music is now going… like the big bang, going in a million places at once. And it’s because of the opening up of these ideas in, perhaps in the late seventies and nineteen eighties, that have allowed this great expansion of diversity. So I’m just, sort of, piecing this piece within that framework while it’s opening up, which I think it is.
RE: Yes, and also I think the fact that music stopped being narrative and focused on the present. That, to me, is something to do with the imperialistic urge having waned somewhat, and people having questioned it and realised that what had happened, in all nineteenth century music you get this narrative that’s actually goal-directed and going somewhere. And I wanted to get away from that, I wanted to look at the minutiae of things, and observe them closely which is what I suppose I did. I wrote sort of static music and just gradually I started to do other things with it - to overlay all sorts of symbols and references from other cultures, which related to the essential thing that I had been working with, which is bringing it out of the environment and into the concert hall.
PS: Thank you. That’s a wonderful explanation of that non-narrative aspect which I think we can explore that a little bit later. I’m still kind of going in terms of context, historical context and societal context to an extent. And this is a question about the nineteen eighties, and I hope you can remember them [laughs]
RE: Oh yes. Vividly.
PS: I was still a school student at the time. But, this is a time of profound change in Australia, and looking back at that time it was in fact an era of great artistic vibrancy, I guess a time of growth in Australia, for this artistic vibrancy. Although the Australia Council wasn’t exactly plush with money it still did seem possible to start new things and to commission works. And, I think in that context the Australia Ensemble as well was beginning its journey, touring overseas and so on. So, these groups supported new music composition, and that’s bequeathed us a number of these important works such as Incantations. Do you have any reflections on the Australian music ecosystem in those days, looking back? How do you see it compared to now, and how important were those seminal days for you as a composer?
RE: Yes, I remember the Australia Council and actually sitting on the Board, and I remember that there was so much to be done and so little money, which was depressing. At that point, in the early-ish nineteen eighties, I’d left a secure lecturing position at the Sydney Conservatorium which, it was a huge risk but I’m so glad I did it, because I just wasn’t happy with what I was expected to teach and I wanted to go in my own direction and do something that related to me, related to Australia. And so times were pretty precarious, and I’d sit round hoping a commission would come, because I’m no good at seeking these things out myself, being a total introvert, but they always did, fortunately. Some times, we’d get through, and Helen was amazing, my wife Helen – she did all sorts of things like she taught piano, she did health cookery, so in the lean periods when I didn’t get a commission, and there weren’t many of them, but she was very active. But we got through, and it was a period, a very exciting period and people, there weren’t so many, it seemed there weren’t so many people wanting to be composers. They all jumped on the bandwagon later on, which I always thought was rather silly of them, now knowing what it was like, what to expect. It was great. You know, there were, now there is such diversity which is a good thing, which people are trying out all sorts of different things, and it’s become a bit messy, a bit exciting, a bit … I don’t know, I can’t completely relate to it I think, because the idea of a profession of being a composer and being totally committed to doing something has … is this relevant? Do you think this is a bit controversial?
PS: No, no, keep going! This is good.
RE: Today, I think the idea of being a composer, a professional composer, is more or less untenable, I think. I’ve only just managed to get through it myself, but here we have very many people, because of the electronic media and so on, and nobody writes with the pencil and paper any more except me. But, everybody’s having a go at it, and that’s great, but how on earth do they live? That’s the question that concerns me. I remember when I was a student, I was in the same class as Martin Wesley-Smith and also at some point, Ann Boyd, and there wasn’t anyone else really. But, now I remember giving a talk at the Con and there were about sixty people and I said “are you all composition students?”, and they said “yes!”. And I said, well I don’t know what I said, but I know what I thought – gee, this is crazy! But still, anyway, it’s lovely that everyone is wanting to be creative, and going in so many different directions. We’re not sort of doing as we’re told, that’s what really made me upset – if you didn’t do this, you got bad marks, or you were just trivialised almost. But, no more. The pluralistic approach I think is well and truly under way.
20:00 Writing for Wind Quintet
PS: Yes, it’s well and truly established, but you rightly underline the conundrum though, that although there’s all this diversity and all these people undertaking activities, the support, the professional support of this world has just completely, is disappearing by the moment, and this is a real challenge for us in the artistic world. And for freelancers at the moment who have lost all their work, and members of the Australia Ensemble, who are sitting at home at the moment instead of touring, these are really, really challenging times. But let’s move forward to the idea of composing for a wind quintet, and you mentioned before that they are a tricky beast, and the Australia Ensemble wind players are often lamenting that, the lack of really good quintets so we really appreciate the fact that this one’s a cracker. They are technically tricky because they’re a heterogenous group of woodwinds, with flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn. They all have different attacks, different ranges, different dynamic curves, they’re all highly individualistic with their sonorities, but I think you’ve solving this in a multitude of different ways. Can you maybe talks us through some of the traps that you see in writing for winds, and what sorts of problems, how did you solve some of these problems in this piece?
RE: Well, yes I suppose I managed to integrate them into a homogenous texture without making the colours stand out too much. But, of course, it’s good that they do, I mean if you can exploit these very different, as you say, attacks and different colours and different capabilities too in range, that can make a very interesting piece. This one tends to subdue them a bit and it’s more a texture that is unchanging in terms of colour, or not greatly exploiting colour, individual colours.
PS: There’s lots of subtle shifts of colour, I find, lots of things in inner voices that move around and are constantly changing.
RE: I wrote another wind quintet recently, which is called The Laughing Moon, which is also on that CD you mentioned. It’s quite different, it’s got a number of different short movements, and it’s highly impractical because I’ve got the, I often do things like that, I get the horn player to play percussion as well which he was not amused by when we were recording it. We got a percussionist in to do that. Well, I like to give challenges but sometimes I go overboard.
23:16 The Structure of Incantations
PS: Can you talk us through the structure of Incantations, Ross, and other particular ways which the listener can experience this music more meaningfully? So, I mentioned the idea of the inner voices and the movement of those – I find actually it’s a bit like listening to early European vocal music, early music, where there’s lots of movement internally. Maybe just talk us through a couple of those points.
RE: Ok, there were two rather similar sorts of movements and when I revised the piece, I think in nineteen nine… oh no, two thousand and two, I think, anyway, I added another one because I thought it needed an introduction instead of hopping straight into this mesmeric texture. I think that people should ideally, I mean they do what they like but, I like the idea of focusing on something which is slowly changing. And that’s what I was set out to do with the piece. It’s quite unlike what the Maninyas were doing, which, I felt that they were always going somewhere gradually, but I was staying in the same place, in exploring its intricacies closely, at close range, and just seeing if it changed you rather than the music, than the music changing. And so at that stage I hadn’t got into lighting, but later on some of these pieces I asked the concert hall to light them in different ways. Then I got into costume, and went really overboard, and now I’m trying to come back, especially as I have to write solo pieces.
PS: Right, yes, there will be lots of demand for solo pieces at the moment. So I really quite like the new movement that you’ve added, it sort of introduces each of the components, and then each of the components are then sort of locked together. So it’s quite nice to hear the disparate voices before they then set off into this dance-like journey. I very much liked the introduction of that new movement and it tends to round out the structure as the whole really well in a nice three-movement form. The last movement I find particularly fascinating in that it starts off this slightly more melancholic flavour, and then it takes off in the middle in this series of outbursts, and then the tempo relationships are really cleverly mapped out. It’s like a microcosm of the whole three movement journey, sort of compacted into the last movement. So, is there a particular thought behind the quick transitions in your music? I find it really interesting when you pull the rug out from under our feet. But I’m just interested to hear your thoughts on how that works, in that last movement in particular.
RE: I don’t map out a structure, ever. I think I keep going and I think, ok, we need a change here. It’s literally like that. And then I try to make something that’s effective – actually that movement is my favourite as well. The first one really could put you in a rut if you let it. The second… the first fast movement, it does something quite different – it keeps you in one place, whereas the second movement is actually moving somewhere, and it ends up quite ecstatic, but as you say, melancholic, as it begins with that sort of horn, you can call it a melody, but it’s … yes.
PS: That recalls then the textures of further, of the new first movement too, which I think the new first movement kind of really successfully puts the components in place; it sort of sets it up…
RE: Yes, I wrote two first movements and then I lost the other one, but that one stuck anyway, and the quintet who played it said “oh no, this is great, happy with that”. [laughs] So I went with them.
27:56 The Use of Chant in Incantations
PS: That’s a little musicological… that’s an Honours thesis for someone. [laughs] Very good. So, you mentioned the idea of staying in one place and exploring the here and now, the momentary. It’s pretty obvious in a piece with the title Incantations that there’s something going on there. So, an incantation can be something from the stock of fairy tales, bewitched spells and charms, but I think you mean in the sense of it can be part of a ritual or something evoked by chant or prayer. Is that kind of where you’re going with that?
RE: Yes, I think it certainly is. And you can, if you remember back to … now when did I write Eternity? That was another controversial piece.
PS: That was back in the seventies at the Adelaide Festival.
RE: Seventy-three … and that just chanted a phrase over and over, and it was accumulating energy, and in the end it sort of exploded. But it was interesting because it completely split the audience. I mean, half of them thought it was ridiculous and the others were, did want I intended, they went right under, they were sort of mesmerised by it. And the choir was actually hyperventilating I think, and they were very happy [laughs].
PS: I’m sure they were happy that they survived the work. So, it’s got to do this aspect of ritual which I observed in my thesis 26 years ago.
RE: 26 – gee!
PS: I know, it’s gone too fast. But I’m glad that that stuck around because it shows that I was on the right track there.
RE: Yes, it’s been done again and it’s been recorded and they lost the recording, and anyway, that’s another story. It’s amazing, it has stayed and it’s still has the potential to be heard again, and when it was done again at the Canberra Festival some years ago, people were… tended to be much more focused on it. I think they understood better what I was getting at.
PS: This is Eternity, which was recorded. I remember I actually sang in a recording of it and that’s, that unfortunately since has been lost, hasn’t it?
RE: I believe so, or they just ran out of money … I just don’t know.
PS: It’s a shame, it would be great to be able to play a bit …
RE: Actually, no, it does exist, as far as I know. Putting it together and getting it out is another problem … as we know.
PS: Yes, yes, yes. As we know. Well, that’s another little follow-up project I guess. So, I guess I’m talking about the more general idea of ritual in your music and the ideas that you’re talking about – meditation, going under – and I’m just interested in these quite Buddhist notations of meditation and so on. Maybe I’ll put it quite directly – how Buddhist do we need to be to appreciate this?
RE: Ah, gee that’s a … I don’t know how to answer that really. I think that today society understands these things better, there’s a lot more people doing meditation and so on, but this was, my version of it was to try and relate it to Australia. And therefore, the core of it comes from the Australian environment but over the top of that, I’ve overlayed all sorts of symbols to help. You know, like the various goddesses that appear later on, and I know it sounds terribly eccentric, but in fact it does relate to various religious symbols which are universal, and which are trying, in my case, to take us to a better place, to a less diffused, a less crazy world. Which of course has to happen, and I think we’re getting there at the moment, aren’t we? It’s a very scary way to do it. So, that’s it. I’m not a Buddhist, I’m not anything really, but I think in terms of these very essential ideas and practices, and trying to bring them into the concert hall, into our consciousness, into our music and the way we think – to calm us down. At the moment I’m writing something which accompanies the most horrific images of the Vietnam War, and it’s about peace, and I’m gradually … it’s a challenge, again, with of course, an orchestra, which I think is subsidised by or commissioned by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. And somehow instead of me reacting to these awful images, including the little girl on fire, do you remember that dreadful thing, I’m making it a sort of lullaby that just wraps it all up and says “we’re going to make it better”. I don’t know if that makes sense, but by the end it’s quite sort of, it’s very ecstatic. But it just starts with that slow drum beat, and so the drone is ever-present in my music, and it gradually accumulates energy. Good energy.
34:01 Music in a Lockdown
PS: Yes, that’s right. I mean, it’s the classic thing of the artist having to make sense of the world in turmoil, and feel like it’s a process of healing that.
RE: I don’t think it’s our function really.
PS: That’s something that we’ve talked about before is the idea of music having some sort of function, taking it out of the concert hall, and with these very strange circumstances that is happening in a very real sense these days. And that this is in some ways more important than ever.
How should we best take advantage of music in these strange times?
RE: I think we have to be more practical. I’m looking for, I’m looking to write solo pieces which can either be performed by one person [screen returns] or recorded and put on the internet. And of course used in all sorts of other ways – I’d like dancers and costume and so on, but later. So I’m sort of storing up music which will be useful during this period and also afterwards. But I haven’t really got into that yet, I’m just talking to various people about it.
PS: Yes, I think that’s a classic thing, where the artist reacts to the circumstances and finds solutions.
RE: Yes, if you go back to the First World War and Stravinsky, he had to scale right down, and so you got The Soldier’s Tale and all these sorts of pieces which otherwise wouldn’t have been written had it not been that time of great probation.
35:50 Thanks and Farewell
PS: That’s a good insight. So, for our listeners I think it’s a chance for them to go and have a listen to the pieces that were going to be on our program, and they can have a listen to that whole Incantations CD. So that’s an excellent chance to explore the oeuvre of a single composer like this. So, to our audience watching this, we’re very sorry that you’re not able to be listening to the Australia Ensemble performances of this piece, but I hope you’ve enjoyed this interview, and thank you Ross for taking part in it and sparing the time for it. It’s good to know what you’re up to at the moment.
RE: Oh, that’s a great pleasure. Thanks for thinking of me, a terrific idea.
PS: And thanks to Helen as well for setting you up in her study. We got an insight into our home lives now. So we’ll have more of these Composer Conversations online in the future, and thanks for tuning in everybody, and we’ll see you again soon.
ABC Classic recording of Incantations: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INxUAe4iBMg