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28 February 2008

Narrating the Early Music of Ross Edwards

Ross Edwards Image: Ross Edwards  

The dominant narrative of Australian music includes a distinctively restricted account of composition in the mid-1970s. Many countries remember the seventies as a time of cultural nationalism, when composers benefited from increased public funding and institutional support for new music. But unlike other countries – where this support is primarily associated with a flowering of compositional activity, expressed both in the rise and consolidation of new modernisms (minimalism, spectralism, new complexity) and a democratisation of cultural prestige that increasingly recognised conservative styles and popular musics (and so provided a context for their mutual influence) – the story of Australian composition privileges those composers who entered a chrysalis stage, a period of relative inactivity, entered as a disillusioned modernist and exited with tonality and a renewed melodic impulse.

...the story of Australian composition privileges those composers who entered a chrysalis stage...For those composers who achieved prominence in the sixties, Richard Meale provides the archetype: after his post-war modernist idiom reaches its apotheosis in 1971 with Incredible Floridas, a period of near-paralysis ensues, until Viridian (1978) embraces what Meale saw as tonality’s greater emotional range. While Peter Sculthorpe’s production in the mid-seventies declined less markedly, his music from this time is often figured as a transition from the Asian sonorism of the later sixties to the more melody-driven and increasingly tonally focused music of the 1980s1. Speaking in retrospect, Sculthorpe identifies Song of Tailitnama (1974), which is both his first work to include Aboriginal melodic material and the first work begun after his second engagement had ended, as ‘a whole new me, phoenix-like, rising from the ashes’, ‘cooler, more pure in a way’, without ‘any residue of passion’ (Sculthorpe 1998).

The chrysalis narrative extends to a number of Australian composers at the beginning of their careers during the mid-seventies, situating their search for an individual voice within the stylistic developments played out by their mentors. Ross Edwards is the most prominent figure in this narrative and, as was confirmed in his recent interview with New Music Up Late presenter Julian Day focusing on his music from this time, Edwards himself continues to be invested in its retelling2. Edwards begins the interview by recounting the composition of his piano solo Monos II in 1970, the last work he wrote as a student of Peter Maxwell Davies in London, and his last work before a period of near silence spent living in the Yorkshire moors:

I worked about 12 hours a day on this piece, manically, because I don’t think I really wanted to write it…It was a style that was outworn for me. You can hear at the end that I’m just rejecting it. I just thought, no, I can’t go on like this, because I was absolutely fragmented by trying to make something out of something that wasn’t right for me. On the other hand, every single… just listening to that, every particle of it is… I could have written today, but it would be [in] a different context (Day 2007).

Day, understandably having a little trouble hearing particles of Monos II in Edwards’s recent music, presses him to continue:

They [markers of Edwards’s mature style] are all there [in Monos II], but they’re disguised because I had to write in the idiom that was acceptable at the time. After a while I just thought: to hell with the accepted idiom, and I went to explore other areas, but what I was trying to do was to curb this lyrical vein which was coming – I could feel it coming – so I had to write a sort of manic piece, and I got very manic in the process.

While it is perfectly within a composer’s rights to withdraw works and construct narrative arcs in an attempt to control their legacy, it is equally within our rights to resist and complicate them.Edwards’s language here is consistent with other versions of his story in that it conflates his stylistic crisis as a composer with a psychological crisis. Like any coming of age story, it is framed not only as a conflict between discipline and desire, but as a moment of struggle against two irreconcilable disciplines – the first a norm imposed from without, the second, no less anxiety producing, emerging within. Yet, Edwards’s insistence that all of the music of Monos II is still in some way essentially his music and his conflation of the ‘fragmented’ surface of the music with a memory of a fragmented psychic state suggests that by the time he wrote it the rule of the master had long since been sufficiently internalised to function as a tool for individual expression, and that any attempts to claim otherwise should be considered active historical constructions. Besides, it is difficult to believe that Davies, who Edwards had followed from Adelaide to London, and who by this time had already written Antechrist (1967) and Eight Songs for A Mad King (1969), was so trenchant an advocate for a sober International Modernism that Edwards was prohibited from exploring his own vision.

If we really want to understand how Edwards’s chrysalis period is relevant to his oeuvre, we need to resist the logic of its narrative and look carefully at the music on either side. We need to work out which modernist ideologies and practices had been internalised by Edwards, what aspects of these traditions were then rejected, and how these rejections are expressed in his subsequent practice.

Such transformation stories are frequently told in terms of pitch: chromaticism, having traded its once visceral expressive potential for the cerebral control of serial method, is in turn abandoned for tonal procedures reinvested with expressive force. While this version works well for Meale, and it would work well for Edwards if his ‘maninya style’ were taken as the point of destination for his story, it poorly accommodates pieces in his sacred style, which Edwards repeatedly figures as the outcome of his chrysalis phase. Neither, it turns out, does it present a rich picture of pitch function in his earlier music.

The Sextet for example, written in Adelaide in 1966, utilises tonal allusion to provide prominent melodic materials and articulate formal function in music that, in its angular but essentially linear counterpoint, is otherwise typical of the atonal chamber music of its time. While much of the piece keeps the total chromatic in regular circulation and avoids regular triadic articulations, its lowest pitches frequently serve as momentary chordal roots, and many sections begin with a prominent line that suggests a diatonic space. An example of the latter feature opens the piece, where a sustained ‘G’ on the horn provides sufficient context to hear the clarinet’s melodic statement in a G minor mode. When this duet recurs transposed later in the piece in the horn and violin, the ‘cello and clarinet counterpoints suggest tonal puns that displace the horn note as tonic. When the pitch classes of the opening clarinet line appear in retrograde towards the end of the piece, a new pedal in the strings no longer supports a diatonic hearing. This dialectic relationship between potentially tonal melodic fragments and only fleetingly diatonic contexts, while not widely characteristic of the mainstream of post-war serial practice, is highly characteristic of Davies music of the period, his Leopardi Fragments of 1962 providing numerous comparable examples.

Monos II has less tonal innuendo, but it exhibits the same kind of wit in its manipulation of basic materials. The piece is not serial, but rather is built primarily from fifths and semitones; this is most easily heard in its often quartal harmonies, and the frequent n octaves +/- a semitone spacing between the hands when they are in rhythmic unison. Less obvious are the cycles of fifths and semitones, themselves often coupled at the semitone or fifth respectively, that organise much of the virtuoso filigree and provide Edwards with ample opportunities to craft clever details; he uses registral displacement, position switching and momentary omissions not only to expand the music’s interval profile, but also to overlap cyclic fragments in ways not predicted by their respective structures. Compared to the Sextet, however, the effect of such details on a listener’s experience of the piece is frequently minimal, partly due to the speed of the music, partly because its frequent textural, dynamic and registral shifts occupy the lion’s share of a listener’s attention, but also partly because the music expresses its wit against a set of pitch norms the listener cannot hope to learn. If Edwards was frustrated by what he saw as the diminishing returns of modernism’s methods, it was at least partly a product of his own practice becoming less tonally referential.

In this context, the role of pitch in Edwards’s liberation of his inner voice seems less like a departure than a redress. The first two-thirds of the chrysalid Mountain Village in A Clearing Mist (1973) utilises sonorities that are in many ways similar to Monos II – lots of quartal sonorities elaborated with false doublings at the semitone, major seventh or minor ninth – with two major differences. The first is that the music is very slow, with each sonority rearticulated in a slightly altered form a couple of times before it gives way to the next, giving the listener plenty of time to explore its timbral profile and its relation to what had preceded it. The second difference is that this eight minute stretch of music is all about G – as a drone, as a furtive double bass pizzicato, as a conspicuous absence. Though triads are studiously avoided, bass register Cs and Ds provide a caricature of dualist functional contrast and, once only, a fragment of a stepwise melody in g minor is whispered by the clarinet. If the pleasure of the Sextet resides in deciphering its shifting tonal allusions, then the pleasure of Mountain Village is that, while the questions are equally challenging, the piece tells you the answers, and the answers are usually the same. This has implications for the way the piece organises our formal experience of it – if the object of contemplation remains constant, it makes less difference when clouds of uncertainty or inattention obscure our view – but tonally, both pieces are playing the same game.

The focus on the bell sounds of tuned percussion, piano and harp that closes  Mountain Village completes the work's transition into the sacred style – even if it took four years for Edwards to take full advantage of this development. Later sacred pieces retain the now familiar dissonant quartal sonorities in the upper registers, though the interval profile of the mid and low registers gradually changes to include a greater number of diatonic collections with prominent major seconds of intervals (less so in Tower of Remoteness of 1978, more pervasively in 1980’s Kumari), causing the dissonant elements to be increasingly heard as dissonant upper partials.

Of course, the sacred style is defined as much by what it excludes as what it includes. Gone are the atonal chorales that provide textural contrast in all three of the earlier pieces that I’ve discussed, and gone are the snatches of tonal melody. In fact, step-wise voice-leading is excluded as much as possible; even in Tower of Remoteness, the prominent semitones in the clarinet line (which also features frequent perfect intervals) are usually separated through compound melodic structures or reduced to acciaccaturas. Paradoxically, as the sonorities of the sacred pieces become more diatonic, the lack of voice-leading prevents the listener from using pitch to negotiate their linear experience of the piece.

While Edwards’s claim that all of Monos II’s material would be at home in his mature style seems unlikely in light of these restrictions of musical material, a reversed and more specific claim, that the tonal elements of the sacred style are already there in his earlier music, seems justified. What is more surprising is that the trajectory I’ve traced by following the evolution of pitch function in Edwards’s music is the reverse of the typical chrysalis narrative moving from a language that makes sense of atonal materials through tonal allusion, to one that conspires to remove the tonal implications of diatonic aggregates.

In the version of the narrative that I quoted, Edwards does not mention the role of pitch or tonality; neither does he tend to do so in other sources, tending to use umbrella terms like ‘style’ or ‘language’. His adherence to the narrative’s structure encourages us to erroneously assume that all aspects of his stylistic evolution collectively saw him through his chrysalis period. However, the one stylistic element of the trope that he is willing to discuss doesn’t give an accurate representation either. In the Day interview, Edwards articulates this in terms of linear continuity, by opposing the textural expression of psychic ‘fragmentation’ in Monos II with ‘this lyrical vein which was coming – I could feel it coming’. But it doesn’t come, at least not in the sacred style. Again, Edwards shortchanges the musical sophistication of early pieces such as the Sextet, where linear counterpoint is astutely balanced with more fragmented material to create long-breathed but engagingly shaped phrase structures. Edwards himself acknowledges the linear coherence of Monos II even in the process of focusing on the fragmentation that characterises its closing material, ascribing the piece ‘a rhetorical fervour that preserves the idea of music as something closely linked to spoken language, capable of development, sophistication and compression in the context of an established usage’ (Edwards 1995).

The more we retell the chrysalis myth in our canonisations of Australia’s musical heritage, the more we marginalise those composers to whom it does not apply... The textures of Mountain Village and the sacred style pieces pointedly do not admit of development or compression, and the subtle manipulations of pacing through which they express sophisticated manipulations are far removed from the witty play of expectations in the earlier music. But this is not because Edwards has exchanged the model of speech for the model of song – there is far too little step-wise voice-leading or rhythmic flexibility for that. Indeed, Hermit of the Green Light (1979) would have to be judged among the least successful of the sacred pieces precisely because the voice, while it’s voice-leading is always straightforward, is never sufficiently liberated from declaiming text to become a supple, lyrical presence.

The fragmentation of Monos II is taken to an extreme in the sacred pieces, and the slower tempi and resonant instrumentation prevent the gestures from being heard as discursive fragments. The final stage in expunging the rhetorical comes in Tower of Remoteness, where the continual reordering of almost identical cells thwarts the relationship between material and grouping structure on which music’s parallels to speech relies. What remains has already been exhaustively explored in discussions of Edwards’s music; a soundscape that distills the sonic profile of an ecosystem dominated by birds and insects, a sound world in which no people, the composer included, can be heard.

A rejection of both musical rhetoric and of the composer as orator are central ideological moves in the history of twentieth century music; the irony is that they are primarily associated with modernist movements, most notably with early Pierre Boulez, John Cage, and the formation of the post-war avant-garde which Edwards claims to reject. They are also associated with much early minimalist music and to a lesser degree with early spectral music, both of which also share with Edwards a rehabilitation of consonant, sometimes diatonic spaces in a non-tonal context. Edwards’s (unfounded) claim to embrace a lyrical impulse, on the other hand, with the connotation that it is the composer’s voice that sings, is a central aspect of the chrysalis narrative.

We can understand this disconnect if we see Edwards’s context as not the European avant-garde in general, but the British avant-garde in particular, a perspective congruent not only with the style of his early music, but also with the more general influence of British musical taste on Australian composers in the sixties. Unlike the music of the Darmstadt school, British serialism was primarily Schoenbergian, that is, it treats the row as melodic and harmonic material and maintains many of the formal and rhetorical structures of late romantic music, and not infrequently uses tonal allusion to articulate them. The serial music of Mátyás Seiber and his students, and also Humphrey Searle, are typical in its focus on continuous lines and gestural cohesion. While Boulez’s version of Webern (which disavowed traditional forms and structures and views the series primarily as a structural potentiality) incompletely supplanted this tradition in the sixties beginning with the work of Davies, Harrison Birtwistle’s and Alexander Goehr, Goehr’s influence ensured that Schoenberg was never as dead in British serialism as Pierre Boulez had said he ought to be on the continent (Boulez 1991).

This remnant expressionism is what Edwards refers to when he places the music of Monos II ‘in the context of an extended usage’, and his objection to it as outworn parallels Boulez’s own objections made twenty years earlier. Completing this narrative by reading Edwards’s sacred style as Webernian is hardly appropriate – the serial language of his music in the sixties was one of the first things his music rejects. Instead, we might re-articulate his stylistic trajectory as the rejection of the Britishness of his earlier music, a rejection that also forecloses the possibility of a turn to neo-Romanticism, but opens the door to the Australian bush. It is in this way that Edwards’s chrysalis narrative does canonic work, rendering his rejection of modernism as a patriotic act, and casting his compositional style as distinctively Australian.

The story I have told has been restricted as to the repertoire it covers. Part of this is a matter of necessity; Edwards has withdrawn so much of the music he wrote before the late seventies that it is difficult to get a more representative sample of his early output, particularly if one wants to listen to it rather than just read it. I have also purposely omitted discussion of his ‘maninya style’, partially to shift the locus of discourse about Edwards’s music away from the oft discussed sacred/maninya binary, but also because it can be constructed as the outcome of a quite separate stylistic trajectory, a tonal trajectory that shares with the evolution of the sacred style a progressive minimisation of its discursive properties in favour of the static and/or the dance-like. While this lineage is commonly held to begin with the flute duet version of Ecstatic Dance written in 1978, it can be extended back through the Five Little Piano Pieces of 1976, the Antifon of 19743, and to the incidental music for Quem Quaeritis in 1967, excerpts from which are the earliest pieces that Edwards still allows to be performed. These pieces form a more fragmentary and less coherent line than the one that connects Edwards’s modernist and sacred styles, but they are also another small challenge to the chrysalis narrative. If in his early career, Edwards already saw tonal structures as the most appropriate vehicle for religious, theatrical and educational music, then the predominance of tonal music in his later output represents as much a re-conception of the social function of music in the concert hall as it does the culmination of a stylistic and psychological journey4.

But just as my story is restricted, it is no less so than the story that Edwards tells, and both stories are equally designed as active historical constructions. While it is perfectly within a composer’s rights to withdraw works and construct narrative arcs in an attempt to control their legacy, it is equally within our rights to resist and complicate them, and in this case we have good reasons. The first is straightforward enough: it is of musicological interest to have a better understanding of the works of our most prominent composers, and the first step towards that is regarding the claims of composers with the same distance as we do those of any other informant. The second is that some of Edwards’s early output is good music and doesn’t deserve to be slighted just because the composer no longer thinks highly of it. But the third is much more important. The more we retell the chrysalis myth in our canonisations of Australia’s musical heritage, the more we marginalise those composers to whom it does not apply. Moreover, the myth actively demonises modernist practice as inauthentic and un-Australian, and in this way has become a powerful distortion of how we view the history of Australian contemporary classical music.

For each composer who underwent an anti-modernist metamorphosis, there were composers who went on developing and refining their practice, and in doing so produced the great Australian music of the 1970s. Two of Australia’s most significant composers entered their artistic maturity at this time, and both are increasingly sidelined in our accounts of Australian music history; while the neglect of David Lumsdaine’s music (key work: Hagoromo, 1976) might be partly attributed to his lengthy periods of residency in England, there is no such excuse for the marginalisation of the music of Nigel Butterley (Fire In the Heavens, 1973). Neither does the narrative serve composers of Edwards’s generation who were stimulated by the artistic ferment of the seventies to great productivity: an instructive example is Alison Bauld, who rode the crest of the music theatre wave in the early seventies and ought to be considered a pioneer of Australian musical postmodernism.

If only because the stories we tell about our most prominent composers by default become the lens through which we see the story of Australian new music, it is imperative that we engage with those stories actively and responsibly, so that our lens may be bright and clear.



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Andrew Robbie is a graduate of Sydney University's music department, and is currently a PhD student in music theory at Harvard University, were he has been supported by Fulbright and Knox scholarships. He writes on a broad range of contemporary music, from Björk to Sciarrino, and is completing a dissertation on music video editing. He is also a composer: his most recent Australian performance was a setting of Michael Dransfield’s The Change for Halcyon.


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