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18 December 2013

Ross Edwards: I still wake up excited about the score I'm working on

Ross Edwards Image: Ross Edwards  
© Bridget Elliot (2013)

'I find composing a compulsive but exhausting and emotionally draining occupation, but my enthusiasm hasn't waned', says composer Ross Edwards, whose 70th birthday is celebrated on 23 December 2013. In this feature article, Philip Cooney, who has researched and written extensively about Edwards's works and knows the composer personally, looks at Edwards's compositional process, the inspiration behind his music, and its relationship to postmodernism.

> See also: Philip Cooney's two music education kits published by the AMC: Dance with nature: the chamber music of Ross Edwards and White ghost dancing: orchestral music by Ross Edwards; and lists of CDs and MP3s of Edwards's music available through the AMC Shop.

There is much to celebrate in the music of Ross Edwards. Its sonic beauty and contrasting tranquility and dance-like energy have made it attractive to audiences all over the world. In Australia, his music has helped to break down the resistance to contemporary music amongst local audiences and helped to disprove any lingering notion that the work of Australian composers is somehow inferior to the music from other times and other continents. He has achieved his goal of restoring both spontaneity and the power of healing to music, both within the concert hall and the wider community.

Edwards has not been without his critics, some more public than others. It is true that not every work or every passage of every work has been as successful as the composer would wish. But the number of works that have been performed and recorded around the world, the number of pieces that have been transcribed for other instrumentalists eager to perform them, the works that have become repertoire staples and the large number of commissions that continue to keep Edwards busy are testament to the esteem and affection in which his music is held.

I want to mark the occasion of Edwards's seventieth birthday with a brief look at the elements that give his music its distinctive and original voice, and a consideration of Edwards's view of the role of the composer in the 21st century. It has been a privilege for me to know Ross Edwards for nearly four decades and to have the opportunity to write and teach about his life and music during that time. He is a warm, generous and compassionate human being who is able to clearly articulate his thoughts about the purpose and process of composition.

Ross Edwards earlier in 2013
Ross Edwards earlier in 2013.
© Bridget Elliot

I first met Edwards when he was my lecturer at the Sydney Conservatorium. In 1978, I was invited by Vincent Plush to interview Edwards as part of a program for 2MBS-FM, introducing a forthcoming concert by the Seymour Group, of which Plush was the musical director. This concert included the premiere of a new work that marked Edwards's emergence from a self-imposed period of relative silence as a composer.

For Edwards, that period was one of renewal but also of conflict. Lecturing at the Sydney Conservatorium, he was obliged to focus on the very aspects of Western music that he was personally rejecting in his search for an authentic musical language of his own. That search led him to listen afresh to the sounds of nature and to construct combinations of pitches that became the basis of the individual style, which would later have the term 'sacred' applied to it. Edwards names The Tower of Remoteness (1978) as the first piece written in what he considers as an original voice. The contemplative stillness of the 'sacred' pieces was soon balanced by the rhythmic energy of the 'maninya' pieces, which was Edwards's response to 'the richness, the colour and the ecstasy of my small coastal village where I felt at home'.

Relating his music to the sounds of the Australian bush, especially the sound patterns made by insects, has given it a sense of place. Edwards has also drawn inspiration from the repetitive nature of insect sounds as a way of inducing a meditative state, 'where the concerns of self and society are temporarily suspended'.1

The sounds of nature - especially the temporal complexity of insect, cicada and frog chorus and the shape of birdsong - have influenced the structure and texture of Edwards's music but these are almost never in the form of direct imitation. They have been distilled into the series of musical gestures and a finely crafted asymmetry that have given his music its recognisable sound and rhythmic impulse. These gestures have been repeated and re-used in a variety of contexts. Through this repetition the gestures have acquired increasing meaning for the composer, although this meaning remains symbolic rather than concrete. While it is often assumed that these gestures relate only to the influence of the East-Australian bush, they increasingly derive from a variety of cultural influences. The ritual nature of their use led to them being labelled icons by Paul Stanhope.2

However, the necessity for space and solitude had to be balanced with the needs of family. This drew Ross and Helen back to the city at various times. Edwards had to adjust to this separation from his sources of inspiration. This further crystallised these influences in a remembered form, so that the musical gestures themselves sometimes became the starting point for new work.

This has been important for Edwards, because starting a new work is challenging. The genesis of a new work begins as an undefined shape within his unconscious. As the music emerges, it is tested and reviewed, to ensure its validity. Nothing is pre-planned and, while some ideas may be tried out along the way and later revised, there is little in the way of sketches, with Edwards writing in pencil directly onto the manuscript, whether for orchestra, choir or single instrument. Anyone who has used the manuscript editions of Edwards's music will attest to the quality of his notation, a skill that he attributes to the influence of his father, a designing engineer and superb draftsperson.

Edwards says, 'I'm a city dweller these days, although I long to get away to the bush and sometimes manage to. The sounds and rhythms of natural organisms that shaped some of my earlier works and defined its language are still there, though less prominent and sustained. They're often embedded in, alluded to, or interfused with musical and symbolic material derived from various cultures - Australasian, South East Asian and mediaeval European - which contribute to complex, ever-changing textures. The environmental references have been turned inwards, becoming refined and spiritualised. The Virgin Mary and her South East Asian equivalent, Guan Yin, have become Earth Mother symbols. References to Mary chants [such as Ave Maria Gratia Plena - Hail Mary, Full of Grace] seem to be proliferating and now spring readily from my subconscious. They coexist with insects and birds. Drones - simple or composite - symbolise the earth and still underpin much of my music, including the lively dance-chants'.

Although he dislikes the term, there are many aspects of Edwards's music that may be characterised as postmodern. Chief of these would be his own rejection of the restrictive and elitist tenets of European modernism and his belief in the power of music to transform relationships between humanity and the environment. The embracing of spirituality and intuition are further elements Edwards has in common to a postmodernist approach. His non-traditional approach to texture, his reduction of melodic material, use of modality and tonality as well as his openness to a variety of cultural influences are also characteristic of postmodernism.

As well as the influence of the natural environment experienced during the time spent living in Pearl Beach and, later, in the Blue Mountains, these places also provided space for Edwards to work, away from the demands of city life. As Edwards says, 'To work effectively I need to enter a timeless domain where I feel secure - no telephones or other interruptions. I've actually had the experience of sitting down to work in the evening, and suddenly the sun is up, the room's flooded with light - and there are notes on the manuscript paper in front of me that I didn't recall having put there'.3 Space for working has also been ensured by Ross Edwards's wife, Helen. Protecting him from interruption and explaining to visitors the appearance of vagueness that often characterises Edwards's creative process, have been but two of the many ways that Helen has supported and contributed to Edwards's life as a composer. A trained musician, she also worked for many years as a piano teacher. She has played an active role in his professional life both artistically and managerially.

Creative space was also provided in the form of two Creative Fellowships, commonly referred to as 'Keatings', in the 1990s. Edwards says that these 'saved his life' by enabling him to give up his teaching and concentrate on composing. At this time, Edwards composed his first symphony, Da Pacem Domine, and began to work on pieces related to the Enyato series, in which he would deliberately draw together the distinctive 'sacred' and 'maninya' styles in pieces of increasing variety.

In the last decade, Edwards has composed a number of major orchestral works, symphonies and concertos, as well as a series of works entitled 'mantras'. A seminal work in this series is Tyalgum Mantras, commissioned by and premiered in 1999 at the Tyalgum Festival in northern New South Wales. Originally scored for shakuhachi, didjeridu and percussion, it has evolved in all sorts of unexpected ways, culminating last February in a version Edwards made for the Tasmanian Symphony. Edwards says that this mantra series rekindled his interest in music as an aid to contemplation. Unlike earlier meditative pieces, such as Pond Light Mantras, these pieces have been well received by audiences. Edwards says, 'I can feel that the ethos of this piece and of others like it will dominate my music over the next decade as I move away from galvanised insect dances and seek a calmly ecstatic music appropriate to my age and reflective of the times we're living in. I'm very, very excited about this prospect'.

Edwards's music reflects his belief in a balance between the spiritual and the physical. His aim in pieces such as the mantras is to draw his audience to a point of contemplation that is outside of time, which will be rewarded by enabling them to see anew the mystery and beauty of life. Edwards's works continue to communicate his desire to reflect and comment on issues facing Australian society and, indeed, people throughout the world; issues such as environmental degradation, multiculturalism, reconciliation, globalisation and aggressive nationalism. The composer sees our world as being increasingly fragmented and seeks to be a voice for balance and healing.

'As a composer I find myself naturally taking a position which might, I hope, in some small way help promote the need for a balanced stable community in which individuals can, as far as possible, freely be themselves without disadvantaging other people, whilst having the opportunity to develop and use their innate skills to best effect for themselves and others.'

'This position of striving towards the light seems to come fairly naturally to me … as a communicator by vocation, I try to project my interior world and to link it with an idealised external one in the hope that both will combine to play a part in reinforcing the collective struggle towards the light that must counterbalance the inevitable pull of the dark ... I believe that my music is the most effective voice I can make.'4

The writer David Malouf, with whom Edwards collaborated on his Fifth Symphony, says that 'the great process of culture … creates a continuity between the life without and the life within'.5

Reflecting on turning seventy, Edwards says, 'I can't see myself slowing down, although I'd dearly love an opportunity to take a bit of time off to recharge the batteries! I find composing a compulsive but exhausting and emotionally draining occupation, but my enthusiasm hasn't waned. I still wake up seven mornings of the week feeling excited - if sometimes apprehensive - about the score I'm working on. Sometimes I've continued to work on it in my sleep. Since early adolescence I've felt immensely privileged to be a composer and I expect to keep composing as long as I remain alive and capable'.


1 Edwards, R. 1992, 'Symphony Da Pacem Domine' in Susanne James (ed.) Sydney Symphony Orchestra Meet the Music 4. Sydney. ABC 1992, pp.33-36

2 Stanhope, P. 1994, The Music of Ross Edwards: Aspects of Ritual, Master of Arts Honours Thesis, University of Wollongong, p. 169 - available as a download

3 Cooney, P. 2010, Dance with Nature: The Chamber Music of Ross Edwards, Australian Music Centre

4 Cooney, P. 2003, Beyond Sacred and Maninya: Developments in the Music of Ross Edwards 1991-2001, PhD Thesis, University of Newcastle, p. 415

5 Malouf, D. 1998, A Spirit of Play: The Making of Australian Consciousness, The 1998 Boyer Lectures, ABC Books, pp. 39-40

AMC resources

Ross Edwards - AMC profile
MP3s of Ross Edwards's music (AMC Shop)
CDs of Ross Edwards's music (AMC Shop)
Dance with nature: the chamber music of Ross Edwards - music resource kit by Philip Cooney (AMC Shop)
White ghost dancing: orchestral music by Ross Edwards - music resource kit by Philip Cooney (AMC Shop)

Further links

Ross Edwards - www.rossedwards.com

Subjects discussed by this article:

Philip Cooney is a music educator based in the Blue Mountains of NSW. In 2003 he completed a PhD on the music of Ross Edwards. He has written articles and teaching resources on the music of Ross Edwards for the Australian Music Centre, the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, and the Sydney Symphony Education Programs.


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