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25 May 2009

Claire Edwardes - Coming a full circle

Kammerklang brings young composers together

Claire Edwardes Image: Claire Edwardes  

A dozen or so years ago, Claire Edwardes was a talented young woman studying percussion at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and performing as part of the newly founded 'Spring Ensemble'. In 2009, with a wealth of experience under her belt, she is working with young composers from the Sydney Conservatorium as part of the Kammerklang initiative – and remembering her own immersion into contemporary music as an opinionated, second-year student.

'At the time when we started Ensemble Offspring, I definitely didn't have a particular passion for contemporary music. I guess the thing I really liked was the social interaction and the collaborative aspect of playing with people, and working with composers. I remember being really harsh on Matthew Shlomowitz, who is now one of my best friends. I was just, "This really doesn't work at all, I don't know what you were thinking but I think we have to rewrite the whole thing!" We often laugh at how harsh I was. But I think it is just in me to say it how it is! He was a really shy guy in third year, wearing his cardi, your typical daggy composer – which I can say because he is one of my favourite people in the whole world!'

Now, at the receiving end of Claire's feedback are the composers associated with the Kammerklang concert at the Sydney Conservatorium on Thursday 28 May: Cameron Lam, Chris Williams, Amy Bastow, Peggy Polias and Jason Pestana. The program will be a mix of their new solo and chamber works and will also include a premiere of Peter McNamara's new work 'I urge composers to just remember that there is more than one sound per instrument...'entitled The Styx, and a performance of Stuart Greenbaum's recent Chamber Concerto for flute, percussion and large ensemble. In addition to the concert, there will also be an exhibition.

Having the composers benefit from an experienced performer's advice was one of the core ideas of the Kammerklang project, explains Cameron Lam, a third-year composition student who initiated the project. The composers have been able to send drafts of their work to Claire for comments, but the bulk of the work has been done in real-time, face-to-face sessions at the Conservatorium.

'This brings some real educational opportunities in this esoteric niche of new music. You can really sink your teeth into the practical things. Having a performer's experience is extremely useful – not only getting to hear the work, but getting real-time feedback on the playability,' says Cameron.

Both Cameron and Claire admit that getting and giving direct feedback is a skill to learn, too. It can be a devastating moment for a young composer to recognise that what he or she has written might sound wonderful on MIDI-playback but is awkward or impossible for a flesh-and-blood performer to play. What can be helpful, then, is to learn that small changes will make the work more playable and consequently more attractive to other performers. And even more helpful is the realisation that even the most experienced composers seek and accept similar advice from percussionists.

Claire remembers particularly well a recording session with the distinguished British composer, Sir Harrison Birtwistle. The piece in question was The Axe Manual, written originally for Evelyn Glennie and Emanuel Ax, and picked up by Claire and Nicolas Hodges. The composer travelled to Cologne for their recording session, sat in the recording box and talked openly with the performers about some changes that proved necessary for a successful recording.

'It was a quite a long recording session for a 25-minute piece – I think we spent two-and-a-half or three days recording it, so it was a pretty full-on process. He was amazingly open – I was really quite surprised: there is this composer who I really revere, and his parts were of course very well written. I felt that if I couldn't quite play something well enough, it was more to do with my inadequacies and not his inadequacies of how he conceived the music. I'd be getting frustrated trying to play a hard section, and I'd say, "Look, I just don't know if this is possible in this moment right now." And he was very much like, "Claire, I trust you and whatever you suggest, I think we should change it, you can just buy me a beer", basically.'

'I think this just makes a point that, as a composer, of course you get intertwined in the 'All the talking in the world about my recent successes would not make any difference as to how they treated me.'music and you are invested in it, but hopefully over time you can take a step back and realise that it is not the end of the world if a few little things change. Because the involvement of the performer leads to making the piece more idiomatic, and in the end this can only benefit the work.'

Claire is known for suggesting that composers sometimes use fewer instruments and make the most of them, rather than expanding the set-up bit by bit in order to add yet another sound or effect.

'Percussion has now developed so far, and composers are getting more well educated as to how to write for it, that I urge them to just remember that there is more than one sound per instrument, that you can go really far into the possibilities of that one instrument. For example, something simple like a cymbal has many different things that you can do with it, you can bow it and roll it and you can get a crisp sort of sound. And then there are all the different stick possibilities. I'm very much into using lots of different sticks to get different sounds out of instruments!  I guess it is a practical thing on one hand, the frustration of moving around with too many instruments sort of gets to you after a while, but it's a musical thing, too. In reality the difference of the effect between, say, four drums and seven drums is not that much, so why wouldn't we try and use less and get more out of that? It is so tempting to just keep adding and adding and adding, and you can, because you are just writing stuff down on a piece of paper, you know!'

The Birtwistle CD went on to get some five-star reviews and was one of Claire's 'European successes', along with first prizes in European competitions and a third prize in Gaudeamus Interpreters' Competition in 2005. Success came gradually, though. At the beginning of her years in the Netherlands, Claire found herself starting from scratch as far as recognition was concerned.

'I was on top of the world and thought that I must be okay – I'd just won this big competition in Australia (Young Performer of the Year 1999) so I thought they must have a bit of respect for me and it must be possible for me to get some nice opportunities there. And pretty much the first thing that all the teachers said to me was – the Dutch are very direct, you know, and I guess that's where I've learnt a bit of my directness from as well – "We really don't care what you have done. You have to prove yourself here first". It was a really harsh reality. All the talking in the world about my recent successes would not make any difference as to how they treated me. I was just another student who had come from overseas, who had to prove myself through the music-making.'

Claire Edwardes returned to Australia after seven successful years overseas and re-established her career here – a move that was helped by her determination to return regularly to  Australia to play concerts during her time abroad.

'I was lucky in that I kept coming back about once or twice a year, and I made sure I had performance opportunities. I played concertos with orchestras and I did occasional concerts with Offspring when I could. I think that was just enough to keep my face known and my name known, and I think that was important because you don't really want to disappear off the face of the earth for seven years.'

Claire's current involvements include a series of concerts with Ensemble Offspring which she is now co-directing with composer Damien Ricketson. Her collaborations also include a new percussion concerto Golden Kitsch by Elena Kats-Chernin for the Sydney Youth Orchestra, which Claire will premiere in July.

And when it comes to maintaining her career in Europe, she is now trying to travel back there once a year or so to perform – not easily accomplished for a mother of a one-year-old baby girl. She has just recently returned from a series of concerts in the  Netherlands – solo performances as well as with various ensembles, her Antipoduo partner, violinist Sarah Oates and her Duo Vertigo counterpart Niels Meliefste.

A more recent collaboration is her duo work with the Australian pianist Bernadette Balkus. This has prompted her to think once again what collaborations really are about.

'I used to think it was important to keep finding people to collaborate with who were interested in contemporary music – that's one thing. But almost more important than that is that you just have to have a personal bond with them, and a feeling when you play together and then you can find pieces that you both like. Bernadette, she just has this thing where she listens so well and is so open that you don't even have to talk about it most of the time. It is not very often that you come across people like that. When you play with people like Bernadette, it's just amazing. Then you go back to the other sort of people that you don't necessarily have the bond with, and you realise how amazing the situation is, where you don't even have to talk about the music. I guess that is what string quartets often have.'

'At the end of the day you do find that your best collaborative relationships are often with people who you are close to on a personal level. For example, with the members of Ensemble Offspring: we are all very good friends and love playing together. It makes sense because music is an extension of your personality in a way, it's more than just how you play. The rehearsal rapport is extremely important - how you get along with each other on a personal level is at the core of it, you know!'

Event details

Claire Edwardes - homepage (http://www.claireedwardes.com/)
Kammerklang concert 28 May - see events calendar
Ensemble Offpsring - 'Thirteen colours' concert 30 May - see events calendar
Sydney Youth Orchestra concert 11 & 12 July - see events calendar 11 July and 12 July
Kammerklang - homepage (http://kammerklang.com/)
Ensemble Offspring - homepage (http://www.ensembleoffspring.org.au/)



Subjects discussed by this article:

Anni Heino is a Finnish-born journalist and musicologist, and editor of Resonate magazine.


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