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16 July 2012

Insight: The Moon and I

saxophone concerto 'Full Moon Dances'

Amy Dickson with Ross Edwards Image: Amy Dickson with Ross Edwards  

Ross Edwards's Full Moon Dances, a new saxophone concerto for Amy Dickson, was premiered by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in June, followed by performances by the WASO and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and with further performances scheduled for Sydney and Melbourne. In this article, the composer takes a close look at his latest concerto, and talks about his earlier collaborations with many other soloists. He also explains why lighting instructions appear on the first pages of many of his scores, together with the list of instruments.

One of my recent obsessions has been with the moon. I can't explain why - at least, not in rational terms - but it's reflected in the titles of works like Yanada (Moon Song), The Harp and the Moon for solo harp, and The Laughing Moon, for the New Sydney Wind Quintet (to be premiered in Sydney on 25 November).

Amy Dickson
Amy Dickson

On 7 June 2012, Amy Dickson and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra premiered Full Moon Dances, my new concerto for alto saxophone and orchestra. After three performances it was repeated in Perth, then Launceston and Hobart. On 5-8 October, Amy will give three performances of the work with the Sydney Symphony in the Sydney Opera House, and on 20 February 2013, she'll play it with the Melbourne Symphony in the Myer Music Bowl. This work continues the ritual/theatrical trend that my music for the concert hall has taken over a period of almost thirty years. Its acceptance both in Australia and internationally has emboldened me to embrace it more and more enthusiastically.

It all began innocently enough in 1983 at a concert of my work in the Wollongong City Gallery. Three of the pieces on the program came from what was known in those days as my 'sacred series', so named because of the inward focus of the music. I described them as musical contemplation objects, and their sparse musical materials had been distilled from sounds of the natural world - hypnotic drones of cicadas and the intersecting shapes and patterns I discerned in the voices of crickets and frogs. In this concert, three of these so-called 'sacred' compositions - the piano solo Kumari, The Tower of Remoteness for clarinet and piano, and a work for ensemble - were presented as an unbroken 30-minute sequence.

Curious to see if this kind of music might induce at least part of the audience into a state of trance, I was also aware that it ran the risk of infuriating another, perhaps larger part. I suggested to 'Conductors continued to regard the prospect of lighting a concert work with suspicion until the premiere of Yarrageh...'Stuart Challender, who was conducting, that darkening the hall and performing under subdued lighting might create an atmosphere conducive to contemplation, but he dismissed the idea out of hand. Not unreasonably I suppose, as I'd sprung it on him just before the final rehearsal. Conductors continued to regard the prospect of lighting a concert work with suspicion until the premiere of Yarrageh - Nocturne for Solo Percussion and Orchestra in 1989, when soloist Ian Cleworth, conductor John Hopkins and the Sydney Symphony musicians and management took my suggestions seriously.

Since then I've never looked back: lighting instructions, basic at first, but increasingly elaborate, have appeared on the preliminary pages of many of my scores below the list of instruments, and as far as I know they're regularly observed. There's even a three-minute passage in my Third Symphony which is performed in almost total darkness.

The use of subdued lighting to create a contemplative atmosphere was explored further in The Heart of Night, a work for shakuhachi (a Japanese bamboo flute) and orchestra. My intention here was to explore the intuitive 'night' mode of consciousness in which linear clock time is suspended and the audience is invited to turn its attention inwards in present-centred contemplation. This is the kind of music universally associated with monasteries rather than Western concert halls, where narrative dramas are played out.

For the premiere of The Heart of Night in Hamer Hall, Melbourne, in 2005, the house lights were extinguished and the Melbourne Symphony performed from lighted music stands with a spotlight on conductor, Hiroyuki Iwaki. From this mysterious atmosphere, some minutes into the performance, the lighting faded up to reveal the soloist, Grand Master 'Having done away with the conventional, applauded entry of the concerto soloist... I reached back to a much older ritual...'Riley Lee in his traditional ceremonial robes seated in the lotus position. Having done away with the conventional, applauded entry of the concerto soloist (very likely clad in penguin suit or gorgeous frock), I reached back to a much older ritual in which music had a specific purpose - in this case, as with the traditional honkyoku repertoire for the shakuhachi - to heal, by relaxing the body while the mind remained calmly alert. I'd also recalled the traditional and formerly indispensible association of other art forms with music, which was universally practiced until the Western concert hall became firmly established in the 18th century.

Lighting and ritual in the service of meditation was appropriate for Riley Lee. Diana Doherty, for whom I composed the oboe concerto Bird Spirit Dreaming in 2002, demanded something quite different. It makes sense, of course, for a composer and soloist to maintain an open line of communication. When I composed my violin concerto Maninyas (1981-88) for Dene Olding, I completed the score without consulting him. During rehearsal time he made some very useful suggestions along the lines of 'how about a harmonic here?' or, 'let's put this phrase up the octave'. He also sent me home after the first rehearsal to (hastily) extend the 'Chorale' movement, having perceived, quite correctly, that it was unbalanced. (Maninyas, although composed for the concert hall, has been choreographed many times and there are several ballets of that name). My collaboration with John Williams, for whom I composed my guitar concerto Arafura Dances in 1995, mainly consisted of his playing passages over the phone from London and demonstrating how a chord would sound better without the G#, etc. (He also tactfully suggested rewriting of a passage that sounded 'a bit too flamenco'.)

I did some horrible things to David Thomas for whom I composed my Clarinet Concerto in 2007 - mainly in the form of very high passages which seemed almost impossible at first, but which he worked on until they didn't screech anymore. David and I had a very productive collaboration by email, supplemented by the occasional meeting when I was in Melbourne. He meticulously navigated the birdsong-like tracery of many complex passages, and together we refined their notation. He had made it clear from the outset that he wanted none of my fancy theatrics and I respected this. But I did specify dimmed lighting for his second movement which is marked magico, and he responded by playing with veiled delicacy.

His first performances of the work with the Melbourne Symphony were superb, as is his recording for ABC Classics on a CD which includes both Bird Spirit Dreaming and The Heart of Night. And he immediately introduced the concerto to his student, 'I'm astonished how quickly brilliant students can inherit a new work from their teachers and make it their own.' Ashley William Smith, who has also given wonderful performances - as did Shefali Pryor of my oboe concerto in the wake of Diana's premiere. I'm astonished how quickly brilliant students can inherit a new work from their teachers and make it their own.

Coming back to Diana Doherty and our collaboration with Bird Spirit Dreaming: I naturally wanted to make sure she was happy with her part as it evolved. Diana lives quite close to me in Sydney and occasionally we'd meet, but because of our busy schedules we found it easier to communicate via phone and fax. She told me she wanted this piece to be a real challenge - she's the sort of person who responds amazingly well to challenges - and in stretching her to what I feared might be the limit I felt I needed reassurance, from time to time, that I hadn't gone too far. I once faxed her a passage I actually thought was unplayable and within an hour she'd played it back perfectly over the phone. After that I felt free to compose anything I liked.

Diana is a very physical, theatrical performer - a vital, shining presence on stage who wades right into the music and just can't seem to keep still. I couldn't resist exploiting these qualities by adding a theatrical dimension, and with Diana's enthusiastic participation we got together with my wife, Helen, and choreographer Paulina Quinteros, and in one of the most exhilarating creative exchanges I've experienced, turned the concert piece into a sort of ritual/mime with lighting, movement and dance. Diana's quick, agile movements made me see her as a bird and her oboe as its beak - hence the subtitle Bird Spirit Dreaming - and together the four of us dreamed up a scenario to fit the image: a captive wild bird is led through various stages of socialisation, culminating in her falling in love and participating in a love duet with the object of her affection, represented by a cor anglais, and this liaison is consummated in an ecstatic celebratory dance.

The duet was composed especially for Diana to perform with her husband Alexandre Oguey, principal cor anglais in the Sydney Symphony. But since our conception hadn't taken into account the longer life of the piece, Diana had a string of international 'affairs', some of them lesbian. Nor had we considered the possibility of the work, designed for a lithe female, being taken up one day by a lumbering male who (like me) couldn't dance!

Fortunately, the first conductor, Lorin Maazel, got right into the spirit of things and we were able to implement our ideas with extraordinary success, first with the Sydney Symphony, then the New York Philharmonic (where Diana was billed as 'the dancing oboist'), and with many other orchestras. It's also been performed as a 'straight' concert piece - I know that a man played it that way some years ago in Cardiff - and I'm relieved and happy that this option has been taken up. Recently though, I've started to get enquiries about reviving and recreating the staged version.

Amy Dickson, the young Australian saxophonist now based in London, started writing to me after she won the Symphony Australia Young Performers' Award in 2004. 'I asked her did she like to dance? Yes! Would she like to be a Moon Goddess? Oh yes!!!'Amy is a performer in the Diana mould. Wonderfully musical, she has a flawless technique, a riveting stage presence and is game for anything. When we were getting serious about my writing her a concerto I asked her did she like to dance? Yes! Would she like to be a Moon Goddess? Oh yes!!! And I knew I was headed for another exhilarating roller-coaster ride. Last year she gave the world premiere of the soprano saxophone version of Bird Spirit Dreaming with the Canberra Symphony and with Diana's encouragement. Her performance confirmed all my expectations of her.

Last November I completed the score of Full Moon Dances - a concerto for alto saxophone and orchestra. Amy and I had communicated by email most of the time I was composing, occasionally meeting when she happened to be in Sydney. I'd send her bits of the solo part as it evolved, and nothing seemed to faze her. Having mastered the solo part she turned her attention to the visual aspect of the performance. In Sydney she modelled a prototypal Moon Goddess costume for my wife Helen and me. From London we had an email describing a new white dress especially chosen for her by Armani, with colourful, reversible capes and hoods which were Helen's brilliant and highly practical concept. Sydney milliner Suzy O'Rourke, an enthusiastic participant in the project, has designed capes and special headdresses. We also discussed the practicalities of lighting and movement with Simon Lord, the ASO's Director of Artistic Planning. As it's not possible to actually dance with so weighty an instrument as an alto sax, we're settling for a more dignified presence, as befits a Goddess - actually a series of Goddess avatars: mysterious, demonic, serene and celebratory, each with music and costume and lighting variations to match.

Full Moon Dances, like most of my music, abounds in symbols relating to the environment and environmentalism: fragments of birdsong, plainsong, drones, allusions to various kinds of chant from around the world, including that of the Indigenous peoples of Australia; South East Asian scales and mediaeval European church modes - all in constant, kaleidoscopic interchange - as well as other material of personal significance which, over the years, have become embedded in my subconscious and which surface spontaneously (I always expect them to appear although I can never predict when). The universal Moon Goddess, as the source of plant life and protector of the environment, performs a series of ritual healing ceremonies. Serene and mysterious, she nonetheless has power to unleash ecstasy and terror beyond the bounds of reason.

The work unfolds in an unbroken sequence of five movements:

1. Mantra with night birds and dark moon blossoms

An allusion to an ancient Vedic mantra grows into a chant-like melody which invokes the Goddess, whose appearance is accompanied by eerie night sounds symbolising the powerful psychic forces of the unconscious. The mantra persists in the background, eventually dissolving into moments of moon-drenched phantasmagoria.

2. First Ritual Dance

This cleansing ritual is driven by self-abandoning rhythms whose function is to purge negative thoughts and feelings. After a central climax, the dance abruptly returns to its source and resurges, gathering intensity.

3. Water-Moon

Guan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Compassion (who may be compared with the Christian Mary), is venerated in her various guises throughout South East Asia. She is often depicted as a beautiful, graceful woman in a white robe, sometimes with an aureole of moonlight. In a Tang dynasty poem by Po Chu-I she is symbolised by the moon's reflection 'floating in pure, clear water'. This dance pays homage to her.

4. Sanctus

The stage is transformed into a sacred space. Over an accompaniment of trance-like stillness scored for bell and muted strings, the Goddess sings serenely as she receives and transmits gentle moon radiance. This movement draws, as does its successor, on material from my Mass of the Dreaming (2009) and makes oblique reference to fragments of plainchant.

5. Second Ritual Dance

The finale joyously celebrates the earth with drone-based shapes and rhythms that recall Australian Aboriginal chant. The melody that bloomed from the mantra now returns accompanied by a blazing darbuka (a small North African hand drum), after which a reflective passage leads to a re-statement of the insistent, dance-like hymn to the earth.

Full Moon Dances was commissioned for Amy Dickson, the Sydney Symphony and the Australian symphony orchestras by Andrew and Renata Kaldor AO with the support of Symphony Services International. Once again I have Renata and Andrew to thank for their generous support over many years, and for their friendship and belief in my work. Amy's costumes are by Armani and Suzy O'Rourke, drawing on concepts by Helen Edwards.

Afterword - Adelaide: a work diary

May. By now the performing material has been typeset and delivered: the full score, a set of parts and my piano reduction - superbly presented, as always, by Bernard Rofe.

26 May. As rehearsals for the premiere approach, my inevitable minor errors and miscalculations start to leap out at me as I check over the score. I'm busy making a list of corrections. Seduced by the beauty of their sound I'd perhaps rashly included 11 tuned Thai gongs, the deeper pitched of them very large, in the percussion line-up. These can be hard to come by and expensive to transport. I'd checked with principal percussionist Becky Lagos that the SSO had a set before other orchestras began to program the work. If they can't get hold of a complete set it should be possible to play the part on a keyboard from sampled sound, so I'm keeping fairly calm at the moment.

5 - 9 June (Adelaide)

Helen and I fly to Adelaide in time for the first rehearsal in the Grainger Studio. Amy is present. The conductor, Andrew Grams from Cleveland, USA, Helen and I had already met in Sydney and instantly liked. (We'd had coffee together in the Botanic Gardens and talked mainly about birds and animals - Full Moon Dances brims over with imagined birdsong, eerie, raucous, exultant - as well as a few tricky points in the score).

Throughout the rehearsals Andrew is confidently in control and has an easy rapport with the ASO musicians whose commitment to the work is evident. Simon Lord and Sophie Emery, the artistic management team, and everyone else concerned are always cheerfully helpful, although I know I'm being pretty high maintenance in my concern to get lighting cues and stage positions sorted. The Adelaide Town Hall stage is small compared to that of the Sydney Opera House, for which the work was conceived, but it has a glorious acoustic.

Amy, throughout, is calm and poised. I feel blessed - not all premieres take place in such a positive atmosphere! We are very pleased that Peter Czornyj, the Sydney Symphony's Director of Artistic Planning, has come to Adelaide for the premiere.

I find time to catch up with two old friends from my student days at the University of Adelaide. I have a lengthy, nostalgic chat on local radio with Grahame Dudley, composer, conductor and educator - we were both students of Peter Maxwell Davies, first in Adelaide and later in London - and next day Helen and I have lunch with Graham Williams, who gave up a promising career as a pianist soon after completing his postgraduate studies at the Paris Conservatoire with such luminaries as Loriod and Messiaen, to train as a teacher in the Tibetan and Burmese traditions of Buddhist meditation. He is now director of the Lifeflow Meditation Centre, which naturally places much emphasis on music. (Graham and I have collaborated on a set of ABC Classics CDs titled The Joy of Being, dedicated to healing through meditation and music and known affectionately as 'Relax with Ross'). He shows Helen and me over Lifeflow's magnificent new Adelaide premises.

I give several talks, including one to a seminar for young composers conducted by Jim Ledger. Helen and I manage to fit in a walk along the Torrens and a fleeting visit to the Art Gallery.

7 June

The premiere goes extremely well and has a wonderful reception. Simon Lord catches Amy and me for an ABC interview just as we come offstage. I think we were both feeling overwhelmed and I vaguely remember being quite inarticulate at first. Afterwards we attend a convivial sponsors' dinner with mercifully short speeches and magnificent wines from the Clare Valley vineyard of Tim Adams, whom I'm placed next to. Comparing notes, we discover that each of us became aware of his vocation around the age of thirteen. This, of course, calls for another refilling of glasses. It was a memorable and enjoyable evening.

The following two performances get progressively even better and after the final one, and an overwhelming audience response, we come off stage feeling elated.

10 - 16 June

Helen and I return to a grey, rainy Sydney. Adelaide's winter weather has been crisp but sunny. Amy goes to Perth, where Full Moon Dances will have more performances in the Perth Concert Hall with the WASO and a new conductor, Baldur Brönnimann, who will also conduct it in Launceston and Hobart. Phone calls from Amy assure me of Baldur's excellence in rehearsal and a text message to Helen after the final performance announces that it has been a 'huge, huge, huge success!' She is full of praise for Baldur, the WASO, the lighting technicians, management and all concerned.

21 - 23 June

Similarly glowing feedback from Tasmania following performances with the TSO in Launceston and Hobart. I feel it's now time for me to come back down to earth and give my full attention to the ballet score I'm commissioned to write for the Houston Ballet. I'll also be revising some details of Full Moon Dances, in consultation with Amy, so that it's ready for the Sydney Opera House performances with the SSO on 5, 6 & 8 October.

AMC resources

Ross Edwards - AMC profile
AMC Shop: commercial CDs with Edwards's music
AMC Shop: 'Dance with Nature - the chamber music of Ross Edwards' - a music resource kit for secondary and tertiary level study
AMC Shop: 'White ghost dancing - orchestral music by Ross Edwards' - a music resource kit

Further links

Ross Edwards - www.rossedwards.com
Amy Dickson - www.amydickson.com
Sydney Symphony - performances of Edwards's concerto by Amy Dickson on 5-8 October
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra - www.aso.com.au
West Australian Symphony Orchestra - www.waso.com.au
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra - www.tso.com.au
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra - www.mso.com.au

Subjects discussed by this article:

One of Australia's best known composers, Ross Edwards has created a unique sound world which seeks to reconnect music with elemental forces and restore its traditional association with ritual and dance.


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