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24 October 2023

Looking back, looking forward: Ross Edwards at 80

Ross Edwards Image: Ross Edwards  
© David Roche

Ross Edwards AM is one of Australia's most loved composers. He has been commissioned by all the major Australian music organisations, international ensembles such as the Houston Ballet and Kings College Choir Cambridge and important international festivals. Edwards has composed works for many of Australia's leading instrumentalists and singers, including Dene Olding, Yvonne Kenny, John Williams, Riley Lee, Diana Doherty, David Thomas, Hartley Newman, Matthew Doyle, William Barton, Claire Edwardes, Amy Dickson, Bernadette Harvey, and, most recently, David Rowden.

Ten years ago, I wrote an article for Resonate, which described the evolution of Edwards' music and the connection between the previously distinct sacred and maninya styles, which manifest itself in the Enyato works of the 1990s and found its full expression in the works of the twenty-first century. As Edwards reaches another milestone, there is an opportunity to reflect on the composer's mature style and his continuing commitment to the importance of music, especially its role in transforming the relationship between humanity and the environment.

Edwards' distinctive style draws on a variety of environmental, cultural, historical and musical influences. He regards nature as the source of all music. It provides the foundation of his music, which draws on the sounds of insect, frogs and birdsong but, more particularly, the unpredictable temporal nature of these sounds in the environment. The resulting tapestry of unpredictable textural alignments and "quirkish periodicity" of rhythm, the use of drones, pentatonic scales - drawn from a variety of cultures - and plainsong are staples of Edwards' mature style.

While composing for Edwards remains both mysterious and intuitive, it can also be an arduous process, in which his obsession with detail still consumes much time and energy. The texture of his music has become more intricate, in recent years, and new sounds, for example the Chinese Pipa (featured in Four Inscapes), continue to be explored, inspiring new musical ideas and also providing new contexts in which to re-visit existing musical material.

Like the preceding generation of artists and composers, such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and his friend and mentor, Peter Sculthorpe, Edwards' work incorporates iconic figures which, through repeated use, have gradually acquired a more specific meaning for the composer. These meanings range from meditation and ecstasy to "wildness", freedom, hope and renewal.

Edwards refers to these repeated musical figures as personal symbols and says of them, "One thing I should make clear is that, most of the time, my symbolic images and allusions occur spontaneously: they're not constructs - they're more like archetypes and I generally don't plan them, they just appear". These figures have also provided a springboard for new works and, as familiar and essential as they may be, new symbols continue to be added, drawn from a variety of cultures, religions and mythologies.

Edwards believes in music's ability to connect the corporeal and spiritual, the temporal and the timeless, in order to facilitate both meditation and healing. "My aim", Edwards says, "is to make music that communicates vividly and penetrates the mind and soul of the listener". Repetition and ritual combine to effect this penetration, not only in the works that bear the name Mantra, but also in the theatrical directions that accompany certain symphonies and concertos, which provide options for special lighting and costume. The use of subdued lighting at specific points in the music is intended to promote a time of reflection. Examples of these techniques are found in works such as the Third Symphony, Mater Magna (2000), the choral Fourth Symphony, Star Chant (2001), and the Oboe Concerto, Bird Spirit Dreaming (2002). The latter was featured in the Sydney Symphony's birthday tribute to the composer, at the Sydney Opera House, in August.1

Edwards also composed a new work, Bennelong Caprices, for the Sydney Symphony celebration, which the composer describes as "a light, festive work, which includes excerpts from some of my earlier music in fresh contexts and arrangements - one of them dating from 50 years ago when I first started composing for the SSO". As with many of the works in Edwards' mature style, Bennelong Caprices draws together the reflective and the ecstatic in a unified musical voice: the serene, chorale-like opening is followed by playful episodes, inspired by sound patterns from Australia's natural world.

In 2024, Edwards will celebrate his fiftieth wedding anniversary. This close, loving relationship has nurtured Edwards' creative life. "I really can't imagine where I'd be now if it weren't for Helen. Many years ago she persuaded me to give up a full time academic position with tenure and concentrate mainly on composition. I was nervous about this, whereas she always expressed confidence in my ability to be independent." A talented musician, teacher and entrepreneur, Helen is a valued sounding board and trusted critic for Edwards. She is a generous host and a gentle gatekeeper, protecting Edwards from disturbance, when he is working.

Helen and Ross Edwards. Photo: Bridget Elliot
Helen and Ross Edwards. Photo: Bridget Elliot.

Edwards also acknowledges with gratitude the role of his teachers, Richard Meale, Peter Sculthorpe, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Sandor Veress, as well as the Elder Conservatorium in The University of Adelaide, which provided him with a scholarship.

Following graduation, a further scholarship enabled him to continue his studies with Maxwell Davies in London. Edwards holds two doctorates, one from The University of Adelaide, and one from The University of Sydney. He also benefited from the support of the Australia Council, including the Don Banks Fellowship and two Keating Fellowships.

The last few years have seen a dramatic effect on live music performance, wrought by COVID-19 lockdowns. Many performers turned to online performances to maintain the relationship with their audience. This period also affected the relationship between composer, performer and audience. Edwards was able to remain creatively active, composing solos and duos for online performances, among them a suite of saxophone solos for Amy Dickson. These Five Bird Solos include movements celebrating friends and fellow composers, Vincent Plush, Barry Conyngham and the late Martin Wesley-Smith.

However, border closures prevented the composer from travelling to Tucson, Arizona, for the premiere of Four Inscapes, at the Winter Chamber Music Festival, or to Adelaide for the premiere and recording of his fourth string quartet, Ridley Gold, by the Australian String Quartet. The premiere of one large scale work, Vespers for Mother Earth, had to be postponed until 2024. The Vespers celebrate a prominent theme in Edwards' music: the Earth Mother, who appears in a variety of forms, from the Christian Mary to the Buddhist Guanyin. Their significance as nurturing figures aligns with the composer's deep concern for the ecological crisis facing the planet.

As one of a generation with, he says, high hopes of contributing to a meaningful culture, Edwards expresses a mixture of concern and optimism about the future of art music in Australia and the West. Music, he opines, is "in the process of being downgraded to the status of a mere commodity; politically manipulated with inadequate concern for [its] artistic, intellectual and spiritual quality". The composer despairs that concert programming is no longer challenging audiences, while the price of admission is increasingly prohibitive, especially for younger audience members - a point of particular frustration for one whose creative path was sparked while attending a Sydney Symphony concert as a teenager.

"However", Edwards says, "there are plenty of people, including young people, who are well aware of the dire situation and are determined to fight back." He points to the flourishing local ensembles, "with exceptionally high standards of performance and thoughtful programming", which are intent on minimising dependence on arts funding bureaucracies and the associated political pressures. "Their survival depends on enlightened individual sponsors who, fortunately, do exist and are active and generous."

Ross Edwards at work. Photo by Michael Mortlock.
Ross Edwards at work. Photo by Michael Mortlock.

Despite being busier than ever in the past decade, with many major works having been written during that period - the double concerto: Frog and star cycle and Vespers for Mother Earth, to name two - Edwards says his enthusiasm for composing remains, "but I sometimes long for some respite from needing to apply full concentration seven days a week. I suppose this is natural at my advancing age".

As he reaches this milestone, Edwards shows no signs of slowing down. He has stated that he fully intends to be productive for as many remaining years as are given to him. "There's still much work I want to do." At the time of writing, he was nearing the completion of a one act chamber opera to a libretto by Wendy Beckett. He is also particulalrly keen to continue his symphonic cycle.

Having recently signed a new publishing agreement with Wise Music Classical, which will ensure more active global promotion of his music, Edwards also hopes to find time for correcting and revising the vast number of scores in his catalogue, a task begun during lockdown, "so that I may leave a legacy in good order".


1 There is a lovely video, produced by the SSO of Ross and Diana talking about the Oboe Concerto: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEgMRhCrDKA

Subjects discussed by this article:

Philip Cooney is a music educator with a special interest in Australian Music. He has written educational material for the Australian Music Centre, the Sydney Symphony and the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre. In addition to the AMC Kits, White Ghost Dancing and Dance with Nature, he has written educational material based on Ross Edwards’ Maninyas Violin Concerto and the Second Symphony: Earth Spirit Songs.


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