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16 April 2024

Significant Others

Heather Betts and Brett Dean Image: Heather Betts and Brett Dean  

Music is never created in a vacuum. Composers and performers live and work in a variety of contexts: historical, cultural, political, ideological, spiritual, environmental and social. Within the social context is a network of significant relationships, including family and friends. Whilst preparing an article for Resonate to celebrate Ross Edwards' 80th birthday, I was reminded of the important but often unrecognised role that spouses, partners and family play in nurturing the creative spirit and managing the multiple tasks integral to the busy life of a composer. In this article, I share just a few examples of how the personal and creative aspects of a composer's life intersect. Every composer is an individual and the diversity of their life experiences and influences contributes to the distinctive voice heard in their music. It is, therefore, important not to make generalisations. However, some common themes emerged from the conversations that I have been privileged to have around this topic.

Time and brainspace

Matthew Hindson says that Anne Boyd would refer to the time factor and the brain factor that goes into composing, explaining that, ideally, one's partner or family would be able to understand this and make allowances for it. Matthew agrees. "Composing is intensely and immensely draining as an activity. My brain is mush after doing it for six hours - I can't think quickly, or even be as 'present' as those around would like. It's not a switch-on/switch-off scenario [for me]. So it takes a special sort of person to understand that." Nigel Westlake says that he managed to find the time and 'brainspace' for his creative endeavours, "By having the most supportive, understanding, tolerant and generous family you could ever wish for."1

Jessica Wells is, perhaps, more philosophical but nonetheless appreciative of the understanding shown by her family. "Often my family are rather unenthusiastic to come and see mum's ninth concert of the year or listen to my latest composition. And that's OK, as they just let me do my thing and accept that I'm up in my studio doing something weird as usual and then there will be something I have to go to or fly off to somewhere to do rehearsals, etc. That's just what mum does…"

Don Featherstone's 1995 documentary, Dance of Nature2, provided a glimpse into the personal and working life of Anne's contemporary, Ross Edwards. Speaking at the time, Ross described how he learned to switch in and out of these very dissimilar states of working and family life. "I think, really, what I have had to develop is the ability to organise myself and to flow in and out of time. In other words, I am 'out-of-time' when I am working and I know that I have a certain amount of 'out-of-timeness' and that after that I have to get back into the mundane world."

Each of these comments provides an insight into the important role of an understanding and supportive family, but what of the effect of the composer's work on these significant others? Almost three decades on, Helen Edwards provides a frank reflection about the impact on the family, of living with a full-time, dedicated artist, especially for children. "It's a mixed blessing, a spiritually and philosophically rich life, which Ross and I have chosen, but also quite challenging socially and economically and at times emotionally, especially for the children, when their parents(s) are physically present but emotionally absent and preoccupied at key points in their lives, as well as the life of a new work."

The composers themselves are keenly aware of this tension. Matthew, who became a father later in life, has been able to compare the difference that having children makes. "There is no doubt that the demands of a family reduce the ability to focus intensely on music for long periods. Or even short periods. It's just not possible - let alone do the ancillary work around being a composer … There just isn't enough time to get it done, compared to a life without children. Typically, I suspect, it's worst of all for the female members of a heterosexual relationship."

Jessica Wells agrees and says that having children hugely reduced the time she could allot to composing. "Week to week I was only able to squeeze in short bursts of creative activity amongst all of the parental duties." Jessica would often work after the children were asleep or on weekends, when her husband, Michael, or playdates with friends, made it possible to free up time for work. "Switching the brain into composing-mode was difficult at first but then, with practice, became easier over time."

Elena Kats-Chernin is also keenly aware of the difference that children make from a different perspective. Since her youngest son left home, Elena has enjoyed the extra time she now has to devote to composition and the many related tasks, free from the pressure and demands of raising a family. As a sole parent, Elena managed her creative life alongside bringing up her three boys. Elena developed a routine, in which her piano and working space are prepared the night before, so that she is ready to switch on the next day. "It's kind of a ritual I've had for the last thirty years and it's helped me to absolutely not have a block, because I feel the block is often just not wanting to open the piano or open the book."3

Amanda Cole, in common with Matthew, Jessica, and many other composers, is combining academic or other related work alongside composing and family. Like Elena, organisation is important to Amanda's work as a composer. "I fit my composing around parenting and sessional teaching. My family understands that I spend time composing and it is treated as my 'work'. I have certain times that are free in my week and my music must be composed then. There is no such thing as waiting for inspiration or writers block, I just need to be productive in the windows of time I have."

Feeling supported

As well as practical support and accommodating the focused nature of composition, the emotional, spiritual and philosophical connection between composer and partner is an important factor in nurturing the creative spirit. Brett Dean says that he and his wife, visual artist Heather Betts, have grown synergistically as artists. Heather describes that synergy thus. "The nature of our work is very much like a team with a sole purpose, to realise the best in both of us and to bring each other to our fullest creative potential. In this way for us, the forces are aligned, the direction is the same, just the outcomes are in various formats."

Brett offers this further insight. "Heather has always had a strong instinctive feel for how to bring me out of areas of creative confusion and back towards purpose, which strings to pull to extricate me out of sticky corners in the creative process. I can only hope that I've been able to offer her something of the same in return."

Amanda Cole also appreciates the synergy of a creative household. "I come from a family of artists, so it is understood that making or creating art is just what we were born to do. No one questions that. My husband, Jared, is creative and we both understand that we are musicians and artists and that is what we are talented at and that is our calling." Amanda also appreciates the practical support Jared provides, documenting her work and undertaking the roles of technician, roadie, session percussionist and glass harpist.

Jessica Wells is another who describes her desire to work in music as a calling. "It fed my soul and having at least two to three days a week with kids in care [so I could work] was necessary for my wellbeing. My husband, who works for Cochlear Implants as a software engineer and is also a fine drummer, understood this need to be creatively satisfied in work."

Ross Edwards says "[Helen and I] have always worked closely together and she is my inspiration and also my manager."

Helen responds, "This is the life I have chosen and am richly rewarded when I hear the work coming to life and being launched into the musical world. This is considerable compensation for a perceived lack of value for working from home without title, recognition or payment. I know that I make a difference and Ross does appreciate it."

Janice Westlake is another who fulfils an important creative role as Nigel's manager. It was Jan who suggested setting up Rimshot Music to control the distribution of Nigel's music. Nigel Westlake explains the professional side of their creative relationship: "[Jan] has always been extraordinarily supportive of my work in a positive and also a critical sense. Her practical nature means that when she sees an area that needs some attention, she'll just step in and do it herself… Having clearly-delineated functions within the structure of our working relationship helps to hold things together. Inevitably, our work is always spilling over into our family life, but this a relatively minor concession to the fact that we are able to make it all function somehow."4

Taking risks

Partners can also provide the confidence and sometimes financial support that enables composers to pursue their career and take creative risks along the way. Brett Dean admits, "While the initial desire and ambition to start composing music was my own, I'm not sure whether I would have had the courage to go down that path as my main occupation and livelihood without [Heather's] perceptive intuition, encouragement and belief."

Ross Edwards shares a similar experience. "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."

Jessica Wells also values "having a partner that understands the need for an artist to express themselves" and says this was "key in forming the pathways of our family lives and careers. We realised that if I lost all my music skills by being a full-time stay-at-home mum, I would not be able to build my business easily afterwards, and also I would go stir-crazy".

Honour and hope

Significant people and significant family events may also be a cause for celebration and the inspiration for a new work. However, as in the tragic death of Nigel Westlake's son, Eli, the effect on the composer and his family has been profound in other ways. Nigel stopped working for an extended period but was eventually inspired to continue writing music of personal significance and artistic integrity, in honour of his son.

Similarly for Elena Kats-Chernin, a family illness led to a change in musical direction, from what she terms her "experimental" music, to a calmer, more harmonious style. This significant event continues to motivate her work, which Elena describes as an obligation, a duty. "I feel that I am doing my son justice by doing that… Luckily, I love composition."5


A piece of music, as with any work of art, must stand alone and must speak to an audience on its own terms. Yet, knowing the composer's motivation and purpose can enhance a listener's appreciation of its meaning. In the same way, recognising the role these significant others play in the lives of composers - enabling, shaping and protecting the creative space in which a work is written, together with the many ancillary tasks required to bring a work to the concert stage - can lead an audience to further understanding of the many dimensions and demands of the compositional process.


1. Collaboration in Creation: An Interview with Nigel Westlake. Jillian Graham. Context, iss. 20 (Summer 2000/2001), 51-56.

2. Dance of Nature: The Music of Ross Edwards, 1995, Don Featherstone.

3. Elena Kats-Chernin, The Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address, October 2023, https://limelight-arts.com.au/features/the-2023-peggy-glanville-hicks-address

4. Graham, 2000, ibid.

5. Kats-Chernin, 2023, ibid.

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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