Trusting in the mysterious process
Early in his career, Ross Edwards worried the music would dry up if he took a break, but now he can wait for the eureka moment.
By Matthew Westwood
From The Australian - October 12, 2006
Chasing the muse can be a soul-destroying business for a composer. All that lying in bed at night, swatting at musical ideas like so many mosquitos in a stuffy room. Ross Edwards gave up the panicked chase long ago. A composer of mature powers, he has learned to let the inspiration come, to not force the muse into service. But he has not forgotten when it was otherwise."The worst thing in the world is to get up at 4am, knowing that what you've written over the past X weeks or months isn't what you really wanted to do, and start again," Edwards says.
There were the occasions, before he took up composing full time and was still teaching, when he would anticipate clear days in which to write music, then sit staring at a blank page. There would be a huge depression, then back to teaching.
"I stopped being hypercritical," he says, before recalling how it used to be: "You write down a note, and then an hour later you rub it out and you go for a walk and come back all expectant, and write another note. It's utterly absurd. And yet that's the way I was going. Composing was the most important thing in the world to me and I had to do it properly. But there are better ways to go about it."
Edwards is the composer of consistently performed works such as the violin concerto Maninyas and the oboe concerto made famous by Diana Doherty. His piece Dawn Mantras was broadcast across the world, from the roof of the Sydney Opera House, as part of the new millennium celebrations. His music is distinctive: birdsong, insects and bush noises frequently invade his sound world; children's choirs sing secular hymns of innocence and joy; sonorous temple gongs summon the unknowable.
In some pieces, the music appears to flow as if on a river's current: such is the effect of his oboe concerto Bird Spirit Dreaming, performed from here to New York, Liverpool and Hong Kong. But there was a three-year period in the mid 1970s - a dark time the composer calls the tabula rasa, or blank slate - when the music didn't come at all.
"It was a terrible experience for me and anyone around me: ask Helen," he says, referring to his wife, with whom he has two adult children.
"I gradually started going for long walks and various patterns would occur. You'd hear the intersection of birds and frogs. I'd come back and something fresh was happening in the music based on these perceptions, which were totally subconscious."
Today, Edwards is almost too busy. His fifth symphony, called The Promised Land - it includes a sung text for children's choir by David Malouf - will have its premiere with the Sydney Symphony next Wednesday. He has recently finished a string quartet to be performed by an American ensemble, the Brentano Quartet, on a Musica Viva tour scheduled next year.
Other pieces for orchestra and small groups are in the offing, and he is collaborating on a sound installation for a proposed bridge in Canberra that will commemorate immigrants to Australia.
He answers the door of his sleekly modern house in Annandale, in Sydney's inner west, amid the barking of his yappy little dog. Bearded and sandaled, he gives the outward impression of a relaxed man. Yet there is a quiet, nervy energy about him as he fumbles making the tea and takes us up the stairs to his studio where, pinned to the wall above his keyboard, are the manuscript pages of his work in progress, a clarinet concerto. Words come tumbling out of him. Sometimes, sentences collide with each other, as one half-finishes and another begins: a counterpoint of concurrent thoughts.
"Let's take this piece, for example," he says, pointing to the clarinet concerto as a way of explaining his compositional methods. The work will be given its premiere in November next year by Melbourne Symphony principal clarinetist David Thomas.
"I knew I had enough time to do it, but I had to get it started or time would be eroded between now and the deadline, and then I would panic. So the trick was to just hang out, have the paper ready."
As his style evolved, he stopped trying to reinvent the wheel with every new work. All his pieces are interconnected, he says, because they draw on similar sources. A bird call, for example, may make an unexpected entry: "I find an event like that is very awakening, very uplifting. So I wait for those eureka moments to happen. And if you get excited about something you've written, you can proceed."
He never tries to impose form or structure on an emerging composition. There will be parameters dictated by the commission - a 20-minute duration, for example, or a piece for a triple-wind orchestra - but the substance of the piece is not predetermined. "I have a feeling - it's not an intellectualised thing - that a shape starts to evolve," he says. "I can feel what it's going to be like and I get excited about that. It's not so much a shape, just a something: I don't know what to call it. You feel the thing almost stating that it's there, a finished object, which is usually sort of long and thin."
It sounds like stream of consciousness technique, though Edwards prefers not to use that term.
"I regard it as an entirely mysterious process. And if you don't, you get into the situation of predicting what's going to happen. And that's true of life as well."
Edwards had a variety of early influences. His first composition teacher was Richard Meale, who schooled him in European modernism. He studied with Peter Maxwell Davies in Adelaide (the British composer had a residency there in 1966) and London, and with Hungarian Sandor Veress. Through his association with Peter Sculthorpe - Edwards was the elder composer's assistant in the 1960s - he was drawn into the study of Asian musical cultures at the University of Sydney music department.
"It penetrated my music," Edwards says. "But not so much the idea of appropriating the music, but being aware of it. I can't write anything now which doesn't have some reference to some Southeast Asian scale."
It's a commonplace in the cultural sphere to hear of artists pushing the barriers, of taking artistic risks, but this is invariably suggestive of a confrontation with public taste or expectation, of epater le bourgeois.
Edwards also speaks of removing obstacles but these, perhaps, are internal ones. He has consistently sought to move beyond doctrine or dogmatic thoughts, even his own.
He rejected the serialism of his early compositions and has sought a performance style for his compositions that offers an alternative to the penguin-suited conventions of the concert hall.
In the oboe concerto, for example, Doherty's performance was choreographed with bird-like steps. The performance of The Promised Land, with David Porcelijn conducting the Sydney Symphony and Sydney Children's Choir, will include effects such as a wash of red light across the stage.
The intention is not empty theatrics but to reinvest the musical experience with ritual and wonder. "I was trying to create a pre-Renaissance idea of Western music, using music from other cultures, and using my own environment," he says. "The idea of place became very important to me."
Edwards is contemplating a break from composition; not a permanent one, but long enough to allow him to take stock. The pace of commission and composition has been "incredibly intense". Still, the memory of the tabula rasa hiatus haunts him.
"I've always had this horror of it happening again," he says. "I think, if you stop, can you start again? I would like to stop and see what happens. Maybe for three weeks, three months. Maybe a little longer, just to see."
The Sydney Symphony presents Edwards's The Promised Land, Sydney Opera House, October 18 and 19.