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Ross Edwards: "As I compose, I feel Australia"

By Jessica Porter-Langson |

Distinctive in his compositional sound, Ross Edwards is at the forefront of the Australian classical scene as one of the country's most prolific and most performed living composers. We caught up with Ross on the occasion of the release of his latest album ‘Frog and Star Cycle.’

Ross Edwards’ music is known for its ‘Australian Sound’, however, how many people can actually pinpoint what that sound is? When asked how he would describe the Australian Sound to someone unfamiliar with it Ross responded…

I get asked this a lot. I think the best answer I can give is that I feel Australia – or at least the part of it where I live – as I compose, although I don’t consciously attempt to create an ‘Australian’ sound, whatever that might be. I think that if I did it would be patently bogus.

This latest release on ABC Classic presents some of Edwards’ most prolific orchestral compositions. Frog and Star Cycle, a concerto for saxophone and percussion that expresses themes of renewal and wholeness, fragility and the continuous evolution of life. This album also features two of Edwards’ symphonies, Symphony No. 2 - ‘Earth Spirit Songs’ and Symphony No. 3 - ‘Mater Magna’, performed by the Sydney and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra respectively. Throughout all three of these works, we hear a myriad of references to the natural world, from birdcall to insect rhythms, all presenting a distinctly Australian musical perspective on the world.

Two of the works, the fairly recently composed and premiered (2015) double concerto Frog and Star Cycle, and Earth Spirit Songs (although it was composed and premiered about 25 years ago) had not yet appeared on disc. Recordings of Symphony No. 3, Mater Magna, which I completed in 2000, have previously been released, but I took this opportunity to revise its ending, which I’d long wanted to do. The three do seem to coexist well together.

Although Edwards’ is known for his use of the Australian landscape in his compositions, the first fragments of Earth Spirit Songs (Symphony No.2) came to fruition for him whilst in Switzerland, more specifically whilst at Lake Lucerne, a location that served as inspiration to the likes of Wagner. The duality of birthplace and cultural origin can be heard in this work, which is more pastoral than others whilst still retaining that Australian zest that is his signature.

Having returned to Australia from postgraduate study in Europe (primarily with Peter Maxwell Davies), I moved with my family to a coastal village on the central coast of New South Wales, where I became entranced by the sounds of the natural environment, especially the chorus of summer insects. These were to provide the basis of my musical language, into which I gradually began to introduce references to diverse, especially South East Asian, cultures. But to retain a connection with my European heritage, I found myself ‘Australianising’ fragments of plainchant and fusing it with Australian birdsong. Confronting, for the first time, Lake Lucerne and Pilatus, I was startled by their beauty and otherness, whilst at the same time experiencing pangs of homesickness. Difficult to explain…

Whether it be plainchant, Hildegard Von Bingen or plainsong, Edwards’ use of religious and historical music seems to create a link between the three works presented on this album.
I have to admit that part of the attraction of setting religious texts, especially in Latin, is that I can play with their phonetic components, whilst at the same time attempting to bring out their spiritual meaning.
Another characteristic of Edwards’ music that is consistent throughout his compositional catalogue is the use of dance rhythms (Maninyas, Ecstatic Dance, Dancing Light). This element of dance has led choreographers to use many of his works, but also helps to create a ritualistic angle to his music, in line with his ethos of reconnecting music with elemental forces to restore its traditional association with ritual and dance.
I can’t physically dance to save my life, but inwardly, paradoxically, I experience a very strong dancing impulse which comes out in my music. I can’t explain this, but I expect it is why it’s often choreographed, especially my violin concerto Maninyas.

Ross Edwards, at the age of 78 is still at the top of his game. Australia has followed his developments from the early years of his writing and it is exciting to watch this prolific artists’ compositional style continue to develop with time.
I started out conforming to the orthodox modernism that prevailed when I was a student. Rejecting this, I underwent a period of silence, during which I began to ‘find myself’. The music I eventually started to produce was skeletal and ascetic. Gradually, having found this point of departure, I added all sorts of layers to the ground I had established. I’m excited to imagine where this might lead.


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