Written with the stars in mind
A composer, an author and some heavenly voices combine for an anthem to the spirit of Australia
By Angela Bennie
From SMH.com.au - October 16, 2006
There are not many Australian composers who can boast a reputed audience of 3 billion people for a performance of their work, but Ross Edwards can.
His was the music that heralded in the dawn and the new millennium, performed on New Year's Day 2000 on top of the sails of the Sydney Opera House. Television cameras beamed his Dawn Mantras, a work for voice and wind instruments (including the didgeridoo and the Japanese shakuhachi), to the 55 countries taking part in the 25-hour millennium broadcast of the new year dawning in each time zone.
Boast is perhaps the wrong word to use in conjunction with Edwards. While many Australians will have heard his music, his is not a household name. The man is quiet, unassuming. His music is intricate, complex, lambent rather than flamboyant, the kind of music Caliban must have dreamed on, full of strange sounds and sweet airs that hum like twangling instruments about the ears.
It is the sound of the Australian bush and the Australian landscape, the sea and its coastal tides, of subtle gradations and change; it is also that of the starry heavens of the southern hemisphere and of their mystery, of human thoughts and feelings swirling under their canopy.
This week is the premiere of a major new work, his Symphony No 5, The Promised Land, with a text by David Malouf performed by the Sydney Children's Choir.
The work was a commission, Edwards says. "Andrew and Renata Kaldor, who are great supporters of the orchestra and are very familiar with my work, asked me to create something that captured the spirit of Australia, something of the future.
"Andrew is a great republican, so I have tried to work the music around that theme. I asked David to write words that I could muck about with, you know, something that is almost like a chant that I can transpose the lines, use them in different ways. He came up with something that is like an anthem, a beautiful text, with subtle meanings and plays on words that are fundamentally about Australia."
The symphony is structured into five movements; within this framework, Edwards has woven a utopian vision, both spiritual and earthly, through the patterning of his motifs, sounds and musical colours, his topography of stirring crescendos, ostinatos and tidal falls of music. Other musical patternings and motifs are drawn from the cultures surrounding Australia, creating a sense of place and interchange.
The last movement reaches its climax with the children's choir singing Malouf's great anthem of hope and promise. "I use the children's fresh, innocent voices to suggest hope and the future with a sense of optimism of what might come," says Edwards. "It all sounds a little idealist, doesn't it?"
He looks uncomfortable for a moment, as if he should apologise for such a thing. "But I believe if you lose your idea of the future, one full of hope rather than despair or disillusion, then you become terribly cynical - and it is much easier then for those who are manipulating you to look at things their way to do their work.
"I mean, I guess most people would be aware that society here has changed in the past 10 years from what it was. There is a sense we don't know where it is all going. It is all a bit alarming, things we perhaps took for granted, like multiculturalism and other democratic values, seem to be being eroded."
Edwards knows about disillusion and that sense of unease about the future. At first, he was very sure. From the age of 13, he says, he knew he wanted to be a composer. "It was the scariest thing. But I knew that that was the case. And I didn't waver from that. I just knew that is what I was. I can't explain, and I didn't know why back then, either. I was just fixated on this idea, and it was extremely intense."
After his formal schooling, Edwards, now 62, studied with Peter Sculthorpe and Richard Meale in Sydney and in Adelaide, and then he took off to Europe, to study composition with Peter Maxwell Davies and later with Wilfred Mellors in York. It was there, around a time in his life one would have thought ripe for discovery, challenge and illumination, that a crippling disillusion set in.
"I found I couldn't relate to what was going on in Europe. I felt contemporary European music was going nowhere, that it was empty, without meaning. I became quite distraught about it all. I found I couldn't write that kind of music. It was something of a crisis, I think you could say, a kind of block. So I decided to wipe the slate clean, start again from base."
Edwards returned to base - Australia, and Pearl Beach, north of Sydney, where he and his family set up home for the next seven years. It was here that, slowly, painstakingly, he found his own kind of music.
"I got very minimalist, very spare," he says of that time, "without much happening. Gradually I was bringing back things - patterns and ideas - into my music, but on my own terms.
"During this period I used to go for walks in the bush and I would come back with the sounds of birds or frogs or insects. These were the patterns, the raw materials of my music, relative parts of the composition related to the rhythms. A lot of these were very contemplative pieces. This time at Pearl Beach was absolutely seminal to me.
"I have a strong conviction that music should emanate from place, or a place you are associated with. I don't like the idea of global music, which is an orthodox. I like the regional flavour to universal truths.
"And so my music is full of symbols that recur throughout my work, bits of plain chant, all sorts of environmental shapes and patterns. You know they are going to come. They always come now into my work, so I just let them come.
"All my work is part of a whole, each relates to the other in some way. So this fifth symphony is part of all my other symphonies. And all my music is … sort of me, I guess, for better or worse."