Master in the modern classical landscape
By Morgan Quinn
If you’re someone who has even a passing interest in Australia’s “modern classical” music landscape, you will be familiar with the one, the only, Claire Edwardes.
For the un-initiated, Edwardes is a world-class master percussionist, artistic director, composer, and an important advocate for gender equity in the classical music sector. It is impossible to summarise Claire’s career within this article, though her receipt of the 2022 Medal of the Order of Australia for her contributions to music is indicative of her achievements thus far.
Claire’s most recent solo recording is 2021’s Rhythms of Change, which exemplifies her awe-inspiring versatility and technical capabilities with all new Australian works commissioned by, and written for, her. Her upcoming concerts in Canberra will see her perform as soloist with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra through a colourful and varied program of pieces composed by Stravinsky and Beethoven, and, most excitingly, a Percussion Concerto composed for Claire by fellow Australian, Iain Grandage.
The concerto is ominously and intriguingly titled Dances with Devils.
“I work with a whole range of composers, and I perform their music all around the world,” Claire reveals. “Iain is the Artistic Director of Perth Festival and an old friend. I actually performed and toured with him when he was a cellist in a former life. He knows my playing and personality very well, and those familiarities fed into the creation of this work.
“The concept is around amazing women from colonial Australia, which also relates to my own personal interests,” Claire continues. “I’m really into gender equity and the female voice, and females having equality both onstage and in programming.”
As a layman to the form, I was curious to discover how narratives and themes are expressed via purely instrumental music.
“That’s the challenge of the composer,” Claire states. “They, of course, can do it through program notes and titles that are suggestive for the listener. But the beautiful thing about “classical music” is that the listener has the freedom and opportunity to just close their eyes and make of it what they will.
A strong voice without words
“Music without words is not overly literal and I do feel that this is the dual artistic vision which many composers thrive on,” Claire muses. “In Dances with Devils, each movement has a story – the first is called Chosen Vessel, the second is Conquering Bush, and the third, Drover’s Wife, portrays a very sad drowning, where we dip tubular bells in water using a very cool contraption which changes the pitch.”
Throughout the filmed iteration of the performance Claire shared with me, countless percussive instruments are struck, plucked, and dipped in water.
“The set up comprises a vibraphone, paired with tubular bells and crotales [a set of cymbals] on one side of the stage,” Claire explains. “On the other side of the stage is a marimba which is paired with the more typically percussive instruments.
“Together, we came up with instrumental combinations that are physically easy to get around, but it looks impressive and virtuosic moving between them all quickly! People always say to me after performing a percussion concerto, ‘You must be so fit!’, because what I do looks quite physical.
“But I’m actually just a normal Mum who happens to have to lug percussion instruments around constantly. I guess that keeps me fit!”
Movement fuelled by music
Edwardes’ performances are notable for her eye-catching presence and natural, animated way in which she communicates the music.
“Classical musicians are not necessarily known for moving much when they perform but being a percussionist means that movement and physicality is quite intrinsic to what we do,” Claire states.
“For me, movement is always good when it is fuelled by the music itself and enhances the music. I’m really not into musicians who throw their hair around and make big extraneous arm movements to look impressive.
“But at the same time I do feel that, as people, we are such visual beings that whatever techniques we can draw on to help the audience go deeper into the music must be utilised.
“Of course as a musician, at the end of the day the number one priority is the sound and how every aspect of music making is knitted together in performance to be something that really touches people or makes them excited. You just want your audience to feel something whether it be euphoria, melancholy, or their own private experience of the music.”
The wise, the curious, and the art-lover alike would be foolish to miss these performances. Fire & Shadow plays on Wednesday 22nd and Thursday 23rd March at Llewellyn Hall, ANU School of Music, 7:30pm. Tickets range from $17 – $109 and are available via https://cso.org.au/fire-shadow/