loud, soft and with feeling

danielle carey talks percussion with claire edwardes

Claire Edwardes

Claire Edwardes

Claire Edwardes

VISCERAL RHYTHMS THAT GET THE HEART BEATING WILDLY AND THE FEET ITCHING TO DANCE—THAT’S A TYPICAL IMAGE ASSOCIATED WITH PERCUSSION. STRAVINSKY EXPLOITED ITS PRIMAL NATURE IN HIS SCORE FOR BALLET, THE RITE OF SPRING, BUT MANY COMPOSERS SINCE HAVE, CONSCIOUSLY AND UNCONSCIOUSLY, CHALLENGED THIS PERCEPTION BY EXPLORING THE INTRICATE QUALITIES OF PERCUSSION. AWARD-WINNING FREELANCE PERCUSSIONIST CLAIRE EDWARDES SAYS, “I LOVE THE HEAVY DRUMMING WHERE YOU CAN JUST GET CARRIED AWAY…THERE’S DEFINITELY ROOM FOR THAT… I’LL OFTEN PROGRAM SOMETHING LIKE IT, BUT THEN COMBINE IT WITH SMALLER SOUNDS.”

“Like David Young’s new work?”, I suggest. The composer’s To Keep Things Reasonable (Ad Res Modicas Conservandas) was recently premiered in Sydney by Ensemble Offspring and the Song Company at their Caged Uncaged mini-festival [see RT 82]. Amongst other things, it required Edwardes and colleague Bree Van Reyck to gently scratch and rub chopsticks against various metal and wood surfaces. “Yeah!”, she exclaims. “Could you actually hear the rubbing on the woodblock? We couldn’t, being so close to the singers.” She needn’t have worried. The beauty of this delicate work was hearing its subtle techniques pushed right to the edge of silence.

Edwardes finds both ends of this spectrum integral to her musical life and her personal expression: “the softer, more sensual techniques, I guess, are in tune with my feminine side, and the visceral ‘striking’ [she demonstrates] the girl in me who is strong and powerful.”

Along with these attributes comes extreme versatility—the list of instruments available to a percussionist is endless. Edwardes says it’s difficult to explain what playing is like: “Generally, it just feels good—scraping, rubbing, hitting, shaking. I get something different out of [each of these] techniques. Emotionally, you can express different things—like if I compare playing [Morton Feldman’s] King of Denmark, which is all [soft dynamics and played] with fingers and hands, to playing [anything by] Xenakis: I love playing them both.”

Edwardes’ aesthetic of the physicality of playing is clear: physical gestures must enhance sound. She has no time for ego-driven movement. “I have a reaction against moving for the sake of moving”, she says. “This is something I try to be conscious of in my own playing…I move a lot when I play, but [this] comes from the music…it’s about keeping it real.”

Given Edwardes’ enthusiasm for contemporary music, I was surprised that her passion for the new only emerged in her final years as a student at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music—a Hans-Werner Henze’s solo marimba work, Five Scenes from Snow Country, being a major turning point. With its sparse textures and ultra soft dynamics, the work lead Edwardes’ to “realise that not all music plays itself.”

Ten years later—after postgraduate studies in Holland and with a busy schedule of freelance work—Edwardes’ now relishes the freedom that contemporary music gives her. With myriad choices for interpreting new and recent work, a lot of her rehearsal time is spent away from instruments analysing and scribbling furiously on music scores. For Edwardes, the notion of a journey is a useful analogy: it gives the audience something tangible to grasp. “It’s the only way to keep the audience with you…[by providing] threads for them to navigate through [the music].”

And while her own journey so far has been frustrating at times, mostly she’s felt liberated by the whole experience. Curiosity is now a huge asset: “I’ve learnt the importance to let go and not be stopped by thoughts that something isn’t possible…because if a composer wants something—a particular sound—then you have to play it! It’s about keeping an open mind, keeping the gamut of sound worlds open…I’m now constantly foraging in Mum’s kitchen looking for new sounds, and I love it that my Dad thinks I’m crazy because I’m always playing weird instruments.”

We’ve been seeing a lot of Edwardes around Sydney lately: in Cage:Uncaged, the Sibelius Young Composer’s Competition Concert, the TV series Spicks and Specks and the Bad Dog Yoda concert with guitarist Goeffrey Morris, where she launched her first solo album, Coil. And the next few months seem just as busy. Considering most of the pieces in her repertoire won’t get many outings, I wondered how she manages to embody such a diverse amount of work. As I suspected, she’s a damned good sight-reader. Of course, it also gets easier with time. “Composers will always be coming up with new instruments to play and new sounds”, she explains, “but by building up a repertoire of techniques and gestures, you become more comfortable with the sound world.” She insists, however, that it’s not a formula: “It’s more a way of thinking, a certain framework in which to work, so when rehearsing new pieces it’s nice to know that you’ve got things under control. Well, at least you hope you do!”

With so many ‘things’ to hit, scratch, rub and scrape in often very specific ways, I imagined the interplay between the physical and intellectual aspects of playing to be enormously challenging. For Edwardes it comes quite naturally. She loves the “well-rounded experience” of her existence as a percussionist and performer of contemporary music. The challenge lies in maintaining this versatility throughout rehearsals and practise sessions, and this is what keeps her career choice fresh and exciting.

So with great sight-reading skills, score mark-ups and scrupulous analyses, where does that leave improvisation? “I’ve always erred towards a more rigorous style, like the [works of Dominik] Karski”, she admits. “It’s about what you know, what you’re comfortable with…I have a background as a pianist so I’m used to reading scores.” Improvisation is something Edwardes has fairly recently had to embrace—“it’s very in vogue now.” It seems to have been a steep learning curve, but Edwardes—not one to be afraid of challenges—insists that now she’s been introduced to it she’ll include it in her programs.

In 2006, in preparation for their first free improvisation performance (John Zorn’s Hockey), Edwardes and the other members of the Sydney-based Ensemble Offspring participated in a series of workshops run by improvising performer Jim Denley. “We hadn’t done anything like this before, but thought it would be easier to learn as a group—to give it a go! It was a good formal start and a place to gain a few pointers.” She says Ensemble Offspring has since come a long way with their improvisational skills: “We’ve performed Cage’s Four6 twice now and if you look at the difference between the two performances it’s phenomenal…and that’s what the piece is really about: learning to choose sounds.”

Ensemble Offspring is just one of a number of groups with whom Edwardes regularly performs; collaboration is a crucial part of her work as a performer. “Essentially I’m a soloist”, she explains. “I perform by myself, and I like that aspect of my career…but I love performing with other people. I’m a very social person. I love bouncing ideas around, knowing that [they] aren’t the only way of seeing things, the problem solving that takes place, the different personalities, the energy—it’s all great!”

The Duyfken Project, a cross-cultural collaboration with Dutch percussionist Niels Meliefste as Duo Vertigo, exposed audiences across Australia to new works commissioned by local and overseas composers. Edwardes commitment to Australian new music recently won her the 2007 Classical Music Award for Outstanding Contribution by an Individual. And while Edwardes enjoys working with composers, she doesn’t really see it as collaboration: “It is in a way”, she admits. “But essentially it’s the composer who has to bring the notes to the rehearsal… [they’re] the creative force. I shouldn’t direct too much — it’s not my role. [Workshopping] is something that does take place with younger composers, but older composers don’t generally need to do this. They already have a strong sense of what they want and the sounds they like. We’ll normally just discuss things such as instrumentation and style at the beginning.”

So what actually drives Claire Edwardes? Mostly it’s the audience—advocacy for the arts is a huge motivation. Her work as assistant artistic director of Ensemble Offspring is an aspect of her career she’d like to develop further. “I think this is really important for Australia…particularly bringing in trends from overseas…we’re still very isolated.”

Art is obviously important to Edwardes for the spiritual welfare of society. “There is a great quote from JFK about the US: ‘This country cannot afford to be materially rich and spiritually poor…’ This is a state that I am afraid Australia could be accused of being in at the moment…As performers and promoters we have to work extra hard to get audiences interested in new music—it is not seen as a priority for most people…Contemporary music is so important because it is the development of our culture NOW!”

Claire Edwardes cites funding priorities and a cultural emphasis on materialism as major hurdles for the arts. But in terms of the actual music, she thinks there’s often a huge misunderstanding. “Essentially people are scared of the unknown…I’d like to get the idea out there that music is about feelings and that’s all you have to know.”

Claire Edwardes first solo CD, Coil, is reviewed on page 48 and five copies courtesy of Tall Poppies are available as giveaways to RealTime readers (p56).

RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007 pg. 14

© Danielle Carey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2007