Written by: Claire Edwardes
I am a female percussionist who has chosen to focus on championing the newest of the new music throughout my career. This is obviously not the easy route to take and many people often ask me why it is that I do what I do? It’s not easy to market this never before heard music plus I have to lug heavy instruments around to do it. This article aims to interrogate the reasons that my career developed in its current direction and hopefully inspire others to follow a similar path (despite recent governmental attempts to deter young people from choosing the humanities through fee hikes, which I believe is short sighted and cultural suicide for our country).
I actually began my musical life learning the piano from age five. We had located from Glebe to Stradbroke (a tiny country town near Sale in Victoria). My Dad was working for Esso and my parents took the opportunity to give my sister and me (who were total inner-city kids), a farm experience for a few years. We lived across the road from the farm owners, the Mowats and their two older girls Cathy and Lizzie played the piano. Lizzie and I were the only two girls at the nine-pupil country school so I asked my Mum if I could take up the piano to be more like Lizzie. At the time I am sure it was really just a case of the little girl wanting to be like the big girl but almost instantly a drive in me became evident. This is a drive I still have today and one that has really set me in good stead for a career in the music industry.
I would practise daily even without Mum telling me to do it and the piano for me quickly turned into something I was evidently both good at and passionate about. My teacher at that time was a Nun in Sale and when things started to take a bit of a turn for the worse with our relationship (the occasional rap over the knuckles and zero empathy) we moved back to Sydney for a short period of time. It was then that Mum set me up with lessons with the wonderful Faye Lake. Now Faye even teaches my daughter Poppy which is quite a lovely turn of events. Anyway Faye was strict but kind, relatively musically adventurous for a classical piano teacher and very happy to nurture my burgeoning talent and obsession with the piano. She got me playing Bartok’s Mikrokosmos with its modal tonalities, unusual 5/8 and 7/8 rhythms and unusual folk structures. I was also trained heavily on Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, Beethoven and Mozart Sonatas and Chopin Etudes. But it was that constant companion of Bartok that I think set up my ear with a thirst for sounds and forms which were different and challenged the way one naturally conceives of classical music.
Fast forward to moving back to Sale for a couple more years and me continuing my lessons with Mrs Lake via tape and Australia Post (!!!) and then an eventual long-term relocation back to Sydney from the age of ten when my parents divorced. Mrs Lake was my piano teacher and almost like a second mother till later high school. She wasn’t into AMEB exams but we did do my 6th and 8th grade and then AMusA and LTCL – I passed all with flying colours and could probably have been a concert pianist if I so desired.
But meanwhile in year 6 and back in Sydney I had discovered percussion! I wanted to join the local Sydney Schools Wind Ensemble and obviously couldn’t do that on piano so decided that mallet percussion would probably be an easy enough transition. I absolutely loved those group band rehearsals each Tuesday at Chippendale with the smell of hops wafting into our cramped rehearsals with the wonderful Steve Williams as our trusty leader. Life-long friendships were forged during that period with SSSWE and I dare say that this experience also informed my decision to go with percussion when it came to the end of year 12. I had been given but a handful of percussion lessons but this style of social music making which percussion afforded me was heady and addictive. I had so much fun when I played percussion, albeit slightly deafened after every one of those rehearsals.
My four years at the Sydney Conservatorium were a time of madly getting up my chops on all the percussion instruments I had very little technique on. This included snare drum and timpani, pretty much everything except 2 mallet marimba and xylophone really! But that commitment I had shown as a five year-old pianist kicked in and I fought for extra time in the minimal practice rooms with my male colleagues, to become the best percussionist I could be by the end of that degree. Musically, as a classically trained pianist, like most young instrumentalists I found myself erring towards the more tonal repertoire by Ney Rosauro and Keiko Abe but by the middle of second year when I had met composer colleagues through my exposure to the Spring Ensemble (now Ensemble Offspring) I began to be pushed out of my tonal comfort zone and those years of Bartok came in very handy. I am convinced that they set me up to be an open minded instrumentalist who very quickly was looking for new repertoire that no one else had ever played, asking my colleagues to write me new pieces and assisting composers in their journey to understand better how to write for my instrument.
And strangely enough that is exactly what I am doing now 25 years on. Obviously percussion lends itself well to specialising in ‘living’ music because of the sheer fact that it is such a relatively new instrument. There is no original solo music written for us from before about 1970. Indeed during my time as a percussionist so much has changed in our world. I began my degree at the Con in 1994. At that time the biggest marimba we had was 4.3 octaves and there was very little solo music written for marimba that utilised the large and very rare five octave marimba. A quarter of a century later we find a totally different scene with a plethora of repertoire written now for this instrument and technical capabilities of younger players getting better and better – it’s mind blowing really how this has all changed so much just within my lifetime as a percussionist.
Throughout my 20 plus year career, so far I have been blessed with a huge range of opportunities and experiences. Not in any particular order, I have been fortunate enough to live, study and perform in the Netherlands and Europe for seven years, become artistic director of a world class new music group (Ensemble Offspring). I have won big competitions including Young Performers (back in 1999), I have been awarded big prizes such as an Australia Council Fellowship and Sidney Myer Award, I have mentored many young percussionists and composers, I have commissioned and worked closely with world class composers such as Harrison Birtwistle, Ross Edwards, Elena Kats-Chernin and Unsuk Chin, I have performed concerto’s in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House and Het Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, I have been a presenter on PlaySchool, I have had signature mallets designed, produced a dance show with world class director Gideon Obarzanek and I am a mother of 2 girls (12 and 10) who I am able to be a role model to as a working musician mother who is driven and deeply committed to a cause. All of these experiences combine to create a rich musical life with which I feel I am now able to give back to both the next generation and the audiences I make music for.
In fact, my journey has led me to a point where the thought of proliferating ‘old classical’ music in the way that many solo and chamber instrumentalists do is just weird. I feel that my unique situation and the talent I have honed over a lifetime would be wasted on anything other than the overall goal of introducing audiences to new and original sounds. While I respect the musicianship of those professional musicians who focus on Western classical music there is a part of me, if I am completely honest, that feels like it is the easy way out. The music is expertly crafted of course and this is why people have come back to it time after time but after utilising this repertoire for one’s musical development (which I did) I feel like it is self-serving to commit an entire career to music that has already proven itself through its general popularity and proliferation.
The harder route is the one less trodden and for me that is convincing audiences (and especially younger people) that new sounds are not confronting or scary but instead exciting, invigorating, stimulating and fun. I do this through well thought out concert programs and explanations as well as a honed performance technique and engaging performance style. I implore instrumentalists who doubt their place in an orchestra to think outside the square and consider dedicating similarly to a path less trodden. In my experience it is really life-affirming to potentially make a change to the direction of music both in Australia and internationally through ones career choices. Who wants to fall back on what everyone else recognises as being great? In my view what is exciting about being an artist is forging new directions, like an explorer navigating new pathways or a botanist finding new species. There are without question knock-backs and challenges around every corner but through the path I have chosen I feel alive and I feel like I can really make a difference to our culture at large – and nothing is better than this!
Internationally acclaimed percussion soloist, chamber musician and artistic director of Ensemble Offspring, Claire Edwardes has been described by the press as a ‘sorceress of percussion’ performing with ‘spellbinding intensity’ and ‘graceful virtuosity’. Her award-winning performances combine a theatrical energy with charismatic and original interpretations bringing to life the varied array of music she performs. Claire is the only Australian musician to win the ‘APRA Art Music Award for Excellence by an Individual’ three times (2016, 2012, 2007), was the recipient of a recent Australia Council and a Freedman Fellowship and the winner of numerous European (resident there for seven years) instrumental and percussion competitions as well as 1999 Australian Young Performer of the Year. Recently appearing as soloist with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the Myer Music Bowl and on Play School to an audience of thousands of children, Claire is passionate about percussion and new sounds being widely disseminated.
VIEW AND LISTEN
Young Performers Finalists Performance 1999
Sydney Symphony Meet The Music Seminar
Flash by Matthew Hindson
Dances with Devils by Iain Grandage
Ensemble Offspring Sizzle 2019 Showreel