Dance Chant | Sydney Chamber Choir and Ross Edwards at 75

AN INSIGHT INTO OUR UPCOMING CONCERT CELEBRATING THE MUSIC OF ROSS EDWARDS at the City Recital Hall BY Sydney Chamber Choir'S founder Nicholas Routley.

I taught historically informed performance at the University of Sydney for many years. In this discipline, we learn to make an effort to understand what composers long dead meant by their musical notation, and what they might have expected to hear in a contemporary performance. Perhaps my most important lesson in this was given to me by Ross Edwards.

In 1979 he wrote a song cycle for Hartley Newnham and myself on piano entitled “The Hermit of Green Light”, on poems by Michael Dransfield, a wonderful Australian poet who died at 24 from a drug overdose. I knew that Ross agonised for hours over whether to write a semiquaver rest or a demisemiquaver rest (he’s much more relaxed about that sort of thing nowadays.) So there I was, playing the piece as accurately as I could in front of Ross. He didn’t seem satisfied and eventually said, “I wrote this for you because you love Chopin”. The lesson was that, although composers do try to indicate what they want the performer to do, they never do this perfectly because the imagination can’t be written down.

Paradoxes like that abound in Ross’ music. Is he more at home in the ecstasy of dance (he doesn’t dance, in everyday life, only in the “real life” of art) or in the ecstasy of the chant style which so many religions deploy (he doesn’t, I think, practice any religion)? Are his symphonies big chamber works or are his chamber pieces little symphonies? And personally, is he shy and elusive or is he forthright and definite?

I met Ross as soon as I arrived at the Music Department of Sydney University in 1975, where he also taught in those days. He actually saved my life a couple of months after my arrival, when I was sick as a dog with the as yet undiagnosable disease of Hep C, by taking me home so that he and his wife Helen could nurse me back to health. So it was natural that the Chamber Choir, which formed around me late in 1975, should have a crack at his early set of carols, “Quem Quaeritis?”


Nicolas Routley

Nicolas Routley

He liked our performance so much that he then wrote four of the five songs in “Ab Estasis” for us (the fifth was added later for Roland Peelman’s Song Company). These have been perennial favourites, often broadcast by the ABC, and three of them feature in the forthcoming 75th birthday concert, Dance Chant. Then, as the Chamber Choir got even better, he wrote something really demanding for us – “Flower Songs”, the first of which is so rhythmically difficult that I defy anyone to conduct it from the music – I had to learn it by heart. The second song, Estatico, will feature in Dance Chant.

Perhaps the most famous collaboration between the Sydney Chamber Choir and Ross Edwards was “Dawn Mantras”, which the SCC premiered as dawn broke on the new millennium from the steps of the Opera house, while Riley Lee played the shakuhachi part standing on the roof of it. (OH&S must have been hung over from the night before…) Broadcast all around the world as Sydney ushered in the millennium, this event set the seal on our collaboration.

By the 1990s wild, rhythmic music had become an integral part of Edwards’ style, so it was unsurprising that he developed a relationship with the percussion ensemble Synergy, one of the best of several brilliant percussion groups in Sydney. They are still there, of course, and they will also contribute to the birthday concert. During this time he wrote the Maninya series of pieces, one of which, Maninya V, written for Hartley and me, Ross adapted as his very popular Violin Concerto. This is a compositional feat equivalent to that of Bach, who adapted a movement from one of his solo violin suites as part of an organ concerto. The Maninyas, of which there are 6, all feature a contrast between the music of great rhythmic vitality and music of profound stillness, and his music for Synergy grew out of these two features of his style. Synergy will be a highlight at the 75th birthday concert.

Besides Ross’ own music, the SCC, whose programs are always very carefully thought out, have included for this Dance Chant concert composers who have influenced him, from Hildegard von Bingen to Peter Sculthorpe, and pieces by those in contemporary Australia who have been influenced by him.

Hildegard, abbess of a convent in Bingen in Rhineland, the first named great composer in the Western canon, is represented by her hymn “O quam preciosa”. She famously described her own music as “a feather on the breath of God”.

Monteverdi’s madrigal “Zefiro torna” has the kind of rhythmic fantasy that fascinates Ross Edwards, and closes with a passage of the kind of harmonic dissonance that fascinates Paul Stanhope. And Ockeghem’s “MI-mi” mass (named for the solmisation syllables with which each movement begins; nothing to do with tiny hands being frozen) is an example of that mysterious ability this Franco-Flemish composer had to create perfectly satisfying forms with hardly any repetition. It is today a model for Clare Maclean’s approach to form.

Peter Sculthorpe wrote most of his music in the era before the Sydney Chamber Choir made writing choral music an attractive proposition for composers here, but “Autumn Song” is a charming exception.

Clare Maclean and Paul Stanhope, on the other hand, are in the very forefront of Australian choral music. Both composers are ex-members of the Sydney Chamber Choir (Paul, of course, became my successor as Music Director when I left the Choir in 2005), and their compositions are imbued with the music we sang, particularly the fifteenth century music of Dufay, Ockeghem and Josquin, the music of Monteverdi and Bach, and twentieth century choral music. Working within the Choir gave both of these composers a deeply sophisticated understanding of what is possible in the medium of choral music. Although by the time Clare and later Paul studied at Sydney University Ross was no longer teaching there, his music, always in the public eye, was like a beacon for both of them, offering as it did an alternative both to Sculthorpe’s obsession with Australia and the contemporary European avant-garde.

In Dance Chant the Sydney Chamber Choir and Synergy, are paying a deep and marvellous tribute to one of Australia’s greatest living composers. Each has the most profound respect for each other, and the synergy between all three has been a singular, on-going driving force in Australian music. It is much to be regretted that Richard Gill, the current Musical Director, is unable to conduct, as Richard is a staunch admirer of Ross’ work, as well as a personal friend, and he conceived and devised this program to honour him. His place will be filled by his successor-to-be, Sam Alchurch, who will take over the musical direction of the SCC next year, with contributions from Richard’s predecessor, Paul Stanhope, and from myself. It’s a full team turn-out for Ross Edwards.

Nicholas Routley

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We hope you'll join us at 7.30pm on Saturday, 4th August for what promises to be a wonderful concert at City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney.