In this instalment of the podcast, Paul Kildea has a lively conversation with percussionist and curator Claire Edwardes. The dialogue starts with Claire Edwardes’ kaleidoscopic background and how calling Claire just a ‘percussionist’ does her no justice. She talks about her love of music from a very young age and how her love of playing music with other people has led her down the path of music curation.
The conversation then turns to a discussion of various instruments and the nature of being a percussionist. The pair delve more deeply into Claire’s musical journey from Sydney to Rotterdam, her decision to leave Australia, what motivated her to return, as well as her transition from musician to composer. They also briefly touch on Musica Viva’s imminent partnership with Claire’s Hatched Academy to collaborate and workshop with upcoming Australian composers.
Listen to the full episode below.
Paul: Hello, I'm Paul Kildea. I'm artistic director of Musica Viva Australia and I'm here with Clare Edwardes. Claire, to call you a percussionist somehow doesn't do you justice, does it?
Claire: Well, I do play percussion, but I do other things as well.
Paul: I was about to say, it's the tiniest part. Or perhaps not the tiniest part, but perhaps you could unpack your really interesting career and how much - like the curatorial side of it is just so fascinating to me and I'm interested in when curators become curators and how they do it. But also, I suppose just let's put that in the context of you being a bright young percussionist in Australia and your development from there.
Claire: Well, thanks Paul. I mean there were two things there that mean a lot for you to say: to call me a curator, I guess. I guess that hasn't happened a lot yet and that it is somehow how I do think of myself. Although I am an artistic director like yourself of ensemble offspring, my group, and also that you refer to me as young because I don't think I'm that young anymore. But anyway, that's all. That's very nice. So I think obviously my training as a percussionist and before that, a pianist, really fed into my obsession with curation. And at the end of the day, the short answer is that I love playing music that I really want to play with other people. And so that is my main inspiration for the kind of curation, I guess in the first place. But the thing is, I've always been really quite passionate about finding new repertoire, working with young composers, working with colleagues. And that was something that really became quite evident when I was a student at the Con back in the 90s. And yeah, I just, I've always loved it. So if I look back now, I guess I didn't necessarily see where I would end up, but it sort of makes sense that I have ended up here.
Paul: I didn't actually know about you as a pianist. So you're studying percussion at the Sydney Con in the 90s, but you do have piano as a sideline or, by that stage had you already kind of developed into - okay, this is what I want to be. I want to be a percussionist.
Claire: Yeah, I, liked lots of my colleagues and probably yourself, I started piano when I was very young - at the age of five. And strangely like, I think a lot of people start music because their parents maybe suggest it or whatever, but I really wanted to do it myself and I already always wanted to practice and I always wanted to be the best I could at everything I did I guess, but especially music. And so I was very committed to my piano right up until my HSC. I had the same teacher and it just became evident to me that to be a concert pianist was not necessarily my calling because I did get quite nervous when I had to play very long Beethoven Sonatas for example.
Paul: That’s entirely with reason
Claire: Yes. The memorizing side of things really, as I got older, in a way I found it harder, you know. When you're younger, you just do it and you don't really think about it. And I think it's good that I'm not a professional pianist. I think it suited me to move across to percussion. It was something that I had a lot of fun playing in high school, but I never had official lessons in. So I was really a pianist until the end of high school. I was - I did my elma, so I was totally obsessed with piano. But percussion was so fun and it was easy for me you know, because I did have that piano background so I could sort of play it without having lessons and taking it too seriously. I love playing with other people in wind bands. And then when it came to finishing high school and going to the Con or doing university, neither of my parents wanted me to do music really, but I just really wanted to. I guess it's always been my deep down passion. So I thought I'll give percussion a go. I can't do a very good snare drum roll. I've never been taught how to do most things. I can't play four mallets. I can't really do anything properly. But I'm going to give it a red hot go. So that's what I did.
Paul: I'd love to at some stage, but perhaps a little later in the talk, talk about some of those technical aspects of it, like the four mallet thing I just look at and just go, I don't understand how it's possible
Claire: Would be good to break that down, yes.
Paul: I do want to ask. So you said something a moment ago just about your parents not wanting you to do music. Like seriously? The girl who starts practicing really seriously the piano at age five and that's what she wants to do. Surely there was an inevitability to you making these decisions when it came to 17, 18, whatever the age is.
Claire: I guess so. I just had, I mean I went to Fort Street, which is a selective high school, and I was always quite academic as well. So I guess they just knew that music was quite a hard path. And ironically my music mark was not counted in my HSC at the end of it because it was my lowest mark, weirdly. You know how those weird things happen. But yeah, I just, I could have done law, I pretty much could have done anything and I think they probably thought that it would be a more solid career choice, which I guess it would have been. But I'm very glad I chose music. And I think what I can bring to music through the fact that, I guess I do have that academic background and also passion, is that you need way more than just being a talented musician to make it in this world. And, and I think that's really come in very handy for me.
Paul: Okay, so a little bit about instruments and instrumentation, it's kind of, to me, always intriguing that percussion is arguably the oldest family of musical instruments in civilization. Yet the story only, really to me, gets interesting in the 20th century. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that.
Claire: Yeah, well, when I do my solo shows, I always introduce the marimba, especially because it tends to be an instrument that many people haven't heard before, especially in a solo context. And I'll always say this is an instrument of African origins. Its ancestors are the Mbiras which had gourds for resonators and were really kind of rustic sounding and amazing. And of course that still exists in Africa, that style of marimba playing. And this instrument that I play and that my colleagues play was developed in the 20th century in Japan and then America. And it is a very new instrument and the repertoire is very new and when I teach it, it's a very strange thing to say but I always say to my students, I was doing a class at the Con the other day and I said, this is really a pretty dumb instrument and you've got a - it is, it's a really dumb instrument because it's very limited in terms of tone colour compared to a ‘real’ instrument in inverted commas like the piano or the violin or the voice. And so what I always come back to with my students, and I think the reason why I love playing chamber music with other instrumentalists rather than percussionists at this point in my career, is that what I find interesting is the challenge of making the instruments sing like the real instruments do. So thinking about bow, bow lengths and phrasing in that way or phrasing through the breath. All these things that we don't have, but that's what's interesting to me.
Paul: So therefore, who is some of the pioneers in the 20th century. And I'm not thinking so much of role models for you, but people that you kind of thought historically were interesting in the development of the practice, rather than the instruments itself, but that, you know, you're a solo percussionist, a freelance solo percussionist.
Claire: Well, they're all still alive and that's how new it is. You know, they’re still doing their thing, I guess, the people, I wouldn't necessarily say, yeah, they're role models like you said, but Keiko Abe is quite a famous Japanese marimba player who is very little. And because Keiko Abe was, she was very involved in the development of the instrument itself. And so there's this whole school of female marimba players in Japan as a result of Keiko Abe, it's really interesting to see this whole - people can play marimba professionally and just the marimba in Japan as a result, which you can't really do in Australia or most places in the world. And then you've got Evelyn Glennie, of course, who's the famous deaf percussionist from Scotland, who really changed the face of how percussion was seen as a solo instrument. You know, it was, it wasn't really perceived as a solo instrument seriously before that, maybe in more alternative circles like through Stockhausen and stuff. But Evelyn Glennie really brought the instrument to the front of the orchestra and so, while the way she plays is not necessarily to my taste, she really changed the face of percussion as a solo instrument. And then the other person is Steve Schick, who is a percussionist from America, who’s now conducting quite a lot. And the repertoire that he specialises in is more along the lines of Globokar and Fernie Ho and Stockhausen and quite cerebral often. But he is really about the sounds and the sonic color and the precision of the rhythms. And he is still someone who many Australians especially, go to study with in America because he's a real living legend as well.
Paul: You mentioned two women in that list and then there's yourself and and also a moment ago you talked about teaching classes at the Con. So I wonder if it's a gendered instrument or a collection of instruments or whether it's pretty evenly spread between women and men who want to take it up.
Claire: What do you think?
Paul: I genuinely don't know, I really don't.
Claire: Ah, that’s interesting. Yeah, I mean, it is, unfortunately. It's, in Australia because most percussionists, I mean this is a big generalization, but typically, or traditionally, many percussionists who would go into the Con on percussion came from the drum kit background more than piano and that tends to be, it's one or the other, is the background that a percussionist has. And it was very male dominated when I was at the Con in the nineties. In fact, I was the only female student, pretty much the whole time that I was there. I had one other education colleague who was a female. And if you look at the orchestras, there's one female percussionist in the percussion sections of all the orchestras in Australia currently. So it is really quite gendered bias towards men and it has been traditionally, amazingly, all the percussionists, if you were really to say, oh, these are the ones really doing interesting things in Australia, mostly they're women.
Paul: Yeah, that was my thought.
Claire: Yeah, So you've got Louise Devonish, Vanessa Tomlinson, of course, you've got Eugene Ughetti and Matthias Schack-Arnott in Melbourne too. But there are lots of women and men doing great things in percussion. It's just that it is, at the Con as well, there's still more men and in terms of getting into orchestras, it is still more male oriented. So yeah.
Paul: I just thought, I don't know, talking to you and just seeing what you do and, and of course I love Matthias and what he does, but I just thought, wow, wouldn't it be nice if this were a more evenly spread and divided instrumental pursuit. So, tell me we talked a little bit about the Con. I'm kind of more interested in the move away and then of course the impetus to return. So, can you chat a little bit about that? And studies after you left the Con?
Claire: Well, probably like you Paul, back in the 90s was before the Internet had really taken off and things were really different to what like now for students, right? And I think, I think it's a good thing in a way that I felt like if I wanted to be the best possible musician that I really could be, I had to go overseas, that for me, there was no choice in the matter. Whereas now I think there is a bit more choice because there is more here. And also because you've got the Internet, you're exposed to so much more than we were able to be in the 90s. So when I finished at the Con, I knew I would go to either the UK, Holland or America to study and I just applied for lots of scholarships and in the end I got in in Rotterdam. And so, did Young Performers the year after I finished at the Con and happened to win amazingly. And then, and then went the week after to go and study in Rotterdam. So that was my trajectory. I mean obviously I hadn't planned at all to win Young Performers, in fact, I assumed I wouldn't get through to the second round. But it was all very fortuitous and a lot of people would think, well you should hang around after you win Young Performers and really make the most of the opportunities that you get after that. But I think it was so good for my ego for one thing to go to Holland, a place where they're very straight talking. They don't care what you've done before, you know, you've got to show them yourself what you’re capable of. And that really brought out another kind of level of work ethic for me where I was practicing for like six hours a day and I was just, I just wanted so badly to show them that I was worthy of great opportunities and whatever. So it was really good for me actually to go to Holland straight after winning Young Performers.
Paul: I think psychologically, like to be able to leave on a high but then also the thing about going away and studying elsewhere is that you do really rack yourself up against other performers and musicians around you and we have to use that time to work out just exactly where we're at. So I just think psychologically in terms of your development, that was a pretty good trajectory. So the decision to return though is always interesting. Did you think that you would come home or did you think you would stay, these things are so hard when you're in your early, early 20s?
Claire: Yeah, well, I had planned always just to stay for two years and after two years it became, I think I won my first competition in europe after a year and a bit and because the competition's over there have quite a lot of great opportunities associated with them as well as money, I was sort of like, not just that I wanted to stay for the competitions, but for example, if I was to stay, I could play with Niels, the guy who came second in the competition. We had a lot of concert opportunities and we had the opportunity to tour around Holland and Germany playing the Bartok sonata for example. So of course I wanted to do that. So I basically got into Amsterdam Conservatorium after I finished my Masters in Rotterdam, got another scholarship for that, so I could stay because I just knew that it was - it would be totally crazy to leave after two years and there were so many great concerts to go to. I mean that was in the height of the Dutch, like, financial support for the arts. There was so much going on and therefore there were a lot of performance opportunities for me as well and it was such a great time to be in Holland and that's where I really also learned, or not learned, but I had the opportunity to collaborate closely with heaps and heaps of composers and that really suited me and I guess fired my passion for doing that. So I had such a great time in Holland and by the time I finished it in Amsterdam, amazingly my then partner, he was Australian, but he had a British passport, so we were able to stay in Holland after that for another three years on his passport. And after seven years he was quite desperate to come back to Australia and you know, I was almost 30 by then and I sort of thought, do you know what, I think I can make more of a difference in Australia as the percussionist and kind of entrepreneurial percussionists that I am, then I can living in Holland, like it was fun and I knew I could make a good living and collaborate with amazing people, but I just sort of thought there are lots of people really over here doing what I do and I have the point of difference when I go back that I have the experience from living in Holland and I just wanted to gradually try and convince audiences that this music by living composers and music composed in the last 50 years wasn't scary and in fact it was the most exciting thing and just the future, in my view. So that's kind of what I've been doing for the last, What is it? 15 years? Yeah.
Paul: That's a lovely notion, Claire, the idea that you could make a big difference. I'm back in this country and I, of course, think that you have, and the list of commissioned works, the works that you have commissioned and also premiered. Just kind of gladdens the heart. It's a really amazing statement about what it is to be a musician today and what it can mean, rather than treating it as a heritage art form. But I'd be really interested in your process and whether it changes from composer to composer.
Claire: Yeah, it has to. I think over the years, you learn things from experience. But at the end of the day, what I really have taken away from those years of experiences is that composers are people and they’re creative people. And so there's not a way that works with every single composer in terms of how they want to do it and how it works for them. Because really what I'm doing in commissioning them and also workshopping a piece with them, whether it be as a soloist or with Ensemble Offspring is really setting them up to write the most idiomatic piece that they can through the information that we can give them as instrumentalists who know a lot about the technical side of our instruments. But what I really don't ever want to do is, I guess place too much of a box on their aesthetic direction. And I think it's really important not to be too prescriptive aesthetically because they have to express what they need to express. So it is quite a fine line when you're giving feedback in real time between technical feedback and aesthetic feedback. And yes, we can give comments about structural decisions or whatever, but they still have to understand, I guess, at that level what has to happen with the music. And the thing is, it is just so different with everyone. And there might be some composers that I know by now that they really need like a strong deadline to be sure that they get the piece to us before the concert, for example. And then there are other composers that I know don't really work well with that. The pressure of that doesn't make them create their best work. So I'll just lay off them a bit and be a bit more flexible with the outcome. So it's very much a two way street and I try to make it all about them and not all about me or us. And very much like where, what we have to give them is pretty much anything that they need not the other way around.
Paul: So tell us about Offspring, the name first, but then also what was in your mind when you said, okay, I'm going to found this organization. And what were your ambitions for it?
Claire: Well, that's another little quick little story related to when I was at the Con. So the background is that we were Roger Woodward’s Spring Ensemble. We were called, in the Sydney Spring Festival back in the day, where Trish Ludgate was actually involved, who's on our board now and works at Musica Viva. And so she was involved back in the day, very long time ago, 25 years ago and the Spring Festival wrapped up after a few years. And Roger wasn't so keen on us retaining that name because I guess if the whole thing that his festival was called the Spring Festival. And so we decided that we would change our name to Ensemble Offspring. So we were the offspring of the Spring Festival. But funnily enough, as we've all gotten older and had our own children and all the rest of it and also this idea that we're creating new music and something that's quite fertile, it is quite a fitting title, I think in a way for a lot of the things that we do. I actually left Australia when Ensemble Offspring had already been formed and Damien Ricketson took care of it for that seven years while I was in Holland and he did an amazing job of just keeping the group going on project funding here and there, little projects just bubbling along. Many groups like ours just wrap up after a few years. Most of the musicians will tend to go overseas for a while and with us we had enough people always staying in Sydney that we could just keep going. So Jason Noble, Veronique Serret and Damien, as I said, just, just kept the whole thing bubbling along. And then when I came back from Holland, I said, do you want a hand, mate? You know, I knew that I wanted to start my own group, but that was my group too. I was involved in the first concert and I'd stayed very involved and I had still played in concerts when I lived overseas. So I just thought, why would I start something new when this amazing thing exists and Damien has done such a great job. So I just helped build the company at that point. And in a way the rest is history. I mean he stepped down five years ago because he wanted to focus more on his job at the Con and his composition career. And that was all very kind of agreeable terms that he left on and we're still very good friends. And it's been confronting, hard, challenging but also really lovely having the kind of artistic direction to myself in the last five years.
Paul: It's hilarious. I think if you had put $100,000 down on the table of a branding person, they couldn't have come up with a better name. Part of the, of course, and the thing that really interests me that you're doing - and it's just such brilliant and valuable work. And I'm glad that Musica Viva is going to be of some assistance to you going forward is Hatched. So, I'd love you to talk a little bit about that as to what it is and also where that came from.
Claire: Well, Damian and I had the idea, about probably almost 10 years ago now, to start an academy because we didn't have an arm of our organization where we officially were sort of engaging with emerging composers and musicians. And the original idea was that Hatched Academy would reflect our roles. So me as a performer and him as a composer. So we each in the very first year mentored Jeremy Rose who was a composer in that year and Callen Guiffre who was a trumpet player and we mentored them in that first year with our hats on as a composer mentor and a performer mentor. And since then, of course, the programs morphed and developed and gotten bigger. So now we have a summer school for composers, which is what Musica Viva is getting on board with, which is amazing. And we have six composers from around Australia who come to Sydney for a week with a mentor. We've had Kate Neil for the last few years, which has been great. And we work with them because what we have heard from composers, we always get feedback every year and we try and change and take it on board very seriously, and what they're always asking for is an ensemble of our caliber to workshop their music and that's really what they want more than anything. So we do spend our time primarily on that and then we have some industry sessions and try and help them with connections and, and ways to sort of get their music out there as well.
Paul: Well, you're talking, I suppose, about the technical challenges of writing for these instruments and we touched on this a little while ago. So perhaps this is a good jumping off point for you to talk a little bit about some of those technical, and acquisitions, that you had to kind of go through as a pianist turned percussionist because I actually, I look at percussion with awe, it just seems to me so difficult. But, I know every instrument has its difficulties, but perhaps you could talk a little bit about that.
Claire: Well, funnily enough Paul, I'm actually writing a - I'm calling it the ‘Australian Marimba Composition Kit’ at the moment because the marimba is an instrument especially, that composers have no idea how to write for. Because if you think about those orchestral books that composers tend to, sort of, composition teachers might reference in their lessons, they are generally orchestral instruments. So I know as well, composers struggle with guitar and it could be for that reason that they don't often get taught how to do it from an early stage, whereas you might sort of know how to write for the harp because at least it's in the orchestral book. So even things like range are very difficult because the marimba comes in three or four different ranges. So that has to be quite a personal thing. So my book is how to write for the five octave marimba, which is the biggest marimba that I have and play. And the reason why I feel the need to write this book, it’s supported by the Australia Council, they gave me a grant and I'm going to be doing videos as well to sort of physically show things and it's just such a big instrument. And I think what people don't realise, because it looks like the piano in relation to the keyboard, the layout is the same. But what composers don't tend to take into account is the sheer physical distance that we have to sort of, yeah, move around on our instrument. And so what I'm really focusing on is things, things like the anchor concept where physically you're anchored at all points in time. So that when you're sort of moving around, say with the other hand, you have this physical anchor point because we can't actually see the instrument all at once either. So if you're jumping from high to low, a lot of it's just chance that you just hope that you're going to play the right notes, which means that accuracy on the marimba is really tough. And I, I just got really sick at some point last year in Covid we're working with, I won't name any names, but some students from various institutions around the country. And they were sending me these parts that were like, basically for two players, really, and then obviously written them on the piano in the most part, which is what people do tend to do. And I thought I have to come up with a way to easily explain to people why these things aren't possible, because it is quite hard to articulate. So I've been really thinking a lot about it over the last few months and now is the time that I'm sort of writing it all down and preparing my videos and I'm not sure. I think it might be a lifelong kind of thing working it out because I'm sure that I'll have feedback and composers will say, ‘but I still don't understand’. But I'm trying at least because no one's really done it in the. whole world in depth. So hopefully this is going to make my life easier into the future.
Paul: Conversations you no longer need to have with young composers
Claire: Exactly, because I’ll say, read this, watch this.
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Paul: This is something that struck me this morning as I was thinking about our conversation upcoming. Do percussionists look at other musicians and their sense of rhythm askance, or is there something that's so refined and defined in percussionist sense of rhythm versus other instrumentalists?
Claire: That's a good question. Probably there is, I think the reason why a lot of percussionists like playing in percussion ensembles, for example, is for that reason that you're playing with other people who are of the same level of your rhythmic sort of capabilities and conceptualisation. And I did that a lot. When I lived in Holland, I played with percussion group, the Hague, almost full time for several years and I had my own percussion duo. And the standard that we could get to, in relation to rhythmic precision was so satisfying. Like I loved it, but it came a point where I was frustrated with the tone, color limitations and the sameness of all the different options. I got bored with myself basically. And so this idea of working with other instrumentalists to me was much more enticing and exciting. And so the great thing about Ensemble Offspring is that those musicians specialise in contemporary music where you do normally need to have a higher sort of rhythmic precision level, I guess, than classical music. And they have that, in the most part. So they're amazing, all of them actually. And even the string players, who are usually the ones who find rhythm the more challenging. And so I don't have any issue. But that said, there's one person who I played with a lot when I was in Europe who really stands out as being the person with the best rhythm I've ever played with. And that's Nicolas Hodges who is a pianist.
Paul: He's amazing.
Claire: Yeah, and so I had the fabulous opportunity of playing Harrison Birtwistle: The Axe Manual with him in the year that Birtwistle was turning, god, how old is he now? It must have been his 70th year.
Paul: It would be 70.
Claire: Yeah. And we toured it all around Europe, we played at Huddersfield, we played all over and we didn't just play that piece, but that was one of the main pieces and it's a very detailed piece rhythmically and also hearing him play. I was always really challenged when I played with Nick and, rhythmically especially, and that doesn't happen with many people. So that's always kind of the high point, I guess, that I would love to play with him again.
Paul: Well, what are the projects that are exciting you at the moment? The things upcoming? And the ideas, the what ifs, were I able to do this? What are some of those things?
Claire: Yeah, well, Ensemble Offspring, obviously, we're doing our planning for next year. And for me, the exciting thing is always the commissions and the new works, but also playing maybe, pieces that we haven't played before. But we're planning, fingers crossed, a festival next year if we can organize the funding. And also we get to develop Cathy Milliken's opera with Sydney Chamber Opera that's been in the works for a long time. So next year's more of a development year on that, which should be great. Also, we want to celebrate Xenakis’ birth year (31: 45), next year, so we've got a few projects in the planning for tha t, which I can't talk about yet, but hopefully they'll come to fruition. And also I'm really working hard at the moment, I'm commissioning a couple of female composers to write concertos because I feel quite strongly that we need more Australian female percussion concertos. We only, we have Elena Kats-Chernin’s, Golden Kitsch that she wrote for me, but it was sort of on the back of, in the last year and a half, I've been commissioning female composers to write me solo pieces and I'm about to launch that and go on tour, touring around conservatoriums around Australia, presenting that, and they're meant to be pieces for tertiary students so that they can really bring into their repertoire, pieces by living female Australian composers. I just think it's so important if we're going to play an instrument that is as new as percussion, there is no excuse for not trying to play 50/50 repertoire in recitals. So I'm on my high horse about that at the moment and I'm probably not going to shut up until it's done.
Paul: Well Claire, stay on that high horse. It's inspiring to hear you as a musician, it's inspiring to hear you as an artist and hearing about your plans and I'm glad that we have you in Australia and can continue to talk to you and hatch up things together. So Clare Edwards, what a delight.
Claire: Thanks Paul, thank you for having me.