5 Minutes with Composer Anne Cawrse

27 Jun 2023
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by Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
5 Minutes with Composer Anne Cawrse

We spoke to Anne Cawrse about the new work she wrote for our upcoming concert Symphony Series 4 – Embrace. Read on to discover her creative process, her inspiration behind the work, what you can expect from the piece and more!

How did this world premiere come about? Did ASO commission you?
In 2020 I wrote Claire three short pieces for solo marimba, Dance Vignettes, for her Rhythms of Change project (a commissioning and recording project featuring new works for vibes and marimba composed by Australian female composers). I found that the ideas for these pieces came quite easily, and Claire was delighted with them. Following that, we were keen to seek out an opportunity to work together on a larger project. We tried a few unsuccessful pathways before the ASO showed interest in a Marimba Concerto – this was in the middle of 2021. After the ASO committed to the commission, I was awarded a Project Grant from Arts SA which provided further financial assistance to help create the piece.

When you were writing the new work, did you know Claire Edwardes would be the soloist?  And have you talked with Claire about the piece?
Claire and I approached the ASO together with our idea for the concerto, so I always knew I would be writing for her. Probably the greatest benefit of this was that I knew who to bug when I had questions about how to approach the solo part! Claire knows the marimba inside and out and is passionate about helping composers understand it better and therefore write for it better. I had written for marimba several times before, and so thought I had a pretty good handle on how to approach the instrument technically. Regular chats with Claire revealed many gaps in my understanding, and her advice was invaluable in making sure that the solo part falls under the mallets appropriately, plays to the instrument’s strengths, and is appropriately virtuosic.

It also helps that she’s quite a wizard on the instrument, and a genuinely wonderful and vibrant woman and good friend. Throughout the process, she has answered my MANY questions with zero complaints, and gently suggested when and where I could make things better. She has been excited about this since before a note was written, which is a wonderful boost for a composer to know that someone else is looking forward to seeing what it is you create.

Does it make any difference to you when you compose a new orchestral work if you know who the soloist will be?
Yes and no. Fundamentally, the music must work for the instrument more so than the player, as ideally other soloists will eventually play the piece. But when you know who will be playing it first- especially when you have a preexisting relationship with that person– it is quite rewarding to let that relationship guide the creation and direction of the piece in some way. It’s like you’re letting the performer help decide some of your musical choices; composers have to make a lot of choices, so having some help with this isn’t a terrible thing! The way this might play out could be through an extra-musical theme that you both connect with, or making it a priority to engage with the instrument in a way that enables the soloist to show off the things that they really enjoy playing, or the aspects of their instrument that they love the most. A good example in this concerto is that Claire really loves the low register of the 5-octave marimba, and so I aimed to make a real feature of that particular sonority in my piece.

What were the inspirations behind it, and does it explore particular themes and ideas?
I regularly reach for text or visual art when seeking inspiration for instrumental works. My initial inspiration for Dare to Declare was the incredible work of Clarice Beckett which I became aware of thanks to the AGSA’s exhibition ‘The Present Moment’ in 2021. From this starting point, I decided I wanted to use the work of three female Australian artists as springboards for my music, and that each movement would respond to a different art form. My eventual choices were Oodgeroo Noonuccal (poetry), Clarice Beckett (visual art) and Peggy Glanville-Hicks (music). The choice of Glanville-Hicks seemed especially pertinent as I was the recipient of a Prelude Composer’s Residency (administered by the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Composers House Trust) in 2022 and much of this work was written during that residency.

Each of these artists had to overcome prejudices and challenges in order to pursue their art and to have it recognised. ‘Dare to Declare’ from Nicola Slee’s short but powerful poem articulated for me the way Oodgeroo, Clarice and Peggy all proudly and fearlessly declared their truth through their representative art forms, regardless of setbacks and the indifference of others. As well as being a great showcase for the marimba and a fascinating musical journey for the orchestra, I hope the concerto reaffirms the artistic voices of Oodgeroo, Clarice and Peggy, and draws attention to their substantial and unique contributions to Australia’s artistic heritage.

Can you tell us a bit about the musical style of the piece?
Dare to Declare manages to traverse many of my favourite musical idioms; there are lyrical melodic lines, modal and extended harmonies, irregular meters, and orchestration that I hope results in some really beautiful, delicate and nuanced textures. I had a lot of fun finding ways to position the marimba within a musical framework that was very faithful to my individual style and voice.

The first movement makes a feature of the marimba in a trio with the clarinet and harp, a little like the concertino in a Concerto Grosso. I set the opening stanza of Oodgeroo’s poem ‘The Past’ to music, and then used this song in the opening and closing sections of the movement. The middle section is more harmonic and texturally driven, though there are still passages which originated as melodies composed to Oodgeroo’s words. I wanted the music to be lyrical, nostalgic, earthy and strong.

The second movement is all about harmony; I wanted to convey the misty, foggy visual landscape of Clarice’s paintings by using lots of rich, warm, blended chords. Much of the harmonic language here came from combining ‘black’ and ‘white’ notes which is easy to do on the marimba due to the placement of the keys (imagine playing a large piano with one hand on white keys and the other on black). I utilised a lot of rolled chords on the marimba, combined with intricate string and wind textures to evoke the blurred images and colours of sunset and sunrise, sea and sand.

The third movement is for the most part unabashedly joyous and effervescent. Before I wrote it, I conducted an inventory of Peggy’s musical works and noted down the elements I saw reoccurring throughout her pieces. From here I composed a series of melodic themes that, although my own, were strongly influenced by Peggy’s style. The opening theme is a proud and energetic modal melody set in an irregular meter. The music modulates quickly and unexpectedly, with lots of rhythmic play, orchestral interjections, and some fun glissandi on the marimba. Overall, the movement is structured in an arch form; the front half leads us into slightly slower and more sombre territory, before wheeling its way back through the faster themes in reverse order- we hear the same music, but presented in different and increasingly brash and audacious ways. I had a lot of fun orchestrating this movement, and hope that it is as feisty as I believe Peggy was!

Did it take long to compose?
I started writing the concerto in August 2022, beginning with the second movement Clarice. The third movement Peggy came next, followed by the opening movement Oodgeroo. I was confident that I had most of it in place in orchestral form by early February 2023, and the editing and finishing off was completed by April 2023. It was my primary project for a good six months, and then took another 6-8 weeks to finish off and get ready for performance.

In addition to this, there was a lot of thinking, research, and repertoire listening that occurred before I started writing the notes. I find that it is really important to work out what problem I’m trying to solve and what I’m trying to say in a piece of music. This part of the process is lighter than the ‘sit down and write’ part, but it still takes time.

Did it flow freely when you sat down to compose it, or did it present challenges?
Parts flowed freely, and other parts took much longer. Each movement has its own story really! The ideas for the third movement came very easily but were all jumbled up initially. It took time to get them in the right order and to get the proportions correct. A lot of the second movement happened quite easily too, but I had too many ideas and it came out much too long. It felt like I spent just as long working out what to cut as I had spent writing it in the first place. Quite possibly I have another piece in the leftovers! I also had to reinvent the solo part for large sections of the middle movement as Claire pointed out that I was playing too safe with the marimba and not pushing it far enough into soloistic/virtuosic territory. The first movement was the last one I composed. The song aspect came quite easily, but it did take a while to convince myself that the tone was right and that the ideas worked. It felt important to get the start right- this is the first bit of music anyone hears, after all. Knowing what was to come helped me make the decisions, but it also set up expectations, and I found that I needed to let my ideas sit and marinate for a while before I was certain of them. The hardest bit to write of the whole concerto was the middle section of the first movement. This was the very last bit that I composed. It went through numerous discarded drafts, and it took ages for me to be convinced that I had what I wanted and what the piece needed.

How do you feel about composing a new work, for a female musician being conducted by a female composer with the world premiere in your hometown?
It sounds pretty perfect to me! I hold Claire in the highest regard, and would not have wanted anyone else helping me through the composition process for a piece like this. Claire is also passionate about women in music (she is the Australian Keychange ambassador) and has commissioned and championed many works by female composers. Elena is highly regarded as a conductor and has worked with the ASO before, and I can’t wait to see what she brings out of my piece and the orchestra. And while I’d welcome a performance of Dare to Declare by any orchestra anywhere in the world, it does feel appropriate to have the premiere here in Adelaide by my hometown orchestra. Many of the players know me and know my music, and it is an incredible thing to feel supported and connected to a very large ensemble like an orchestra. As an added bonus, they’re really very, very good 🙂

Do you plan to be at rehearsals?
Absolutely. There will no doubt be questions asked, and who better to ask than the composer, seeing as they can be present?! A premiere requires a lot of work by all the participants (players, conductor, composer) as there is no prior recording or performance to base your decisions on; you are often working as a team to make the final choices in shaping the music. A piece is never really finished until it’s had its premiere, and the rehearsal process is an important part of that first airing. In a way, the ink isn’t dry and a composer might make changes after they hear the music for the first time. The nature of orchestral rehearsal is such that you have to be extremely careful with what you choose to change as time is precious and limited. But there are some things you can do- a subtle change in tempo, an increase in the length of a breath or rest, a shift in balance or orchestration- that can make a huge difference to the work.

Will you have butterflies on opening night?
Probably, I think that’s unavoidable. When you work hard for a long time to create something and then have no control over the final presentation… that’s a definite recipe for butterflies! But I expect that they’ll be somewhat contained because I know the piece is in the safest of hands.

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