'I found myself seeking out the new, the exciting, the different': An interview with Claire Edwardes from Ensemble Offspring

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On March 21, Kupka's Piano will be joined by Sydney's Ensemble Offspring for a concert exploring the mechanical and organical in new music (tickets available here). KP flautist Hannah caught up with one of EO's artistic directors and percussionist Claire Edwardes to talk about their origins, their busy touring schedule, and passing on acquired knowledge to the next generation.

Hannah Reardon-Smith: Ensemble Offspring has been a Sydney fixture for almost twenty years now! Kupka's Piano is just entering our third year. Can you tell us a little about how and why you formed, and what has kept the group ticking for so long?

Claire Edwardes: We formed the group as the Spring Ensemble to showcase the works of then young student composers Damien Ricketson and Matthew Shlomowitz. We were just a group of 2nd and 3rd year Sydney Conservatorium students trying to do something different and we were lucky enough to be invited by Roger Woodward to perform as part of the Sydney Spring Festival which was indeed an exciting start to the journey. Hmm - what has kept us ticking for so long - I think for me personally it is just a deep passion for what we do - this strange and intangible thing we call "new" music - working with composers (i.e. real human beings) - working with wonderful musicians (eg. Jason Noble and Lamorna Nightingale who are an inspiration as people and musicians) and being able to share my vision in programs that take the audience to a wonderful new place that they may have never been before.

HRS: Like us, EO has a very close working relationship with composers - Damien Ricketson is your co-artistic director, and Matthew Shlomowitz was also involved from the beginning. How do you work with these composers throughout the creative process?

CE: Since the early days as the Spring Ensemble we have kept the work of Damien and Matt at the centre of our programming without it being any sort of forced content. Although the group did form to perform their works, Damien especially has always been very staunch about the fact that we are certainly not only in existence to perform the works of these two composers, which has meant that our repertoire choices over the years have been very eclectic. We as musicians really relish our relationships with Damien and Matt as well as the other composers we collaborate with regularly - having that tacit understanding and not needing to waste time with too many niceties can really not be underestimated in my opinion!

HRS: EO stands apart from other new music groups in Australia in that it doesn't restrict itself to a single style or musical aesthetic. How do you find and decide on repertoire for the group?

CE: We define our repertoire choices purely through innovation - this often means brand new works but it could also have been innovative when it was written and still sound new and innovative to the modern ear (such as Stockhausen's Kontakte and Glass's Music in Similar Motion) - that said we don't tend to go back before around 1960 and we also don't spend very long back there - when we program those older works it is usually to give a context to the new stuff - after all what we are truly passionate about is working with living composers and trying new things!

HRS: How do you balance artistic issues against practicalities when EO is touring so often?

CE: Starting out as an almost London Sinfonietta size, EO has gradually turned into a tight core of chamber musicians over the years and this has in part been touring and funding related. Obviously touring is expensive and we have developed our smaller combo repertoire over the years to service for example our European tour at the end of 2013 where we took just 4 musicians. This is practical, but for me also an artistic decision as I personally really get a lot out of working with just a few musicians who have a very close musical relationship rather than in larger groups where a conductor is necessary. This way I feel we all have more artistic input, awareness and we are in a position to mould the music and the program.

HRS: What is your most "out there" new music gigging experience? Surely after 20 years you've clocked up a kooky story or two!

CE: Of course there are many but strangely enough what always comes to mind is an EO gig many years ago (when we were probably still called the Spring Ensemble actually) where I had to hang these wet towels off a boom stand to capture the sound of dripping water - but anyone who has gotten a towel soaking wet will know how heavy they are and of course it kept crashing the cymbal stand to the ground and we ended up with water absolutely all over the floor of the Eugene Goossens Hall. Other memorable moments are playing the thongaphone in the rain (on a musical ship) with Sarah Blasko and a small group of musos in Cooktown for Queensland Music Festival, performing solo on scaffolding over Amsterdam's most famous canal the Prinsengracht with flames lapping at me from either side, and of course the good old super ball falls off the stick and spends half the piece bouncing about the stage whilst everyone is still attempting to concentrate on the music, trick!

HRS: We're extremely excited to have the opportunity to perform with Ensemble Offspring in our upcoming concert. EO has also just begun a mentoring program - "Hatched" - in which you will be nurturing performers and composers from the up-and-coming generation. What interests you most about working with younger/emerging musicians? What is EO's vision for the next generation of new music afficionados?

CE: Obviously we are not getting any younger and I guess we just feel that it is time to start giving back to the younger generation in terms of the years of experience we have clocked up thus far. In working with Jeremy Rose and Callum G'Froerer (who are both in their twenties just like the Kupka's crew) we hope to impart both our vast administrative experience (the highs as well as the lows) as well as programming concepts and of course musical insights. Jeremy will be writing new works for Callum (trumpet) and ourselves and as both of them come from a jazz background we actually hope to learn a bit from them too over the course of the year. 2014 being our inaugural year we are all just trying to stay really open about what it will be - needless to say we are all really looking forward to it immensely.

HRS: I think for a lot of musicians there is a process of discovery when it comes to playing new music, which in turn sparks a love of new sounds that they want to pass on to both their audience and to other musicians. Speaking more personally, was there a piece that for you made you certain that new music was your thing?

CE: I can't recall a specific piece (although it may have been George Crumb's Madrigals now I think about it) but I do distinctly remember, about the time that the Spring Ensemble formed, starting to choose my solo repertoire in a much more open minded fashion. I championed Hans Wener Henze's Five Scenes from the Snow Country in our concert practise classes and found myself seeking out the new, the exciting, the different - repertoire that the other students and even my teacher had never heard of...some things never change!

HRS: Percussionists play such a wide variety of instruments. What will we be seeing you play in our March concert?

CE: As this is one of our touring shows we have kept the percussion side of things minimal - that said we will still feature the good old vibraphone alongside a lovely set of pitched woodblocks (which is a rather unusual phenomenon) and in the Shlomowitz some weird and wacky 'instruments' alongside theatrical choreography for all three of us.

HRS: I'm sure you've got a super busy year ahead! What upcoming projects are you most excited about, both in EO and as a soloist?

CE: Ensemble Offspring has a busy year ahead including exciting collaborations with Jon Rose and Speak Percussion (Ghan Tracks), hard hitting chamber classics in Plekto (which we will also be performing in Brisbane on 11th July) and also Damien Ricketson's amazing showcase for dancers and musicians called The Secret Noise. I am particularly excited that for the next two years I get to focus on myself as a soloist once again as a result of receiving an Australia Council Fellowship. This means that I am planning many and various collaborations outside of Ensemble Offspring including a collaboration with Brisbane based guitarist Karin Schaupp, a brand new children's show and a solo percussion project with electronics featuring a new commission by Marcus Whale and Tom Smith.

Kupka's Piano and Ensemble Offspring present The Machine and the Rank Weeds, the first of KP's four-concert series 'Il faut être', at 7.30pm, Friday 21 March, at the Judith Wright Centre. Tickets are available here.