NEWS

In Focus: Claire Edwardes OAM

Federal Office AMEB

A Champion of Percussion and New Music

Acclaimed percussionist Claire Edwardes, a four-time APRA Art Music Luminary Award winner and recent OAM recipient, seamlessly blends artistry and advocacy. From captivating audiences on ABC's Play School to gracing the Sydney Opera House stage, her passion lies in promoting new music. Collaborations are central to her practice.

As Artistic Director of Ensemble Offspring, she champions Australian composers and performers, commissioning over 300 new works. A dedicated advocate for gender equity, Claire's "Rhythms of Change" empowers young female composers, and her leadership earned her the 2023 Australian Women in Music Creative Leadership Award.

With a career spanning performance, commissioning, and education, Claire is a true force in the Australian and international new music scene.

Key themes: career highlights,  gender equity in classical music, engaging audiences, expanding musical practice.

What first attracted you to music and percussion, and how has your practice evolved across your career?

I came to music through the piano at five. I initially began playing the piano whilst living in country Victoria to be like an older girl from school whom I admired. Despite that being the initial reason for starting my music journey, even from the very start, I had an affinity with the piano and classical music, and I always loved practising (well, mostly, always). I played the piano till I was about 20, and in the meantime, I learnt the flute (AMEB Grade 6) and taught myself percussion, playing in the Arts Unit wind bands during high school. I loved the social aspect of playing percussion. When it came time to decide what I wanted to do when I graduated from high school, I thought I'd give percussion a go at the Sydney Conservatorium despite only ever having had a handful of lessons. It was a risky move, but I thrive on risk, and, on reflection, it was the right move for me!

You have worked with various orchestras and composers. What have been your top three experiences to date? 

My top concerto soloist experience was the very first time I performed with a symphony orchestra for the Young Performers Awards Finals in 1999. It was broadcast live on ABC with Markus Stenz and the MSO. I was playing the Schwantner Percussion Concerto. Somehow, I managed not to let my nerves get the better of me, and I won (much to my surprise).

Another great memory is playing the Unsuk Chin Double Concerto in the famous Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Walking down those steep red stairs at the back of the stage was almost dreamlike. I still can't quite believe I've performed as a soloist in that hallowed hall!

Finally, and more recently in 2023, I got to perform Anne Cawrse's new marimba concerto that she wrote for me entitled, Dare to Declare, at the Adelaide Town Hall with a trio of female leads - myself, Anne as the composer and Swiss/Australian conductor Elena Schwarz - we were the female dream team, and the whole experience was perfect!

Music Director of Ensemble Offspring, can you describe some of your initiatives promoting gender equity and diversity in classical music?

It was relatively recently that we at Ensemble Offspring became aware of gender equity in our specific genre of new music and classical music more broadly. We all grew up playing all the classics by 'dead white men' (as I like to call them). Even for us, it took a colleague pointing out our lack of female representation and then a social and cultural shift subsequently spread headed by us to make this much-needed change.

Around 2015, Damien Ricketson and I decided to make our entire 2017 Ensemble Offspring season female-identifying composers only. To focus on their phenomenal repertoire and normalise the situation. People would ask, "What does music by female composers sound like?" and I'd say, "No different to other music. Good music is good music". We must be focused and committed to making conscious changes to previous norms, which is why quotas are important at times like this.

How do you ensure a range of composers and artists are represented in your programming choices?

I use quotas and remind myself to analyse a program's makeup when I have collated it, and then often, I will switch out pieces by male composers with their female counterparts if the program doesn’t look very equal. It's easy for us now, as we have SO much repertoire by female-identifying composers. For people who have never programmed in this way, it's an opportunity to research and arm themselves with new ideas, composers, and repertoire. Start small, even if it is with one female composer in your program, and grow it from there. I have a great list of some of my favourite female composers on my website, which is an excellent starting point for those wanting to get to know a whole raft of incredible composers and music.

What experiences have shaped your perspective on the importance of gender equality and diversity in classical music? Do you bring these to your role as Artistic Director of Ensemble Offspring?

Yes, I absolutely think equality and championing underrepresented voices is super important in the classical music scene at large. For so many years, female composers were ignored, extinguished, not given opportunities, and hidden. Female composers have always been there, as we are discovering now, but it wasn't necessarily socially acceptable for them to be composers. Now is our time to reverse these old norms, and that's very exciting because now we can bring new awareness to audiences, enact cultural change and act consciously to support equality.

Can you tell us about your favourite "unexpected places" to perform and what surprises you have learned from your audiences in these spaces?

At Ensemble Offspring, we love performing in unusual venues and bringing new audiences to new music. We have performed in tiny parks in Erskineville, at the hulking turbine hall of Casula Powerhouse, on Goat Island (Me Mel) in Sydney Harbour and even on a barge on a canal (with the audience listening in on headphones). These are always fun opportunities to break out of concert hall norms for audiences, but when you play instrumental chamber music, a 'chamber' or a bespoke concert hall is always the most satisfying place to play from a musical perspective.

From your experience and expertise, what has been fundamental in breaking down barriers between Art, Music and audiences?

I like to chat a lot at our concerts and bring people into our world. Considering many people may have never seen most percussion instruments before. I like to give audiences background about the instruments so that they feel more connected to what I am playing. I am really big on breaking down that fourth wall, like being a game show host in my concerts. Doing this allows our audience to feel less confronted by unfamiliar sounds and removes the pressure to connect with the music cerebrally. Hopefully, that creates enough space for our audience to be comfortable listening actively and open to what we at Ensemble Offspring have to offer.

Do you have any advice for musicians looking to expand their practice?

I recommend that all young musicians go on the internet and research female composers who have written for their instruments. Or, chat with their teacher and get them curious as well. Change begins with curiosity. I urge all musicians to find new repertoire proactively and not just play the classics. The classics are essential for our technical and conceptual understanding. However, if we only look to the past for repertoire, nothing changes. If we don't challenge our ears and minds, we quickly become stunted musically and as people, and no one wants that!

Photo credit: Cole Bennetts

A powerful woman sits confidently on a chair, leaning forward, arms crossed over and holding a tambourine.
With a career spanning performance, commissioning, and education, Claire Edwardes is a true force in the new music scene.
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