Ross Edwards (b 1943)
Graeme Skinner
And curator of Australharmony

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Ross Edwards (photo: Bridget Elliott)

In 2011, Richard Toop asked me, on behalf of the publisher, to “revise and update”, the Grove Music Online entry for Australian composer Ross Edwards (photographed above by Bridget Elliott).

Having recently enjoyed the task of writing a booklet essay for an album of Ross’s solo concertos for ABC Classics, I welcomed Richard’s request. Unfortunately, my attempts at the “revision” part of the process were judged unacceptably interventionist by the editors, and the version published online in November 2011 was, to my mind, unsatisfactory. (Richard and I also had a similar problem with a second entry.)

Ever since, I have wanted to published my version. And now, with Ross’s encouragement (and a few further small updates to bring his career up to 2014), here it is:

Edwards, Ross (b Sydney, 23 Dec 1943). Australian composer. After attending Sydney Conservatorium, he enrolled at the University of Sydney, but completed only one year of a degree course before joining the ABC’s despatch department, his aim to earn money to go abroad. Meanwhile, he took composition lessons privately with Richard Meale, and informally as an assistant to Peter Sculthorpe (1964-65), and composed a second wind quintet (later withdrawn) that was accepted for performance at the 1966 ISCM Festival in Stockholm. That year he put his travel plans on hold and accepted a scholarship to the University of Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium, specifically to study with its visiting composer that year, Peter Maxwell Davies. He then stayed on to work with Sandor Veress in 1967, and Jindrich Feld in 1968, and to complete his degree. Graduating with First Class Honours, he embarked on post-graduate studies under the supervision of Richard Meale, who had joined the staff of the Elder Conservatorium. The first of two early string quartets composed about this time (both later withdrawn) was an Australian representative at the Basel ISCM Festival in 1970.

Still characterising 1960s Australia as a ‘cultural desert’, he moved to London for further studies with Davies in 1969-70, completing his M.Mus. degree externally, and also spent a period living in the country close to the small Australian enclave (Boyd, Bauld, Wesley-Smith) in Wilfrid Mellers’s music department at York University. His mother’s terminal illness brought him back to Australia in 1972. From 1973 he taught as a Senior Tutor at the University of Sydney (taking out its D.Mus in 1991) and was later appointed to a lectureship at the Sydney Conservatorium. Since July 1980 he has chiefly been a freelance composer, working during the 1980s on commissions from chamber and new music ensembles, and increasingly into the 1990s for the Australian state symphony orchestras. He was the Australian Council of Arts Don Banks Fellow (1989–90), and twice one of its senior creative arts fellows (1990-93 and 1995-7).

Edwards’s early fascination with European post-Webern atonalism reached its apogee during his second period studying with Davies, in the manically fragmented Monos II, premiered by pianist Roger Woodward in Queen Elizabeth Hall London in 1971, and the related piano concerto Choros (later withdrawn). He later described the process of composing these works as ‘neurotic’ and ultimately ‘self-destructive’. They brought on a stylistic crisis and a period of silence, out of which he gradually crafted a more lyrical, independent language, through listening to nature, and aimed at effective communication with the listener. First evidence of his new synthesis came in the ritualistic Antifon (1973) (later renamed Eternity), the John Bishop Commission for the 1974 Adelaide Festival, whose radical simplicity divided audience reactions. Its particular relevance to his personal stylistic crisis was manifest in the text: ‘Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’. This period is eloquently documented in Edwards’s own writings, though one commentator, Robbie, has questioned Edwards’s characterisation of the process as a ‘chrysalis’-like emergence of his new more tonal language out of an atonal/modernist husk.

Time spent living in the bush at Pearl Beach, north of Sydney, was crucial to the emergence, of two contrasted personal idioms, or ‘styles’. The first was characterized by a mood of abstracted serenity and meditation, originally influenced by the static patterns and drones of the Asian and Australian Indigenous musics, also being explored by other Australian composers at the time. It found its purest form in the meditative and luminous orchestral score, Mountain Village in a Clearing Mist (1973), and in The Hermit of the Green Light (1979), and was later developed more formally in plainsong-based and ritual-influenced works, notably in the first symphony, ‘Da pacem Domine’ (1990-91), and Veni Creator Spiritus (1993). The second ‘style’ is vibrant, rhythmically energetic, and more tonally focussed, often drawing rhythmic and to a lesser extent pitch materials from natural bush patterns found in frog, bird and insect choruses. It found early expression in Laikan (1979), composed for the Fires of London, the title a gothic word Edwards found in Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, where it is defined as ‘leaping, and […] readily extended, as it has been, to the flickering of flames, rhythmical movement and, ultimately, dance’ (Edwards). But the idiom was more fully exemplified in the Maninyas series (1981-8), and hence what Edwards came to call his ‘Maninya’ style, named after a set of nonsense syllables and which he observed ‘acquired the meaning of dance-chant’. In the nexus between these two styles he has evolved what he describes as ‘a highly subjective method of topographical symbolism’ articulated through a compositional process that has ‘come to represent a ritualistic search for the life force underlying our sterile, material society’.

Edwards’s retiring, and somewhat unworldly personal manner belies his fierce individualism. The London reviewer Paul Griffiths, who in the early 1980s saw the trend Australian music generally in the early 1980s as tonally recidivist (a trend notable at the time also in the work of Meale, Graeme Koehne, Carl Vine, Nigel Westlake, and to a lesser extent Sculthorpe), famously dismissed Edwards’s widely-played post-minimalist Piano Concerto (1982) as ‘music that gives A-major a bad name’. But the aesthetic current proved to be with Edwards, who went on to produce a far more compelling realisation of his aesthetic in the Maninyas Violin Concerto (1988). Alternatively austerely meditative, and buoyantly vibrant, his personal style is immediately recognisable, perhaps even more so than that of his close friend and former teacher Sculthorpe. It has been one of the most convincing voices in Australian music in the decades either side of the millennium, and its development is ongoing, especially in the growing body of solo concertos.

By 2007, in the Clarinet Concerto, he had developed a musical language suffused with what he has described as ‘universal’ markers, including, along with earlier Australian and Asian references, a reassimilation of European ritual plainsongs, medieval scales, canons and hockets. He described its closing dance-chant as an attempt to ‘suspend linear time and invoke present-centred consciousness, an obsessive, kaleidoscopic interplay of symbolically charged fragments – a sort of Australian dervish dance’. In the shakuhachi concerto, The Heart of Night (2004), he conceived of the work as entering into an intuitive, nocturnal state of consciousness ‘in which linear, or clock time is suspended and listeners are invited to turn their attention inwards in present-centred contemplation’.

In recent years, he has developed many fruitful collaborations, notably with oboist Diana Doherty, shakuhachi player Riley Lee, choreographer Stanton Welch, astronomer Fred Watson, didjeridu player William Barton and saxophonist Amy Dickson. One often overlooked work is his fine soundtrack score for Bruce Beresford’s WW2 feature Paradise Road (1997) (starring Glenn Close and Cate Blanchett), while probably his best recognised and remembered composition was Dawn Mantras, broadcast from the roof of the Sydney Opera House, as part of the global Millennium telecast in 2000.


J. Murdoch: Australia’s Contemporary Composers (Sydney, 1972), 88-93.
M. Hannan: ‘Ross Edwards: a Unique Sound World’, Australian Performing Rights Association Journal (March 1986).
R. Edwards: ‘Credo’, Sounds Australian, no.23 (1989), 8.
R. Edwards: ‘An Emotional Geography of Australian Composition’, Sounds Australian, no.34 (1992).
A. Ford: Composer to Composer (Sydney, 1993), 97–100.
P. Stanhope: ‘Ritual in the Music of Ross Edwards: an Introduction’, Sounds Australian 37 (1993), 21–4.
P. Cooney: ‘Beyond Sacred and Maninya - developments in the music of Ross Edwards between 1991 and 2001’ (Australian Music Centre, Sydney 2003; 2008).
J. Magee, ‘Transcendent Voices: Choral Music in Paradise Road’, in R. Coyle (ed.), Reel Tracks: Australian Feature Film Music and Cultural Identities (Bloomington, Indiana, 2005), 189-202.
F. Richards, Soundscapes of Australia: music, place and spirituality (Aldershot, 2007).
A. Robbie, ‘Narrating the early music of Ross Edwards’, Resonate 2 (28 February 2008).
D. Bennett: Sounding Postmodernism: Sampling Australian Composers (Sydney, 2008), 218-229.
R. Edwards: ‘Etymalong and the Search for Spiritual Identity’, Resonate (17 April 2008).
R. Edwards: ‘The Moon and I’: Ross Edwards discusses his new saxophone concerto Full Moon Dances for Amy Dickson, Resonate (16 July 2012).

Graeme Skinner

Works (selective list)

Stage: Christina’s World (chbr op, Dorothy Hewett), 1983, rev. 1989; Sensing (dance, Graeme Murphy), orch, 1992–3; The Cries of Australia (words: Barry Humphries), actor/singer, vc, pf, 1997; Koto Dreaming (dance), koto, shakuhachi, eng hn, vc, 2003; The Possibility Space (ballet, Nicolo Fonte), orch, 2008; Zodiac (ballet, Stanton Welch, Houston Ballet) orch, 2013.

Orch: Mountain Village in a Clearing Mist, 1973; Pf Conc., 1982; Maninyas (Vn Conc.), 1988; Yarrageh (Nocturne), perc, orch, 1989; Sym. No 1, ‘Da pacem Domine’, 1990–91; Gui (transc hp) Conc Arafura Dances, str, 1994–5; Chorale and Ecstatic Dance, 1995; Sym. No.2 ‘Earth Spirit Songs’ (texts: liturgical, Judith Wright, Hildegard of Bingen), sop, orch, 1997; Emerald Crossing, pf, str orch, also full orchestra, 1999; White Ghost Dancing, orch, 1999; Sym. No.3 ‘Mater Magna’, 2000; Sym. no.4 ‘Star Chant’, 2002; Ob Conc ‘Bird Spirit Dreaming’, 2002; The Heart of Night, shakuhachi, orch, 2004; Sym. No.5 ‘The Promised Land’ (text: David Malouf), Tr choir, orch, 2005; Cl Conc, 2007; Elegies and Epiphanies, orch, 2010; Spirit Ground, orch, 2010; Alt Sax Conc ‘Full Moon Dances’, 2012.

Choral: 5 Carols from ‘Quem quaeritis’, SSAA, 1967; Antifon ‘Eternity’, SATB, brass sextet, org, 2 perc, 1973; Ab estatis foribus, SATB, 1980; Flower Songs, SATB, 2 perc, 1986–7; Dance Mantras, 6vv, drum, 1992; Mountain Chant, SATB, 2003; Southern Cross Chants, SSATTB, 2009; Mass of the Dreaming: Missa Alchera, SATB, 2009; Sacred Kingfisher Psalms, SSATTB, 2009; Miracles, SATB, 2014.

Chamber: The Tower of Remoteness, cl, pf, 1978; Laikan, fl, cl, perc, pf, vn, vc, 1979; 10 Little Duets, 2 high insts, 1982; Maninya III (Incantations) wind qnt, 1985, rev. 2006; Reflections, pf, 3 perc, 1985; Ecstatic Dances, 2 fl, 1990; Ecstatic Dance II (va, vc)/(2 vn)/(2 va)/(vn, va), 1990; Prelude and Dragonfly Dance, perc qt, 1991; Chorale and Ecstatic Dance str qt, 1993; Veni Creator Spiritus, double str qt/str orch, 1993/1997; 4 Bagatelles, ob, cl, 1994; Enyato IV, b cl, perc, 1995; Binyang, cl, perc, 1996; Pf Tr, 1998, rev 2010; Tygalum Mantras, various, 1999; Sparks and Auras, str qt, 2006; Arafura Arioso, 7 hps, 2006; Str qt no.2 ‘Shekina Fantasy’, 2008; Exile, vn, pf, 2010; Str qt no.3 ‘Summer Dances’ 2012; The Laughing Moon – 5 bagatelles for wind quintet, 2012; Harp Mantras, 7 hp, didj. (2014); Animisms, fl/cl/perc/vn/vc (2014).

Solo instrumental: Monos I, vc, 1970; Marimba Dances, 1982; Ulpirra, rec/pic/fl/cl/bcl/sax/bn, 1993/2000; Enyato II, va, 1994; Gui Dances, 1994; Raft Song at Sunrise, shakuhachi, 1995; Ulpirra, rec, fl, pic, ob, cl, (1993);Blackwattle Caprices, gui, 1998; White Cockatoo Spirit Dance, vn, 1998; Yanada, ob, cl, 1998; Water Spirit Song, cor a/fl/bn/bcl/vc, 2003; The Harp and the Moon, hp, 2008; More Marimba Dances, 2009.

Keyboard: Monos II, 1970; 5 Little Pf Pieces, 1976; Kumari, 1980–81; Etymalong, 1984; 3 Children’s Pieces, 1986–7; Pond Light Mantras, 2 pf, 1991; 3 Little Pf Duets, 1992; Sanctuary, 2 pf, gongs, 1995; Three Australian Waltzes, 1997-98; Mantras and Night Flowers, 2001; A Flight of Sunbirds, pf duet, 2001; Sonata, 2011.

Solo vocal: The Hermit of Green Light, Ct/Mez, pf, 1979; Maninya I, C/Mez, vc, 1981; Maninya V, C/Mez, pf, 1986; Five Senses, fem voice, pf 2010.

Film: Paradise Road (feature, Bruce Beresford), 1996.

Events: Dawn Mantras (Sydney Opera House segment, global millennium telecast), 2000.

Publishers: Australian Music Centre, J. Albert and Son, Universal Ed, Ricordi, The Theatre of Voices.

Principal record companies: ABC Classics, Tall Poppies.

Composer website:

© Graeme Skinner 2015