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Fired up about the new: Ensemble Offspring

Graham Strahle
| October 12, 2015

With the continued bellyaching over classical music’s future, it is easy to overlook the fact that there are some musicians right in front of our eyes who seem to have come up with many of the right answers. That is especially so the case when it is a group that specialises in new music – a sector that obviously faces greater than the usual challenges.

How one judges success is naturally a vexed question. Longevity surely comes into the equation, and Ensemble Offspring wins obvious plaudits for notching up 20 years of existence (the group began in 1995 when Roger Woodward invited a bunch of Sydney University music students to play at his Sydney Spring International Festival of New Music – for which occasion they duly dubbed themselves ‘Spring Ensemble’). It’s the various indefinables, however, that place Ensemble Offspring amongst this country’s foremost classical innovators: an unsurpassed talent for innovation, fierce commitment to high standards and a keen responsiveness to their audiences.

‘New music’ of course can mean different things to different people, and in Ensemble Offspring’s case they have chosen to be unusually accommodating, and to a degree pragmatic, on that front. Spectral music, open music and game music have all been on their agenda. “In a way we’ve been criticised for this,” Edwardes concedes. “Sometimes people say we’re too broad and not focused enough in our endeavours. But our open-mindedness and our ability to play finicky notated music but then also be able create music in real time – for example free improvisation – is where I believe our strength lies as musicians and also as a group”.offspring photo(2)

That open-mindedness was implanted at the outset by Woodward’s own eclectic, internationalist outlook, and his healthy disregard for boundaries. It’s reflected most visibly in the flexibility of Ensemble Offspring’s line-up, which frequently expands beyond its six core players – Lamorna Nightingale (flute), Jason Noble (clarinet), Veronique Serret (violin), Edwardes and Bree van Reyk (percussion) and Zubin Kanga (piano) – to include a variety of other instruments such as accordion, double bass and electric guitar. “I personally cherish chamber music because I love playing with other people. We are lucky as we have these fabulous, generous and wonderful souls in our group. It is a truly inspiring place to be both musically and socially,” says Edwardes.

Collaborations across traditional boundaries also characterise that open-mindedness. But one example was teaming up with Mike Patton, the remarkable genre-busting US singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, at the 2014 Sydney Festival and performing Berio’s Laborintus II. Edwardes says it was a major highlight for the group: “Mike was a real hero from our youths for many of us, so to be sharing a stage with him was pretty awesome”. Another recent example was The Secret Noise, a surreal hybrid work combining music, physical movement and immersive theatre composed by EO’s co-artistic director Damien Ricketson. “We really hope to tour that production worldwide,” says Edwardes.

Ensemble Offspring’s audiences, while definably ‘niche’, have grown substantially over the years. “We tend to get an average of about 250 people to our local Sydney performances – often more when we are involved in a co-present or a Festival,” says Edwardes. “We are really proud of our following in our home town and how much it has grown since our inception 20 years ago.”

One of their perennial difficulties is venues. Sydney’s ideal space for new and experimental music was the Studio of the Opera House when it opened in 1999, but a shift in programming effectively killed that off. “I personally find it a little disappointing that its focus now seems to be more on lighter art forms such as cabaret, because when the Studio was first re-opened the idea was that this would be Sydney’s new home for contemporary classical music and the cutting edge arts,” says Edwardes. “I have fabulous memories of performing large Steve Reich works there as well as more recently a sold out concert of Stockhausen’s classic Kontakte followed by a (very cool) set by electronica artist Pimmon.”

Extraordinarily for a group that three years ago acquired Key Organisation status with the Australia Council, it has never had a permanent home – not even an office or a rehearsal room. “We are always looking of course,” says Edwardes, “but Sydney is just so expensive and venues are far and few between. I do feel though that the next step for us is indeed finding a physical home. We are going great guns on the organisational and governance side, and artistic direction has always been very strong, so in a way it’s really onwards and upwards from here”.

What advice does Ensemble Offspring have for younger musicians who might be thinking of forming a group? Have passion and be prepared for a long hard slog – that’s the clear message. “The funny thing,” says Edwardes, “is that as we grow it doesn’t necessarily get all that much easier. We feel the pressure of wanting the ensemble to become more outwardly professional in terms of how it is run but also in terms of our actual concerts presentations. We have always prided ourselves on the standard of our shows, both in terms of production and performance. We constantly strive to make it all even better – stronger, more engaging, more adventurous, more beautiful, more streamlined. But this all requires oodles of passion, commitment and money of course”.

Developing strong programming ideas is paramount. Typically, classical musicians direct more thought to perfecting their performance of a particular work than to programming ideas and concepts; but Ensemble Offspring’s approach is fundamentally different. Edwardes explains: “It’s our responsibility to draw people into our world in a way that classical musicians don’t necessarily have to do because audiences are already so much more familiar with the repertoire and the tradition of their performance practice. We are passionate about engaging our audiences though, and making people realise that new music is not a confronting experience to fear. Rather it is one to completely relish – it is invigorating, uplifting and more often than not, entirely memorable”.

“We thrive on choosing programs which are intrinsically engaging – often we put new works in the context of older more established European works to give balance to our programs; but other times we program with a strong theme in mind – whether it be To the Max which focused on the very loud and the very soft in music or Sounds Absurd where we took physical music to the extreme and delved into music theatre by composers such as Kagel and Australian Moya Henderson. So a strong sense of programming conceptualisation is also really important to us.”

A silo mentality is something to be avoided like the plague. The danger with young classically trained musicians is that they can become too inward looking, says Edwardes. “My advice to students or budding ensemble directors is that you’ve got to immerse yourself in the scene, the concerts, the art. Otherwise you’re doing things in your own little silo. Go, even if what you learn from what you hear or experience is that you want to do it differently. Concerts are where you meet people and develop relationships with colleagues, but also where you can hear a huge range of musics and different art forms. It is still inspiring for me to attend as many performances as I possibly can. Too often students think that they need to work solely on their craft – whether it be practising in a practice room, or composing in a studio – but this needs to be balanced with getting out and about and treating the senses to a huge range of different art. Australia is a tiny country as it is, so none of us can afford to not be thinking this way. We all need to reach out and nurture each other – that is why EO loves collaborating so much too!”

And what of classical music’s future? Ensemble Offspring are not given to industry gloom on that subject, and their optimism owes to constantly thinking outside the square – a lesson many else could learn. “I have to say we try not to think too much about the negatives,” says Edwardes. “We’re too busy doing what we want to do and making it happen. Of course it’s really important for all of us to be creative with our own different modes of presenting music so that we keep it fresh and alive. What I love is that there is a certain tangible sense of freedom in Australia because we don’t have the shackles of tradition, and I feel that this is really exciting – I don’t feel like Ensemble Offspring has to adhere to any expectations or any contemporary classical music tradition, say, laid out for European ensembles by legendary groups such as Ensemble Intercontemporain. This sense of freedom from staid tradition leads inevitably to creative freedom which then leads to truly amazing and original art – we are really very lucky here in Australia and I feel that the future for all art forms, not just music, is extremely bright.”

Future Retro, Ensemble Offspring’s upcoming concerts marking the group’s 20th anniversary, perfectly exemplifies their position. Five new commissions from some of Australia’s most talented emerging composers – Tristan Coelho, Cassie To, Kezia Yap, Samuel Smith and Dan Thorpe – will rub shoulders with three game-changing works from the last half-century. These are Louis Andriessen’s Hoketus with its wonderfully cacophonous sounds of paired panpipes, congas, electric bass guitars and saxophones, Gerard Grisey’s virtuosic Talea, and a creative remake of György Ligeti’s sound texture masterpiece in Beyond Atmospheres, which Ensemble Offspring premiered at the 2013 Sydney Festival with electronica duo Martin Ng and Oren Ambarchi.

Edwardes explains what they do in this last piece: “We stretch the original Ligeti score whilst staying true to its overall form. Using a live element of just two violins, two percussionists, turntables (Martin joins us once again) and electronics, we combine with a track of pre-recorded layers, which we made ourselves in the studio, to form a texture as intense and even more sonically rich than the orchestral original.”

Future Retro takes place at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on October 25. Further details and online booking here.

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