This weekend, one of the most ambitious commissioning projects in Australian history will take over Melbourne’s Abbotsford Convent. The ANAM Set is a series of 67 works by Australian composers, who were commissioned to write a six- to eight-minute piece of music for each of the 67 musicians training at the Australian National Academy of Music in 2021.

This week, Limelight will feature the stories of five pairs of composers and performers, learning more about their work, their process of collaboration, and what they learned about themselves – and each other – through this process. Today we look at composer Anne Cawrse and her piece Ruby, written for clarinettist Clare Fox.

Anne Cawrse, whose work <i>Ruby</i> will be performed as part of <i>The ANAM Set</i>.

Anne Cawrse, whose work Ruby will be performed as part of The ANAM Set.

What does this project mean to you?

Anne Cawrse: To be selected to take part was rather special – there are a great number of excellent composers in Australia at present, and while The ANAM Set is the largest, most wide-reaching mass commissioning project I’ve heard of, even a project of this size couldn’t offer every deserving composer a chance to be involved. So I’m certainly humbled to be able to take part.

The project offered a brilliant opportunity for me to get to know Clare, who is a wonderful clarinettist. While we didn’t have the chance to meet in person until just a few months ago (when we were both in Sydney for the recording of the AYO Composer’s project from 2021) we were able to get to know one another through many chats about life and music. Clare responded so beautifully to the whole commissioning idea; it really reminded me how vital it is to demonstrate and model the creation of new music to younger musicians, as it will be their influence, drive, passion and advocacy that sees Australian music grow and thrive in the years to come.

Clare Fox: Having the opportunity to have a piece written for me, and to also be a part of the compositional process has been such an incredible and unique opportunity that I feel very lucky to have been a part of. This project is particularly dear to my heart, and will, I’m sure, always be a most special and important piece in my musical career, and for me personally. I am extremely thankful to have been able to work with Anne, who has created such a beautiful and powerful piece.

How did you approach the collaboration and work together?

Cawrse: I’m based in Adelaide and Clare was in Melbourne, and although in more ‘usual’ times it’s likely we would have been able to meet in person at some stage, 2021 was not a usual time! Because of this, all of our communication was via Zoom, email and phone. At our initial Zoom meeting I was keen to find out what sort of a piece Clare would like me to write, and to discover anything about her musical tastes that might inform the direction of our piece. I was delighted to discover at our first meeting that she already had an idea for a piece, and was more than happy to commit to this from the outset.

From there, it was a case of me coming up with some musical fragments and ideas, sending them to Clare for feedback, then working them into the piece. The ‘back-and-forth’ process continued for the whole writing period, and out of this our piece Ruby for solo clarinet was born. The most valuable part for me was early on when I asked Clare to choose from a selection of melodic fragments a few that resonated most strongly for her. Composition can feel like an unending series of small decisions, and to have some of those decisions made for you was very freeing, and hugely helpful.

Fox: The entire process of collaborating with Anne was done over Zoom and via emails, due to the constraints imposed by continuing lockdowns last year. It began with Anne sending some sketches of ideas for the piece, which she asked me to play through, and to pick a couple that I thought resonated most strongly with the subject of the piece. She also explained her proposed structure for the piece in detail. This was followed by numerous emails back and forth of drafts, which I would record and send back, until the final version was completed around September. I continued to send recordings in the following months and to receive feedback, which involved a lot communication about how I interpreted the phrasing and narrative of the piece. Fortunately, our interpretations were in most respects strongly aligned, so it was only a matter of polishing and refining particular aspects.

Clarinettist Clare Fox who was paired with composer Anne Cawrse as part of <i>The ANAM Set</i>. Photo © Pia Johnson.

Clarinettist Clare Fox who was paired with composer Anne Cawrse as part of The ANAM Set. Photo © Pia Johnson.

What is your piece about?

Cawrse: Clare’s suggestion was to create a work in memory of a dear friend of hers who had passed away in early 2021. It was important to Clare that the work not be too sad; it needed to reflect the joy and spirit of her friend. Immediately when Clare told me of her idea, I knew that we should write this piece. I also felt quite a responsibility to create something very special, as this work was to have real significance for Clare and her friend’s family.

My ‘source’ material, if you like, consisted of a few personal reflections from Clare, a photo of her friend, and copies of some artwork that she had created which reflected the natural beauty of her home in the Blue Mountains. I used this material as a starting point for sketching ideas and structure, and then relied on Clare’s advice to guide me towards which ideas best captured her friend’s life and energy.

Fox: Ruby is a piece for solo clarinet, inspired by a person who was special in [my] life, who died unexpectedly at 19 after becoming suddenly sick in April 2021. The aim of the piece is to capture and express her unique character, and the way that she brought pleasure and happiness to all who knew her. The piece also draws inspiration from her artwork, in particular, images of the unique and beautiful Blue Mountains area in which she lived.

Were there surprises for you?

Cawrse: Maybe less a surprise and more an affirmation was the recognition once the work was complete of just how much Ruby has come to mean to Clare. Naturally I wanted to honour her friend and her memory in the creation of this piece. I also wanted to write something that would be a joy to listen to and rewarding to play. My work with Clare on this project has cemented my belief in the mysterious alchemy of musical collaboration; that we can both contribute ideas, and together create something that truly is bigger than the sum of its parts. There’s no rational way to explain how I could write a piece of music that captures something of the spirit of a girl I never knew, and yet that is what has happened. I think that says so much about art, music, and connection- I’m not surprised by it, but I am grateful to be reminded of this in such an important way.

Fox: It was definitely, with no exaggeration, quite magical to observe the development of this piece through various stages to completion, and I was both delighted and overwhelmed by its final shape and form. It evoked such powerful emotions, both in rehearsal and performance. I wouldn’t describe it as a surprise, but more a feeling of great pleasure and gratitude to work with Anne, who was very caring and open with communication throughout the entire process.

What have you taken from it and what do you think you have achieved?

Cawrse: A huge number of things! I’m proud of the work that I’ve created, and think it is a very beautiful piece. I haven’t composed many solo/unaccompanied works (aside from solo piano) before, and as a composer who loves harmony, this work challenged me and pushed me outside my comfort zone. Without wanting to downplay the meaning behind the work, I think it’s a very ‘useful’ work in that it is very performable and listenable, and I hope that it receives many subsequent performances.

I really did love the whole experience of working with Clare on the project. She will likely say that I did most of the work, but her involvement in choosing themes and helping create the structure was instrumental in my putting the piece together. And of course her stunning performance just breathes life into the notes in the way that I never could on my own. I’m humbled by how much the work means to her and feel really lucky to have been able to be a part of creating something this special and meaningful.

I’ve always relished the composer/performer relationship, and believe very strongly that the interpretation of invested performers really is the final stage of the composition process. This project has revealed all of that, but on a new level for me. Having the performer involved regularly throughout the entire process of composing has been instrumental in the success of the piece. It’s also resulted in an incredibly satisfying process by reducing some of the more solitary phases of writing, and reminding me continually that I’m not doing this alone.

Fox: I am extremely grateful for ANAM to have been given this opportunity to collaborate with Anne on a project so deeply personal to me. I feel like part of my heart and soul is in this piece, and that it will continue to be a most important part of my life, and of my musical career. The experience has given me invaluable insights into the process of composition, and has inspired me to think in new ways about the pieces I work on in preparation for performance. I found it fascinating to observe the ways in which a composer used the power of music to evoke people, experiences and place. This piece will remain as a permanent musical homage, honouring and celebrating the life and talents of someone so special and important to me.

The ANAM SET Festival will run at Melbourne’s Abbotsford Convent, 13–15 May, 2022. More information about the project, and the composers and performers involved, can be found here.

Read other articles in this series:

1. Composer Andriàn Pertout and his piece Mīmēsis, written for violist Henry Justo.

2. Composer Kate Tempany and her piece Honeyeater, written for trumpeter and Nic Corkeron.

3. Percussionist Al Fane, and the piece [sound is] A Body in Space written with composer K. Travers Eira.

4. Composer Bruce Crossman and his piece Fragility and Sonorousness, written for pianist Kane Chang.

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