Water Spirit Song by Ross Edwards (b. 1943)

Ross Edwards was born in Sydney and is one of the most well-known Australian composers.  He did his initial study in composition at the University of Sydney and received his Master of Music degree from the University of Adelaide.1  Edwards was an assistant to Sculthorpe, an Australian composition icon, and credits a great deal of his on-the-job education to his time with him.

Initially, Edwards composed using 1960s atonal techniques.  After a great deal of travel, especially around Europe, Edwards moved to a little farmhouse in Yorkshire, England, in the 1970s.  It is this environment that helped develop Edwards’ personal style.  The space, quiet, and nature around the farmhouse became imbedded in his music and a clear move towards a precise, intricate, “austerely brooding and predominantly quiet” style resulted.2  The style of Edwards is often called sacred or meditative.

Edwards returned to Australia in 1972 believing that he should be writing works for great Australian performers to play.2  He brought with him his new personal style that reflected:

sounds of the Australian bush having completely rejected European modern style3

 Edwards also came back to Australia with a belief in how music should be enjoyed:

I think the idea of just sitting inert in a concert hall trying not to rustle your program or cough, is not really the way to listen to music.4

The works that resulted from his philosophy shook the Sydney music scene.  Yarrageh (1989) is an orchestral work to be performed in a dimly light concert hall.4  In Edwards’ compositions he utilizes many outside effects, in this example lighting, to transport the listeners out of the concert hall and to any place they wish to follow the music.

Edwards desire to write for the great Australian musicians helped bring a gradual shift in his compositional style.  The composer refers to this change as:

Gradually coming back to Europe but on my own terms.3

As Edwards “returned to a European style” his works still reflect his affection for nature and for classical music to be theatrical.  A wonderful example of this juxtaposition is in his oboe concerto, Bird Spirit Dreaming (2002), written for Dianna Doherty.5  The work, again, uses lighting techniques to transport that audience.  After the orchestra has tuned and the conductor has taken the stage the lights go out (which made the post 9/11 New York Philharmonic’s audience a bit nervous at the premiere.)  An off stage oboe is heard and Dianna jumps into a spotlight on the stage dressed in a bird costume.  Given the opening, one would expect the concerto to be mainly gimmicks but it is actually an extremely difficult technical concerto that also entertains.3

Water Spirit Song was initially composed as part of Koto Dreaming, a music theatre piece featuring the Butoh dancer Yumi Umiumare.  The entire work was written for the 2003 Asian Music and Dance Festival in Sydney.  The instrumentation for Koto Dreaming was a mixture of Japanese and European instruments: koto (Satsuki Odamura), shakuhachi (Riley Lee), English horn (Alexandre Oguey) and cello (John Napier).6

Water Spirit Song was originally composed for cello and opens Koto Dreaming.  The nature of having “tempered-scale” instruments play with the koto resulted in Edwards’ creating a new type of scale and tonality.  The tonality in the work is therefore more Eastern in feel with many ½ steps and non-traditional intervals.

Edwards gives great freedom of interpretation to the performer in Water Spirit Song.  Although he has chosen to publish the work in standard musical notation he gives the direction flessibile5 at the opening.  Over conversations with the composer, this flexible nature is actually an understatement of the composer’s intentions.  He wishes for the performer to take complete liberty with articulations, changing them at will in each performance.  He, despite a tempo marking of 50-60, wants the pacing to mimic waters “ebb and flow.”  He expressed great interest in each phrase being a gesture and to proceed in harmony with waters movement.3

Water Spirit Song has been arranged in solo versions for cello7 and English horn.8  The bassoon arrangement was created in 2004; the first performance of this arrangement was on 10 May 2007 by Paula Brusky.  Performing this World Premiere served as the inspiration and catalyst for the creation of the BCMCC.


1.    Sadie S, Levy M. The new Grove dictionary of music and musicians. 2nd ed. London; New York: Macmillan; Grove; 2001.

2.    Ford A. Composer to composer : conversations about contemporary music. Sydney: Hale & Iremonger; 1997.

3.    Edwards R. Interview. In: Brusky P, ed. Sydney; 2007.

4.    http://www.abc.net.au/rn/musicshow/stories/2003/932436.htm

5.    Ross Edwards (composer).  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ross_Edwards_%28composer%29. Accessed 8 April 2007, 2007.

6.    Edwards R. Water Spirit Song : for solo bassoon: Ricordi; 2004.

7.    Edwards R. Water spirit song : for solo cello. London: Ricordi; 2003.

8.    Edwards R. Water spirit song : for solo cor anglais. London: Ricordi; 2003.

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