It’s tough celebrating a birthday during a global pandemic, particularly for a performing arts organisation. Nonetheless, Sydney-based new music group Ensemble Offspring marks 25 years of experimental music this September, having fostered the creation of over 300 new works over the course of its history, and pandemic or no pandemic the group will be finding innovative ways to celebrate this momentous milestone.

Ensemble OffspringEnsemble Offspring in 2020. Photo © Keith Saunders

The ensemble happens to share its birthday with its Artistic Director, percussionist Claire Edwardes, who was there at the group’s very first gig as part of Roger Woodward’s Sydney Spring International Festival of Contemporary Music in 1995, performing under the name of the Spring Ensemble. The concert was driven by two student composers at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Damien Ricketson and Matthew Shlomowitz, whose music was played alongside Xenakis’s classic Eonta. “We were really just a student scratch band that Damien and Matthew put together to play their music,” says Edwardes of that first concert, which happened to take place on her 20th birthday. “It was quite a large ensemble, with a relatively random instrumental line-up, which was basically the people who said that they were keen. I think there were two trombones, two saxophones, two violins, two percussionists and two pianists – it was a pretty random line-up – certainly not a soft combination of instruments!”

Shlomowitz led the ensemble in its early years, with Ricketson studying in the Netherlands and then returning to lead the ensemble when Shlomowitz himself went to the USA in 1998 – but Edwardes was closely involved, even when she herself left Australia for what would turn out to be a seven-year stint in Europe. “I returned home regularly, though, as I won the 1999 Young Performers Award just before I left for Rotterdam. So I was lucky enough to have opportunities to perform with the orchestras as a result,” she says. “It meant I was back in Australia at least once a year and when I was here I was able to play with Ensemble Offspring. So we stayed very close during that time. Damien even programmed a special feature concert for me in 2005 at the Con called The Art of Percussion, which was epic as I was in every single piece.”

The ensemble in the late 1990s. Photo courtesy of Ensemble Offspring

Having founded a successful percussion duo in Europe (Duo Vertigo), Edwardes was keen to make something happen when she returned home, and in 2008 instead of setting up something new, became co-Artistic Director of Ensemble Offspring, sharing artistic leadership of the group with Ricketson until his departure in 2015.

For Edwardes, the most important milestones in Ensemble Offspring’s history have been to do with the “professionalisation” of the ensemble. “Building our first board, getting Australia Council Multi-Year Funding and then Create NSW Multi-Year,” she explains. “Those developments were very instrumental in us taking our rather ad hoc activities till that time, to the next level.”

The Australia Council Funding “meant we were finally able to turn into a much more professional outfit,” she says. “Pay our musicians well and really look after our experienced core players – also not skimp on commission fees and even build our own academy for emerging musicians.”

Musically, Edwardes is loath to pick out any specific highlights from the incredibly diverse activities the ensemble has undertaken over the last 25 years, though she notes last year’s Kontiki Racket Festival at Paddington Town Hall as well as the ensemble’s two tours to Europe in 2019 – including their three-way collaboration with International Contemporary Ensemble and Ensemble Adapter – as recent successes.

Working at the cutting edge of new music for 25 years, how has Edwardes seen it evolve over that period? “Everything in the arts goes in waves, and things become ‘in’ and popular and then that tends to alter what is being programmed, but also government mandates change the direction of an arts organisation’s programming like ours too – which I don’t necessarily agree with, but it’s just a fact of life as, being non-commercial in our endeavours, we do so heavily rely on government funding to stay afloat and active,” she says.

Changes in artistic taste and focus have played out in Ensemble Offspring’s own programming. “We used to play a lot more international classics, and now we definitely have more of an Australian focus – especially supporting and nurturing local emerging artists,” Edwardes says. “Our interaction with First Nations artists which is now so integral to what we do, is relatively recent and even our specific focus on the programming and commissioning of female composers, well that’s only been in the past five-year period as well.”

The ensemble in the late 1990s. Photo courtesy of Ensemble Offspring

In its 2017 season Ensemble Offspring performed music written exclusively by women, but Edwardes says looking back at the group’s archives tells a different story. “I’m really quite surprised that there are relatively so few female composers before 2015,” she says. “We weren’t as hyper conscious of it as we should have been – not many people were. It just shows how quickly things can change. So I think our focus is quite different to what it was even five or 10 years ago now. And it probably will get more different again into the future with the financial constraints placed on the arts thanks to government cuts and Covid. I’d say community engagement, regional touring, development of our work with First Nations artists and cross-cultural collaborations will be key. I feel strongly that, right now, to make art that reflects and is relevant to the here and now is the only route to take. Not least to always be hyper aware of our intrinsically privileged positions as instrumentalists trained to such a high level in western art music and what that means for the future of art making in Australia. Ensemble Offspring has always been about breaking classical norms as well as pushing ourselves as musicians outside of our comfort zone – there is so much to learn from our Indigenous brothers and sisters, not just artistically!”

Classics by composers such as Grisey, Murail, Glass, Reich, Cage, Feldman, Xenakis, Stockhausen, Romitelli and Saariaho were a major focus for the group early on and these works certainly influenced the sound worlds of new local commissions too. Edwardes still sees them as an important element of Ensemble Offspring’s programming. “If our musicians had never played any of that repertoire then we have no right to claim a true knowledge and experience in our broad genre and its lineage, and I think it’s really important to give audiences context to the very new music that we play, when possible too,” she says.

“I still really value all the Stockhausen that I’ve played in my life, as well as all the Xenakis (especially as a percussionist),” Edwardes says. “They’re seriously great composers and they’re a sure thing – and that can be an important lynch pin in programming when there are otherwise a majority of world premieres.”

To some, the idea of ‘new music’ might already sound niche, but the term covers an incredible variety of styles and traditions, all with their own fans and adherents. In larger markets, like Europe or the USA, there are ensembles that cater specifically to individual niches, however, Edwardes sees Ensemble Offspring’s remit as being wider than that. “I think our approach is really healthy from a performer’s perspective because we get to play a great range of music – we can perform Steve Reich one week, Ferneyhough the next,” she says. “We can play improvised music and we can collaborate outside of our musical traditions and much more. It’s very exciting!”

“The only issue with this is that it means audiences never really know what to expect from one of our concerts and they have to trust the Ensemble Offspring brand,” she says. “If we were more niche then it would probably be easier to market our music because we could say, ‘all the music we play sounds like this’.”

That’s not to say there aren’t composers who have influenced the group’s sound and style – in particular Ricketson. “Damien’s music was the music that we played the most, in terms of the big projects, in our mid years.” Edwardes says. “He utilised the ensemble for many years as his artistic experimental zone, and so there’s many big projects such as Fractured Again, The Secret Noise and A Line Has Two. I think all that theatrical content we did with Damien really developed a side of us that was not a group that just did plain old concerts in a concert hall – Damien really pushed us to think differently, and got us out of our comfort zones, as well as setting up the expectation that we would very rarely present in traditional venues.”

Before Ricketson left Ensemble Offspring, the group began to look more closely at its relationship with composers. “We were conscious that we weren’t like groups such as ELISION who have a close pool of composers they return to time after time. But what I realised is that you need time and consistency of funding for that to happen,” Edwardes says. “We’ve only had the financial support recently, through our audience supported Noisy Egg Creation Fund, to go back and commission composers more than once. So there are composers who we have worked with over time now – like Alex Pozniak, Melody Eötvös, Tristan Coelho, Holly Harrison and Kate Moore – whose voices I think feel very intrinsic to us, because we’ve worked so closely with them. But I wouldn’t say that any of their music is similar in sound or style either.”

After 25 years of performing new music, does the music the group played in its early years feel dated? “We know that only a handful of pieces in all genres stand the test of time. Just like in the classical music tradition a lot of music is premiered and never returned to but we do consciously try to continue to develop works with composers past the premiere with the view that they will become part of our repertoire,” Edwardes says. “This has been very successful especially with our Birdsong at Dusk/Songbirds project which has been developing for several years now with all new commissions which we have already played numerous times (despite Covid!).”

Ensemble Offspring circa 2004. Photo courtesy of Ensemble Offspring

With its first quarter-century under its belt, Ensemble Offspring’s birthday year has been one of successes and new challenges. The year began on a high, with the group receiving the prestigious Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award – along with a $90,000 purse – only to be told a few weeks later that for the first time in eight years they would no longer be receiving Multi-Year Funding from the Australia Council for the Arts. “Just two weeks after the Covid lockdown we got the news about Australia Council, which we really did not expect,” Edwardes says. “At the time I was quite distraught in that I didn’t know how we could continue without that financial backing. Once you’ve operated on a certain level, especially when you’re working with experienced professionals like our musicians, you can’t just go back to those volunteer-like student days.”

Fortunately Ensemble Offspring was successful in its bid for funding through Create NSW, which will allow the organisation to keep moving forwards. “It does mean we can continue at the same professional level, just with slightly less output and a different staffing structure,” Edwardes says. “The arts is the arts and it’s all very changeable – and of course Covid doesn’t help that – so we just have to be really flexible and luckily this is what we do best!”

The group still has plenty on the boil, with the album Songbirds out now (with a limited release physical pressing imminent) and plenty of composers taking the opportunity to have their music recorded – “We were just in the studio with Felicity Wilcox, recording her new album several works originally written for Ensemble Offspring,” Edwardes says – in addition to the group’s own releases. “We just finished mastering an epic piece by Alex Pozniak called En Masse, a 32-minute sextet that he wrote for us, so that was a pretty major editing job for me, Alex and Bob Scott. We’ll be releasing that soon along with new recordings by Thomas Meadowcroft and Holly Harrison.”

While COVID-19 has forced the ensemble to rethink its birthday plans, Edwardes and the band will still be celebrating, with a public Zoom event on September 9 – “Roger Woodward is going to zoom in from San Francisco, and Matthew Shlomowitz will zoom in from London” – as well as a series of unique ‘walking-tour’ concerts in Edwardes’ home suburb, under the title “Ah, Tempe!” (punning on the Italian musical term, a tempo). The celebration, which will see musicians play from houses to audiences on the street, was inspired by a visit to the home of composer Tristan Coelho and harpist Emily Granger. “They happened to move in down the end of my street a few months ago,” Edwardes says. “We were just chatting about how their bedroom could be made into a concert space by opening the doors which open out onto the street, and we could do a little concert in there.”

A concert from Edwardes’ house – where she will be joined by clarinettist Jason Noble and flautist Lamorna Nightingale – will feature a solo, a duo and a trio. Another Tempe resident, composer Alice Chance, will present a structured improvisation exploring combinations of flutes, voice, accordion, household and garden objects as part of Dreambox Collective with Chloe Chung, under the delightful title “Avant-Garden”.

“It’s a fun showcase of the musical talents of the locals of Tempe from their backyards.” Edwardes says. “Just a bit of fun really, but also an important way to engage with our audience in person in a safe and creative way – fingers crossed we don’t get thwarted this time.”

Edwardes is speaking from recent experience, with a planned performance at the Sydney Opera House postponed at the eleventh hour due to the ever-shifting sands of the pandemic – Mesmerism will now play online at the end of October.

But Edwardes is positive about the future. “I think Ensemble Offspring is one of the best-placed companies to be truly creative during this time and come up with new solutions for how to present music,” she says. “We are small and lithe and our innovative style of art making can genuinely help people get through these times – we have already had lots of feedback to this effect. So, yes, I think that’s what we’re going to be focussing on over the next couple of years.”

The resilience that has kept the group going for the last 25 years will no doubt serve it well as it moves into this new era. ‘We are not planning on going anywhere, because at the end of the day this ensemble is about forging new pathways and opportunities for musicians while building a thriving and relevant Australian culture, and that’s too important,” Edwardes says. “We are an extremely close and very tight-knit group. We love what we do. It sure has its moments but we’re truly passionate about playing and creating new music together so we will keep on keeping on – it’s as simple as that.”

Ensemble Offspring presents AH TEMPE! on September 5

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Ensemble Offspring’s 25th Birthday Party takes place online on September 9

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