Back in 1999, I was commissioned to write a piano quartet for a now defunct ensemble made up of composer Roger Smalley (in his other role as pianist) and musicians from the West Australian Symphony. Over the years, my single movement quartet, titled Emerald Crossing, found its way into other contexts. An orchestral arrangement I made became a movement of my Fifth Symphony, The Promised Land, and modified versions have been incorporated into two ballet scores. Although the original quartet movement has continued to have plenty of performances, I always felt it would benefit from another, contrasting movement. The members of the Australia Piano Quartet apparently felt the same way, and when they proposed to commission an extension to the piece I welcomed the opportunity.

Ross EdwardsRoss Edwards. Photo © Bridget Elliot

Emerald Crossing – I retained the original title for what has become the first movement of my new quartet – surprised me when I was composing it nearly 20 years ago because it seemed to take on a life and direction of its own. I’ve described it as a kind of serene passacaglia with characteristics of a barcarolle, a response to a waking dream in which a canoe was being propelled slowly across calm green water, possibly a lagoon, towards an island. No doubt symbolic at a deep level, I had the feeling that the journey was ceremonial, that some form of ritual was being enacted, and that the point of arrival would hold special significance.

The newly composed second movement, Sea Star Dances, celebrates landfall on the seemingly utopian island in a series of dance episodes linked by fragmentary references to the very beautiful 9th-century European liturgical hymn Ave Maris Stella (Hail Star of the Sea), much favoured by composers throughout history to underpin or ornament their music. For me it has acquired an ecological association as an Earth Mother symbol.

Beginning rather like a drone-based estampie, the European allusion swiftly becomes intertwined with a plethora of fleeting cross-cultural reverences traversing musical traditions of East Asia and the Pacific Rim, with hints of birdsong. Following a reflective, song-like interlude with mournful birds, the work ends with a classic maninya, one of my Australian dance-chants, inspired by the ecstatic sound texture of a natural environment in high summer and establishing a sense of place that the music appears to have been seeking all along. In celebration, a brief reappearance of the hymn fragment turns abruptly into the jubilant shriek of a parrot.

The Australia Piano Quartet will perform Ross Edwards new Piano Quartet in the Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room on December 10.