While the Australian composer doesn’t identify as Christian, for him, the mass is much more than worn out ritual.

Ross Edwards’ Mass of the Dreaming: Missa Alchera premiered in 2009 and in October this year it will have its first performance in Sydney. Catching up with the composer, I began by asking him if, looking back now after seven years, the works feels any different.

“I haven’t heard it much,” admits Edwards. “It’s only had the premiere in Brisbane and then a couple of abortive attempts to record it. That has now actually happened – the CD is out and I’m looking forward to hearing that.”

Ross Edwards, photo © Bridget Elliot

“It’s changed slightly,” he says. “We’ve refined it. I was at the rehearsal for the recording and I find that I just keep constantly changing and evolving it in small ways, just bringing it up to date.”

The Mass was composed to mark the 150th anniversaries of the state of Queensland and the Anglican and Catholic Diocese of Brisbane, as well as the completion of St John’s Cathedral. “I didn’t quite know what I was doing when I was asked to write it,” says Edwards. “I hadn’t thought of writing a mass, but when Graeme Morton approached me, I immediately thought I would love to do it, but then I thought, ‘what does the mass mean to me?’”

“I thought about it a lot under the shower actually, when I was conceiving it,” says Edwards. “Originally it was going to be a very contemplative piece and designed to invite people to confront something very mysterious, which is always present, but which we tend to overlook in everyday life. It’s very much my own language but it’s modified by the necessity of providing something that has been a liturgical ritual, which enacts and celebrates episodes in the life of Christ.”

Edwards himself doesn’t identify as Christian, however. “I don’t go to church or anything,” he says, “my religious consciousness is more a Paleolithic one. I can, as we all can, be aware of a force that binds everything together, which is totally mysterious. We’re all participants in a life force that we don’t seem to take much notice of. Or we’re so busy participating in mundane matters of necessity that we can’t confront these things. So that was a challenge for me, to write something that performed that function for me and potentially others.”

For Edwards, to perform this function, the ritual of the mass required a certain amount of renewal. “To me, and a lot of people, the mass might seem a sort of mechanical, worn-out ritual these days,” he says, “but I believe that everything can and should be refreshed and renewed. So we can confront things in a fresh way.”

In the Sydney Chamber Choir’s performance, Edwards’ Mass will sit alongside Haydn’s ‘Nelson’ Mass or Missa in Angustiis (Mass for troubled times), composed as Napoleon swept across Europe. “Haydn’s Mass, I think, is not imagined as a liturgical ritual,” says Edwards, “it’s more a concert piece and it celebrates what it celebrates – overcoming Napoleon, etc. I would call it as much a secular piece as having a religious function. I wanted to get back to finding a function for the Mass that was important to me and which revealed things, which focused on things. That’s why I called it Mass of the Dreaming.”

“I’ve tried to make a parallel between the Dreaming of the Aboriginal peoples and our concept of Eternity,” says Edwards, “which is something totally mysterious, which we haven’t got a hope of understanding. But we know that it’s there and we must participate in it. And this extends, I believe, to our place in the environment.”

The Mass as a form has a long history and carries a lot of musical and cultural baggage. So how will Mass of the Dreaming compare to the Haydn’s Mass? “I think the Haydn Mass is sort of jubilant,” says Edwards. “Although he was a very religious man, I can’t imagine it being performed in a liturgical setting. I’ve designed my Mass as a contemplative piece to draw you in. I would love to have the lights dimmed so that people can really focus and not be distracted, just as in a cathedral you get a very luminous sort of presence through lighting and artefacts – I often find myself staring at a lurid green Exit sign in a concert hall. I always try to create an atmosphere that’s conducive to listening and taking in the music.”

Similar themes to that of the Mass appear in Edwards’ Third String Quartet, currently being performed by the Jerusalem Quartet on tour for Musica Viva. “It’s all based on an insect sound,” explains Edwards, “and then whatever force drives me takes over and takes it somewhere else.” Like the Mass, Edwards’ String Quartet draws on spiritual elements. “I use things like plain chant and other symbolic material. All these things are relevant to each other. They all fit into a concept which is growing in me, which is the ultimate confrontation with the mystery of life.” The Jerusalem Quartet will perform the work in Sydney on September 19, but Edwards had just heard the performance in Perth. “It’s so difficult!” exclaims Edwards, “but they were wonderful. They really got their teeth stuck into all the filigree and quirky rhythms. And they said, ‘It’s so Jewish!’ I thought that’s a great compliment!”

These works are part of a busy year for Edwards, who will also see a new work for guitar premiered in Melbourne in November. “It’s called Melbourne Arioso,” explains Edwards. “It’s a five-minute piece for this wonderful Chinese guitarist Xuefei Yang.” Edwards describes the work as a tribute to Australian Tonalist painter Clarice Beckett. “The piece has something in common with what she was doing,” he says. “Her paintings are often nocturnal scenes of Melbourne, often in the rain. They’re not in any sense dramatic or writ large, just looking into things very sensitively.”

Two more world premieres will follow in 2017, with the Australian Chamber Orchestra performing Entwinings in their Arctic to Antipodes concert, and Amy Dickson performing Bright Birds and Sorrows with the Elias Quartet at the Musica Viva Festival. Edwards describes Bright Birds and Sorrows as “ a repository of short pieces, which could be played on their own or in small groups” while his work for the ACO will fit into a programme that focuses on the natural environment. “Entwinings is again a piece about being a part of nature,” says Edwards. “It’s got lots of birds, it’s got lots of eccentricity. Extreme quietude is balanced against vociferous outburst, like a whole tree full of birds at dusk.”

Seven years on, Edwards is still exploring themes that were present in the Mass of the Dreaming. His recent Concerto for Saxophone and Percussion, Frog and Star Cycle also explored ideas of spirituality and the natural world, borrowing musical elements from the Mass, and Edwards anticipates another work in a similar vein. “I have the whole thing inside me,” he says. “I went for a long bush walk with my daughter some weeks ago and it all fell into place. I’ve found what I’m trying to do is to confront people with the ultimate mystery. That we’re not just automatons in the hands of people who would use us to make squillions of dollars, but in fact, it’s much deeper.”

Richard Gill conducts the Sydney Chamber Choir in a performance of Ross Edwards’ Mass of the Dreaming: Missa Alchera in Sydney at City Recital Hall on October 1.


The Jerusalem Quartet are on tour with Musica Viva until September 27.