Adelaide-based composer Anne Cawrse has written A Room of Her Own, a string quartet that references Virginia Woolf’s seminal text A Room of One’s Own. Clive Paget caught up with her ahead of the work’s premiere with the Australian String Quartet to learn more about the work and how you go about exploring through music what it means to be a female composer in the 21st century.

What led you to read Virginia Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own and what was your reaction on reading it?

I’ve had A Room of One’s Own on my bookshelf for some time, and while I’m sure I’d read some of it before, it was only in mid 2018 that I finally read the whole work. My first reaction was ‘why didn’t I read this sooner?!’

I’d known of the concept of having a ‘room’ in which to create, but I was unaware that Woolf asserts equally that one also needs money. It was refreshing and surprising to read this; for me at least, while I receive regular commissions, it is my ‘other’ work that provides most of my income and offsets the time I spend writing. And here is Woolf in 1928, saying that creative freedom requires financial support. It really reaffirmed to me that if we value art and artists voices, we need to help provide the space and the funds to allow these voices to flourish and speak. And more personally, if I believe that what I have to say musically is of worth, then it is safe and right for me to find a space in which to do so, and to know its value. Practically, that involves countless small decisions, like using paid childcare when I have a project due or avoiding getting distracted by the laundry when I’m working from home.

Composer Anne Cawrse

Woolf’s essay is now 90 years old. How relevant does it feel to you, and has it dated at all?

The text certainly felt very contemporary. I literally sat reading with a pencil in hand, underlining all the ‘a-ha!’ and ‘yes!’ moments. Woolf spends a fair bit of time looking at history to examine why things are the way they are, so there is no relevance lost there. Of course, there are moments that show its age: we are no longer surprised to find women at university, for example. She also doesn’t specifically explore issues pertaining to people of colour, or other marginalised persons whose access to freedom of artistic expression has been hampered by their gender/colour/race/religion etc. But I think the essence of what she’s saying – that for creativity to prosper one needs more than just drive and desire, and that women (or any other marginalised group) have too often been denied the room and the money to be prosperous – is still relevant.

What made you think of basing a work on it, and why a string quartet in particular?

I received notification of the commission at the same time as I was reading the book, so in many ways the link between text and music was purely circumstantial. Simply put, it was Woolf’s reference to money and my receiving some that set me on the path of exploring what I could say about the text in a piece of music.

The string quartet medium offers such richness of possibilities, all the while maintaining a great sense of intimacy, so it really was perfect for what I wanted to say. I also think the fact that it is a chamber ensemble is appropriate to the theme. When you read about the lives of women composers through history, their works usually inhabit the domestic space – chamber music, piano solos, songs, music for the home. Sometimes through choice, but often through lack of opportunity, the ‘serious’ world of orchestra, symphonies and operas weren’t available to them.

How does Woolf’s writing specifically inform the writing? And is the work at all programmatic?

I wouldn’t describe my work as programmatic, as in a musical re-telling of Woolf’s text. But I did want to tell a story – write my own ‘essay’, if you will. In practical terms, Woolf’s writing makes an appearance through the titles of movements 1, 3 and 4, which are taken from quotes from the text. But while Woolf is talking to all women creatives, encouraging them to value their voice and be fearless in their creativity, I am much more introspective. My work is really me reflecting on what I need to create, and in a small way paying homage to the women composers who have gone before me.

Australian String Quartet at Ovolo Nishi, Canberra. Photo © Jacqui Way

Does a specific inspiration make the act of composition easier or more of a challenge?

Normally I’d say it makes it easier, but in this case, it felt more of a challenge! That said, the structure and the main themes came to me fairly easily and quite early on; it was the ‘filling in’ that caused some heartache. When I started working on the piece seriously, around the middle of 2019, I was feeling rather burnt out creatively. I’d finished a number of substantial works, all very back-to-back, and then I launched into this one. I had been looking forward to it greatly because it was such a wonderful opportunity and I had this great idea for the work, and then I hit a bit of a wall, and stayed there for some time. If it had ‘just’ been music, then maybe it would have been easier to justify my choices, simply working the material over and around and exploring sound for sound’s sake. But I’d committed to ‘saying’ something important, and the pressure of getting that right weighed heavy for some time. Which, in hindsight, is a bit silly, because of course there isn’t really any right or wrong in what I do, and one of the beautiful things about music is that it speaks to everyone in unique ways. But the subject material felt very close to home and quite personal, and I really wanted to explore that as honestly as I could.

How big a work is it in terms of length and how is it structured?

The work takes about 25 minutes to perform and is structured in four movements which are played attacca, without pause. The first movement, Web, evokes Woolf’s image of creative work being like a spider’s web, “attached ever so lightly… to life at all four corners.” In this movement, the cello takes centre stage and is accompanied side-stage by a ‘choir’ of bowed crotales. The second and shortest movement, Epigraph, fulfils two main purposes – one, to get the violins and viola back to centre stage to join the cello (I thought that was pretty important!) and two, to introduce three melodies from three noteworthy female composers of the past. The idea here was that by quoting significant works by well-known female composers (Margaret Sutherland, Clara Schumann and Rebecca Clarke), one could observe whether or not, in fact, these themes were recognised. Are they part of our canon of Western music? And if not, why not? Can we honestly say that they are less worthy than their male contemporaries?

The third movement Anon examines the famous quote, “I would venture to guess that Anon was often a woman.” In it I take the melodies of Epigraph and reconfigure them into my own themes, structuring the movement in a loose Sonata form. In times gone past, a composer could prove their worth by demonstrating their command of Sonata form – so naturally, it was usually assumed that women should leave it well alone. Hence, I chose not to! The work ends with Incandescence, which – perhaps selfishly – is me playing around with some of the things I find most beautiful and luminous in music. Woolf talks about releasing and ‘freeing’ the work that is inside you, without obstacle. So that is what I attempted to do.

Australian String Quartet. Photo © Jacqui Way

I always envisioned the work being played without breaks between movements. I also decided very early on to incorporate bowed crotales at the start. I was aware that these decisions create more difficulties for a group wanting to perform it – you need a fair chunk of time, and props! So while the intention is for the whole piece to be performed in the way described above, the third and fourth movements can ‘section off’ as independent pieces or solitary movements. The first movement could also be played by a solo cello with three percussionists. So it’s a little modular in that way, which I like. I like playing with structure and form, but I certainly did not want to create a work that belies subsequent performances due to inflexibility and length.

How differently do you think people who know the Woolf and people who don’t will experience the work? And how might it come across to someone who didn’t even know there was a connection?

First and foremost, I hope the work is valued as an engaging and moving piece of music. I wouldn’t want anyone to feel like they needed to have read the Woolf before hearing the piece. But the choice of title, other than expressing my initial inspiration, is very intentional. Rather than calling it ‘String Quartet No 1’ or a similarly nondescript musical term, I want listeners to know that there is an extra-musical thread running through the work. My hope is that some will want to tease out that thread and explore it further, and that by doing so it adds an extra richness to their appreciation of the music. Quoting Woolf again, “one can only give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions.

How might you hope that the piece contributes to the ongoing debate about gender issues in classical music?

I don’t consider myself to be an especially eloquent spokesperson for gender issues, but I can write music. In the same way that I love setting texts, I enjoy telling stories and painting pictures in music, and this work attempts to tell a bit of my story as a female composer. I went through years of music education that paid only scant regard to music by women. Worse still, it wasn’t until my studies were long behind me that I realised how odd that was, and how detrimental the lack of representation could be to any woman thinking about becoming a composer.

The issue of female representation in classical music is important to me because I want to see myself reflected in my industry, and the older I get, the more stubborn I’ve become in expecting to see it. Writing a piece that looks at the joys and challenges of creating from a feminist perspective is one thing, but really the ASQ’s commissioning and programming of music by a diverse range of Australian composers, including women, says just as much about gender balances and representation in Australian music as my piece ever will. So maybe it is as simple as this – women have always written music, and continue to do so; if you aren’t hearing it, seeing it, teaching it or programming it, then there’s something wrong, or you’re not looking hard enough.

At the end of the day, it is ‘just’ a piece of music. Without a bit of background reading, it will come across as an extended work for string quartet, with lots of contrasting moods and a few unexpected surprises. And as I say above, I genuinely hope that when viewed through that lens, it succeeds… whatever that means…

Australian String Quartet will premiere A Room of Her Own at University of Adelaide’s Elder Hall on Saturday 17 October

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