Music for percussion is less about melody and harmony and more about the many other qualities of classy music-making – expression, rhythm, sound, harmonics, emotion. In this concert, the ‘sorceress of percussion’, Claire Edwardes, delivered all those qualities, and more besides, in spades, enchanting her capacity audience with sounds they weren’t expecting and perhaps did not even know existed.

Claire Edwardes. Photo © Monty Coles

As curator of the CSO’s Australian Series, Australian composer Matthew Hindson always brings together some of the best young talent Australia has to offer, introducing audiences to new music that challenges, excites and educates.  As was the case for this concert, it usually happens that at least some of the composers are present at performances.  That every audience chair is filled at every concert is testament to Hindson’s success.

In a program entirely for percussion, written by Australian composers and performed by one Australian artist – hence the concert title – the oldest of the seven works performed was from 2016.

The concert began with Ether Lines, which Edwardes herself wrote only last year for the most intriguing Waterphone and, yes, water is involved. Using a range of implements to bang, scrape and bow, she built the work from simple pure sounds to sustained sonic cascades across an extraordinary range of tones from whale song to complex harmonic structures, taking her audience into an eerie state of being.

Also from last year was Temple, by Sydney-born Michael Smetanin. Performed on five Chinese temple blocks, the rhythm builds through the pitches and tones of the short, sharp percussive sounds, finally resolving into joyful fun. Despite the sounds mixing in the lengthy reverberation of the performance space, Edwardes maintained superb clarity and integrity of the individual sounds. This piece inspired quite a lot of delighted “oohs”, “aahs” and “wows” from the audience during the lengthy applause.

Stained Glass, written in 2018 by Canberra-based composer and performer, Benjamin Drury, is a unique combination of live vibraphone with recorded electronic sounds created by the composer tapping, scraping and bowing glass objects found in his mother’s kitchen.  Even though the vibraphone is in the tuned percussion family, the piece was less one of melody and harmony, and more one of Edwardes exploring sounds and harmonics created with excellent precision by four mallets and a violin bow, over the electronic sounds. The recorded sound volume could have been a little higher to allow a better mix of the two sound sources.

Born in Brewarrina to Filipino and Aboriginal parents, Rhyan Clapham (otherwise known as DOBBY) has several cap feathers – composing and rapping among them. His piece, Drum Dreamer, commissioned by the CSO and written this year for Edwardes, is an account of his time being bullied in high school 10 years ago by Dylan, who wanted to take his rhyme book.  It features a recorded backing track of Clapham rapping the story, with Edwardes playing the driving rhythm of the rap in perfect time, with percussive embellishments, on a snare drum.  It is a work that effused triumphant justice against Clapham’s teenage suffering. It was a pity the recording volume was too low to be able to hear all the lyrics.

In Clare Strong’s 2017 piece, Moonlight, Edwardes featured a set of exotic bells, cymbals and gongs, played with a variety of mallets, occasionally flipping them to play with the end of the dowel, and even a tiny set of wind chimes to sweep across the instruments, thus creating diverse timbres, sustains and harmonics that filled the room with beautiful colour and light.  Edwardes certainly allowed the audience, as the composer wishes, to listen to the work “as a reflective meditation”.

Returning to the vibraphone for Kate Moore’s 2016 piece Spel (Game), Edwardes created images of the gentle swish of flowing wavelets on the Barrier Reef (for which the piece was written). Building the piece in volume and complexity, but preserving the underlying flowing gentleness, it became dance-like. It was easy to imagine a choreography in any dance genre from classical through jazz to contemporary.

For the closing work, Edwardes had collaborated with Paul Mac in 2018 to compose Dual Attractor. It’s the finale from a larger dance work that has the dancer (and percussionist) reduced to, in Mac’s words, a “whirling sweaty mess”. Played on just three small drums, with recorded manipulated percussion accompaniment, its exciting, repetitive rhythm drives its building freneticism, at times sounding like a train passing at full speed through a station. On these three small drums (no bigger than bongos), Edwardes created an extraordinary range of colour, light and shade, fading to literally nothing and giving way to enthusiastic applause.

With the CSO’s Australian Series, one can never be sure what to expect. Perhaps this is even more so in the case of a percussion concert. With Hindson in charge, one can expect the unexpected every time, usually with a good dollop of surprise tossed in for good measure. He threw an extra dollop of surprise in this very entertaining and engaging concert.