Current Issue #488

Room of their own:
Virginia Woolf inspires Australian String Quartet in 2020

Australian String Quartet at Ngeringa Cultural Centre
Jacqui Way
Australian String Quartet at Ngeringa Cultural Centre

A promising collaboration with Adelaide composer Anne Cawrse inspired by Virginia Woolf’s seminal 1929 essay A Room Of One’s Own is the just the beginning of the quartet’s next chapter.

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” Virginia Woolf famously wrote in one of her most influential essays, A Room Of One’s Own. Besides being a foundational text in modern feminism, this wonderfully intelligent and insightful essay is also highly imaginative, inventing the fictitious character Judith Shakespeare, sister of William, to serve emblematically for how women have been blocked from intellectual and creative outlets by patriarchal social attitudes and effectively silenced from history.

For Adelaide composer, Anne Cawrse, Woolf’s essay came as a revelation. It had been gathering dust for a long time in her bookshelf at home, but she started reading it before an opportunity came up to write her first major string quartet, thanks to a commission from the Australian String Quartet. She said it all rang completely true – that this 90-year-old piece of writing was describing a world that still in very large part exists today. Immediately she decided to base her new work on that essay, and give it the same title.

“I think Virginia Woolf’s text has a lot to say about the requirements of creativity and the connections with self and opportunity. That’s something I am very interested in drawing out in some way in my piece,” Cawrse says. “I had just started reading it, so that’s where my head was at, and I thought well, what better standpoint to base a major work on than on this text that has meant a great deal to many people for many years, and which I found quite incredibly eye-opening and relevant for how I am feeling about being a creative woman – what that looks like, and balancing all the aspects of life and creativity.”

Virginia Woolf c. 1927
Virginia Woolf c. 1927
Anne Cawrse

A Room Of Her Own which Cawrse describes as, “an intimate and personal exploration of my own experiences in being a female composer in the 21st century”, will be unveiled on 25 May next year as part of the ASQ’s 2020 program. The group’s four players might be in for a surprise too, because at various points in the work they will be required to move around on stage and play crotales – small discs of brass tuned to a scale – with their bows. Having pulled off George Crumb’s Black Angels with great panache at the 2014 Adelaide Festival, with its call for vocalisations and percussion instruments, one feels sure they will manage.

Cawrse, incidentally, does have a room of her own in which to compose. It’s not always a place of solitude, she says. “But when I’m in it composing music I try to make it quiet. When I’m bashing the notes out and trying to wrench a piece into some sort of shape; I respond much better when I do have my own space to do that.”

She contends, though, that Woolf is not just talking about physical space: she is commenting on social attitudes and artists’ standing as professional people. “I remember reading the essay and just thinking ‘Oh my goodness, I didn’t realise it had two aspects to it’. I knew this concept of having space, but the money bit floored me – she says a woman must have money and a room of her own if she wants to write fiction.

Australian String Quartet: Stephen King, Sharon Grigoryan, Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew
Jacqui Way
Australian String Quartet: Stephen King, Sharon Grigoryan, Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew

“Every contemporary composer has to think of creative ways to fund their work and get played. On top of that, there are some very strong affiliations in people’s minds about what classical music is. So when I’m meeting someone and they ask what I do and I tell them I’m a composer, their second question often is, ‘Does that mean that you write music like Beethoven, or do you sound like Mozart?’ They can be really thrown when they see that not only are you alive, but you are also a woman.

“For me as a composer, what I’m wanting to do is to speak to people through music, and so the sound of what I’m creating and how that speaks to people is the most important part of my job. I made a very conscious decision a number of years ago to identify myself as a composer first and foremost, and as a teacher second. At the forefront of my mind is the financial inequality of what it is to be a composer, that you can’t rely wholly on compositions to pay your mortgage and eat. If more people were aware of that, maybe there could be a shift in that space.”

For Stephen King, the ASQ’s violist, Cawrses’ A Room Of Her Own highlights both literally and figuratively to the situation facing women composers, plus the fact that in the string quartet repertoire they are vastly outnumbered by their male counterparts. His group has worked hard to address that, he says, and that includes championing Cawrse once before in a smaller work she composed in 2015, Skittled. “It was a great piece of music,” he says. “We just loved how she brings out all sorts of moods and concepts in her music.

“We’ve also performed works from Fanny Mendelssohn right through to Helena Winkelman’s Papa Haydn’s Parrot, which is an amazing work by this contemporary Swiss composer. Over history of course there have been more male composers who have written quartets, but our view is that anybody has their part to play in creation. I think that’s how art is.”

The ASQ’s continued blazing rate of activity illustrates that outlook well. Their ‘Quartet and Country’ touring project, the fruit of a collaboration between Ukaria Foundation, Port Fairy Spring Music Festival and composer Iain Grandage, saw them present works by six First Nation composers: three female and three male. That project culminates next year by pairing Beethoven’s six Opus 18 quartets with more First Nation compositions – part of a cluster of ASQ concerts that mark the 250th birthday of Beethoven next year. “It’s kind of nice to put traditional works besides modern,” remarks King.

Also to look forward to in 2020 will be Konstantin Shamray joining the ASQ in Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A major, in the same concert as Cawrse’s new piece, their premiering of Ross Edwards’ latest string quartet, and a fascinating adventure in the Adelaide Fringe named ‘Project Ludwig’. In this, the audience votes for its favourite movements from Beethoven’s Opus 18 quartets and gets to hear them played in the order of most votes.

Coming up right now, on 2 November, is their collaboration with singer Katie Noonan in the poetry of Oodgeroo Noonuccal. Her poems will be read by her great granddaughter Kaleenah Edwards in the language of her country in Queensland, and there will be responses to them by 10 Australian composers including Carl Vine, Elena Kats Chernin, Richard Tognetti and Noonan herself. “It keeps a language and culture alive, which is a wonderful thing given how so many Indigenous languages have been lost,” King says.

“Each composer has taken quite a different approach on the poems, and throughout as singer Katie Noonan is a unifying factor. Her title track, The Glad Tomorrow, is a song of hope – it’s a beautiful and exciting project.”

2 November

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