Advice to a Girl
An admittedly unenviable reality for a reviewer, it can be difficult to articulate exactly what it is about Anne Cawrse's music that makes it so appealing. Detailed theoretical analysis (stay with me) unearths a sophisticated and evocative harmonic language, one which somehow seems both familiar and a distinctly unique voice. But it's not that, not entirely. There's also an easily digestible sense of structure as she carefully but deftly guides your ear from one passage to the next, a bit like a playful child taking you on a tour of their home. But it's not that, not entirely. That playfulness then reminds you of her bold and crackling rhythmic ingenuity, which excites in one moment and entertains the next. But it's not that, not entirely. Finally, you assume it must be her gorgeous and deceptively simple melodies, soaring atop her lovingly and meticulously crafted musical foundation. But it's not that, not entirely.
It's all of it.
But even more than that, it's how thoroughly unpretentious she is in holding your attention with all of these tricks at once, and how little she cares whether you notice what she's doing. This, at least as far as I can tell, is the core of Anne Cawrse's accessibility — she writes to be heard. Appreciation of her work doesn't hinge on an understanding of her techniques, but rather a willingness to simply hear her. Therefore, dear listener, if you are willing to give her your time, you will be richly rewarded with one of the most honest and endearing voices composing in Australia today.
Cawrse's new album, Advice to a Girl, is but a snapshot of her impressively prolific chamber output over the last 18 years. Consisting only of pieces featuring string instruments (including guitar) and soprano, there is a consistent ambience throughout all 9 tracks — the most impressive thing about this observation is that some of them were composed as long ago as 2004. Not only a testament to the integrity and longevity of her compositional voice, it also brings into sharp focus her longstanding mastery of the instrumentations used.
The album begins with 'Grounded' (2021), a wonderfully expressive cello and guitar duet performed sublimely by Sharon and Slava Grigoryan. It's an effective prelude to the ensuing compositions, setting an atmospheric and timbral context for what follows. After tantalisingly spinning out into an intimate and passionate dance between the two instruments, the piece finishes on a note of hesitation before taking a sharp left turn into the lively and cheeky 'Skittled' (2015), featuring the Australian String Quartet. Harmonically, this piece flows naturally from the first, as if they were written to be performed together, and it's this transition that confirms that Advice to a Girl is most effectively consumed as a whole (if you have the time, of course).
Two multi-movement works occupy the centre of the album — A Woman's Song, a set of 3 songs for soprano and string quartet, and Imperfect Fourth, a triptych for string quartet with commanding and dexterous leadership from Aleksandr Tsiboulski on guitar. The song cycle, an effortless match for Bethany Hill's stunning soprano voice, oscillates between moments of mournfulness, bittersweetness, optimism, striving and hope. Imperfect Fourth, beginning with the thoroughly engaging 'con fuoco,' is Cawrse at her most playful — the closing 30 seconds of this first movement are ripe with repeated rewind potential. It's difficult to listen to this work without a grin creeping across your face on at least one occasion. The string quartet in both recordings comprises Cameron Hill, Helen Ayres, Martin Alexander and Ewen Bramble whose spirited playing breathes new life into the oldest two pieces on the album (composed in 2005 and 2004 respectively).
Closing the album is the song that gives it its name, a setting of Sara Teasdale's poem. It's an ultimately inspiring conclusion to the listening experience, but not without strands of melancholy threaded throughout its texture. The next most recently composed piece after 'Grounded,' it's likely not a coincidence that the album is bookended by her most contemporary works, finishing with its namesake. A microcosm of Cawrse's oeuvre, the timeline moves backwards chronologically before concluding with Advice to a Girl.
It's an interesting question to ponder, what advice this accomplished composer might have given her younger self to help shape the course of her career, until we realise that we've likely spent the last 57 entrancing minutes listening to the answer.
'Advice to a Girl' is available to purchase from ABC Classic and Anne Cawrse's Bandcamp: