Indigenous composers have been around for a long time, with Deborah Cheetham and myself working in composition for some 30 years, Troy Russell for 25 years, and William Barton for 20 years, amongst quite a few others. Many more are now emerging, but most are seldom heard.
This is at odds with the fact that numerous Australian composers have referenced Indigenous music and culture in their works, many of which have received much attention.
Some have used Indigenous melodies or songs, themes or narratives, culture or language in original pieces without appropriate engagements with Indigenous peoples. I call it “Indigenous referencing”: either serious overreaching, or various “lite” appropriations.
Almost 20 years ago, I talked to a leading composer about my heritage and identity, to which he responded “you don’t look it”. In a similar talk with another late composer, he simply talked about “the real ones”. I can personally let go of being dismissed. However, in acknowledgement that there are now many more Indigenous composers, such attitudes need gentle correction.
Admittedly I’m a fair-skinned Koori, but the heritage and identity of any Indigenous person is not the call of anyone, and especially not composers who’ve made a focus on referencing Indigenous culture in their works. This referencing can effectively disempower Indigenous composers. Can we imagine artists doing the same in the art sector?
A way forward
As a composer and Dharug/Eora descendant, I’ve documented the Ngarra-burria First Peoples Composers program, of which I am the founder, in a new Platform Paper.
I do understand the referencing of Indigenous music and culture by non-Indigenous composers. It makes sense as we collectively seek to understand the evolving Australian identity and our place in this land. In some ways, composers such as Peter Sculthorpe were effectively saying “look to Indigenous peoples”, and there’s a depth in that.
However, there are ways to engage with Indigenous peoples, music and culture that are meaningful for all parties. I recommend going to the source, rather than having Indigenous music filtered through the pen of non-Indigenous composers (genuine partnerships between Indigenous musicians and composers are not what I’m concerned about).
The First Peoples Composers Program aims to develop and support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander composers working in scored music formats and new music styles. Our goals include composer development, making industry connections, lifting visibility, and exploring new expressions of culture.
My Platform Paper recommends such things as including Indigenous composers when making work that references Indigenous culture and sustaining that relationship over the years.
We should throw core funding at Indigenous composers and not just some kind of special funding, because then it’s real. And become informed about cultural agency, or who has authority over cultural expression. Fred Copperwaite, co-artistic director from our partner Moogahlin Performing Arts talks of “First Peoples first”.
And of course we recommend hanging out with Indigenous people. I worked at the Eora Centre for Aboriginal Visual and Performing Arts Sydney for about 25 years, and noted that no composer from the Sydney University Music Department, which was 300 metres away, ever visited us.
Ultimately this Paper is an opportunity to say Indigenous composers are there: they need support, they deserve profiling, and they will enrich the music sector.
Artful expressions of culture
The composers in the first Ngarra-burria program of 2016-18 – Rhyan Clapham, Brenda Gifford, Tim Gray, Troy Russell and Elizabeth Sheppard – have explored artful ways to articulate their culture.
Troy Russell’s Nucoorilma talks of a real-life foot journey over a great distance that his grandmother took about 100 years ago, to marry a man from another region. She and her family were welcomed into that distant country region/language area by locals.
In his piece, we get the picture that in the old times a “welcome to country” was potent with inherent physical effort, and it sounds in his music. Today it brings meaning for all of us about “welcomes”.
Rhyan Clapham (winner of the Create NSW Peter Sculthorpe Fellowship 2017) engages in language reclamation through his music.
He simply takes four words from his Murrawarri language, assigns them to four instruments, and uses the rhythms and the contours of each word to shape the rhythms and the contours of the musical ideas. He is graciously passing language reclamation into the hands of listeners.
The other composers, too, are eager to be heard and share. And this year we have a new group of another five Indigenous composers. Composer mentors have included Kevin Hunt, Kim Cunio, Deborah Cheetham and me.
Indigenous composers must have a place to be heard, and music organisations and ensembles need to take on part of the responsibility for profiling them. Cultural agency needs to be prioritised, and respectful long-term relationships created with Indigenous parties in any music project.
Dr Chris Sainsbury is the author of the new Platform Paper, Ngarra-Burria: New music and the search for an Australian sound, to be launched on May 1 by Currency House.