… sacred song in Australia …

My adventures in integrating my Church and Conservatorium music background with my Aboriginal Noongar Yamatji and Gundangurra ancestral music heritage are continuing in 2018. This year I’ve been making music with Darug Aboriginal Elders Aunty Judy Joyce and Stacy Jane Etal, who are reviving the Darug language by recording songs to tell the Darug stories and teach the revived language to Aboriginal children. This is truly sacred music, about the bountiful land we live on, that gives us life and breath and food from our Creator.

I was again sponsored to take part in the second round of the Australian Indigenous Composers Initiative, We began in March 2018, and progressed through performances of works for Ensemble Offspring by Brenda Gifford, Troy Russell, Rhyan Clapham, Timothy John Edward Gray and myself (Elizabeth Sheppard) at the Biaime’s Nghunnu Festival at Brewarrina, on Murawari country. Nghunnu is the word for the Murawari fish traps on the Barwon River, and Biaime is the Creator. Meanwhile I underwent knee surgery and became a Bionic Woman! After attending Composition tutorials with Dr. Kim Cunio, Music Lecturer at the Australian National University, I and the other four ICI Composers were ready to Workshop some of our brand new music with the Ensemble. My new piece, based on a Darug Aboriginal Women’s song about eels swimming upriver, was undertaken with the permission of Darug Aboriginal Elders from Parramatta.

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On May 10 2018 Dr Christopher Sainsbury, the ICI Director, Australian National University Music Lecturer, and an eminent Darug Aboriginal composer, welcomed us, gave the Acknowledgement of Gadigal and Eora Country, and introduced Yorta Yorta Aboriginal composer and opera singer Deborah Cheetham. Deborah talked with us about using our Aboriginal languages in our compositions, shared how she composed and performed an a capella song in Gadigal Aboriginal language with Eora College students, and encouraged us to share our music and collaborate in community and with each other, as this is an important principle of Aboriginal music.

After we welcomed the Ensemble performers – Jason Noble (Clarinet), Sonya Holowell (Dharawal Mezzo Soprano), Anna McMichael (Violin) and Roland Peelman (Composer, Canberra International Music Festival Producer and Director, and our Workshop Pianist) – they tuned up, and we began. First off the rank was my piece, the first movement of my Burradowi (Elver) Quartet. The Ensemble played it right through several times with all instruments, with Roland Peelman delighting us with his comments and improvisations. The piece was treated to a real workout, with every possible variation being applied to it, including some skilful eel-like sounds from Jason’s Clarinet, beautiful ethereal singing from Sonya, and smooth, soaring violin melodies from Anna. After 15 minutes my brain was full of ways to develop this music still further.

Four pieces by the other composers were Workshopped, including a beautiful atmospheric piece by Brenda Gifford, called Mirawar (Sky), a meditative lament by Troy, a mysterious piece from Tim that sent electric shivers up my spine, and Rhyan Clapham’s complex, rhythmically challenging piece in 5/4, that included some tongue twisters for Sonya. Although each of our pieces is in the early stages of development, each has a particular indigenous character, and each is closely related to the composer’s country.

It was great to be at Eora Aboriginal College again, and wonderful to meet up with Deborah Cheetham, Roland Peelman, Claire Edwardes, Chris Sainsbury, Kim Cunio, Kiriaki Koubaroulis and the other ICI Composers, and also with Dr. John Davis of the Australian Music Centre. In the second week of June 2018 we will be gathering at Llewellyn Hall, ANU in Canberra to Workshop our pieces again, in preparation for two ICI Composer concerts in Canberra and Sydney, and another ICI Composer recording at the Australian National University Studio in November. Thanks to the Ensemble performers and everyone involved in this exciting, ongoing Aboriginal Australian music Project.

So what’s this topic got to do with church music, or cantor ministry? Quite a lot, actually.

As readers who follow my blogs and my music will know, I have Noongar Yamatji  (Western Australian) and Gundangurra (NSW) indigenous heritage. In October 2016, I was recommended for and awarded a mentored Composition internship under the Australian National University / Australian Music Centre / APRA AMCOS Indigenous Composers Initiative (ICI) Program. Since then, I’ve been composing a series of pieces on Australian indigenous themes. All of my ICI indigenous compositions have church-related content, whether liturgical, or social justice related. In that that sense, they are a continuation of my church music ministry, but unconfined by an institution that has been slow to recognise the unique value, presence of Australian indigenous music and musicians.

Church music is not Ensemble Offspring’s usual bill of fare, but virtuoso vibraphonist Claire Edwardes and her talented colleagues welcome all genres of new music, by any composer who’s willing and able to explore contemporary music making. This group Workshopped some of my compositions on February 25 at Eora Aboriginal College. On June 22 the five intern ICI Composers – Brenda Gifford, Troy Russell, Timothy John Edward Gray, Rhyan Clapham and myself – gathered at ANU Canberra to hear our compositions recorded at the ANU School of Music Studio. It’s fair to say that all of our indigenous compositions have strong spiritual elements. Christopher Sainsbury of ANU School of Music, Kevin Hunt of Sydney Conservatorium, and John Davis, CEO of the Australian Music Centre, have encouraged and supported the ICI Composers throughout the Program.

At 6.00 pm this Thursday at Eora Aboriginal College, 333 Abercrombie Street, Chippendale, Ensemble Offspring will premiere my three movement instrumental Kooranginy Suite, as part of the 2017 ICI Premiere Concert. Kooranginy includes my musical setting of the Aboriginal Noongar Prayer text. The Noongar Prayer is a translation of the Our Father prayer into Noongar, the Aboriginal language of South West Western Australia. My Kooranginy setting of this prayer text (entitled Walken Rainbow) will be performed without words to symbolise the years of enforced cultural silencing endured by Noongar people, and the suppression and exclusion of Aboriginal languages in Australian missions and churches. Over many years the Noongar Language of Western Australia has slowly been reconstructed and revived, and is now taught in Western Australian schools. Recently, due to the dedicated work of many Noongar Elders and researchers, including (among others too numerous to mention) Father Bernard Rooney of New Norcia Abbey, Kylie Farmer, Gina Williams and Clint Bracknell, Noongar speech, stories, poetry and songs are re-emerging.

Last night I attended a seminar organised by Reconciliation for Western Sydney, on Aboriginal Justice, Language restoration and Spirituality,  at Parramatta, Western Sydney, Australia, and heard sacred songs sung in Darug Aboriginal language by Jacinta Tobin, a Darug Elder who is a descendant of Yarramundi, a chieftain of the Boorooberongal clan of the Richmond NSW area., and a Christian. Her presentation was followed up by Pastor Ray Minniecon from Redfern, who spoke about Australian indigenous spirituality and its connection to singing.

The enthusiastic audience, who braved freezing weather to attend, were delighted by Jacinta’s songs, and appreciative of Pastor Ray’s careful, patient explanations of complex indigenous spiritual concepts such as “skin”, “songlines”, and clan relationship laws. Jacinta has recorded three CDs of her Darug songs, and they will soon be available for online purchase.

Jacinta and Ray, and many Australian Aboriginal people, express their Christian faith in complete consonance with their indigenous identity and song. So why don’t Australian churches include more Australian Aboriginal music and ceremony in their parish worship? There’s plenty of brilliant indigenous church repertoire, and many great indigenous church musicians, out there, but most Australian parish church communities do not include and welcome indigenous church musicians sufficiently, or include indigenous church music in their worship repertoire.

Maybe someone at the upcoming NSW Sacred Music Festival can enlighten me as to the reasons for this shameful situation. Including indigenous church music in church worship is a proven method of reversing racism and educating non-indigenous people, but none of my church music friends / colleagues seem to care a hoot about this issue. I’m not at all happy to settle for the unspoken / unwritten, but in effect, policies of enforcing church music apartheid from Australian Aboriginal Christians. An optional annual token Sorry Day or NAIDOC service is not enough. All cultures and genres of non-indigenous music have found prominence and supporters in Australian church worship, why not Australian indigenous church music?

In 1963 my Anglican parish priest in Adelaide, South Australia, purchased a tape recorder for our parish. My church youth group tried it out: we were amazed to hear our recorded voices singing back at us. The miraculous tape recorder served our parish well, but we never thought to use it to replace our valued organist, or our singing voices. Our worship was off limits to technology. We used the tape recorder to produce plays and concerts, entertain at social events, and raise money.

Over the last twenty years, with digital technology ever present, many Australian churches have relaxed previously strict rules banning recorded music and audiovisuals during Church worship services. The digital church has now come to stay, whether device-phobic parishioners like it, or not. There is a sensible way of using recorded music and audiovisuals, but sadly, in some churches, nonsensical practices have taken over. Sensible, moderate inclusion of recorded and enhanced music can help churches to teach and promote sung worship.

Some church communities have gone too far, and totally replaced singing with recorded music and recorded singers. Such communities, who seem to be either unwilling or unable to provide music instruction, music staff, and equipment, wrongly teach that total silence is superior to sung  worship. I am one of many actively worshipping Christians who deplore this practice. We should not set up a contest between silent worship and sung worship: each has its place in different stages of worship. God can be present with us in both silent prayer, and also when we sing with heart as well as voice. The best worship always includes both silence and song. Church singing, valued and taught in all Christian churches, is an important and effective way to proclaim our Christian faith publicly, and to introduce curious new members and children to prayer and worship.

Recorded church music, when used, should support sung worship, not totally supplant it. Using recorded accompaniments for some services can quickly reduce parish music budgets stretched by weekly organist fees and organ maintenance. But churches who value their music heritage adequately will always make room for skilled organists and choristers, and firmly connect recorded music with sound church music teaching and practice.

Recorded accompaniments have their pitfalls, one of these being the cost of a good sound amplification system, and regular sound technicians’ fees. Reliable and skilled recorded sound supervision and cue coordination during worship is just as important as real time music performance supervision. A blaring and blurting sound system, uncoordinated hymn lyric slides, and selecting disliked recorded songs sung by non-local performers in non-local accents, is a sure way to drive a congregation away to a more musical parish that welcomes and promotes local church musicians and composers..

Following the example of media adulation of “winning” secular star singers, Australian churches have jumped holus-bolus on to the Church Music Idol Bandwagon. Australian Church singers are no longer music ministers, but merely music repertoire and performance specialists, who are not expected to do pastoral care or ministry training. In some parishes, refusing to idolise the current church music star risks clerical condemnation. Refusing to admire and sing endorsed church music is often condemned as sinful by churches who commodify their in-house church music, composers and performers. Clerics regularly condemn rival church music as sinful, in lengthy articles detailing musical offences. Evangelical Christians produce films about devil-worship using Catholic Gregorian chant soundtracks, and tell their members that Catholics are not Christians. Roman Catholic priests, totally ignoring the vast repertoire of Protestant church music for the dead (e.g. from composer Johann Sebastian Bach), spread the persistent slander that no Protestant Christian ever prays for the dead. Each commercially successful Australian male church musician has his fan club, and is signed up to a corporation that exercises absolute power over his church music career, income and output. Many Australian church musicians, following the example of their commercially successful music contemporaries in the rock, pop, country and rhythm and blues genres, and abandoning long held church music traditions, have imposed secular compositional styles on church texts, to cater for commercial market demand.  This is not a new thing in church music: secular themes have always been used by church musicians to attract, but today the scale and speed of the demise of church music traditions, with the assent of church authorities, has been startling. In Australia, this forced demise of traditional church music forms and exponents has included severe censorship of the education, performances and compositions of women church composers and musicians. The very few women church musicians who ascend to the heights of star church music performer status in Australia enjoy only momentary glory, before they are ungraciously booted out of the church music pantheon.

Sounds like sour grapes, I know, but I have experienced working in a fine church music system in the past, and today’s commodified church music is a travesty of what good, honest, heartfelt, free local church music can be. Even free-wheeling French Taize chants, which were composed as templates to be shaped and enhanced by local music styles through prayerful improvisation, has become a poor shadow of itself in many Australian churches who have banned local creativity and congregational education in church music.  So please excuse me for expressing my disgust at this anarchic church music mess, which could have easily been avoided by establishing an inter-denominational National Centre for Australian Church Music, and conforming to Australian anti-discrimination employment laws. The Wesley Centre in Canberra was a good start, but it didn’t go far enough. And guess what, God values every sincere church singer, just as he values every tiny sparrow that sings God’s praise from its heart. I’m still singing for God!

To express your views you can vote in my poll.

You may have noticed that the title of my blog has changed from neocantor to neocantrix. This is because an online troll registered the word neocantor in his name on Twitter, and I am not the author of his @neocantor Twitter posts.

In Australia, Church cantors minister to thousands of congregations, enriching worship with the music of many Church traditions. They work within many different church structures, and their work may be supervised, or not. No inter church agreements on the work of Christian musicians exist, although corporate church music conferences often claim dominant governance roles. Church denominations treasure their particular Church music tradition, which always contains and communicates their doctrinal position within the wide spectrum of Christian belief.

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Yet despite being consigned to what is effectively a management limbo, where individual competition is not only promoted, but mandatory, Christian cantors are surviving. Their ministry survival strategies are varied. Some cantors have chosen to enlist with Church music corporations, and so are paid by parishes affiliated to these church music licensing corporations. Some work as part-time casual employees, and some choose to work as unpaid parish or emerging church  volunteers. But more and more trained, experienced Church cantors are choosing to establish independent online cantor ministries, presenting church music workshops, singing for selected liturgies, composing church music, recording their compositions, and speaking at Church music conferences. Whatever survival strategy these Christian religious singers adopt, they are still serving the Church as cantors dedicated to Church music ministry.