In June 2020, with the intention of maintaining my vocal skills, and restricted by Covid pandemic conditions that limit my particiipation in live choirs and solo performances, I enrolled in an Open Academy Classic Song class at Sydney Conservatorium of Music. This turned out to be a wonderful opportunity, not only to maintain my vocal skills, but to introduce notated Australian Indigenous songs into a music education curriculum that is still largely dominated by an admirable, but clearly foreign, classical song repertoire – but now welcomes notated Australian Aboriginal song into the repertoire.
As a result, this Wednesday, Dec 2 2020, at 7.00 pm, I’m singing three of my Indigenous Noongar Australian classical songs and one European song – Kaya Mary, Mary Moorditj Ngaangk, and Ngalak Noonook Balga (Gasstrees), and Schubert’s An Die Musik – all workshopped with Christina Wilson and Alan Hicks in Sydney Conservatorium’s Open Academy Classic Song class, at the Classic Song Concert at Recital Hall West, Sydney Conservatorium. Thanks to Classic Song teachers / accompanists Christina Wilson and Alan Hicks for their expert mentoring and cultural competence. Tickets are available at Sydney Conservatorium Box Office.
Here’s a link to my performance of Ngalak Noonook Balga (Grasstrees).
It seems that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has woken Australians up to the important role that local community, Aboriginal and country based music can play, in maintaining human mental health and community peace.
Dreaming, performing, and fanning community, Aboriginal, and locally based music that comes from actual human situations and real life experiences, instead of idolising globalised music “stars” from distant places and cultures, has a unique power to enliven, build and strengthen human societies and economies. Local song and local culture sharing and exchange can, in fact, act as a currency.
The myth that supporting local Australian music will produce jingoistic nationalism, xenophobic hatred and war, is groundless. Where healthy local intercultural dialogue, assisted by song dialogue and exchange, is well funded, and provocative mass media reports inciting hatred, are excised prior to publication by responsible editors, peace has a chance to flourish. The proliferation of imported global music is still smothering local Australian music. which is characteristically respectful, and features intercultural sharing. Using music in good ways, local Australian musicians have outlawed deliberately offensive behaviour; many Australian songs promote justice by exposing and discrediting mischief making rumours that incite conflict.
Cultures that articulate and celebrate themselves in music, while engaging with environmental, spiritual and cultural concepts and structures, find ways to communicate peacefully with other cultures. Australian musicians have intelligent, inoffensive ways of agreeing to disagree, while expressing culture based viewpoints strongly. As their community music is heard and discussed, local audiences forge and maintain sensible behavioural boundaries, with humour and wit. In Western Sydney in the early 2000s, Australian Bishop Kevin Manning tested and proved this beyond doubt, when he organised a productive, peaceful series of interfaith conversations between large congregations of Christians and Muslims. These sessions included diverse local musics, and the discussions that ensued quickly restored community peace after an isolated but extremely provocative incident. It became evident to all that sharing common ground, singing together, clarifying intercultural issues and utterly discrediting false media myths, has an unrivalled power to promote and restore not only passive peace, but proactive, strengthened, responsible community relationships.
Songbooks such as the Dhungala Choral Connection Songbook and CD, produced by Deborah Cheetham, Toni Lalich and Jessica Hitchcock in close collaboration with several Australian Aboriginal communities, also foster community peace. Such resources are valuable local community building tools for the challenging pandemic era we are living through.
So, how much health-bestowing local community music is being produced and consumed by Australians, right now? Where is it performed and heard, how is it managed, recorded, licensed and distributed, and who is still making it? When an Australian musician or composer writes, performs and records some of their own music, how do they get it heard by Australian and international audiences? Are they expected to give their music away free of charge, to be heard? And are Australian governments able to add to our National assets, by including the value of our national music in the National Budget, as an asset? Is wide, government sponsored media distribution provided to our Australian musicians, so their loyal, pandemically challenged fans can access it? And if our local music is being drowned out by insistent promotion of non-Australian music, why is this so?
Have a look online. Many unfunded Australian Aboriginal communities in remote and urban areas are making magnificent, uniquely Australian music. Many non-Indigenous Australian musicians and ethical researchers are collaborating with these communities, to grow uniquely Australian community music repertoires with a powerful Australian sound and presence. This is a learning process, that deserves music policy support. When every Australian gives first priority to supporting uniquely Australian music, instead of believing the globalised media hype that promotes non-Australian performers and imported music genres above our home grown music, local community music, community cultures, and community peace, will flourish healthily, and grow.
Obviously, Australians don’t dislike overseas musics, they are all wonderful, but why should Australians prioritize non-Australian music genres, or promote them above our own musics, to the detriment of the strong internal multicultural musical bonds we have always lived with and built? All Australian citizens have a cultural right and duty to support, grow and enjoy our very own music, that connects us to, and takes pride in, the beautiful country we are fortunate to live in.
Australian community music is slowly re-emerging from the cultural silencing that the post World War II flood of imported and globalised music induced. We are beginning to realise that muting our local musicians’ voices, obediently patronising, consuming and imitating the avalanche of non-Australian music genres that were, and in some cases still are, permitted to dominate our airwaves, and allowing overseas music scholars to interpret, pass judgement on, and appropriate our home grown Australian music cultures, is not likely to benefit Australia. We can and should take credit for our own musical prowess. Australia is no longer stuck in a colonial music time warp, that wrongly deems all imported music and opinions superior, and all home grown music irredeemably inferior. However, many Australians think it safe to sit timidly on a musical fence, and are still vacillating between patronising non-Australian music, and prioritising our local music.
Can Australia’s thirst for our own sovereign music really be fulfilled with instore muzak such as “In the Bleak Midwinter”, “White Christmas”, or “Jingle Bells”, to cheer us through our smoky heatwave-and-bushfire summers? I don’t think so. Sadly, the yawning gulf that divorced the community music (of both Aboriginal and immigrant origin that many older Australians still know and love), from the overwhelmingly foreign music repertoire studied and performed in Australian Universities, Conservatoria, and concert halls, has certainly not been bridged.
Hands up, if you’ve heard identifiably Australian music, performed, recorded and distributed by Australians, in Australia, on an Australian-produced radio or TV program, or a streamed podcast. Hands up, if the adoring praise Australian media curators and announcers heap on the imported music of Beethoven, Bach, Wagner, Mozart, and American style jazz seriously outweighs their half hearted, grudging endorsement of “second class” Australian music. Hands up, if you’ve heard, played or sung Australian music in the last week. Music by non-Australian composers of non-Australian music genres, still floods Australian airwaves, and is still promoted by massive government handouts of public money, that all flows out of Australia. This money should be flowing into local Australian community music systems, to support and grow homespun Australian music.
Supporting local music is not narrow parochialism or isolationist nationalism, nor is it driven by anti-competitive rhetoric. It’s commonsense local social capital building. Many researchers claim that academic studies of “popular music” such as hip hop, rock, soul, electronica and gaming music have broken through the academic / community music divide, by validating the selection and insertion of a carefully selected canon of globalised ‘popular music’ into Australian school and academic curricula. The theory behind this policy, is that establishing a secularised global music repertoire shared by all, will eliminate intercultural and interreligious conflict – John Lennon’s utopian “Imagine” vision of world harmony. But despite this populist educational policy, a strict academic / community music divide survives, and is promoted by, imported music teaching and examination systems that many Australian music teachers are required to endorse. Grass rooms musos are studied by Australian music scholars, but how many of them read, or are permitted to respond to, the thousands of academic papers written about local Australian abd Aboriginal musicians? Popular music syllabuses that include lists of set examination performance pieces, and also teach computer music skills, are shaping future Australian musicians, but only a tiny percentage of the teaching repertoire included in these syllabuses is composed by Australians, or supportive of uniquely Australian and Aboriginal music genres and performers.
So what can be done to promote and support the growth of health-giving Australian community music systems and repertoires?
1. Immediately reduce the high percentage of non-Australian music heard on Australian airwaves, by 50%, and replace it with uniquely, recognusably Australian music, funded by Australia, and performed by Australians.
2. Teach and show Australian children that healthily home grown Australian music is highly valued by Australians, and is just as good as any music of non-Australian origin, or music based on a non-Australian genre, or music composed, produced and distributed by non-Australian musicians and companies.
3. In our present pandemic situation, generously fund and facilitate the creation and local community performances of uniquely Australian music content, by Australian born and raised composers.
4. When the coronavirus pandemic subsides, fund healthy, safe live local music events directed and staffed by local Australian musicians, and endorsed by local Australian Aboriginal Elders as fully supportive of our sovereign Australian cultures and ecologies, instead of draining Australia’s music coffers by importing or promoting “big names” who don’t actually need promotion, and who often put youth audiences at risk by staging drug-ridden megaconcerts, and then depart, taking our funds with them.
When I began Postgraduate composition studies at the Australian National University School of Music, Canberra in January 2020, my academic skills were, to say the least, a bit rusty. But having lived through and survived the Australian summer bushfire crisis, the effects of the devastating hailstorm that hit Canberra, and the Covid-19 pandemic that followed, in Semester 2 2020 I’m continuing with my Postgraduate studies, working at upgrading my academic and technology skills with expert help, ploughing on with composition, writing my thesis, and preparing video presentations.
Click on the link below to see what I’m doing at ANU this Semester.
ANU School of Music (aka Llewellyn Hall) and its web of dedicated multidisciplinary music performers and researchers, is both challenging and inspiring. ANU Chancellor Julie Bishop, Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt and Professor Kim Cunio are the driving forces behind this Australian Music School, that welcomes talented musicians from diverse backgrounds to explore, perform and develop uniquely Australian, and often cross-cultural, musical repertoires. Currently, ANU music students include hip hop artists, gaming music researchers, orchestral musicians, jazz musicians, community music specialists, audio engineering trainees, music therapists, Indigenous composers, opera singers, musicologists, ethnomusicologists, and diverse ethnic musicians who specialise in performing and recording culture-based traditional music. Their talent and diversity, together with the reliable support of the ANU School of Music admin and academic team, and the admin and academic Colleges that support them, makes every encounter, whether live, or on Zoom, an informative, productive, collaborative adventure.
As Australia comes to terms with COVID-19 protocols, musicians and composers are working out how to “do” music online. If we had a choice, live music would win. These photos of our Ngarra Burria Composers recording sessions at the Australian National University Studio in 2017-2018, and the first Ngarra Burria concert at Eora Aboriginal College in 2017, show how contemporary musicians (Claire Edwardes, Ensemble Offspring, and the five inaugural Ngarra Burria composers Rhyan Clapham, Brenda Gifford, Troy Russell, Tim Gray and myself in these photos) normally work together, in close proximity, to make music. But it is also possible, as demonstrated by the brilliant Lux Aeterna virtual choir a few years back, to gather in virtual spaces to make great music. The current COVID-19 crisis is pushing musicians and composers towards online collaboration. And as an accommodation to social distancing, Italian balcony music also seems to have taken off! So despite my advanced years, and my unfamiliarity with webcams, video conferencing, podcasting, and Skype, I’ve decided to jump into making balcony music, video conferencing, jamming and broadcasting virtual music online. Yes, I do have a balcony – in fact, two balconies! And hearing Mikey O’Neil’s presentation on interactive gaming music at ANU School of Music last week was a great introduction to crafting multiple responsive loops.
As an Australian composer and singer, I make music that’s deeply engaged with, and inspired by, the vast, wonderful country that has always nourished and sustained my people. My music records and celebrates the everyday lived experience of my generation, my communities, and my ancestors, from one Australian woman’s perspective, over a lifetime. In 2019 I was awarded a Postgraduate Scholarship from the Australian National University in Canberra, to study and develop my Australian composition, document my music, and create new works. My course requires me to “develop an online presence” as a composer, so links to my music, writing. and published scores will be posted on this blog. Click on the My Music tab to see / hear audio clips or purchase my scores.
My first blog post about the scandalous absence of Australian Aboriginal church music in Australian churches, except for token performances, has sparked positive responses from concerned Australians and prominent musicians.
Anong these are Dr. Roland Peelman, Director of the Canberra International Music Festival, who championed Australian Aboriginal church music by including the Pitjantjatjara language hymns of the Ntaria Ladies Choir from Central Australia, in the 2019 Canberra Festival. Yorta Yorta opera composer and singer Deborah Cheetham took Australian Aboriginal church music to a new level, with her Eumeralla Requiem in Gunditjmara language, performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, the Melbourne Chorale, and the Dhungala Children’s Choir, at Hamer Hall on July 15 2019.
In 2018 I was fortunate to have one of my Noongar language church music compositions, Kaya Mary (Hello Mary) recorded by the ABC, and broadcast on Stephen Adams’ New Waves podcast. This piece was commissioned by Mooghalin Arts, the Australian Music Centre, Eora Aboriginal College and the Australian National University, and composed with mentorship provided by Darug Elder Dr. Chris Sainsbury’s Ngarra-Burria First Peoples Composers program. The podcast also includes powerful Australian Aboriginal music by Ngarra-Burria composers Brenda Gifford, Troy Russell, Rhyan Clapham and Tim Gray.
But despite these efforts to promote Australian Aboriginal church music, grass roots inclusion of Australian Aboriginal church music in immigrant churches is not fully under way. There are many historical and ideological reasons for this, but there is no doubt that Australian churches are missing out on a great faith resource that has unrivalled power to connect Australians realistically, to country.
Australian Aboriginal church musicians and their communities are not welcomed into Australian immigrant origin churches as full liturgical participants, with the unrestricted rights to speak and sing their own languages, that immigrant participants enjoy. In our churches, Australian Aboriginal church musicians and Elders are treated very differently from non-English immigrants, whose cultures are warmly celebrated, and collaboratively included in all forms of church worship and social activities.
Two hundred years of genocidal bans on speaking and singing in Australian Aboriginal languages have retarded the development and acceptance of uniquely Australian church musics and cultures. This gross injustice is now being reversed, with Australian Aboriginal church music slowly emerging from the deep shadows cast by racist colonialism. It is important to understand that acceptance of Australian Aboriginal music into any church repertoire, does not mean that any immigrant church music is being rejected, considered inferior, or downplayed. It just means that a just balance is being restored, and that Christ’s law of love and equal sharing is being carried to its proper, peaceful conclusion. Australian churches have journeyed together, through the cross, together with Australian Aboriginal church communities, and the story of our long journey can and should be told truthfully, in our church music. All Australian church musicians and their communities have an obligation to engage intensively in this healing, restorative process, as respectful friends and colleagues of their local Australian Aboriginal church communities.
Reversing the almost total exclusion of Australian Aboriginal church music from all denominational church music publications, is one easily achievable goal, that can be accomplished quickly, with proactive goodwill. Local Australian Aboriginal church music could be commissioned, selected and approved by an Aboriginal church music consultor of the correct clan group, appointed to each local church music management Committee. All churches have these Committees. Churches that manage their music regionally or nationally, or from overseas, should seek advice from Australian Aboriginal church music consultants who are familiar with both the repertoire, and local cultural requirements. This process will take time, but there is no reason why it should be delayed.
Current Australian church music managers, charged with reviewing and approving a range of church music for inclusion in official worship books, and promoting selected compositions and composers, have rejected Aboriginal church music as ineligible for inclusion. Pressured by unsustainable theological and moral objections, they have summarily excluded the vast repertoire of Aboriginal church music from church approval. Australian church music publishers, as an inflexible rule, still give pride of place to any and all immigrant church music. The censorious behaviour of church music afficionadoes, that began with the 1788 British invasion of Aboriginal Australia, mandated the unhealthily racist attitudes that have sustained apartheid church music policies in this country. So our immigrant Australian church parishes remain ignorant and deprived of our magnificent Aboriginal Australian church music, and (apart from token annual “native performances”) uncharitably neglect the Aboriginal church communities that produce it.
In Stephen Adams’ first Ngarra-Burria music podcast, broadcast by the ABC in November 2017, my church music composition Walken Rainbow, performed by Ensemble Offspring, was played. This instrumental piece is a setting of the words of the Noongar Prayer, which is a translation of the Our Father into the Noongar language of South West Western Australia. In Noongar culture, the Rainbow, Maadjit Walken, is the female Creator Spirit who gives birth to the male Rainbow Serpent, who then shapes the ancestors, the land and all its creatures, harmoniously.
When it comes to racist apartheid in churches, Australia’s clearly a winner. Have a look at Australian Church hymnbooks. The official hymnbooks of all Australian Churches may have a token Aboriginal hymn (or two, or unusually, three). This token inclusion is often cited as proof that no racism exists in Australian churches. Indignant pastors, when accused of musical racism, may divert attention to the African or black American hymn repertoire, because they think of all coloured people as one homogenous group, and so they’re incapable of valuing our many Australian Aboriginal Church musics as unique repertoires. No Aboriginal psalm settings or liturgical chants are ever included in Australian Church hymnbooks, and to the casual overseas visitor, and to Australia’s large immigrant population, it’s obvious that those churches who have intentionally edited out the rich repertoires of Australian Aboriginal Church music, are deeply and selectively racist.
This ingrained racism has historical roots in the British Empire colonial mission era, when conversion to Christianity was linked with an all-pervasive campaign to civilize, enslave and assimilate the Australian First Nations populations that remained from the killing times. In the colonial era, Government bans on speaking and singing all Australian Aboriginal languages worked effectively to silence traditional Aboriginal music everywhere. That era has now passed, but malignant echoes of these inhumane bans on Aboriginal languages still infect many Australian State school language policies and curricula. Official over-promotion of English as the Australian lingua franca has, to a large extent, legitimized musical, conversational, and literary racism in Australian Churches. And paradoxically, immigrant languages are accorded privileged status in Australian Churches and schools, over Australian Aboriginal languages.
In 2017 the passing of the NSW Aboriginal Languages Bill opened a door to including Aboriginal languages in NSW school curricula. Revival of local Aboriginal languages such as Dharug, Wiradjuri, Gundungurra, Gambayngirr, Gamilaroi, Dharawal and Dhurga, on a large scale, suddenly became possible. Many NSW Aboriginal communities, inspired and encouraged by the example of the Aranda / Pitjantjatjara language Songkeepers Choir, are now reviving their languages and promoting their unique musical genres. New South Wales has led the way in changing the repressive legislation that banned Australian Aboriginal languages in our schools. If all Australian Churches follow this example, and begin promoting Aboriginal languages in parishes, and including Aboriginal hymns, psalms and liturgical music in their worship repertoires, the overt racism shamefully displayed in most Australian Churches every Sunday, may begin to recede.
A note for Media Presenters, Reviewers and Scholars : Quoting from, citing, or referring to my original concepts, words or ideas, as presented here orelsewhere, during media programs or in publications authored by others, requires permission from me, their author (see Contact page)
Original music making is an enjoyable, rewarding, creative, deeply human activity. It uses every human sense, it’s like a gym workout session for your brain, to play or sing original music that comes from the heart of your country and community. Original music making and live performance promotes health, it’s a human survival weapon that people have always turned to in difficult times. And it can also be done online, to ensure healthy social distancing, and boost morale in struggling communities, in this current pandemic crisis.
I love composing new music, so much of my time is devoted to that, but I also enjoy listening to and singing the music I grew up with, and to today’s music. Lots of parents, like me, enjoy music that we can share with friends and family. Concert going is an expensive luxury, limited by my low income. Since my parents immersed me in original music making as a child, I’ve always been aware that consuming someone else’s music by listening or mimicry, although it’s fun, is at best an amusing, ephemeral secondhand musical adventure.
Immersing ourselves in other people’s music can be therapeutic, educational, fascinating and enriching. But experiencing music from the outside in isn’t at all like composing your own original music, or performing it, or hearing others perform it. Releasing the music that lives inside me and my country, and sending it out into the world, is exhilarating and enlivening. I’m energised by it. When I make my own music, I discover and celebrate the music that’s grown up with me, as I’ve matured. It’s been formed in me by my country and my people, and so I must release it. By closely attending to and translating the music of my country into music that communicates with audiences, I process my emotions and understandings, and contribute to community understandings. When my music is performed, it affirms the undervalued experiences of Australian communities that are deeply embedded in our agonising, enduring, surviving, reviving, rejoicing country. So through music, I empathise with others, celebrate them, and acknowledge contrasting viewpoints.
Expressing myself in communion with my country and my people comes naturally to me, but I’m not a genius or a virtuoso, and everyone can learn to do what I do, to some degree. Instead of drowning in information input overload, we can process our own knowledge, gathered from events that we’ve experienced and absorbed, and reflect it to audiences, who can then respond with their own music. This open musical dialogue, that can sustain social harmony, is the best, most constructive use for music. When my own music connects to an audience, it starts a social and spiritual chain reaction that goes on forever. And that’s wonderful.
There’s a huge difference between creating original music from scratch, and compiling playlists for listening, or learning to imitate pre-recorded music. Musical fandom seems to have descended into data collection of themes and loops. Regurgitating loops is rated as more musical, no memory for loops = unmusical. By that measure, I’m not musical at all, because all my brain has room for is my own music. On the TV show Spicks & Specks, competitors guess the title of a song after hearing a fragment of it. The winner, who identifies and imitates other peoples’ songs best, is judged “good at music”. That’s fine, if you just want to memorise other people’s songs, but is this really “being good at music”? Isn’t it just fandom, attentive listening, a good memory, a good ear, and consumer mimicry?
Reminiscing about the past is unpopular these days, but I grew up in an Australian community where people constantly created their own music, as well as playing and singing classics, radio “hits”, and inherited music. Making live music was an everyday, undigitised, praiseworthy, often informal, highly valued event. Criticism of average or wobbly music performances was rare. No one expected everyone to perform music perfectly, as they do today, so everyone could have a go at it, and get a clap. Everyone in my world sang, whistled, and memorised songs around the house, often imperfectly, and unencumbered by technology. We all knew a vast repertoire of church hymns and psalm tunes by heart; these were sung at church in parts, and hummed when we were gardening, helping Dad in his workshop, or doing housework with Mum. We handwrote music scores, played and sang solo and in groups, practised “party pieces” to perform at clubs, parties, community fundraising concerts, and performed music every week at home, at school and in church. Performing music was a social necessity, an absorbing team game that required learning cooperative music skills. Engaging in church music in those days was certainly not a Marxian dumbed down “opium of the people”: it required discipline, regular work, a commitment to social justice, and sustained creative effort.
We listened to music on the radio, and later to LP records on the stereogram my parents purchased in 1963, when I turned 15. But when we wanted to “do music”, we made our own music, building on the musuc traditions we knew well, to do so. Tape recorders, computers, CD players, iPods and streamed music targeted at consumers, were absent, they came along much later. I heard my tape recorded singing voice for the first time in 1963, at a church youth club, and bought my first computer, a Mac SE, in 1989. By 1992 I had a CD player and a Walkman, but the iPod, smart phones, music software and music streaming didn’t arrive in my household until 2000, when I was 52 years old. Like most Australians, we simply didn’t have sufficient disposable income to access up to date music technology.
My hardworking parents scrimped and saved to buy me the beautiful Bosendorfer upright grand piano they gave me on Christmas Day 1955, when I was 7 years old. I still it have today. My sister learnt to play the violin, so we learned music together, at great cost to Mum and Dad, who paid for our weekly music lessons until we turned 18. Recently I counted the cost of these music lessons. In all, Mum and Dad paid for about 500 piano lessons for me (about £5000, or $10000 in decimal currency), and the piano cost £150. This was a huge slice out of their meagre income from their 9 to 5 work as an electrician and teacher, that shows how much my family valued music.
When the folk music craze arrived from America in 1963, my Great Aunt Anne Foulsum gave me my Great Uncle Bill’s old steel string guitar, that he used to play in a Dixieland band at the old Melbourne Palais. I strummed it, and sang Scottish folk songs, and songs from the Seekers, Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Nina and Frederick, and Bob Dylan. I owned only one Nina and Frederick record, a 45′, called Little Boxes, and I listened to my sister’s classical and folk World Record Club collection. My musical cousins in Wonthaggi, Victoria played the piano or organ, or marching band instruments like fifes or euphoniums, and everyone in my extended family sang. Some could read music, others sang from sol-fa notation, and all the older folk sang or played from memory. My Grandad Ebenezer Simpson was the most accomplished musician in our family, he played the button accordion for dances, sang many folksongs from memory, and produced the annual Wonthaggi pantomime at the Union Theatre. One of his daughters, my Auntie Jean Fullard, was the Church organist at St Andrews Peace Church, Wonthaggi, for many years. On my mother’s side, my Grandfather Gus Ridge was a singer, theatre producer and playwright in Perth, Kalgoorlie and Carnarvon in the early 1900s. My musical ancestors passed on their love of country based music making, and their skills, to me, so through making new music that’s in tune with the past and present, and looks forward with hope, I keep faith with them and with my country.
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 working with the Darug Aboriginal community, who are reviving their threatened Dharug language by teaching indigenous and non-indigenous people to sing contemporary songs with Dharug language words researched and revived by Dr. Jeremy Steele, Dr. Jaklyn Troy, and Darug Elders Richard Green and Julie Webb Jones (among others). This revived Darug indigenous music comes from the bountiful land we live on, that gives us life and breath and food from our Creator.
In 2018 I continued my internship with Dr. Christopher Sainsbury’s Australian Indigenous Composers Initiative, sponsored by Mooghalin Arts. 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. Undeterred by surgery on my left knee, I became a Bionic Woman, and soldiered on with composing a series of new works while completing demanding rehabilitation exercise routines. After attending face to face and Skype Composition tutorials with Dr. Kim Cunio, Music Lecturer at the Australian National University, I and the other four ICI Composers were ready to Workshop our brand new music with the Ensemble. One of my new pieces, inspired by a the legend that Darug Aboriginal Women used to sing to baby eels as they swam upriver, was undertaken with the permission of Darug Aboriginal Elders from Parramatta.
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 Aboriginal Country Acknowledgement, and welcomed Yorta Yorta Aboriginal composer and opera singer Deborah Cheetham. I’d met Deborah previously at a Madjitil Moorna Choir rehearsal on my mother’s Whadjuk Noongar country (Perth). Deborah talked with us about using 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 Pianist). They tuned up, and we began the Workshop. First off the rank was my piece, Burradowi. 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. No new ideas were introduced, and no changes to my music score were suggested, but my mentors, indigenous colleagues and the performers provided me, through their performance itself, with valuable musical knowledge that would help me to refine my composition score, and my direction of performances, more effectively.
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 cinematic piece from Tim Gray, and Rhyan Clapham’s complex, rhythmically challenging piece in 5/4, that included many tongue twisters for Sonya. Although our pieces are 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. On August 8-10 we’ll be hosted at Llewellyn Hall, ANU Canberra, to attend composition lectures, and to present the inaugural Indigenous Composer Initiative group lecture on Indigenous Contemporary Composition, at ANU School of Music. On September 3 2018 we’ll gather at Eora Aboriginal College, 333 Abercrombie St. Chippendale NSW, 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 Offspring performers, and to everyone involved in this exciting, ongoing indigenous 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 inexcusably reluctant to recognise, appropriately value and promote the unique, indisputable, all-pervading presence of the many cultures of Australian indigenous music and musicians that have resounded since time immemorial, throughout our vast continent.
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 in any genre. 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.