… 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.


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. On August 8-10 we will 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 will be gathering 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 performers and everyone involved in this exciting, ongoing Aboriginal Australian music Project.

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