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3 April 2017

AMPlify ICI workshop: 'Our music arises from our countries'

ICI mentor Kevin Hunt with Elizabeth Sheppard Image: ICI mentor Kevin Hunt with Elizabeth Sheppard  

Elizabeth Sheppard reports from the first Ensemble Offspring workshop of the AMPlify Indigenous Composer Initiative at Eora Aboriginal College, Sydney, in February 2017. Born in Melbourne and raised in Adelaide, Elizabeth studied Western and Aboriginal Music and singing under Clemens Leske Snr, Professor David Galliver and Barbara Howard at Adelaide's Elder Conservatorium, Professor Catherine Ellis at Armidale's University of New England, and Opera Chorus Master James Christianson. In 2002-2008 she reconnected to her Noongar Yamatji heritage and culture through Indigenous music, culture and law diploma courses at Sydney's Eora Aboriginal College and Tranby National Indigenous Adult Education Centre. She now lives on Dharug Burramattagul country in New South Wales, and goes back to country regularly. Several of her compositions have been performed at St Patrick's Cathedral Parramatta, and her Kooranginy Suite will be recorded at ANU Music Studio in June 2017.

On Saturday 25 February 2017 I was thrilled to have one of my compositions, Yoora Tattoo (developed with oversight from AMC AMPlify's Indigenous Composers' Initiative mentor Kevin Hunt) workshopped by Claire Edwardes's brilliant Ensemble Offspring. Early that morning, armed with a set of two-toned Murawari mulga clapsticks, and a bulging case of scores, I set off from North Parramatta, and met the other ICI composers - Tim Gray, Troy Russell, Brenda Gifford and Rhyan Clapham - in the well-equipped Eora College Theatre at Abercrombie Street, Chippendale. We were welcomed by Christopher Sainsbury (ANU ICI Director, composer and Dharug Aboriginal Elder), and well supported by mentors and composers Kevin Hunt and Roland Peelman.

The day was a feast of exciting, innovative music. Each ICI composer introduced a composition, heard Ensemble Offspring play and comment on it, and gave feedback. We discussed topics ranging from unusual bass clarinet sounds, managing blending using instrumental registration, Tim Gray's frissons of terror, imitating gunshots and whips, the art of telling a moving Indigenous story in music (Troy Russell), the intricate counterpoint of Brenda Gifford's whispered vocals emerging from lyrical harmonies, and Rhyan Clapham's Murawariki vocal tapestry.

Full of layered themes, my Yoora Tattoo piece (the opening piece of my Kooranginy Suite) narrates the violent juxtaposition of colonial and Indigenous cultures in colonial Sydney. The 'Tattoo' of the title is the military fife and drum curfew tattoo played each evening in the British military camp from 1788, and Yoora is the Noongar word for clapsticks.

As they played this piece, the Ensemble Offspring performers commented, and I engaged in the creative nuts and bolts exchange of new music workshopping. We discussed tempi, instrumental techniques, dynamics and ensemble balance. I learned about clarifying solo themes against a percussive background, adding interest with rhythmic and dynamic contrast and silences, and shaping musical tension effectively.

I was impressed by the Ensemble's willingness to perform this piece as I conceived it, without compromising my Indigenous perspective. This sensitive, well-informed performance moved my music, and my developing composition skills, into a more rigorous, interactive, dynamic, exhilarating dimension.

This intensive workshop revealed that each ICI composer is deeply engaged in developing unique, well-constructed ways of giving powerful voice to diverse Indigenous themes and narratives, through the flexible contemporary instrumental medium generously provided by Ensemble Offspring. After all our pieces had been played, we shared a meal, then discussed culturally appropriate ways of including Indigenous languages in composition, and how our music arises from our countries, our Elders, and our communities.

The day concluded with informative, inspiring talks on contemporary Indigenous composition from Mooghalin Arts Centre Director and theatre producer Fred Copperwaite (Noongar) and Sydney Conservatorium lecturer and Noongar musicologist Clint Bracknell.

Warm thanks to Ensemble Offspring and all the AMPlify Indigenous Composers Initiative Workshop mentors and presenters, for their inspiring performances, patience, professional cameraderie, and continuing post-workshop support.

Further resources

AMPlify ICI Workshop: 'Looking forward to seeing where this music goes' - an article by Chris Sainsbury on Resonate (31 March 2017)

AMPlify Indigenous Composer Initiative - information about the program and participating artists. See also: AMPlify artist development framework

'AMPlify Indigenous Composer Initiative in full swing' - an article on Resonate (13 December 2016)

Elizabeth Sheppard takes part in the pilot AMPlify Indigenous Composer Initiative (2016-2017). More information about the program and its participants.


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Fantastic initiative

This is a terrific initiative, a realisation of a project many years in the making. Chris Sainsbury was Head Teacher in Arts and Media at the Eora Centre for 25 years, and this project has been his dream all that time.

Having myself been involved with all the participants except Rhyan at either Eora or the NFSA, I'm especially pleased that they are taking up this opportunity and I greatly look forward to hearing the results!