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27 September 2017

Indigenous Composer Initiative - towards a gentle correction

AMPlify ICI program participants in group photo - see below for a larger image Image: AMPlify ICI program participants in group photo - see below for a larger image  
© Eora College

The first instalment of the AMPlify Indigenous Composer Initiative artist development program took place in 2017, with planning now underway for the second run. The final concert, featuring new works by five participating composers, took place at the Eora College Auditorium in Sydney on 3 August in front of an invited audience. A studio recording has been prepared at the ANU prior to the concert, and will be made available digitally at a later date. Find out more about AMPlify ICI, the five participants and the final concert.

This article by Chris Sainsbury is edited from his presentation at the 2017 IAML Australia conference in Canberra on 28 September. The music he refers to will be available for listening as part of ABC Classic FM's New Waves podcast in November as part of ABC Classic FM's Australian music month - date and time to be announced as soon as possible.

I'm Chris Sainsbury, and I'm a composer and guitarist. I focus much on music in communities, as opposed to strictly professional music-making. This stems in part from my long-term focus on regionalism in music composition - how we articulate a sense of regional identity - and it also stems from my Aboriginal heritage. I'm a Dharug/Eora person from the Sydney and Central Coast region of NSW, an unusual position for an Australian composer, yet not too unusual, as we will discover today.

From this point I want to acknowledge country, through playing a piece by one of the composers in the AMPlify ICI program. Nucoorilma - a piece by Troy Russell - means apple tree (in Gamillaroi language) and is about a physical and spiritual journey that Troy's great-grandmother took up near Tinga NSW in the early 20th century, a long walk away from her people's country to follow a man she loved. They were chaperoned by elders, and, along the way, there were apple trees that sustained them. In the new country the family and clan of her husband to be welcomed her. So, inherent in this piece is a real-life practice of Welcome to Country What really grabs my attention in this story and in the music is the physical sense of the journey - of covering lots of ground, or looking for food along the way. This is reflected in the music - the opening ostinato suggests walking, and the flute phrase open skies above. So I begin this talk by playing an excerpt from Nucoorilma as my acknowledgement of country here today.

Program participants and facilitators in Sydney on 3 August,
together with artists from Ensemble Offspring. Larger view.
© Eora College

Indigenous Composer Initiative

AMPlify Indigenous Composer Initiative aims at helping Aboriginal composers to establish contacts, build relationships and networks that serve them as emerging composers. It was in the making for some years and finally received funding in 2016. The focus of the initiative is to identify Indigenous composers working in scored music formats and to support them. This in turn will help to create new opportunities, in new contexts, for Indigenous people.

Five composer participants have been involved in the first pilot program: Rhyan Clapham (Murrawarri and Ngemba), Brenda Gifford (Dhurga), Tim Gray (Gumbaynggirr and Wiradjuri), Troy Russell (Gamiliroi and Biripi) and Elizabeth Sheppard (Noongar Yamatji). Each produced works for resident partner ensemble Ensemble Offspring. Facilitators and performers for the pilot project included jazz pianist and composer Kevin Hunt and me. Principal partner was Moogahlin Performing Arts in Redfern - an Aboriginal contemporary theatre company expanding into new music production - while other partners included the Eora College (Sydney TAFE) - an Aboriginal Visual and Performing Arts College in Redfern - the School of Music at the Australian National University, Ensemble Offspring, APRA AMCOS, and the Australian Music Centre. This project came under the umbrella of the AMC's AMPlify Artist Development Program and received funding from APRA. Its first run is complete, and we now have much of the funding secured for the second run.

Over nine months of the first AMPlify ICI program, the composers received composition and orchestration sessions with Kevin Hunt and myself at Eora College Redfern and at the School of Music ANU.

At the ANU they joined in on existing composition classes and musicology classes, which was positive for all. There were also workshops with the partner ensemble and a recording at the School of Music ANU. A recent concert was held at Sydney's Eora College in August, where Fred Copperwaite of Moogahlin Performing Arts stated, 'the paradigms are shifting'. The concert took a contemporary/new music ensemble into Aboriginal community, and community loved it! It was recorded by the ABC.

Background and rationale

Aboriginal composers of contemporary/new music or jazz have been around for decades, and there have been quite a few. There is Deborah Cheetham, Will Barton, Johnny Nicol, Clint Bracknell, also Brenda Gifford and Troy Russell (who are a part of this program), me, and more. A few have passed on - Roy Read and David Page.

Many Australian composers have a genuine interest in Indigenous people and culture. And many have been referencing Aboriginal culture in some of their works. My thinking is that, whilst many composers have advocated for Aboriginal people through their creative work, they've not realised that they've also inadvertently been given our space, by programmers and producers, the orchestras, the music companies, the funding bodies, and more. Some, at times, have assumed that space. And meanwhile Aboriginal composers have largely not been heard outside of Aboriginal community, companies or events. Yet some of these have been around for quite a while. For the most part they have not received commissions or performances from the very organisations that profile non-Aboriginal composers working with Aboriginal music, language, stories, culture and people. One tends to disappear in community.

So, a part of the rationale for the Indigenous Composer Initiative is political, and aims at gentle correction to this situation, and we believe that most composers - and the programmers, producers, performers, etc. - would be on board with it in a positive way. It is true that many Indigenous composers are emerging just now, so now is the right time to talk about this, and together to create ways forward. That's one of the things that the partners in the ICI are doing. And of course there should always be ways for non-Aboriginal composers to work with Aboriginal culture, in future hopefully in more informed ways than in the past.

The pieces - content and cultural matters

Significantly, the five composers in the program always directed the cultural content of their works themselves. Aboriginal language reclamation is current, and right from the start we realised that there was a strong and relevant focus on language reclamation in some of the works. There was also a focus on exploring family stories, the natural environment - from Aboriginal seasons to simple meditations by a creekside. There was a sounding of colonisation, and one composer created music for a fantasy-thriller style of film. In relation to the fantasy-thriller piece, why not? Through such a work we garner the fact that some Aboriginal composers are content to articulate things other than Aboriginal culture - and just be involved in music itself. This shows that culture is not always the centrepiece in a creative work from an Aboriginal person. In some instances, in some works, they actually just want to be known as composers. And at other times the context of being Aboriginal is important to articulate.

In relation to the use of cultural materials, significantly none of the composers in the program utilised Aboriginal music, stories, language or instruments from anywhere other than their own language region (except Elizabeth Sheppard, in a negotiated instance). In contrast, some non-Aboriginal composers have referenced Aboriginal culture from far and wide across Australia. It's a little homogenising of the diversity of Aboriginal cultures. For Aboriginal people it's a no-go zone. The simple answer is long-term engagement and respect, if one wants to work with Aboriginal people

Let's look briefly at two scores. The first is the 'Yoora Tattoo' movement from Kooranginy Suite by Elizabeth Sheppard, an Elder woman of the group. To quote from Elizabeth, she 'composes expressive music on Indigenous themes, and juxtaposes and interweaves symbolic motifs'. Her scores are delightfully decorative and contain many verbal prompts that draw one in. The various symbolic motifs are highlighted when they appear - for instance:

1) The 'Karla or Campfire theme' (in bar 1). For this motif she outlines in the score exactly which function it performs. Two things at play here are the music and its function. She states, 'This warm, calm, bold motif is the main Indigenous voice in the movement. It tells how we sit down on country around the campfire, to share food and pass on culture with song, dance and storytelling' (page 2 of score).

2) She sounds forth a fife canon (for clarinet and piccolo, from bar 36). She highlights the symbolism of this motif by stating in the score: 'This theme refers to the Fife and Drum Curfew played in 1788 at Kamay (Botany Bay )'. She goes on, 'British military curfews were played in all foreign theatres of war. The fact that this music was played at Botany Bay demonstrates that the British knew they were conducting a military campaign in a country that was not theirs' (page 4). In the Karla theme we can ascertain that she is genuinely engaged with her culture, and, in the case of the fife canon, we can ascertain that she is genuinely engaged with her history since colonisation.

3) There is also a gunshot motif (bar 32), and

4) the Wara-wara motif (bar 45) which is a symbolic motif for the first words spoken by Aboriginal people to the invaders, Wara-wara meaning 'go away'.

And there are many other motifs she interweaves throughout. One of the things that Elizabeth's piece highlights is that Aboriginal people from all over Australia have relationship with the place of the first colonisation of Australia, on the land of the Dharug/Eora people - in Sydney, my place. Elizabeth Sheppard's people are from Western Australia, yet she owns this story in my lands, too. Her piece actually sounds modal and Western, yet within that sound world she articulates much of her Aboriginal culture and history with clarity and meaning , especially through the symbolic motifs. Musically it is put together very well, in that it sustains the inherent narrative with a solid trajectory throughout.

Elizabeth is not concerned with being original (a nebulous and little understood term anyway ), yet I feel that it is a significant piece.

The second score I want to look at is Pitara Yaan Muru-wariki by Rhyan Clapham. Rhyan states,

'In the Aboriginal language of the Murrawarri people of Brewarrina NSW [his people], Pitara Yaan Muru-wariki means "Murrawarri is good, sweet talk".' He says, 'This is the goal of my composition. The work represents both the strength of Indigenous language and the journey of acquiring this knowledge.'

He uses four words that are assigned to the four instruments - Thirra (Song) for flute; Pintanj (Tongue) for clarinet; Paliputharran (Lungs) for cello and, lastly, 'Milkakari' which means 'someone with no ears/a non-listener' (this is assigned to the vibraphone). The vibraphone plays consistently, seeming to be oblivious to the other members of the group or parts in the music. This is the way Rhyan has conceived of the part - written for a non-listening performer. Rhyan is articulating four specific words from his language that are interrelated and create a narrative in his piece, and four words are enough for us as listeners. Then he assigns the words inventively within the ensemble and with artful depth through a new composition that allows the performers firstly and the listeners secondly to engage with and participate in his language reclamation, and this is humbling. He is passing language reclamation to all of us. And this gift from the pen of a 26 year old, and his people! This is hugely significant.

While it's a rhythmically complex piece it's also very listenable. The independent parts work well, we hear the lyricism and the rhythms of the words clearly. The orchestration is tasteful. Mostly we sense Rhyan's rhythmic ease, and he does have a degree in jazz drumming, so it's no wonder.


I hope that you may hear and understand that Aboriginal composers can cut it. The outcomes we hope for are connections and opportunities for our composers - relationships, networks and work. It is time. The non-Aboriginal composer practice of Aboriginal referencing needs a gentle correction. It should still have a place, but based on long term and respectful engagement.

Some of our composers may still need assistance in articulating exactly what they want to say on the page at times - in score format - but I feel that we can safely say, after the first run of the Indigenous Composer Initiative, that the worth of the program has been proved.

We do have a second APRA grant, and all current partners have indicated their willingness to continue, so stay tuned for more details as they become available.

Another anticipated outcome is that our programmers and producers, orchestras or groups, our music companies and funding bodies, will rethink their obligations in this arena and perhaps include Indigenous composers. Of course our work has to cut it, but we believe we can.

> AMPlify Indigenous Composer Initiative - more information about the program and the participating artists (Rhyan Clapham, Brenda Gifford, Tim Gray, Troy Russell and Elizabeth Sheppard) on AMC Online

> Program of the first Indigenous Composer Initiative concert at Eora College, Sydney, on 3 August 2017


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