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Indigenous music

Indigenous influences in Australian composition

This short introduction discusses Indigenous influences in Australian compositions in the AMC's database. For an in-depth article about the role of music in Aboriginal culture, read for example Jo Dyer's article 'Living Songs: Music, Law and Culture in Aboriginal Australia'.

In tribal Aboriginal society, song is an intricate part of the ritual relationship of the people to the land; like any story, dance or totemic design, each song is ‘owned’ by individuals or groups and is therefore, in many cases, taboo to others. ‘Open’ songs, however, can be shared – given as a gift or used by permission of the owner(s).
Musicologists Alice Moyle, Alan Marett and Stephen Knopoff, to name a few, have made valuable contributions to a broader understanding of Aboriginal music, but as early as 1802, Europeans had begun to notate Aboriginal melodies. Australia’s first professional composer, Isaac Nathan, made transcriptions with parlour-piano style accompaniments in the 1840s, and Henry Tate advocated the integration of Aboriginal melody, alongside native birdsong, as the basis for a new national music in the early twentieth century. Percy Grainger depicted ‘the lonely desert man…’ in one work. Clive Douglas came as close, as Roger Covell has noted, to being the musical equivalent of a Jindyworobak – one of those writers of the 1930s dedicated to creating an ‘indigenous’ modern Australian art independent of Europe – in part by evoking Aboriginal sounds, and Mirrie Hill included Aboriginal melodies in several works including film scores about tribal life.

When the inflected modal system of Aboriginal music met the procrustean bed of equal temperament the results were not always happy. But as Western avant-garde techniques – including the exploration of different methods of tuning – were taken up in Australia, the different musical cultures paradoxically had a greater chance of meeting on equal grounds, as they do in a number of works of Peter Sculthorpe. His use of Indigenous themes and material has provoked debate in recent years - and meanwhile, respectful collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous musicians have produced some striking new Australian works.

The 2000s has seen the emergence of strong Indigenous voices within Australian composition, including the Bangarra Dance Theatre music director David Page (1961-2016), didjeridu virtuoso and composer William Barton, and the Yorta Yorta composer Deborah Cheetham. Emerging Indigenous composers include participants in the Ngarra Burria – First Peoples Composers program, initiated in 2016 by Dharug composer Christopher Sainsbury and delivered by a partnership between Moogahlin Performing Arts, the AMC, ANU School of Music, performing ensembles, APRA AMCOS and EORA College. Artists in this program have so far included Eric Avery, Rhyan Clapham, Brenda Gifford, Tim Gray, James Henry, Troy Russell, Elizabeth Sheppard and Nardi Simpson. 

Read also: 'Indigenous Composer Initiative: Towards a gentle correction' - article on Resonate by Christopher Sainsbury (27 September 2017). Sainsbury has also discussed Indigenous referencing (the inclusion of Indigenous music elements, or Indigenous culture and its themes or narratives) in his NGARRA-BURRIA: New music and the search for an Australian Sound (Currency House Platform Paper no. 59, 2019).

Representative Works

  Work Notes
Young Kabbarli (1964) by Margaret Sutherland and Maie Caseyis a short opera about pioneering journalist and student of South and Western Australian Aboriginal culture, Daisy Bates. It is possibly the first Western score to include didjeridu, though the instrument is not endemic to the regions in which Bates lived.
Sextet for didjeridu and wind instruments (1971) by George Dreyfusbrings together a self-consciously avant-garde sensibility and language with the sound of the didjeridu.
Digital sheet music sample Earth spirit (1982) by Colin Brightbrings together the didjeridu (two players) and symphony orchestra to make a powerful political and musical statement.
The Compass (2006) by Liza Lim and William Bartonone of numerous works written in collaboration with didjeridu virtuoso and composer William Barton, and one in which there is a perfect synergy between Indigenous and Western elements.
Kalkadungu (2007) by William Barton and Matthew Hindsona concerto for William Barton (who also sings and plays electric guitar), depicting the history of his ancestral people from central Queensland.
Corroboree by John Antilllays claim to being a foundation work of Australian music. Conceived as a ballet, it uses no actual Indigenous material, but in a mid-century modernist idiom lovingly evokes an Aboriginal world.
Jandamarra: Sing for the Country (2014) by Paul Stanhope and Steve Hawkeis a dramatic cantata about the life of the young Bunuba warrior and resistance hero, Jandamarra. The Jandamarra story is owned by the Bunuba people from Western Australia who are the creative partners in this musical work.
Eumeralla, a war requiem for peace by Deborah Cheethamis a large-scale composition for Indigenous and non-indigenous performers, sung entirely in the ancient dialects of the Gunditjmara people.

Broader categories of Indigenous music