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Indigenous music

Indigenous influences in Australian composition

This short introduction discusses Indigenous influences in Australian compositions - for an in-depth article about the role of music in Aboriginal culture, read 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. Moreover, while a few individuals still maintain that the only ‘authentic’ Indigenous music involves tribal song, clap-sticks and didjeridu, the general consensus is that Indigenous culture, like any other, is essentially dynamic and flexible: the results in recent years have included some striking works born of respectful collaboration between musicians of both cultures.


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.

Broader categories of Indigenous music