The Darwin Symphony Orchestra will celebrate its 30th anniversary this month with a gala concert, conducted by the orchestra’s new Chief Conductor Jonathan Tooby, featuring Sibelius’ iconic Finlandia and Mahler’s First Symphony. At the centre of the program, however, is a brand-new work commissioned by the orchestra, Yuwani, by Perth composer Lachlan Skipworth and Numbulwar musician Don Nunggarrgalu, who will sing and play lambirlpil (the Numbulwar word for didgeridoo) in the performance.

Darwin Symphony Orchestra at UluruThe Darwin Symphony Orchestra became the first orchestra to perform at Uluru in 2013. Photo supplied

Skipworth has written for the orchestra before, contributing (along with Ross Edwards, Iain Grandage and Kat McGuffie) one of four movements for a work commemorating the 40-year anniversary of Cyclone Tracy in 2015. But when he was asked to contribute a piece for the orchestra’s 30th anniversary, he was initially reluctant. “It’s an occasion for the orchestra and I didn’t actually go up to Darwin last time, in 2015, so I’d never been there, and I was struggling, in my mind, to justify how some art that I produced would be relevant to that occasion,” he says. “So that’s why I suggested that I would like to work with someone from Darwin or from the Northern Territory.”

That sent the orchestra on a search to find a collaborator. It was the Darwin-based record label Skinny Fish – the outfit who brought Gurrumul to audiences around Australia and the world – who recommended Nunggarrgalu.

Nunggarrgalu was touring with his band Mambali, which presented an opportunity for the two musicians to meet and begin the collaboration. “They were coming through town, and Jon was back, so we both went and met him at the airport on the way through,” Skipworth says.

Nunggarrgalu already had a song in mind to form the basis of the new work, a traditional Numbulwar song, Yuwani, which is also the basis of Mambali’s latest single, released this year and featuring Emily Wurramara. “We hopped in the back of the hire car, whipped out our phones, and he sang it for us,” Skipworth says.

“It was such an arresting experience. He’s right next to me and all the intricacies of the music were right there, and I couldn’t get inside them on one listen,” Skipworth says. “So I went away, and kind of lived with that for a while, and then went up to Darwin and spent a three hour session in the studio with him.”

Lachlan Skipworth and Don NunggarrgaluLachlan Skipworth and Don Nunggarrgalu. Photo supplied

“I had some examples of things that he might sing over, and we had a chat, talked about those things, and some people from Skinny Fish were there, and the rest of his band were there as well, so it was actually really fun,” Skipworth says.

That session in the studio became the launch pad for a long-distance collaborative process that saw the two musicians sending material to each other, working out a dialogue between the two musical cultures – how the lambirlpil, in particular, would work with the orchestral music “Part of it for me was discovering which bits don’t squarely fit in boxes, and really listening to the rhythms,” Skipworth says. “It’s kind of a swing, the way he plays, it’s not necessarily lining up with the beats.”

“I don’t want to cloud the really interesting rhythms of what he’s doing,” he adds. “The more complexity I put in the orchestra, the more that gets in his way. I’m really building a platform to kind of allow what he does to be the spark for the whole composition.”

For Skipworth, writing collaboratively was a departure from his usual practice. “But what I really enjoy is the kind of unease of not knowing what’s going to happen,” he says. “It’s funny, I’ve found with this project and another one that I’ve done recently with a photographer, is that I can actually talk about what I’m doing.”

“If I’m just sitting and composing my own piece in a room, I don’t like to talk about it, or I’m not really that good at talking about what I’m composing while I’m composing it,” he says. “So that’s been really good – it’s quite liberating to have these conversations with my friends and colleagues about how I’m trying to do things.”

While the orchestral part will be governed by what Skipworth describes as his own “certain set of instincts” which include elements shaped by his immersion in Japanese music, “It’s completely governed by trying to keep back and let Don shine, but also give the orchestral players something meaningful to do – and that’s a really hard balance, but finding it is fun.”

The opening of the work sets the scene. “I’m trying to let people have some time at the start of the work just to kind of be drawn into the sound world,” he says.

A setting of Yuwani follows. “It’s quite sparsely backed by the orchestra,” Skipworth says. “There’s not much I can or want to add to what Don does, it’s really beautiful on its own.”

The next section, he explains, sees more communication between the two sides, with the orchestra feeding off Nunggarrgalu’s improvisation on the lambirlpil. “I’ve given some of the percussionists license to improvise in response to him, but I’ve also listened to the broader gestures from his rhythms and composed some interjections in the orchestra,” he says. “So I’m hoping that he’ll be responding to the orchestra, but some of the orchestra will be responding to him.”

The last word in the music will be Nunggarrgalu’s. “He’s just got this fantastic voice,” Skipworth says. “He’s such a powerful singer, so at the end of the work I’ve given him a kind of long build-up over which he can improvise and kind of get up some really big, powerful melodies and gestures.”

“The really in-depth collaboration is probably still to come, in the way that the rehearsals are going to be really critical to putting it all together,” Skipworth says.

The composer and Tooby will make the 12-hour drive from Perth to visit Nunggarrgalu in Numbulwar in south-east Arnhem Land, to rehearse the piece in a scaled back, chamber setting, before rehearsals with the full orchestra in Darwin.

The collaboration between Nunggarrgalu and Skipworth has been evolving as the conversation about the way in which western composers use elements from Indigenous music has come to the fore in Australia’s classical music scene, driven recently by Dharug composer and researcher Dr Christopher Sainsbury’s platform paper Ngarra-Burria: New music and the Search for an Australian Sound and his work with the Ngarra-Burria: First Peoples Composers program.

“My feeling is that the way forward for finding the right pathway to talking about using Indigenous music and Indigenous musicians/composers, is for the Indigenous voices to be the ones that lead the dialogue,” says Skipworth. “I’ve been really keen to see what he said about all these things.”

“Two really important points for me [in Sainsbury’s writing] were respect and the long-term relationships,” says Skipworth, who hopes to continue working with Nunggarrgalu, with the DSO or in other contexts, into the future. “One of the big things about this project for me is that it feels like a first step.”

The Darwin Symphony Orchestra’s 30th Anniversary Gala is at Darwin Convention Centre on August 24, as part of the Darwin Festival