Ahead of his lunchtime recital, the inspirational musician reveals his own inspirations.
William Barton is an Australian giant in every sense of the word. A musician at the very top of his game, he’s broken more barriers and glass ceilings than you can count. He’s also got to be well over 6’2’’, and is easily spotted as he turns into Sydney’s Angel Place ahead of our interview. Still only 34, Barton has been playing didgeridoo for well over 20 years, touring internationally since the age of 15 and a professional soloists since he was 17. “I guess I was inspired by my uncle, traditionally speaking,” Barton tells me. “The power of the instrument and the ability to communicate through a musical language soon became my world. To converse with people from my background, the Kalkadunga nation, but also to the rest of the world.”
His teacher, Uncle Arthur Petersen was a storyteller and a traditional lore-man (“a full-blooded medicine man,” according to his nephew) in Mount Isa, far north-western Queensland where the young William Barton grew up surrounded by music. “Mum used to play classical music to me before I was born,” he reveals pointing to his other great inspiration who has tavelled to Sydney with him. Aunty Delmae Barton is a descendant of the Bidjara tribe on her mother’s side and is popularly known as Australia’s Dreamtime Opera Diva.
The Bartons are in town to kick off the City Recital Hall A Little Lunch Music series, the popular programme of concerts that the Angel Place venue has run for a few years now, where patrons are invited to bring along and munch on a sandwich while listening to some of Australia’s finest musicians during their lunch break. As well as The Journey – Barton’s exploration of the art of the didgeridoo and his unique fusion of traditional and classical elements, this year CRH will present the entire Sydney Youth Orchestra conducted by Alexander Briger, leading pianist Kathryn Selby with cellist Julian Smiles, a trio of SSO principals, and the brilliant players who make up Guitar Trek. And all for $15 a head.
Barton is a thoughtful man, like all Indigenous musicians respectful of traditional culture and the songlines that connect him to country, but he is equally certain that those connections are common to musicains outside of Australia too. He sees his music as part of a wider tradition of composers and instrumentalists connecting to their musical roots. But it was his own determination to master the didgeridoo that led to his talent being spotted and nurtured at home. “I guess I was persistent with the instrument,” he says. “I wanted to be great at it, but not just 100%, I wanted to be 1,000%. To take it beyond my own imagination. I believe that every day you play your instrument, every day that your soul is immersed in your art form, you hopefully get better.”
Persistent is perhaps an understatement. Barton admits to practising 12 hours a day in the past. “I used to play with the didgeridoo in a bucket of water for the resistance,” he admits with smile. “I then progressed to a wheelie bin full of water to expand my lung capacity. I learned on my uncle’s C Sharp didgeridoo, made from the coolabah tree, and that has a very big diameter so it needs way more air.” For him the circular breathing part came easily. “The difficult thing,” he says, “is once you have the technique to use it to tell a story.”
Through a series of collaborations with leading classical composers – Sean Boyle, Ross Edwards, and most famously the late Peter Sculthorpe – Barton has been telling great Australian stories for most of his career. He has travelled the globe, an ambassador for his instrument, his family, his culture and his nation, receiving standing ovations from Gergiev’s Mariinsky to Carnegie Hall. Following a performance with musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic, Simon Rattle said that Barton had had a profound impact on him and described him as “one of the great virtuosos”. For William Barton, though, playing in the middle of the bush is as important as touring Italy with the SSO and some of his proudest moments are the most familiar. “In my mind, every time I play I acknowledge the tradition in my art form, my uncle, my country – Kalkadunga country – and mum and dad,” he explains. “That means that when I’m onstage, I’m able to go on a journey and explore the possibilities of the instrument. And those are endless.”
Sydneysiders can enjoy William Barton in The Journey at City Recital Hall on Tuesday March 1 at 12:30pm.