William Barton has won the 2021 Australia Council Don Banks Music Award. He is one of eight recipients of the peer-nominated Australia Council Awards announced today, which recognise outstanding contributions in music, literature, community arts and cultural development, emerging and experimental arts, visual arts, theatre and dance.

The Don Banks Music Award – which was named in honour of the composer, performer and first Chair of the Australia Council’s Music Board – acknowledges the achievements of a distinguished artist who has made an exceptional and sustained contribution to music in Australia.

William Barton has received the Don Banks Music Award in the 2021 Australia Council Awards. Photo © Keith Saunders

Previous recipients include Deborah Conway (2020), David Bridie (2019), Liza Lima (2018), Lyn Williams (2017), Brett Dean (2016), Archie Roach A (2015), Mike Nock (2014) and Kev Carmody (2013).

Barton is a proud Kalkadunga man. A virtuoso didgeridoo performer and composer, he has managed to successfully combine traditional and Western music, marrying the didgeridoo with orchestras and classical ensembles. He grew up on a cattle station near Mt Isa and started learning the didgeridoo from the age of seven. Over a long, remarkable career, he has performed across Australia, from large concert halls to regional music festivals.

His contribution to Australian music has been recognised with many other acknowledgements including a residency at the Peggy Glanville-Hicks House in Sydney in 2020. In 2019, he was Artist in Residence at Melbourne Recital Centre, in 2018, he won a Sydney Theatre Award for Best Original Score for a Main Stage Production for Sydney Theatre Company’s The Long Forgotten Dream, and in 2021 he won an ARIA for Best Classical Album for Kalkadungu: Music for Didjeridu and Orchestra.

He famously inspired Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, who composed classical works featuring Barton on didgeridoo, and has also collaborated with composers including Liza Lim. In June, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra will perform the world premiere of a new work by Barton, commissioned by the orchestra, for the concert Epic Sounds in which the magnificent sound of his didgeridoo will fill the QPAC concert hall.

“To have such an award, being gifted to an artist and to be a part of that legacy of all the other amazing people who have received the Don Banks Music Awards, is a great thing. You know, to have any support from any organisation, not only [the] Australia Council, but from community organisations to the corporate level, where you can hopefully create the space and opportunity,” said Barton in a video acknowledging his award.

“You still have to work for the opportunity if you want to be up here, that all those little things that are so important, even if it’s going to community and, you know, giving them the funds to have sound equipment or a drum kit or a guitar and a music tutor. They’re all so important, and even if you only connect with one individual out of that 30 or odd people, all those kids, even if they’re an adult, you’re doing your job. You’re giving back, you know, giving back to the community.”

Speaking about his upbringing, Barton said: “Mum would often say, you sang to the bush and listen to the birds sing. You can travel to all these wonderful amphitheatres and concert halls of the world, but we have the most beautiful concert halls here in Australia and that’s our landscape. And so to experience that as a young, young child, a young kid growing up into adulthood, certainly plays a role in your canvas of sound.”

The other 2021 Australia Council Awards went to Arnold Zable (VIC) for Lifetime Achievement in Literature; Sue Healey (NSW) for Dance; Vivienne Binns (ACT) for Visual Arts; Cat Jones (NSW) for Emerging and Experimental Arts; Mama Alto (VIC), who receives the Kirk Robson Award for Community Arts and Cultural Development; Marianne Wobcke (QLD), who takes home the Ros Bower Award for Community; and Chelsea McGuffin (QLD) for Theatre.

More information on the award recipients is available on the Australia Council website

Sign up to the Limelight newsletter