The Dharug composer has won an inaugural national grant to help promote the work of Indigenous composers in Australia.

The Australian National University’s Dr Christopher Sainsbury has been awarded the Australasian Performing Rights Association’s inaugural national Indigenous Composer Grant to help promote the work of Indigenous composers in Australia. The grant is part of APRA’s Indigenous Composers Initiative, which provides emerging Indigenous composers with the chance to be mentored by established composers, to craft original works and to have their music showcased.

Sainsbury, a member of the Dharug nation, held a full-time position at Eora College in Redfern, Sydney for 25 years as both a music teacher and Head of Arts and Media, supervising numerous courses in music, theatre, screen studies and Aboriginal Arts. It was during his tenure at Eora College that he identified the need that sparked the idea for this project. “In that setting, I realised there were a lot of Aboriginal musicians who could potentially be composers in a broader sense,” he said. “Many were sort of skirting around the edge, or actually engaged in new music through the music they were doing for film and theatre.”

The grant is valued at $26,000 and will be supported by a number of partners, including the ANU School of Music, the Australian Music Centre, Eora College Redfern, Mooghalin Performing Arts Redfern, Indigenous ethnomusicologist Clint Bracknell and jazz lecturer Kevin Hunt at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, as well as new music performance group Ensemble Offspring.

Sainsbury and his partners recognised that many Indigenous musicians needed some kind of support to help them emerge as composers, Sainsbury citing cultural and family obligations as well as other unique situations faced by Indigenous musicians. “You meet Aboriginal people, and there’s often somebody in the family who has experienced some pretty horrific stuff pretty much for being Aboriginal,” Sainsbury said. “The people driving this initiative recognise that.”

For ANU School of Music Interim Head of School Professor Will Christie, the grant is significant for ANU, but also for the country as a whole. “It represents, in the first instance, the recognition of the work of a great scholar and teacher in Dr Sainsbury and of the ANU School of Music,” he said. “It also represents a recognition of Indigenous music and the contribution of Indigenous artists to the nation.”

The project will culminate in performances of work by emerging Indigenous composers in May or June of 2017. “Ultimately, we’d like to see not just new works from the first year, but over a number of years from the hand of new Indigenous composers,” said Sainsbury, who see potential for the initiative to develop into the future. “We certainly envisage that this project will have a longer lifespan than the life of the grant, and that a growing body of work from Indigenous composers will start to land on air waves, music curricula, and beyond.”