In a forthcoming Currency House Platform Paper, Indigenous composer, academic and activist Dr Christopher Sainsbury considers how Aboriginal music, rituals and narratives have been used in the pursuit of an Australian musical identity. A Senior Lecturer at the ANU School of Music, Dr Sainsbury looks at how these elements of Indigenous cultural life have been used and, in some cases, misappropriated by Australia’s leading composers.

Dr Christopher Sainsbury, second from left, with Ngarra-Burria’s participants and facilitators and artists from Ensemble Offspring. Photo © Eora College

“I must point out that some non-Indigenous composers have occupied the Indigenous space,” he writes. “Many non-Indigenous composers have referenced Indigenous music, culture, themes or narratives in their compositions. At times, some have done so effectively, disempowering Indigenous composers. This has occurred for many decades.”

The paper further explores how music can more respectfully and meaningfully engage with First Peoples in Dr Sainsbury’s account of an artist development program he initiated. The Ngarra-Burria: First Peoples Composers program saw five Indigenous composers – Rhyan Clapham, Brenda Gifford, Tim Gray, Troy Russell and Elizabeth Sheppard – develop and record new chamber works, many of which drew on their own local culture and place, between 2016 and 2018. Over those two years, the composers worked with mentors including Deborah Cheetham, musicians from Ensemble Offspring and Moogahlin Performing Arts.

Emerging from this account is a call for a rethinking of the misappropriation of Aboriginality and a new collaboration between First Peoples composers and the new music sector, with thoughts and recommendations on how to do so.

“The anticipated outcome of all this work now is that in Australia our new music and classical sectors will rethink their obligation in this arena, and support the strategies in the recommendations…For too long we’ve been complicit in facilitating non-Indigenous composers occupying the Indigenous space via Aboriginal referencing.”

Dr Sainsbury’s Ngarra-Burria: New music and the Search for an Australian Sound will be launched on May 1.

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