Contemporary Indigenous composers are being given a voice at ANU

In the Dharug language of Sydney, Ngarria-Burria means “to-listen, to-sing”.

Hence, Ngarria-Burria is the name of the First People’s Composers program at the Australian National University.

Photo: Australian National University

A new program is garnering momentum at ANU which focuses on enabling Indigenous students to write new cultural music with composers.

The program was first introduced by Indigenous composer, ANU lecturer and steel string guitarist Dr. Christopher Sainsbury.

Sainsbury begun the two year program to bolster training and recording opportunities for other Indigenous composers in Western music styles. Ensemble Offspring, Roland Peelman and Kevin Hunt are among the artists who were involved with the Indigenous composers.

The second and current intake of the program is of five students (four from NSW and one from Victoria). Ngarria-Burria participants developed and recorded new chamber works that drew on their local culture and place.

In a new paper titled Ngarria-Burria: New music and the search for an Australian sound, Dr Sainsbury outlines cultural appropriation of Indigenous music by non-Indigenous composers. He said Sculthorpe, John Anthill and James Penberthy were among the non-Indigenous composers who had “misappropriated” Indigenous music and culture in their work.

Although he stated it tended to be “light appropriation”, this was in stark contrast to recent artists like Hunt who engaged with Indigenous people in more meaningful ways. Sainsbury has encouraged Australians to look to the First Peoples to find their place and identity, however, he does not want non-Indigenous artists to effectively disempower Aboriginal composers.

Sainsbury said some of his participants have gained commissions from the program in order to promote the beautiful confluence of Indigenous and classical composition. Sainsbury has stated, “There will be performances later in the year”.