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Canberra Today 16°/18° | Sunday, December 10, 2023 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Composer challenges the ‘gods’

Composer Chris Sainsbury… analysing the disrespectful way some non-indigenous composers have made use of Aboriginal themes and culture.

CHRIS Sainsbury is one of our most respected composers and a senior lecturer in composition at the ANU.

His “Ngarra-burria: First Peoples Composers” project has gathered together a stellar group of young Aboriginal composers, including violinist Eric Avery; James Henry, the grandson of Jimmy Little; Sonya Hollowell; Nardi Simpson, from the Stiff Gins duo and Marcus Corowa.

“The ANU is really very happy to have the Ngarra-burria program, which I brought here [from Eora College in Sydney] and ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences has been very supporting,” he says.

Sainsbury is no newcomer to composition. His “Concerto for Guitar (The Luthier)”, written for Spanish virtuoso Jose Maria Gallardo Del Rey, was featured at the 2002 Darwin International Guitar Festival. In 1988, the Australian Chamber Orchestra performed his string orchestra piece “Homage to TS Eliot”.

Since he’s been in Canberra, he has composed “As Wild As All Get Out”, featured on the National Carillon during the 2017 Canberra International Music Festival, and “Jul-Jul” for Toby Cole’s Turner Trebles. In 2018 the Griffyn Ensemble performed his flute and harp work, “Djagamara”, at the Canberra Sorry Day concert.

And just last weekend, his new work, “Bach of the ‘Bidgee’” was performed at the NGA for the 2019 Canberra International Music Festival.

In the lead-up to National Reconciliation Week, Sainsbury has inadvertently become somewhat notorious, taking on the god-like figures of composers Peter Sculthorpe, John Anthill and James Penberthy in the newest quarterly platform paper for Currency Press, titled “Ngarra-Burria [to listen, to sing in Dharug language]: New music and the search for an Australian sound.”

Famed for their use of Aboriginal themes in their music, their search for Australianness may have led them down the path of misappropriation. None of them, he shows, collaborated with Aboriginal musicians and communities, rather acquiring tunes by hearsay or sampling melodies recorded by anthropologists such as AP Elkin.

Once dismissed scornfully by Sculthorpe when the light-skinned Sainsbury spoke to him of his Dharug (Eora) ancestry, he now analyses the disrespectful way some non-indigenous composers have made use of Aboriginal themes and culture, usually without acknowledgement or permission.

“When I look into it, non-indigenous composers will say: ‘This is in homage’ and that’s great, but they still don’t say whether they have engaged with the local people whose culture they’re using,” he writes.

On a positive note, he cites the deep involvement of non-Aboriginal musicians such as Mark Pollard, who composed around the reclaimed language of the Gunnai people; jazz pianist Kevin Hunt, who lived in Redfern for many years, and percussionist Claire Edwardes, of Ensemble Offspring, an exemplary mentor to emerging Aboriginal composers.

While he believes that the aim is always for excellence, he says there are times when western musical criteria may be at odds with relevance, citing south-coast composer Brenda Gifford’s justifiable insistence on the use of clap-sticks as a central part of female music making.

But there is a way forward, Sainsbury says, to collaborate with non-indigenous musicians. That can be summed up very simply –  “include us”.

Platform Papers 59: “Ngarra-burria: New music and the search for an Australian sound”, $18.99, available at

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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