A MUSIC program spearheaded by the ANU composer Chris Sainsbury has been announced as winner of the “Classical: NEXT” 2022 Innovation Award today (May 20) at a ceremony at Schauspiel in Hannover, Germany.
The award, which raises awareness of forward-thinking projects place around the world, saw 10 shortlisted nominees from Colombia, Italy, Lithuania, the US, the UK and Chile, including Australia’s Big hART.
When I caught up with Sainsbury, he could hardly wipe the smile on his face on learning that the program, “Ngarra Burria” (Dharug words meaning “to hear, to sing”), had won, though he stressed that it was his team’s work, not just his.
And, yes, it would have been nice to have been in Hannover, Sainsbury agrees, but he has his time cut out for him here in Canberra.
The program, designed to empower indigenous composers to take the next step in their careers, takes a two-year cohort of composers on a voyage spanning the many realms of art music, including contemporary classical/new music, jazz, experimental, sound art and installations.
A partnership between the ANU School of Music, Moogahlin Performing Arts, the Australian Music Centre and Ensemble Offspring, it also helps indigenous composers connect to industry opportunities.
The underlying idea is to create a “culturally safe space” where composers can use their own cultural stories in their work, a marked contrast to a time when non-indigenous composers appropriated indigenous music or cultural materials with neither permission nor context.
It seems to be working.
A far cry from Sainsbury’s own experiences when he started out as a composer back in the ’80s and was summarily dismissed by one of the country’s leading white composers for suggesting he was Indigenous with the words, “you don’t look it to me.”
As a fair-skinned Koori, he was to experience a fair bit of that, but swallowed it in order to get on with his career, though he now thinks, “over the last 30 years working in that space, it seems a bit unfair.”
Looking back his early days, he says, “I noticed many Indigenous composers working in film or writing music for plays, working as composers but not articulating themselves as composers.”
“We need to form a group,” Sainsbury told himself, “we need to say, ‘we are here’.”
Thankfully, he reports many music organisations and festivals have now opened up to First Nations composers with a “real, welcome embrace… effectively they are now saying, ‘we didn’t know’.”
But Sainsbury knew from the inside what it was to be overlooked.
Starting out at Eora College in Darlington, Sydney, he moved about six years ago to the ANU, where he is now an associate professor with a cohort of seven students, from undergraduates to Ph.Ds. When he first arrived, there were none.
He cites outstanding students, the author/composer Nardi Simpson and Brenda Gifford, who have both moved on to the wider national arena.
“Because I came from Eora College I was well-connected, I was able to have a think about moving composer on to higher degree studies,” he says.
It excites him to see organisations around the country taking up indigenous composers – even the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is now running a mentoring program for First Nations composers, teaching them how to write for orchestras.
His personal preference is for First Nation composers to assert their presence in a quiet, gentle way, first premiering compositions in Aboriginal communities such as Eora or Brewarrina, then more broadly.
“It will help Australians to digest Aboriginal music in concert halls,” he says.
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