… singing up Australia …

Dharawal Soprano and composer Sonya Holowell, and Biripi opera tenor Elias Wilson, are established Australian Aboriginal singers with magnificent, rich voices, professional networks, and strong community connections. In September-October 2022 Holowell and Wilson performed the two lead roles in The Song Company’s successful tour of Songs from the Heart, its passionate musical response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

. . .Aboriginal singers with magnificent, rich voices . . .

The production received rave reviews from Classikon’s Pepe Newton and Sydney Arts Guide’s Lynne Lancaster (see links below). The official Aboriginal Consultant for this production, which was highly commended by Gadigal Elder and Director of ANU’s Tjabal Centre Aunty Anne Martin, was Darug Aboriginal Elder Leanne Tobin. The Song Company’s live audio recording of the Cell Block Theatre production of Songs from the Heart includes 17 tracks composed by Elizabeth Sheppard and 6 tracks composed by Sonya Holowell. The tracks were mixed and mastered by Antony Pitts, assisted by ABC Producer Stephen Adams, and released internationally by 1equalmusic.com via Hyperion, a division of Universal Music, on April 7 2023.

To download the tracks, click on this link :


or go to the iTunes Store and search “The Song Company Songs from the Heart“

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard, 24 May 2023. All Rights Reserved.

Over the last forty years or so, I’ve witnessed the escalating incursion of AI (Artificial Intelligence) into the domain of music created by humans. When AI began to generate music content, music scholars compared generated AI composition content to content made by composers and performers. As AI imitates human creations more and more closely, it’s becoming difficult to distinguish AI content from human content. Some believe that Large Language System AIs trained in all Westerners know about music, can already surpass humans in intelligent music composition. So do any differences remain between virtual AI composition and real time human music composition? Indigenous song systems based on evolving, adaptive oral systems of place have much to contribute to this ongoing debate.

The AI revolution has changed the way many humans engage with sound. Like written music, printed music, and musical instruments, AI is inert, not alive, but it imitates the organic creative strategies of living beings so well, and so rapidly, that it appears to be alive. So in Western cultures, instruments and scores are seen as an extension of human agency, with performers controlling sonic instrumental output by reading scores that channel composers’ intentions. The instrument is not the music, the score is not the music, the technology is not the music: these are powerful intermediaries, used to activate passive performative codes that output expressive sound designs. So Western instruments, music scores, and their virtual counterparts, can be said to incorporate preconceived interpretive AI algorithms.

In contemporary Western music, and in Indigenous composition, AI software introduces a fourth actor into the aural / oral or written compositional mix – a generative, rule-based, invisible AI algorithm. AI algorithms are often derived from standardised “global music” genres. They may be created by one person, or a group, who usually maintain anonymity. New forms of music copyright attribution are being developed to protect the rights of AI developers, as opposed to the rights of AI users, publishers and performers of AI generated music. The agency of Western music creation has rapidly shifted towards AI developers, and away from passive, non-creative AI users. So for composers, screen musicians and sound designers, it’s become essential to avoid passive AI user engagement with AI, and engage actively with AI systems as a creative developer. To comprehend and adapt to this cataclysmic change, it’s useful to review how AI entered our daily lives, and how it may or may not interact with non-Western Indigenous musical systems.

How should composers approach and relate to AI in Africa and Australia, where all singing voices, instruments, and written inscriptions (whether the songmaker is conscious of this, or not) are embedded in complex Indigenous contexts?. In Africa and Australia, sounding Country includes dancing, speaking and singing in channelled ancestral spirit voices, in songs received from ever-evolving, organic, living Countries. Guarding against invasive external AI corruption of the living, organic Voice of Country, is a custodial obligation for Indigenous peoples. To communicate this important cultural obligation, in 2004 I co-composed a song with Anmatjere Arrernte singer-songwriter Rhubee Neale, called Keep Guard of our Dreams. We sang it at an Eora Aboriginal College concert, at Petersham RSL Club, and at a Seminar held by Reconciliation for Western Sydney at the Karabi Centre, Wentworthville NSW. In September and October 2022 Dharawal Inuk soprano Sonya Holowell and Biripi opera tenor Elias Wilson sang the eight part SSAATTBB arrangement of this song with The Song Company, as part of the Songs from the Heart concert, in response to the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart. It reached a huge audience when it was toured to Canberra, Parramatta, Newcastle, Wollongong and Sydney, and was broadcast on the Australian Digital Concert Hall. If it had been composed with an AI algorithm in 2004, it may have reached the charts, recorded on a label, and heard more widely, before 2022. But it wasn’t composed with any kind of AI, it was composed in real time by two Australian women who poured out our love for our Country, in a small rehearsal room, strumming chords on a guitar, singing, picking out a melody on an old piano, and scribbling on a scrap of manuscript paper. In 2004, we knew this song was great, but we didn’t realise that AI cultural control of radio playlist codes meant that it would probably be permanently silenced. I can’t help but wonder how many real time, living Australian songs have been silenced, and consigned to media playlist bins, because of bungled AI music coding.

In my experience, the AI invasion of written and oral music composition began with software programs of two kinds. In global Western music systems, the first kind (Finale, Sibelius) mimicked hand written music scores, and the second kind (DAWs like CoolEdit, Cubase, Reason, Logic and ProTools) offered transposable chord pattern graphs, keyed to beats. Notating composers who prioritised melody and interlocking polyphonic patterns bought Finale and / or Sibelius, while oral musicians who improvised tunes over chord patterns and used chord charts, found DAWs an easier option. At the same time, musicians from non-Western cultures (e.g. India, Samoa, China) translated non-Western notations and previously un-notated sound clusters into software that (unlike Western DAWs and digitized scores) integrated oral music systems with ornamented, expressively coded, modal sound fields.

Untitled (Elizabeth Sheppard 2019)

When I used Finale Notes in the 1990s, I applied my acquired Western music handwriting skills to producing and printing digital scores of my own songs, on my Mac SE computer. The Finale scores I produced were not as sophisticated or as flexible as my handwritten scores or my graphic song charts; they were limited by the tasks and signs offered by the Finale software. In 1988 I’d explored acoustic spectral analysis of song using MacSpeech, by measuring sung vowel and phoneme durations and transitions, but MacSpeech didn’t graph sung pitch or intonations adequately, so its usefulness for song research was limited. I also tinkered with Hypertext, and made networks of linked files and folders. I replaced my manual typewriter, carbon sheets and roneo with a word processor, then a computer keyboard. By 1989 Australian composers like my contemporaries Martin Wesley-Smith and Barry Conyngham were grappling in earnest with the creative arts potential, and the limitations, of experimental AI computer music programs.

In the mid 1990s I was exploring the acoustics of pitched sung vowels via digital recordings, and Plomp’s European research into the mechanics of the singing voice had taken off. Linguists at Sydney University used acoustic speech research findings to develop AI speech systems that joined segmented vowels and consonants into clunky words and sentences. Their AI speech models had distressingly flat intonation and wobbly phoneme transitions, but were nevertheless tested on astonished commuters, in hilarious Sydney railway announcements. Overseas, in France, Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM acoustic music research centre, which I visited in 1993, was attempting to harness the power of computers to music creation and sound design, with various degrees of success. After observing these distant, costly projects, I decided to prioritise my own cultural heritages, and engage with AI and computer music only insofar as it was useful to my country-based living music goals.

As a trained church Cantor in the 1990s and 2000s, I worked with the interface of texts and neume formulae in Gregorian chant and Western hymns and anthems, singing in Greek, Latin and English. I studied how this chanted and harmonized interface had been adapted and simplified for metrical congregational performance, by Reformation musicians like Luther, Calvin, Merbecke, and the Bach family, who contributed many chant-based metricized hymns, chorales and psalm settings to the Scottish Psalter and English hymnbooks. This tradition of rearranging texts to metricized melodic formulae, and synchronizing accentuated lyrics in parallel languages, is part of my Scottish musical heritage. Familiarity with the rhythmic, accentuation and intonation patterns of any language makes expressive melodic text setting possible, so I can, with cultural guidance, apply this skill to text setting in Indigenous languages.

Like modal chant and tonal music systems, AI organizes formulaic fragments into layers, to develop new music. However, I have chosen not to use random, contextless collections of sound objects to assemble songs; instead I rely on intuitive, context driven reception of lyrical song melodies from Country. Some call this dreaming, but it is not an unconscious process. Like chant, AI algorithmic music is limited by the preconceived formulae and criteria that underlie it. If an AI program designed by an outsider lacks cultural content from my Country, or is derived from foreign music concepts, or doesn’t speak my inherited languages, or is not familiar with the birds and creatures of my lands, and doesn’t know about my people or our laws, how can it walk with, hear or sing the melodies my Country gives me? But I can certainly develop my own country-based AI codes and algorithms, create my own sound samples, and integrate them into my songs, as a self-determined Indigenous AI developer. Many Indigenous Australians are harnessing audio and video recording, AI resources and app coding to serve our cultures, in original ways. Drawing on external AI resources is unnecessary for us, since passive AI music, while easy and cheap to produce in comparison to the demanding, costly effort of creating and recording “real” human music, lacks the infinite, musing malleability and deep, rich cultural context of humanised, meaningful, emotional, language driven Indigenous music.

The intersection of algorithmic AI machine music with human music making has escalated at astonishing speed. From an Indigenous worldview, the genre coded sound objects that AI apps are spitting out, fulfil market expectations, but lack culturally grounded depth and richness. The current AI music genre paradigms are not uniquely Australian; most are imported from overseas. Australian Indigenous composers have begun to work with AI systems as developers, to retain control of the coding and marketing of our cultural musics. Traditionally, the only way a song can be birthed by an Australian Country is still through a human Songmaker embedded in Country. So as an Australian composer, I draw on the live, organic intersection between my trained sensory perceptions, the living inhabitants and features of my Country, and the stories of my human communities, as the primary sources of my creative songmaking practice.

Nevertheless, it’s totally clear that AI systems are not going to disappear. As long as AI is managed ethically, it offers amazing opportunities, but passive virtual embedment in AI systems (as opposed to active, organic real time embedment in Country) can be socially divisive, alienating, disempowering, addictive, and downright unhealthy. Digital obsessions have created social divides between generations, and widened the gap between the haves and have nots. People with financially privileged access to passive AI software and virtual gaming systems see no harm in boasting of their technological superiority over people with no access, or limited access.

It’s likely that indulgence in passive AI systems and virtual gaming will never be universally beneficial, unless manufacturers, in collaboration with governments, introduce rules to make it so. Until then, a substantial risk to human diversity and musical evolution exists. Addiction to AI systems that incite social division and conflict, and promote alienation from geographical and cultural contexts of origin, may develop. This risk is enhanced when AI systems promote passive attachment to globalised, regionally marketed music genres, and ignore the contextual needs of local populations. Researchers who create and demonstrate AI music systems need to think about the social effects that dislocated AI systems, and the genre coded music made with them, may have on clients, and on those without AI access.

At present, the primary driver of Australian composer success and playlist track selection in the AI environment, is how much money is made. This is determined not by live gig / concert income, but by how many times a track is played. Ethical obligations to enliven and care for human societies, plants, animals and community environments, by funnelling AI track income back to traditional landowners, are rarely met or promoted. Generating quick income from cobbled together mashups that attract viral click swarms, is considered legitimate. As long as a song can be slotted into a globalised music genre, and meets market demands, it ticks the AI box.

The AI exclusion of local music cultures from standardised global music codes appears to be driving a massively expanded cultural suppression campaign. Conformity to culturally impoverished AI criteria is rapidly replacing the obligation to compose ethical, altruistic music that promotes justice, aims to save threatened peoples, species and languages, warns against excess, reproves crime, or praises worthy things. Costly abstract sound designs stripped of cultural associations, with no discernable value apart from attention-grabbing innovation, are warmly praised for their nihilistic absence of attachment, fleeting audiovisual displays, unregulated extravagance, or eclectic pluralism. This utilitarian approach to music creation is, at the moment, a hugely profitable strategy, but there is little social responsibility, and certainly no future for humanity, in it.

Prioritising personally profitable, socially careless music criteria in AI is also reducing human attention spans, scrambling meaningful lyrics, and diminishing human hearing capacity. These are real risks that could be addressed and guarded against, with wise AI governance and expanded, free live music development programs for all ages. If, as musicians and composers, we aim to develop music that sustains healthy, intelligent human societies, that people can hear and respond to, we need to find ways to balance healthy, active developer interactions with AI, so it’s used responsibly to create peaceful co-existence, and isn’t permitted to foster hatred, or degrade human welfare and flourishing.

Copyright © Elizabeth Sheppard, 17 March 2020. All Rights Reserved.

A note for Media Presenters, Reviewers and Scholars : Quoting or referring to my original concepts, words or ideas, as presented here or elsewhere, during media programs or in your own publications, requires a fully referenced citation, and accurately identified attribution of my work to Elizabeth Sheppard BA DipEd DipMus BTh/BPhil STB ACertCM(UK) NILA DipAdvAbStuds as their author. For the avoidance of doubt, this post should be cited as :

Sheppard, Elizabeth, “Active Music Making vs. Passive Music Consumption.”, Elizabeth Sheppard Media [WordPress Blog], 2020.

 Original music making is an enjoyable, rewarding, creative, deeply human activity. It uses every human sense, it’s like a gym workout session for your brain, to play or sing original music that comes from the heart of your country and community. Original music making and live performance promotes health, it’s a human survival weapon that people have always turned to in difficult times. And it can also be done online, to ensure healthy social distancing, and boost morale in struggling communities, in this current pandemic crisis.

Indigenous Composers Troy Russell and Elizabeth Sheppard with Inara Molinari, Manager of River City Voices Choir, at Riverside Theatres Parramatta for the premiere of Gandangarragal (Elizabeth Sheppard) and The Chant (Troy Russell) – Grant Leslie Photography

I love composing new music, so much of my time is devoted to that, but I also enjoy listening to and singing the music I grew up with, and to today’s music. Lots of parents, like me, enjoy music that we can share with friends and family. Concert going is an expensive luxury, limited by my low income. Since my parents immersed me in original music making as a child, I’ve always been aware that consuming someone else’s music by listening or mimicry, although it’s fun, is at best an amusing, ephemeral secondhand musical adventure.

Immersing ourselves in other people’s music can be therapeutic, educational, fascinating and enriching. But experiencing music from the outside in isn’t at all like composing your own original music, or performing it, or hearing others perform it. Releasing the music that lives inside me and my country, and sending it out into the world, is exhilarating and enlivening. I’m energised  by it. When I make my own music, I discover and celebrate the music that’s grown up with me, as I’ve matured. It’s been formed in me by my country and my people, and so I must release it. By closely attending to and translating the music of my country into music that communicates with audiences, I process my emotions and understandings, and contribute to community understandings. When my music is performed, it affirms the undervalued experiences of Australian communities that are deeply embedded in our agonising, enduring, surviving, reviving, rejoicing country. So through music, I empathise with others, celebrate them, and acknowledge contrasting viewpoints.

Expressing myself in communion with my country and my people comes naturally to me, but I’m not a genius or a virtuoso, and everyone can learn to do what I do, to some degree. Instead of drowning in information input overload, we can process our own knowledge, gathered from events that we’ve experienced and absorbed, and reflect it to audiences, who can then respond with their own music. This open musical dialogue, that can sustain social harmony, is the best, most constructive use for music. When my own music connects to an audience, it starts a social and spiritual chain reaction that goes on forever. And that’s wonderful.

There’s a huge difference between creating original music and lyrics from scratch, and compiling playlists for listening, or imitating pre-recorded music as karaoke. But in today’s contemporary music genres, songwriters often use AI to invent songs and lyrics, by reorganizing collected audio clips, loops and cliched phrases. So in many popular songwriting genres, regurgitating loops and common phrases is rated as musical, and not using clips, loops, and not repeating common phrases, is deemed unmusical. By that measure, I’m not musical at all, because all my brain has room for, is my own music. On the TV show Spicks & Specks, competitors guess the title of a song after hearing a fragment of it. The winner, who identifies and imitates other peoples’ songs best, is judged “good at music”. That’s fine, if you just want to memorise other people’s songs, but is this really “being good at music”? Isn’t it just fandom, attentive listening, an excellent memory, a good ear for a tune, and consumer mimicry? 

Reminiscing about the past is unpopular these days, but I grew up in an Australian community where people constantly created their own music, as well as playing and singing classics, radio “hits”, and inherited music. Making live music was an everyday, undigitised, praised, often informal, highly valued event. Criticism of average or wobbly music performances was rare. No one expected everyone to perform music perfectly; and we were all encouraged to perform music at gatherings, with some degree of applause. Everyone in my world sang, whistled, and memorised songs around the house, often imperfectly, and unencumbered by technology. We all knew a large repertoire of church hymns and psalm tunes by heart. We sang them at church in two or three parts, and hummed when we were gardening, helping Dad in his workshop, or doing housework with Mum. We handwrote music scores, played and sang solo and in groups, practised “party pieces” to perform at clubs, parties, and community fundraising concerts. Each week, we performed selected pieces of this well known music as parts of a seasonal musical calendar, at home, at school and in church. Performing music was a social necessity, an absorbing team game built on learning cooperative music skills. Engaging in church and community music in those days was certainly not a Marxian dumbed down “opium of the people”: it required strict discipline, regular work, a dedicated commitment to social justice, and sustained creative effort.

We listened to music on the radio, and later to LP records on the stereogram my parents purchased in 1963, when I turned 15. But when we wanted to “do music” properly, we made our own music, building on the music traditions we knew well, to do so. Tape recorders, computers, CD players, iPods and streamed music targeted at consumers, were completely absent, they arrived much later. I heard my tape recorded singing voice for the first time in 1963, at a church youth club, and bought my first computer, a Mac SE, in 1989. By 1992 I had a CD player and a clunky Walkman audio player with earpieces, but the iPod, smart phones, music software and music streaming didn’t arrive in my household until 2000, when I was 52 years old. Like most Australians, we simply didn’t have sufficient disposable income to buy the latest music technology as soon as it hit the shops.

My hardworking parents scrimped and saved to buy me the beautiful Bosendorfer upright grand piano they gave me on Christmas Day 1955, when I was 7 years old. I still it have today. My sister learnt to play the violin, and so we learned music together, at great cost to Mum and Dad, who paid for our weekly music lessons until we turned 18. Recently I counted the cost of these music lessons. In all, Mum and Dad paid for about 500 piano lessons for me (about £5000, or $10000 in decimal currency), and my antique piano cost £150. This was a huge slice out of their meagre income from their 9 to 5 work as an electrician and teacher, and this shows how much my family valued music.

When the folk music craze arrived from America in 1963, my Great Aunt Anne Foulsum gave me my Great Uncle Bill’s old steel string guitar, that he used to play in a Dixieland band at the old Melbourne Palais. I learnt to strum a few chords, and sang Scottish folk songs, and songs from the Seekers, Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Nina and Frederick, and Bob Dylan, that I heard on the radio. As a teenager I owned only one precious Nina and Frederick record, a 45′, called Little Boxes, and I listened to my sister’s classical and folk World Record Club collection. My musical cousins in Wonthaggi, Victoria, played the piano or organ, or marching band instruments like fifes or euphoniums, and everyone in my extended family sang. Some could read music, others sang from sol-fa notation, and many older folk sang or played songs and dance music from memory. My Grandad Ebenezer Simpson was the most accomplished musician in our family, he played the button accordion for dances, sang folksongs from memory, and produced the annual Wonthaggi pantomime at the Union Theatre. One of his daughters, my Auntie Jean Fullard, was the Church organist at St Andrews Peace Church, Wonthaggi, for many years. On my mother’s side, my Grandfather Gus Ridge was a singer in Perth, Kalgoorlie and Carnarvon in the early 1900s. My musical ancestors passed on their love of country based music making, and their skills, to me, so through making new music that’s in tune with the past and present, and looks forward with hope, I keep faith with them and with my country.

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2022. All Rights Reserved.


‘Songs from the Heart‘ was released on April 7 2023 by 1equalmusic on Hyperion – https://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_1EMFTH

The Song Company’s upcoming Songs from the Heart tour in September-October 2022, directed by Antony Pitts and Francis Greep, with commissioned music by Sonya Holowell and myself, Elizabeth Sheppard, is designed as a musical interface between Australia’s 252 years of 1770-2022 colonialism, and the nationally affirmed, powerful contemporary Voice of Australia’s diverse Aboriginal First Nations, the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart. Songs from the Heart will be premiered at Newcastle’s Christ Church Cathedral on 29 September 2022, and will then tour to Parramatta (Riverside Theatres Oct 2), Canberra (Larry Sitsky Room, ANU School of Music Oct 4), Melbourne (The Oratory, Abbotsford Convent Oct 6), Sydney (Cell Block Theatre, Darlinghurst Oct 7 and 9) and Wollongong (Wollongong Art Gallery Oct 8). With consideration for unavoidable Covid-induced cancellations and rehearsal disruptions during 2020-2021, the Australian Arts Council has just granted $25,000 to fund an additional Australian regional tour of Songs from the Heart in February 2023.

Proclaimed by lawyer Dr. Megan Davis, the Uluru Statement was gifted to all Australians, who have honoured, acclaimed and responded to it in many affirmative ways. My commissioned music for Songs from the Heart is my heartfelt response to the Uluru Statement: it echoes Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s affirmation of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart in full.

The Uluru Statement was gifted to the Australian people by the 250 government authorised First Nations Delegates to the 2017 Australian National Constitutional Convention, and distributed online, so every Australian has a opportunity, and an obligation, to read it fully, come to an accurate understanding of the whole text and the significant Anangu art that surrounds it, and respond to it in some meaningful way. Vigorous community based debates have surrounded the Statement: this is normal, and different opinions can and should be teased out and thoroughly explored, as the Australian Minister for Indigenous Affairs Linda Burney, and Australia’s Special Envoy for Implementation of the Uluru Statement, Senator Patrick Dodson, have noted. Many Australians, conscious of Australia’s conflicted history, find engaging with the Statement difficult, but a wholehearted response is needed from all Australians, to enable Australia to move forward beyond Sorry, to the lasting Agreement between Australia’s First Nations and its non-Aboriginal peoples, that the Uluru Statement proposed. One way of approaching a personal and community response, is to meditate on the content of the Uluru Statement, though making and listening to music about it. The Song Company’s production, undertaken in consultation with Indigenous Australian composers and communities, echoes and reinforces the Uluru Delegates’ intentions, as one small step forward in the ongoing movement of the Australian people that the Uluru Statement from the Heart initiated.

My music for Songs from the Heart is conceived on a liturgical / oratorical scale that honours the full Uluru Statement as a sacred, uncensored text, an undeniable affirmation of Australian First Nations presence. This approach reflects my lifelong musical training and intercultural experience as an Australian Indigenous scholar and accredited Cantor. As The Song Company performs my songs, a mix of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal singers humbly walk with, attend to, echo and explore how to understand and enact this practical, forward looking roadmap for Australia. The words written by 250 accredited Aboriginal Australian National Constitutional Convention Delegates, are surrounded by Anangu artwork from the Uluru site itself, that the Anangu artists painted to show the cultural power of Uluru. No other document has communicated the wishes of all Australian First Nations so clearly, to the whole Australian people, and no other document has gained such acclamation and consent from all Australians, at local, regional and national levels.

Besides PM Albanese’s recent endorsement of the Uluru Statement, local Councils, regional bodies and corporations all over Australia have endorsed the Uluru Statement. In my own local area, Parramatta NSW, in December 2021 I moved a motion, as a Member of the 2021 Aboriginal Advisory Committee of Parramatta Council, to recommend that the Council endorse the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full. Phillip Russo seconded my motion. The ATSI Advisory Committee forwarded this recommendation to Parramatta Council, and Parramatta Council passed it in July 2022. So these compositions are not merely artistic works; they engaged with, reflect, and are the outcome, of a real Australian grass roots struggle to reach conciliatory consensus at local level at Parramatta, and the challenging creative process that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal residents engaged in, guided by the Uluru Statement and Makaratta truth telling, to arrive at an Agreement.

The whole Songs from the Heart production seeks to focus deeper audience attention on the clearly written and beautifully painted Uluru Statement from the Heart that was gifted to all Australians. The First Nations composers and singers invite consideration of the Uluru Statement, and The Song Company walks respectfully and attentively through the document. As The Song Company engages with the Statement intellectually and spiritually, the singers model how to walk respectfully and rigorously, as committed colleagues and allies, alongside Australia’s First Nations, by reflecting truthfully and empathetically in song, on Australia’s past, present and future. As Australians we are living through troubled times, but we all share hopes for a better future, and The Song Company’s realistic hope, tempered by discipline and skill, shines through.

Since learning the Australian First Nations way of walking on Country properly is a slow, gradual process, and since everyone is at a different stage of this process, neither The Song Company nor the composers make any claim that the Songs from the Heart music is perfect, culturally expert from all points of view, comprehensive, or definitive. The music simply invokes and enables audience responses to the Uluru Statement, opening the way to this, without undue demands. Due to Australia’s unresolved cultural dilemmas, responses to the Uluru Statement are necessarily diverse, volatile, dynamic, and ongoing. As in all projects with Australian First Nations themes, ongoing consultation with First Nations communities was required, and The Song Company engaged in cultural consultation, early in the project. Songs from the Heart is a beginning – one genuinely heartfelt engagement among many ongoing intercultural dialogues. May all music that honours the Uluru Statement completely and honestly, remain dynamically open to the inspired vision of a better Australia, that is offered to all Australians in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2022. All Rights Reserved.

In 2020 Dr. Scott Davie of the Australian National University commissioned me to compose a 5 minute piece for the 1770 Henrion fortepiano. This instrument, stored at the ANU School of Music’s historic Australian piano collection, dates from 1770, when James Cook first encountered Aboriginal Australians. Dr. Davie was interested to see how our Ngarra Burria Indigenous composer group would relate to the instrument, as a pre-colonial 1770 interloper, and a contemporary of Captain James Cook. The 5 octave 61 key Henrion fortepiano was manufactured the disputed territory of Saarland, Alsace, France by Henri Henrion in 1770. Coincidentally, 1770 is the year of First Contact between Lt. James Cook and the Guugu-Yimithirr people of north east coastal Australia. This little fortepiano was imported to Australia and played at concerts in the British colony of Sydney. I composed my music for this small fortepiano of reversed white and black keys, as if it were a set of detuned yoora (digging sticks or clapsticks). At the time of First Contact between Cook and the Guugu-Yimithirr, this instrument had no links with with my Noongar Country. But now, having suffered the inevitable consequences of cracked ageing and clumsy mechanization, it has been retuned, as far as possible, by experts. So (as a similarly aged, cracked, clumsily mechanized and retuned Indigenous Australian composer) I began to converse humanely with it, through a simple, repetitive theme that acknowledges my heritages, and primarily drawing attention to the country that all Australians live on. Our country seeds and produces hardy, courageous Indigenous survivor plants and peoples, like my maternal grandparents. So my Henrion fortepiano piece is about them.

After draft score consultations with Dr. Davie and my ANU supervisor, Dr. Sainsbury, and a Zoom session with Dr. Davie, Dr. Sainsbury, my Ngarra Burria colleagues, and ABC Producer Stephen Adams, I composed and finalised the piano score of a set of progressive variations on my “digging” theme. This descending fortepiano theme refers to Indigenous digging for planting and harvesting, and I set it against an opposing colonial theme of digging for gold mining.

Kalgoorli Silky Pear is based on my grandparents’ experience of life in Kalgoorlie in the early 1900s, where they built a cottage, raised a family, and were active in the community life of the time. My grandfather Gus worked as the Head Gardener of the Boulder-Kalgoorlie Council. He designed and maintained the public gardens, racing track and bowling greens of Kalgoorlie, and many private gardens (such as that of the Castlecomer homestead), at a time when water was very scarce. He had been trained in horticulture in Melbourne, at St Vincents Gardens. As a leading member of the Boulder Horticultural Society, he gave gardening lectures, acted as judge at annual gardening shows, managed a large plant nursery, and decorated halls and churches with Australian native flowers for public events. Gus was also a musically literate composer and amateur singer, and in 1943 he registered the copyright of his notated song “Our Defenders” with the Australian National Archives, where it can be viewed today. My daughter Emma, a Landscape Architect, whose father Peter was also a horticulturist, carries on the family gardening tradition that Gus handed down to us through his daughter, my mother Olive. The hardy Silky Pear bush, the karlkurla after which the city of Kalgoorlie is named, still grows in the Kalgoorlie area. It has woody fruits with hard cases, that are designed to survive bushfire. Gus and his wife Emma bravely and cheerfully endured hard times in Kalgoorlie, and like the strong Silky Pear, they grew and passed on a beautiful gardening and song legacy to their children and grandchildren. Through my mother, they passed on their legacy to me, of how to survive challenging times, through making music and gardening.

Dr. Scott Davie’s performance of Kalgoorli Silky Pear was recorded by the ABC’s Stephen Adams and Audio Engineer Huff Johnston at ANU’s Lewellyn Hall in November 2020. This recording was broadcast on Stephen Adams’ New Waves podcast, and released in 2022 on the ABC CD Ngarra Burria Piyanna, and on another ABC CD, Women of Note.

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2020. All Rights Reserved.

In June 2020, with the intention of maintaining my vocal skills, and restricted by Covid pandemic conditions that limit my particiipation in live choirs and solo performances, I enrolled in an Open Academy Classic Song class at Sydney Conservatorium of Music. This turned out to be a wonderful opportunity, not only to maintain my vocal skills, but to introduce notated Australian Indigenous songs into a music education curriculum that is still largely dominated by an admirable, but clearly foreign, classical song repertoire – but now welcomes notated Australian Aboriginal song into the repertoire.

As a result, this Wednesday, Dec 2 2020, at 7.00 pm, I’m singing three of my Indigenous Noongar Australian classical songs and one European song – Kaya Mary, Mary Moorditj Ngaangk, and Ngalak Noonook Balga (Gasstrees), and Schubert’s An Die Musik – all workshopped with Christina Wilson and Alan Hicks in Sydney Conservatorium’s Open Academy Classic Song class, at the Classic Song Concert at Recital Hall West, Sydney Conservatorium. Thanks to Classic Song teachers / accompanists Christina Wilson and Alan Hicks for their expert mentoring and cultural competence. Tickets are available at Sydney Conservatorium Box Office.


Here’s a link to my performance of Ngalak Noonook Balga (Grasstrees).

Bridging Music Gaps

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2020. All Rights Reserved.

It seems that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has woken Australians up to the important role that local community, Aboriginal and country based music can play (as opposed to globalised muzak) in bridging gaps between human mental health and community peace.

Dreaming, performing, and growing community, Aboriginal, and locally based music that comes from actual human situations and real life experiences, has a unique power to enliven, build and strengthen human societies and economies. Local song and local culture sharing and exchange between groups can, and should, be permitted to drive powerful cultural currencies that enhance mutual respect. Karaoke parrotting of imported cover songs is indeed fun, but it doesn’t build or support local cultural understanding, or local social networks.

The myth that promoting local Australian music will produce jingoistic nationalism, xenophobic hatred and war, is groundless. Where healthy local intercultural dialogue, assisted by song dialogue and exchange, is well funded, and provocative mass media reports inciting hatred, are erased prior to publication by responsible editors, peace has a chance to flourish. The proliferation of imported global music is still smothering local Australian music. which is characteristically respectful, and features intercultural sharing. Using music in good ways, local Australian musicians have outlawed deliberately offensive behaviour; many Australian songs promote justice by exposing and discrediting mischief making rumours that incite conflict.

Cultures that articulate and celebrate themselves in music, while engaging with environmental, spiritual and cultural concepts and structures, find ways to communicate peacefully with other cultures. Australian musicians have intelligent, inoffensive ways of agreeing to disagree, while expressing culture based viewpoints strongly. As their community music is heard and discussed, local audiences forge and maintain sensible behavioural boundaries, with humour and wit. In Western Sydney in the early 2000s, Australian Bishop Kevin Manning tested and proved this beyond doubt, when he organised a productive, peaceful series of interfaith conversations between large congregations of Christians and Muslims. These sessions included diverse local musics, and the discussions that ensued quickly restored community peace after an isolated but extremely provocative incident. It became evident to all that sharing common ground, singing together, clarifying intercultural issues and utterly discrediting false media myths, has an unrivalled power to promote and restore not only passive peace, but proactive, strengthened, responsible community relationships.

Songbooks such as the Dhungala Choral Connection Songbook and CD, produced by Deborah Cheetham, Toni Lalich and Jessica Hitchcock in close collaboration with several Australian Aboriginal communities, also foster community peace. Such resources are valuable local community building tools for the challenging pandemic era we are living through.


The Dhungala Choral Connection Songbook and CD is available at http://www.shortblackopera.com

So, how much health-bestowing local community music is being produced and consumed by Australians, right now? Where is it performed and heard, how is it managed, recorded, licensed and distributed, and who is still making it? When an Australian musician or composer writes, performs and records some of their own music, how do they get it heard by Australian and international audiences? Are they expected to give their music away free of charge, to be heard?

And are Australian governments able to add to our National assets, by including the value of our national music in the National Budget, as an asset? Is wide, government sponsored media distribution provided to our Australian musicians, so their loyal, pandemically challenged fans can access it? And if our local music is being drowned out by insistent promotion of non-Australian music, why is this so?

Have a look online. Many unfunded Australian Aboriginal communities in remote and urban areas are making magnificent, uniquely Australian music. Many non-Indigenous Australian musicians and ethical researchers are collaborating with these communities, to grow uniquely Australian community music repertoires with a powerful Australian sound and presence. This is a learning process, that deserves music policy support. When every Australian gives first priority to supporting uniquely Australian music, instead of believing the globalised media hype that promotes non-Australian performers and imported music genres above our home grown music, local community music, community cultures, and community peace, will flourish healthily, and grow.

Obviously, Australians don’t dislike overseas musics, they are all wonderful, but why should Australians prioritize non-Australian music genres, or promote them above our own musics, to the detriment of the strong internal multicultural musical bonds we have always lived with and built? All Australian citizens have a cultural right and duty to support, grow and enjoy our very own music, that connects us to, and takes pride in, the beautiful country we are fortunate to live in.

Australian community music is slowly re-emerging from the cultural silencing that the post World War II flood of imported and globalised music induced. We are beginning to realise that muting our local musicians’ voices, obediently patronising, consuming and imitating the avalanche of non-Australian music genres that were, and in some cases still are, permitted to dominate our airwaves, and allowing overseas music scholars to interpret, pass judgement on, and appropriate our home grown Australian music cultures, is not likely to benefit Australia. We can and should take credit for our own musical prowess. Australia is no longer stuck in a colonial music time warp, that wrongly deems all imported music and opinions superior, and all home grown music irredeemably inferior. However, many Australians think it safe to sit timidly on a musical fence, and are still vacillating between patronising non-Australian music, and prioritising our local music.

Can Australia’s thirst for our own sovereign music really be fulfilled with instore muzak such as “In the Bleak Midwinter”, “White Christmas”, or “Jingle Bells”, to cheer us through our smoky heatwave-and-bushfire summers? I don’t think so. Sadly, the yawning gulf that divorced the community music (of both Aboriginal and immigrant origin that many older Australians still know and love), from the overwhelmingly foreign music repertoire studied and performed in Australian Universities, Conservatoria, and concert halls, has certainly not been bridged.

Hands up, if you’ve heard identifiably Australian music, performed, recorded and distributed by Australians, in Australia, on an Australian-produced radio or TV program, or a streamed podcast. Hands up, if the adoring praise Australian media curators and announcers heap on the imported music of Beethoven, Bach, Wagner, Mozart, and American style jazz seriously outweighs their half hearted, grudging endorsement of “second class” Australian music. Hands up, if you’ve heard, played or sung Australian music in the last week. Music by non-Australian composers of non-Australian music genres, still floods Australian airwaves, and is still promoted by massive government handouts of public money, that all flows out of Australia. This money should be flowing into local Australian community music systems, to support and grow homespun Australian music.

Supporting local music is not narrow parochialism or isolationist nationalism, nor is it driven by anti-competitive rhetoric. It’s commonsense local social capital building. Many researchers claim that academic studies of “popular music” such as hip hop, rock, soul, electronica and gaming music have broken through the academic / community music divide, by validating the selection and insertion of a carefully selected canon of globalised ‘popular music’ into Australian school and academic curricula. The theory behind this policy, is that establishing a secularised global music repertoire shared by all, will eliminate intercultural and interreligious conflict – John Lennon’s utopian “Imagine” vision of world harmony. But despite this populist educational policy, a strict academic / community music divide survives, and is promoted by, imported music teaching and examination systems that many Australian music teachers are required to endorse. Grass rooms musos are studied by Australian music scholars, but how many of them read, or are permitted to respond to, the thousands of academic papers written about local Australian abd Aboriginal musicians? Popular music syllabuses that include lists of set examination performance pieces, and also teach computer music skills, are shaping future Australian musicians, but only a tiny percentage of the teaching repertoire included in these syllabuses is composed by Australians, or supportive of uniquely Australian and Aboriginal music genres and performers.

So what can be done to promote and support the growth of health-giving Australian community music systems and repertoires?

1. Immediately reduce the high percentage of non-Australian music heard on Australian airwaves, by 50%, and replace it with uniquely, recognusably Australian music, funded by Australia, and performed by Australians.

2. Teach and show Australian children that healthily home grown Australian music is highly valued by Australians, and is just as good as any music of non-Australian origin, or music based on a non-Australian genre, or music composed, produced and distributed by non-Australian musicians and companies.

3. In our present pandemic situation, generously fund and facilitate the creation and local community performances of uniquely Australian music content, by Australian born and raised composers.

4. When the coronavirus pandemic subsides, fund healthy, safe live local music events directed and staffed by local Australian musicians, and endorsed by local Australian Aboriginal Elders as fully supportive of our sovereign Australian cultures and ecologies, instead of draining Australia’s music coffers by importing or promoting “big names” who don’t actually need promotion, and who often put youth audiences at risk by staging drug-ridden megaconcerts, and then depart, taking our funds with them.

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2020. All Rights Reserved.

When I began Postgraduate composition studies at the Australian National University School of Music, Canberra in January 2020, my academic skills were, to say the least, a bit rusty. But having lived through and survived the Australian summer bushfire crisis, the effects of the devastating hailstorm that hit Canberra, and the Covid-19 pandemic that followed, in Semester 2 2020 I’m continuing with my Postgraduate studies, working at upgrading my academic and technology skills with expert help, ploughing on with composition, writing my thesis, and preparing video presentations.

Click on the link below to see what I’m doing at ANU this Semester.


ANU School of Music (aka Llewellyn Hall) and its web of dedicated multidisciplinary music performers and researchers, is both challenging and inspiring. ANU Chancellor Julie Bishop, Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt and Professor Kim Cunio are the driving forces behind this Australian Music School, that welcomes talented musicians from diverse backgrounds to explore, perform and develop uniquely Australian, and often cross-cultural, musical repertoires. Currently, ANU music students include hip hop artists, gaming music researchers, orchestral musicians, jazz musicians, community music specialists, audio engineering trainees, music therapists, Indigenous composers, opera singers, musicologists, ethnomusicologists, and diverse ethnic musicians who specialise in performing and recording culture-based traditional music. Their talent and diversity, together with the reliable support of the ANU School of Music admin and academic team, and the admin and academic Colleges that support them, makes every encounter, whether live, or on Zoom, an informative, productive, collaborative adventure.

So, on with the music!

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2020. All Rights Reserved.

As Australia comes to terms with COVID-19 protocols, musicians and composers are working out how to “do” music online. If we had a choice, live music would win. These photos of our Ngarra Burria Composers recording sessions at the Australian National University Studio in 2017-2018, and the first Ngarra Burria concert at Eora Aboriginal College in 2017, show how contemporary musicians (Claire Edwardes, Ensemble Offspring, and the five inaugural Ngarra Burria composers Rhyan Clapham, Brenda Gifford, Troy Russell, Tim Gray and myself) normally work together, in close proximity, to make music. But it is also possible, as demonstrated by the brilliant Lux Aeterna virtual choir a few years back, to gather in virtual spaces to make great music. The current COVID-19 crisis is pushing musicians and composers towards online collaboration. And as an accommodation to social distancing, Italian balcony music also seems to have taken off! So despite my advanced years, and my unfamiliarity with webcams, video conferencing, podcasting, and Skype, I’ve decided to jump into making balcony music, video conferencing, jamming and broadcasting virtual music online. Yes, I do have a balcony – in fact, two balconies! And hearing Mikey O’Neil’s presentation on interactive gaming music at ANU School of Music last week was a great introduction to crafting multiple responsive loops.