… singing up Australia …

Musical composition, in modernist “Western” terms, is often thought of as a set of selected sound objects arranged in patterns that elite audiences can digest and comment on scientifically or technologically, without reference to human cultures or social justice. Colonial music education systems based on Western music theory, now integrated with AI composing software, also take this jigsaw puzzle approach to music making. Australian “new music” and “art music” composers often experiment with inharmonic noise, electronic sounds, and performance techniques that display the virtuosic skills of performers. My conventionally scored Indigenous music is traditionally based, but I am still fully aware of recent innovations in sound generation and their integration with vocal and instrumental musical performance.

The narrow stream of experimental music composition that fully funded “new music” groups compose for, supports an elite global “new music” market. Therefore, by its very nature, it is unable, and rather unlikely, to produce uniquely Australian music. In the field of Australian composition this marketed global music agenda is aggressively prioritised, by preferential Australian government funding of virtuoso immigrant performing groups. There is nothing wrong with this, per se, if Australia provided sufficiently stable, generous support for its own uniquely Australian music genres. But it does not. Unlike China, Russia, the USA, the UK, Germany, France, Mexico and India, Australia does not prioritise funding of its Indigenous musics and musicians, over and above immigrant and experimental musics. In fact, the opposite is true. Australia’s cultural presence and identity in global forums has been unreasonably diminished by this cultural cringe.

At present, Australia is in the throes of birthing its own unique musical genres. The Australian population, as a whole, has an opportunity to define and consolidate what our own music is, in our Australian places, in our Australian times. This is a personal, communal and national task, and documenting how we approach and achieve it, how we “do” music, is important. In doing this compositional task, the cultural guidance of Australia’s First Nations must rightfully take priority. There is no lack of great Indigenous Australian music in Australia. As the 21st century dawned, a cultural breakthrough, spurred on by the Reconciliation Movement and partnerships between Australia’s First Nations and non-Indigenous Australians, inspired many memorable Australian classics, such as the songs of the great Yolgnu singers Gurrumul and Mandawuy Yunupingu, and the music of Uncle Jimmy Chi, Uncle Archie Roach, Auntie Ruby Hunter, Uncle Jimmy Little, and Uncle Ken Carmody. These are just a few of hundreds of Aboriginal Elders who are famous in Aboriginal communities, but are not nearly as well known as they should be, outside those communities. Their stories and songs should be taught in every Australian school.

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