… singing up Australia …

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2023. All Rights Reserved.

My compositions usually combine Indigenous and Western traditions, but in 2019 I ventured into experimental phonetic choral composition of “New Music”, and produced “Untitled”, that was recorded by The Song Company and performed at the Sydney Opera House. In this piece I reflected the anguish I felt at Australia’s utter neglect of First Peoples’ communities and musics, and to warn of inevitable consequences.

If a concatenated set of random or patterned “new music” sounds or noises claims to be an “identifiably Australian” composition, it should be subject to culturally competent assessment, before being canonized as such. The practice of foreign judges applying foreign music criteria to assess the cultural integrity of a piece of Australian music, seems to me to be nonsensical. If a piece of music has no recognizably Australian features or origins, how can it be Australian? If an immigrant origin composer shuns, neglects, overrides or presumes to denigrate all Indigenous Australian music cultures, and insists on prioritising imported foreign and coloniser music models and paradigms, heritages and theories in their works, their music promotes only foreign cultures, and foreign economic interests. And when an immigrant composer whose music promotes foreign traditions and interests claims their music is Australian, without any evidence of connecting respectfully with Indigenous Australian communities, this offends Australia’s First Peoples. Yet this illogical, culturally offensive music policy is the very policy endorsed by the Australian government. Immigrant musics that are based entirely on non-Australian heritages, models and paradigms should be classified by their origin, as foreign music, and registered as such in their composer’s place of origin.

Due to colonial assimilation policies, many Indigenous Australian compositions sit in between Indigenous heritage traditions, and foreign music traditions. Mixed race Australian Indigenous descendants have adopted culturally approved ways of making our music uniquely Australian, by contextualizing our pieces, as I did with my choral piece Gandangarragal, and as William Barton does when he depicts his Kalkadunga culture. In 2020, shocked at the terrible destruction the Australian bushfires inflicted on ancestral lands, I composed this commissioned choral piece to sing the fire scarred Blue Mountains, the Country originally called Gandangarragal by Gundungurra First Peoples, back to life. It was premiered in 2022, after the pandemic lockdowns of 2020-2021, by the River City Voices Choir, conducted by Dr. Sarah Penicka-Smith, at Riverside Theatres Parramatta. Working respectfully with and for the ancient Country and First Peoples that hold the First Contact, Colonial Era and Post Colonial stories of this continent, is what makes our music Australian.

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