• Credit: Stuart Hay, ANU (Stuart Hay, ANU)Source: Stuart Hay, ANU
Composer Dr Christopher Sainsbury from The Australian National University has won an inaugural national grant to help promote the work of Indigenous composers in Australia.
Laura Morelli

15 Sep 2016 - 3:17 PM  UPDATED 21 Sep 2016 - 11:30 AM
“I remember talking to a non-Aboriginal colleague of mine, we were watching a choir of Aboriginal singers on stage and I said to him:
‘Out of the 16 people on stage there’s at least two that’s had a death in custody in their immediate family,’ he looked at me and said ‘now I see why we need to be supporting Aboriginal music.’
It’s scary - sometimes people are so unaware of how disadvantaged some members of our society are.”

Ever since his teenage years, Dr Christopher Sainsbury knew he wanted to be an accomplished composer.

“At about 16 I met an established composer and within an hour I realised … that’s who I am.”

The experienced music educator has made a sustained contribution to Australian music as a working composer in both professional and community music arenas. His output ranges from sublimely simple songs to large orchestral works.

Dr Sainsbury, from the Australian National University School of Music, has been awarded an Australasian Performing Rights Association grant as part of the inaugural Indigenous Composers Initiative.

According to Dr Sainsbury, the inaugural national grant to help promote the work of Indigenous composers in Australia is extremely significant for Aboriginal participants.

“Any grant for a cultural or social advancement, particularly for Aboriginal circles is really important,” he said.

“This one in particular is a significant first, because it enables some Aboriginal emerging composers to further develop and emerge into the concert music scene, which is a difficult industry to crack.

The initiative gives emerging Indigenous composers the chance to be mentored by established composers, to craft original pieces, and to have the music showcased.

“This takes it a step further for people working outside the mainstream music industry, who have a more classical jazz focus.”

Dr Sainsbury said the idea was sparked by a need he identified from his years working at Eora College in Redfern, Sydney.

“In that setting, I realised there were a lot of Aboriginal musicians who could potentially be composers in a broader sense,” he said.

“Many were sort of skirting around the edge, or actually engaged in new music through the music they were doing for film and theatre.”

Dr Sainsbury and his partners in the project recognised that many Indigenous musicians needed some kind of support to help them emerge as composers. He cited cultural and family obligations and other unique situations they may face.

“You meet many Aboriginal people, and there's often somebody in the family who has experienced some pretty horrific stuff pretty much for being Aboriginal,” he said.

“The people driving this initiative recognise that.”

Mooghalin Performing Arts Redfern is New South Wales’ leading First Peoples performing arts company and Co-artistic director Fred Copperwaite says it’s an exciting time to be partnering with such an important initiative.

“Mooghalin Performing Arts is supporting this initiative because it enables Aboriginal composers to be involved in writing with their very own cultural themes and storylines.”

Moogahlin (Muu-gaarl-in) is a Yuin/Bundjalung word meaning to play, to fool about.

“Chris is a really experienced composer and teacher… he has a strong passion to engage emerging Aboriginal artists and facilitate a means for them to expand their ability.”

Copperwaite says being involved in this means breaking the stereotypes and also facilitating a platform for all kinds of people to be able to do what they’re best at.

“It breaks stereotypes of what Aboriginal people are interested in - you wouldn’t imagine them like classical music or jazz, but lots do!"

“I think it will be really exciting because it breaks those stereotypes of what Aboriginal people are interested in. I mean you wouldn’t imagine Aboriginal people to be into classical music or jazz, so that was one of the main things that attracted us to this.”

The grant, valued at $26,000, will be supported by partners including the ANU School of Music, Australian Music Centre and Eora College Redfern.

The project is set to culminate in performances of pieces by emerging Indigenous composers in May or June 2017 and Dr Sainsbury says he's excited to help upcoming Indigenous composers.

“We want to see composers develop, rehearse and record for broadcast. Our aboriginal participants already have substantial musical skills - we’re just facilitating another pathway. That’s what this grant is all about.”

But Dr Sainsbury sees potential for the initiative to develop into the future.

“Ultimately, we'd like to see not just new works from the first year, but over a number of years from the hand of new Indigenous composers,” he said.

“We certainly envisage that this project will have a longer lifespan than the life of the grant, and that a growing body of work from Indigenous composers will start to land on airwaves, on music curricula, and beyond.”

Indigenous Inspiration:

For Dr Christopher Sainsbury, his biggest inspiration is Deborah Cheetham.

“Instead of being just a great musician she’s gone above and beyond. She’s auditioned people from all around Australia and put together brilliant shows. She’s trained Aboriginal people from all corners of the country to feature in this one massive production. Her work is rare and raw."
  • Deborah Joy Cheetham is an Aboriginal Australian soprano, actor, composer and playwright.
  • Cheetham is a member of the Stolen Generations; she was taken from her mother when she was three weeks old and was raised by a white baptist family.
  • Cheetham's most famous for her opera Pecan Summer, based on the 1939 Cummeragunja walk-off. She wrote, composed and performed in the production by the Short Black Opera Company in 2010.
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