16 June 2023

Take a journey into the heart with William Barton and the CSO Chamber Ensemble

| Ian Bushnell
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man playing didgeridoo

William Barton’s work was inspired by the “deep red hues and blues that you get with the sunsets in winter” in his childhood home of Kalkadoon country. Photo: Keith Saunders.

The man who has made the didgeridoo a virtuoso instrument that stands in its own right will headline a special Canberra Symphony Orchestra concert that will take the audience into the heart of the country.

Part of the CSO’s unique Australian Series, which celebrates Australian musicians and composers, Red Desert Sand will feature the CSO Chamber Ensemble performing with William Barton on his work Square Circles Beneath the Red Desert Sand. It takes place on 22 June from 6.30 pm at the National Museum of Australia.

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The ensemble will also perform a new CSO commission from Noongar violinist Aaron Wyatt, The Coming of Dawn, in a world premiere; Peter Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 7, Red Landscape; Ros Bandt’s Red; and Katy Abbott’s Re-echo.

The program explores the vastness of Australia’s desert landscape and pays tribute to the colour red.

Barton says his own Kalkadoon country near Mt Isa in north Queensland and the “deep red hues and blues that you get with the sunsets in winter” inspired Square Circles Beneath the Red Desert Sand, which the Australian String Quartet commissioned.

He was in the ferment of creation for the new work at the Ukaria Cultural Centre in the Adelaide Hills when he looked up at the sky at dusk and noticed the beautiful red-tinted clouds.

“That reminded me of my country, and that gave me that start on the theme of my piece,” Barton says.

A combination of voice, strings and didgeridoo, the work begins with a chant that Barton says connects him to his ancestors, almost like an acknowledgment of the spirit of place that takes him back to his own country.

He calls it journey music, and “bringing a presence of the country, the Australian landscape to the people”.

“We’re giving people a safe space where we can take them on a journey,” he says. “And they can close their eyes and feel that the intention of the music onstage is for them as well. So it’s not just for us as the composer, as a soloist.

“I’m very grateful for the premiere of Aaron’s piece as well, which I’m looking forward to, and sharing the stage with Sculthorpe’s music and Ros’s music. So it’s a real collective of spirit music becoming in tune with one another, especially in this chapter in Australia’s musical history.”

man playing violin

Noongar violinist and composer Aaron Wyatt. His work The Coming of Dawn will be a world premiere. Photo: Bader Photography.

Barton feels especially at home with string sections, often standing near them and the conductor while performing with the orchestra.

“I’ve always found the strings to be my musical force,” he says. “I really listen out to the cue points from the strings quite often, especially in the Sculthorpe music. I feel there’s a great intimacy.”

Barton also sings in language, something that he says is crucial for First Nations people but is also important for all Australians.

“Language is so important. That’s why sometimes I just chant or sometimes I sing language,” he says. “Even if people don’t know the words, it’s so important to our cultural identity as an Australian, non-Indigenous Australians as well, to be welcomed into that safe space of learning language on the local scale.”

Barton and the didgeridoo have come a long way and he has had great success in bringing Australia’s indigenous instrument into the orchestral and classical mainstream to make a lasting impression.

That was always the intent right from his first orchestral performance as a 17-year-old with Queensland Symphony Orchestra, with the legacy of thousands of years on his shoulder.

“I walked into that rehearsal room back then with the intention of connection, of creating new repertoire and making it a long-existing repertoire that gets played over and over and not as a tokenistic thing.

“I’m very fortunate to bring the didgeridoo into the space and create meaningful connection as I’ve done with Peter Sculthorpe and Uncle Ross Edwards and other Australian composers where it is a virtuosic instrument, as any other instrument would be, if you give it the right foundation to work within.”

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Sound artist Ros Bandt’s Red features electrified steel and she will provide a pre-concert talk discussing the recording and compositional process of the work.

To learn more and buy tickets visit the CSO website.

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