THE DRONE ZONE
Didgeridoo master William Barton has spent the past 20 years marrying the traditional with the classical and the contemporary, writes Meredith Booth
Kalkadunga man William Barton has played in a vast variety of landscapes since learning on his uncle’s C-sharp didgeridoo — made from a coolabah tree — when he was a boy. For the past 20 years, the didgeridoo virtuoso has melded the droning rhythms he first heard from his elders in the dry country around Mount Isa, western Queensland, with the subtle classical sounds played by orchestras in the world’s great concert halls.
He says the quality of the world’s most ancient woodwind instrument comes from whatever landscape surrounds him at the time.
“I cleared a bit of space on a frozen river in southern Ontario in Canada when they had that big cold spell and played on the ice. I liked the resonance,’’ he says.
“I’ve got a photo of Mum and I when I was 11 years old, it’s a bit blurry on the old film. We’re out bush near Mount Isa … beside a waterhole and so I always tell people it’s like you can be in a place like Carnegie Hall, or some of the great concert halls in the world — Russia, playing with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra — I’m not blase to it but every moment is inspirational because I know where I come from.
“You’re filling that space in that earth chamber, that cathedral, church, concert hall or landscape that surrounds you but you’re always listening.”
After more than two decades on tour — sometimes with only a week of the year in Australia — Barton is giving two performances at the Adelaide Festival this month and will later sojourn to the Barossa Valley to compose and add to an impressive classical didgeridoo repertoire that has included collaborations with Australian composers Peter Sculthorpe, Sean O’Boyle and Matthew Hindson.
His first appearance is an homage to his former mentor Sculthorpe with the Australian String Quartet in an event called Chamber Landscapes at the regional auditorium Ukaria, which overlooks bushland near Mount Barker, 30km southeast of Adelaide. Commissioned by the Ngeringa Arts and Klein Family foundations, Barton will perform his new piece, Square Circles Beneath the Sand, with the ASQ on Monday and Tuesday.
Appealing to a different audience with a one-off performance also on Tuesday, Barton will join other indigenous artists to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum to amend the Constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census and allow for commonwealth laws for Aboriginal people.
The commemoration concert, titled 1967 — Music in the Key of Yes, which premiered at the Sydney Festival in January, includes songs that describe the indigenous Australian experience of that time, performed by Barton and Thelma Plum, Leah Flanagan, Radical Son, Adalita, Yirrmal, Ursula Yovich and Dan Sultan.
Barton enjoys many forms of music, but his mother, Delmae Barton, an opera singer and a member of the Stolen Generations, is a towering influence.
A descendant of the Bidjara tribe, Delmae would take the young William out into the bush, singing to the landscape, but he also fell under the tutelage of his father and his uncle Arthur Petersen, an elder of the Wannyi, Lardil and Kalkadunga tribes of western Queensland, who gave his own didgeridoo to the then 11year-old boy.
“Dad taught me a lot to go out bush and cut down the didgeridoo ... Dad didn’t play, he knew how to make them. My uncle [Arthur] was a lawman, a medical man — when he passed away they gave me his didgeridoo, which is unusual because they normally break it up and bury it with the spirit of the yidaki [the Yolngu word for the instrument],’’ he says.
“I showed enthusiasm and I really wanted to learn. I wagged school and I just immersed myself in the spirit and the soul of the instrument.”
By the age of 12, Barton was working in Sydney, playing for Aboriginal dance troupes; by 15 he was touring overseas. It was after a tour of the US that he decided to become a soloist and began to study different kinds of music.
He reunited recently with one of his teachers, yidaki master Djalu Gurruwiwi, 88, who still plays at lengthy ceremonies in his native Arnhem Land. It was Gurruwiwi who taught Barton more complex phrasing and grammar of the instrument during a visit to Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory in 2006, says anthropologist John Carty, who has curated a current exhibition of yidakis at the South Australian Museum.
“That’s the thing with William,” Carty says, “he’s taken that instrument into classical areas that has never been done before. He’s a pioneer and it’s a reverence that’s been born out of a respect for the Yolngu.”
The museum’s Yidaki: didjeridu and the sound of Australia is focused on the Yolngu people’s relationship with the instrument, ac- knowledged as the most sophisticated and complex techniques used in its play.
“From my discussions with William, to understand the origins of Australian music you have to go to Arnhem Land and learn from Djalu. He’s like Miles Davis crossed with the Dalai Lama,’’ says Carty.
“There is a resurgence, most definitely, because cultural identity and language are a very important thing for people,’’ Barton says, adding: “We need to find more didgeridoo players. Indigenous people of Australia, they’re interested and we’ve got programs, like the Australian Youth Orchestra where they have that outlet if they’re keen enough and they work hard enough.”
Barton wants to create a sustainable future for the didgeridoo and classical music. “I know there’s that connection to that broader audience through that realm, but there are youngsters coming up through the ranks — which is great.”
will perform in Chamber Landscapes at the Ukaria Cultural Centre, Mount Barker, on Monday and Tuesday; and in 1967 — Music in the Key of Yes at the Adelaide Festival Centre on Tuesday.
John Carty and William Barton at the South Australian Museum