The Art Of The Didgeridoo

William Barton, Matthew Doyle, various ensembles
Classical, Indigenous Australian, New Music
ABC Classics 481 1909
Reviewed by , November 1st, 2015

Some people are still surprised that the didgeridoo is much more than a drone instrument played by Australian Aboriginal musicians for corroborees and ritual ceremonies. Others may be used to seeing the didgeridoo playing in rock bands like Yothu Yindi, Jamiroquai and by singer/songwriters like Xavier Rudd. But some trailblazers like Mark Atkins, Charlie McMahon, William Barton, Matthew Doyle and Alan Dargin have been taking the didj into other genres including collaborations with jazz, world and classical musicians for many years. They’ve developed didgeridoos that are crafted to be in tune with western instruments and even didgeridoos with slide mechanisms like a trombone that can not only be in tune but can change their fundamental note and play in any key. I’ve even seen a didj with finger holes and mechanisms that can play scales akin to a huge rustic bassoon.

William Barton

William Barton

This compilation album from ABC Music focuses on didgeridoo collaborations with classical music. Well known Australian classical composers have explored ways of incorporating the didj into their music. The best known of these is Peter Sculthorpe who had a lifelong ambition to bring Aboriginal music into his work.

The works of several classical composers are represented on this CD. We hear music with didj by Peter Sculthorpe, Sean O’Boyle, Mathew Hindson and Ross Edwards. But only two didgeridoo players are represented. There are thirteen tracks with William Barton and one track with Mathew Doyle. I have to question the scope of this compilation when so many other great players who are also taking the didgeridoo to the world are not included. Leaving out Mark Atkins and Charlie McMahon in particular seems to be a serious omission. Fundamentally this is a compilation promoting the work of William Barton. William is an extraordinary didj player and to my knowledge the only indigenous musician to compose and score music for classical instruments after being mentored by Peter Sculthorpe. But it would have been interesting to hear the different sounds and styles of some of other great didj virtuosos in a compilation like this.

Matthew Doyle

Matthew Doyle

Nevertheless for anyone not familiar with the scope of the didj and its inclusion in classical compositions in particular this is a good introductory disc. The works by Sculthorpe, Edwards and Barton are exemplary incorporations of the didj in the classical idiom.

Bringing the didgeridoo into music with western instruments is no easy task. Having attempted it myself in a number of projects, I understand how easy it is for the didj to be lost in the mix. Even though it is a very powerful instrument its timbre and fundamental drone is easily overwhelmed by higher pitched Western melodic instruments and ensembles. What we hear pushing through the mix are the higher pitched calls that the didj player inserts into the continuous rhythmic pulse and drone. I almost always feel the didj is constrained by the context of the Western instruments. This is the challenge of composing for didj with orchestras. I must say that I don’t think many compositions really use the extraordinary rhythmic power of the didj to its full advantage. It seems that some composers write the Western music and then ask the didj player to improvise over the top. While this is rewarding, I believe it would be more interesting to work the other way around: to record the didj first and compose with the Western instruments based on its rhythms and impetus. Leaving more space for the didj to feature would also enhance the sense of interplay.

Peter Sculthorpe

Peter Sculthorpe

The Art of the Didgeridoo is a worthwhile starter but I think that in the future, there will be much better works combining this most Australian of instruments with Western ensembles and orchestras. Perhaps they will come when the indigenous players themselves have greater control over the development of the compositions.


William Barton with the Australian Youth Orchestra:.

Xavier Rudd-Lioness Eye:

Birdsong at Dusk by William Barton with Orava String Quartet:

Mark Atkins with the Phillip Glass Ensemble:

Charlie McMahon with Anatoli Torjinski – Cello and Kathryn Brownhill – Violin:

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