William Barton. Kalkadungu – Music for Didjeridu and Orchestra

Sydney Symphony Orchestra cond. Richard Gill; Adelaide Symphony Orchestra cond. Arvo Volmer; Queensland Symphony Orchestra cond. Michael Christie. William Barton, didjeridu; Delmae Barton, voice.
Classical, New Music
ABC Classics 476 4834
Reviewed by , April 24th, 2014

This is both a wonderful portrait of William Barton’s didjeridu playing and a beautiful collection of works written for and with didjeridu (as spelled in the CD booklet). The recording also demonstrates the dialectic of side-by-sidedness and integration in the case of Australian Indigenous music and contemporary Western art music. That is to say, the two prominent musical styles present on this CD have in some cases been combined in a single work to express an overarching musical idea, while at other times they just coexist within a single work without losing their respective distinctiveness.

William Barton, didgeridu virtuoso

William Barton, didgeridu virtuoso also plays the guitar

In fact, Kalkadungu, composed by Matthew Hindson and William Barton, and performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra with conductor Richard Gill, achieves both at different times throughout the piece. The final section, ‘Spirit of Kalkadunga’, clearly integrates the sound of the didjeridu with the sound of the Western orchestra, creating a unified musical texture, while other sections of the music retain their particular cultural identity and markedness. William Barton’s singing in ‘Songman Entrance’ and the didjeridu solo in ‘Warrior Spirit II’ are clearly of Aboriginal origin, while a couple of short electric guitar solos, though also performed by Barton, are consistent with Hindson’s postmodern attitude towards popular styles, and are thus still situated in the domain of Western art music. The strength of this work lies precisely in the successful musical expression of the coexistence-and-integration dialectic.

One cannot not overlook the broader significance of the tension between side-by-sidedness and integration for Australian society. The suggestion that Indigenous people should integrate into Australian society at large has never been very convincing (to put it mildly). If anything, one could argue inversely that mainstream Australia could benefit from embracing the Indigenous respect for the land, a sentiment expressed in a number of ways throughout the recording. While integration may be more desirable at the level of social infrastructure, including health and education, it is much less desirable when it comes to preserving cultural identity. Here it is far better to celebrate difference rather than trying to force things into line. Again, the CD as whole makes space for this diversity by placing three didjeridu solos and two improvisations for voice (Barton’s mother Delmae) and didjeridu among the notated works for larger performance groups.

The CD includes two pieces by Peter Sculthorpe (who was a mentor to the young William Barton): Earth Cry, performed by The Queensland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Christie, and the eighth movement of Requiem, ‘Communion’, performed by the Adelaide Chamber Singers and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Arvo Volmer. Sculthorpe’s orchestral writing in Earth Cry sounds in parts almost like film music, but this does not detract from his successful addition of the didjeridu part, which according to the CD booklet occurred after the orchestral piece had already been completed as a work in its own right. The ‘Communion’ of Sculthorpe’s Requiem begins with a stunningly beautiful texture combining didjeridu with the seagull effect (a combination of harmonics and glissandi in the strings). The didjeridu part in this movement also demonstrates the instrument’s ability to imitate, or at least allude to, animal and bird vocalisations, helping to make this work indexical of the Australian bush.

Overall, this recording is neither unified nor homogeneous, and nor should it be, given the difficult past and present of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations in Australia. There is still so much more to be done, but some of the most aesthetically successful and impressive passages of the music on this CD are musical metaphors of what a collective future might look like.

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