Andrew Bukenya talks to Australia’s didgeridoo virtuoso
William Barton is an Indigenous didgeridoo player who grew up on a cattle station near Mt Isa in northwest Queensland, learning the didgeridoo from his uncle, Arthur Peterson, an elder of the Wannyi, Lardil and Kalkadunga people. His catalogue of achievements started at the age of 17 with an invitation to perform with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, and continued with landmark performances with the Philharmonic Orchestras of London and Berlin and at historic events at Westminster Abbey for Commonwealth Day 2019, Anzac Cove and the Beijing Olympics. His awards include Best Original Score for a Mainstage Production at the 2018 Sydney Theatre Awards and an ARIA in 2012 for Best Classical Album – Kalkadungu: Music for Didjeridu and Orchestra.
In this, the first of two interviews with Fine Music Magazine, he discusses with Andrew Bukenya the unique qualities of the didgeridoo, his spiritual connection to his country and people through his music, and his collaborations with Western composers Peter Sculthorpe and Ross Edwards.
Before we begin, I’d just like to acknowledge that I’m conducting this interview here on Pannerong land. William, you have become a wonderful ambassador for your instrument, the didgeridoo. For people who know little about didgeridoos, if you had to list three main characteristics or adjectives to describe its uniqueness, what comes to mind for you?
A direct connection to the earth that flows through the trees, that branch of the tree that holds so much history of our ancestral song lines. And when that instrument or that tree, or branch of the tree, is gifted to you as a young person, or even if you’re older and you’re finding your journey in life, that tree is of knowledge, and has so much power and song and memory. Because, the tree, when there’s water, holds memories in it as well. And so, when you keep on playing through that instrument, you keep on sustaining your culture. You keep on the breath of life, to the next generation of storytellers. And what I mean by that is like the mystery that I always loved as a young child listening to my uncles play and how powerful that was. That awe, that magic; I wanted to be a part of that. And it still is a mystery to me because the more you go in life, the more you become in tune with your instrument, but also not just the instrument, but where it comes from. Again, that branch of the tree, that tree of life and the passing of the culture from generation to generation.
So, it’s a tree, a tree of life.
You decided that this is it, the didgeridoo is really your life. Is it safe to say you would describe it as a calling?
Yeah, it is a calling. I guess there’s a path that’s chosen for you, but also the path that I chose. So that makes it even more special, because that is my calling, to pass on the history of the instrument, even though I play in a very contemporary context. It doesn’t matter if I’m in Carnegie Hall or one of the magnificent, amazing concert halls in Europe. Sometimes people hear me say that we have our own natural amphitheatres of the Australian bushland as well. It’s not me alone out there on that solo, being the soloist in front of this big grand orchestra. It’s actually because when I’m successful, my people are successful, so are all those around me. That’s the way I look at it, because I’m in a position to do so. My uncle, my mum and dad and my elders gave me that gift to unite people in this modern day and age with this instrument, and that sort of links people together through the sound, the feeling, our history.
So here you are, a musical or spiritual and physical ambassador for the Kalkadungu people. Going from nature’s orchestra, and learning at a very young age to appreciate all these different colours and feelings, and interpreting them for your instrument, did it feel completely natural to go from that ‘natural’ orchestra to a man-made orchestra?
I feel I can answer that with confidence and say it felt natural, only because I was a young, innocent kid with so much responsibility on my shoulders when I walked into that first orchestral concert when I was 17 years old, at the University of Queensland. But I’ve been thinking of it very much lately and am trying to interpret it in words. I feel that you need the symphonic orchestra with all its classical instruments and sonic frequency to create the beauty and complexity of the Australian bushland. It’s so simple, yet so complex. It’s like the wind rustling through the trees and then the shimmering on the water, and all those things contribute to a technique, a violin technique, a vocal technique. And it’s the way of course, you know how you project your own embodiment.
To answer your question, it felt like a natural thing, but maybe it was a calling as well. I felt familiar with the classical sound because of mum playing music to me as a child and before I was born into the world. And so, it was there, like the ingredients of the landscape were there. I just had to find the right composers to work with, then turn that world around. So, it wasn’t tokenistic, you know? I wanted to be the voice in creating new repertoire for the classical world and make it real for our ancestors.
I think of the amazing nationalist composers of the world like Mahler, Beethoven, Sibelius; they wrote about their landscape. They were elders of their landscape, even if they were young, they wrote about their landscape. And so, both our people, and your people pass on that language of their own song lines of their own symphony of the world, in that bushland.
Can you name some other composers that have influenced you?
I worked with Peter Sculthorpe for the last ten years of his life, and so that was a big moment for me entering into the world of Australian classical repertoire. But I felt at home with his music and that of Ross Edwards. And, I say to people, classical music in Australia is only just over 200 years old. It’s very new, and so I think now we’re in a unique chapter in Australian history, and perhaps the world, the algorithm of the world where a lot more indigeneity is coming through in a very meaningful way with orchestras. So, we’re seeing it here, and sister Deborah Cheetham’s been doing it as well.
[End of Part 1]