ANU: Indigenous music program takes centre stage

An Australian National University (ANU)-led music program that is empowering Indigenous composers to take the next step in their careers has been recognised for its innovation on the international stage.

The Ngarra-burria program is a partnership between the ANU School of Music, Moogahlin Performing Arts, the Australian Music Centre and Ensemble Offspring.

The initiative has been awarded a Classical:NEXT 2022 Innovation Award.

Founder and Director Chris Sainsbury — a member of the Dharug peoples and Associate Professor at ANU — said it’s an important endorsement from the international music community.

“Our program is about Indigenous-led change. It helps Indigenous composers develop, connecting them to industry opportunities,” Dr Sainsbury said.

“Significantly, the composers use their own cultural stories in their work, from their own respective areas and peoples. This is in contrast to some non-Indigenous composers in the past who used Indigenous music or cultural materials from any part of Australia.

“More and more organisations, festivals and broadcasters are making an effort to get it right, but there’s still room to grow.”

Dr Sainsbury says the Ngarra-burria program creates a “culturally safe space” for Indigenous composers to workshop their ideas.

“There’s a great togetherness to it,” Dr Sainsbury said.

“In the 1980s I didn’t know of any other Indigenous classical composers in Australia, and I was snubbed by some of my mentors if I raised it. I often let it go as I wanted to make it on my own anyway.

“Now 15 First Nations composers have gone through our program, with more to start later in 2022.”

Participant Brenda Gifford said there was a “great mix” of people and cultures represented in the group.

“It was nice to be in a group that shared culture and place,” she said.

“We all ended up writing music about our own country and culture, in different types of music but from a shared base of culture.”

The Ngarra-burria team are hopeful the major international recognition will allow them to expand even further.

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