William Barton is the first First Nations Australian to be appointed to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra board, which he describes as a huge honour, while noting that it’s time for the tough conversations.
In July 2022, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO) celebrated the reopening of the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. Conducted by Simone Young, the concert featured a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.2 (Resurrection) and the world premiere of a new work, Of the Earth, created by First Nations composer, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, Kalkadunga man William Barton.
The iconic venue has been home to the 91-year- old SSO since it opened in 1973 and the performance of Barton’s composition featured clapsticks made from the floorboards of both the old and the new concert halls. “A highlight of my compositional career was at the Sydney Opera House last year with Maestro Simone Young conducting my work and having those clapsticks be part of it,” says Barton. “I said to SSO members that this is part of my process. I need to feel the vibe.”
Appointed to the SSO board in March this year, Barton is its first First Nations Australian director. Just as his work has vastly expanded the realm of First Nations music, he sees his directorship as an opportunity to increase the accessibility of classical music. It is his first board and he describes the appointment as a huge honour, saying the time is ripe for change.
“I’ll be rubbing shoulders with bigwigs and high- powered people,, but the way I look at it, we all have a story to tell and a journey to express,” says Barton. “We can all share our knowledge to create better pathways and I really want to add to a legacy that’s already there.”
Life in music
Music has always played a central role in Barton’s life. He was born in Mount Isa and his mother — songwriter, poet and singer Delmae Barton — played Beethoven and Vivaldi around the house. She says her son was dancing to Elvis before he could walk. Barton recalls the blare of bagpipes at the Mount Isa Folk Club, where Scottish musicians played along with the Irish bodhran drum and country music was always somewhere on the airwaves.
“I learned a lot from the multiculturalism in Mount Isa,” he says. “From our Māori brothers and sisters in New Zealand to the town’s Asian population and the Western music from the folk club, it was a mixed musical canvas. But I was always drawn to traditional Indigenous music.”
At the age of seven, Barton learned to play the didgeridoo. He was taught by his uncle, Arthur Peterson, an Elder of the Wannyi, Lardil and Kalkadunga people. Barton says it’s “hard to put into words” what the experience taught him.
“When an Elder or someone of note is present in their gift, you get drawn into that aura and the mysticism of it,” he says. “I love the mystery of the instrument. My uncle was a traditional custodian of the instrument, a traditional law man and healer. He was a very special person. To receive that mentorship at a young age is very special.”
Barton left school at 12 to concentrate on music and gave his first orchestral performance with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in 1998, at just 17, melding the hypnotic, droning rhythms of the didgeridoo into a Western classical ensemble.
In 2002, he gained recognition through his didgeridoo solos in Earth Cry, a work by the late Tasmanian composer Peter Sculthorpe. By the mid-2010s, despite little formal musical education, Barton had won an ARIA Award for his classical album Kalkadungu, composed a world premiere work for members of the Berlin Philharmonic at Sydney Opera House, and unveiled his first string quartet, Birdsong at Dusk, with the Kurilpa String Quartet — and his mother on vocals.
“Going into that orchestral realm, I had a responsibility on my shoulders of the legacy of my landscape, my language and my people,” says Barton. “My intention was always to connect and create a new didgeridoo and orchestral repertoire. It was uncharted water, but even back then I wanted to be a part of the engine room of change.”
Barton describes his own musical compositions as a translation of the vast, rugged landscape of North West Queensland. “Mum was playing classical music to me even before I was born and I wanted to explore the canvas of Western orchestra very freely,” he says. “But I also wanted to interpret the Australian landscape through the sonic force of an orchestra, or the intimacy of small ensemble instruments — or the violin or didgeridoo by themselves.”
He has performed at the Vatican, Anzac Cove in Turkey, the Beijing Olympics and Westminster Abbey in London, where he played his composition Kalkadungu’s Journey before Queen Elizabeth II. “I don’t take those moments lightly, I use them as an opportunity,” says Barton. “I chose to perform Kalkadungu’s Journey because I wanted to hear the BBC presenters speaking my language.”
Equal-opportunity Opera House
Barton’s connection to the SSO spans almost 20 years and he sees his appointment to the board as a platform to help create a “fail-safe future of inclusion for Indigenous composers”.
“It’s going to be a learning curve for both me and the SSO, just as it would be for any company taking on new ideas and concepts,” he says. “But the time is right for us to be in tune. The SSO wants to create a new legacy and establish a new vibrancy. There’s a real desire for cultural respect and outreach to the wider community. This is not just a tick-the-box kind of thing. They want to create real change.”
Over the past three years, the SSO has increased its repertoire of work composed by First Nations Australians through its 50 Fanfares project, which commissions works by composers who reflect the country’s diversity of talent. Alongside Barton, other First Nations composers commissioned to date have included Deborah Cheetham, Brenda Gifford and Christopher Sainsbury.
Barton’s other goals for his SSO directorship include breaking down the sense of exclusivity that often accompanies classical music. “That’s just as important on the outside of the Opera House as it is inside the Opera House,” he says. “The sacred space of the Opera House is great, but we need to connect that to the everyday person as well, whether they’re a musician, an upcoming Indigenous composer or just someone wanting to experience classical music.”
Barton wants this connection to be forged at a grassroots level with schools. “This might include teaching music in a different way,” he says. “I’ve got a very strong skillset through my background of improvisation and — not to dismiss my colleagues who teach music — but there may be other ways to engage with a student who might be having difficulties with the circle of fifths or the theory of it. If we can pick up on the kids’ intuition, accept that they may do things differently and really foster it, that’s going to break down barriers and make them included in the group.”
It’s been a busy year for Barton, who was named 2023 Queensland Australian of the Year and was recently awarded both the 2023 Richard Gill Award for Distinguished Services to Australian Music, and the Global Sydney Award from the Committee for Sydney. He is also now an Australian Music Centre board member.
Building on the success of his work on the soundtrack for the Australian film River, which received two Screen Music Awards, an ARIA and an AACTA award, Barton is working on a new film score. “It’s got a big Hollywood budget, but that’s all I can really say about it for now,” he says.
The Australian Contemporary Opera Company has commissioned Barton to write his first opera. The Incident is loosely based on the interaction between First Nations footballer Adam Goodes and a young spectator in 2013, which highlighted the scars and contradictions that exist within Australia’s national identity. “I’m pretty excited about it,” says Barton. “I’ve got to finish up the score in a couple of months and it’s going to premiere in 2024.”
He’s also focused on his new role with the SSO. “That boardroom is where true conversation can happen, when honesty and transparency is given to everyone in the room. Music is a conduit for expression and, when you’re an instrumentalist, you have to be very good at your language. It’s an art form that can connect people from all walks of life.”
Barton notes that the role of the SSO board is to “create a safe space for creation”.
“That requires us to be bold and fearless in our thinking and in the way we go forward,” he says. “We can’t be shy of the hard conversations that we’ll have to have, whatever they may entail.”
This article first appeared under the headline 'Engine Room of Change’ in the September 2023 issue of Company Director magazine.
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