William Barton: A voice from the heart

Aug 6, 2020

On 1 August didgeridoo artist-composer William Barton and violinist Véronique Serret brought their composition Heartland to online audiences via the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall. It is a work to resonate across Australia and around the world.

In this year of pandemic and climate catastrophe, when we all experience some measure of stress, fear, grief and anger, moments are needed that lift us above it all in the way that only great music can.

Heartland gives us that experience in a unique form. It premiered in May 2019 as part of the Bach in the Central Desert festival at the National Gallery of Australia, and is now the centrepiece of a series of online performances by William Barton and Véronique Serret.

In the rhythms and counterpoint of didge, violin, clapsticks, guitar and voice, we hear the sounds of the bush and the music of the spheres. Rock and stars, lyrebird and kookaburra, the wind in the treetops, the footfalls and scratchings of a thousand creatures, the call of the ancestors – everything is there in this performance.

William Barton’s singing and playing, even his breathing, seem to come from the earth itself; Véronique Serret’s delicate strings and soaring vocals float high above it. Fingers drumming lightly on wood, a breath across a mouthpiece, a single note pitched at the edge of human hearing, all add to the orchestral range of sounds.

With Heartland Mr Barton’s innovative body of work has reached a new level of maturity. A Kalkadunga man from far north-west Queensland, he was born in Mount Isa in 1981, grew up on a cattle station and from the age of seven learned to play the didge from his uncle Arthur Peterson, an elder of the Wannyi, Lardil and Kalkadunga people.

Encouraged by his mother Aunty Delmae Barton, a Bidjara woman, he resolved early on to devote his life to music.

Barton’s father Alf, an Aboriginal elder and guitar-playing telegraph linesman, was friendly with a geologist by the name of Mick Roche who became a champion of young William. A long struggle to gain recognition for him culminated in his 2001 inclusion in the Townsville Festival of Chamber Music, where he played a piece by the late composer Peter Sculthorpe.

Soon Mr Sculthorpe was writing parts for him in some of his finest works. “William offered me a new direction,” the composer said. “He’s almost like a magician, bringing my music home.”

Today Mr Barton has transcended his friend and mentor in giving voice to the sounds of Australia. ABC Classic presenter Martin Buzacott considers him exceptional. “Having had the privilege of working with all of Australia’s elite musicians over such a long period of time,” he said recently, “I have no hesitation in saying that William Barton is the only one who I consider to be a genuine musical genius.”

Mr Barton views his music as a way of giving back to his people and culture. “I want to take the oldest culture in the world and blend it with Europe’s rich musical legacy,” he said at the time Heartland premiered. “I was given something when I was very young and like the old fellas who taught me years ago, I’m just passing it on.”

Always a collaborative performer, William Barton has achieved something extraordinary in concert with Véronique Serret. A violinist of great versatility, she is a member of innovative contemporary music groups The Noise and Ensemble Offspring, and a former member of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. In 2014 she became concertmaster of the Darwin Symphony Orchestra, where she made a strong connection with indigenous culture. She responds to Mr Barton’s work with remarkable sensitivity.

A third presence in their performance, if only in spirit, is Aunty Delmae who was involved in developing the work. Never allowed to sing in school, she became the first Aboriginal artist to perform at the Mount Isa folk club and went on to be an opera singer and poet.

In 2011 I heard her sing with her son and guitarist Anthony García at Tweed Regional Gallery when they performed Desert Stars Dancing. Her voice was ethereal, an unforgettable sound filtered through thousands of years of culture.

Five years earlier Aunty Delmae, immaculately dressed as always, had suffered a stroke and collapsed on the ground, unable to move, at a Brisbane bus stop. Queensland citizens walked past her and around her for more than five hours until a group of Japanese students came to her rescue and called an ambulance.

William Barton’s playing has been celebrated the world over; last year he performed his Kalkadungu’s Journey in honour of his people at Westminster Abbey in front of the Queen. But as the saying goes about prophets, he must sometimes feel less honoured in his own land than abroad.

Both he and his mother refuse to be defined by the racism they have encountered.Instead they bring the gift of their music to the world. Aunty Delmae has now written a Heartland poem for her son and Ms Serret to include in their performance. It speaks of the ancient land, and of a message of peace and love carried by the eagle spirit, on eagle wings, over the land and across the world.

There has never been a time when that message is needed more than now.

In this column I usually write about policies affecting art and culture, and in these days of right-wing governmental vandalism I find plenty to be angry about. But sometimes we all need to pause, to look, listen and reflect.

In art, literature and performance there are many Australian indigenous voices giving us lessons of survival and care for the planet. They are the experts in dealing with trauma – they have been doing so for 232 years. Their voices come from the heart, and it’s with our hearts that the rest of us need to listen. Then we can return to the fray with a stronger spirit and a little more understanding.

William Barton and Véronique Serret will perform Heartland again on 21 August at Bach in the Dark online.

Judith White, a former executive director of the Art Gallery Society of NSW, is author of the book Culture Heist: Art versus Money and blogs on the site www.cultureheist.com.au

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