Could we see an orchestra of Aboriginal musicians start up one day in Australia? The question is prompted by the founding of Orchestra Noir, an all-African-American orchestra in Atlanta, USA. It seeks to raise “the invisible curtain” and bring “classical music to diverse, younger audiences that is relevant and respectful of their community”. It chooses not to play in conventional concert halls but instead “trendy event spaces with DJs, drinks, and light fare”.
If an Indigenous orchestra were to happen in this country, it could help break down cultural barriers in the same way that Deborah Cheetham’s Short Black Opera Company and The Black Arm Band already have been doing, respectively in the spheres of opera and music theatre.
However, it would not be the first time such a thing has been attempted. In the 1970s, the Adelaide Aboriginal Orchestra served as a musical platform for detribalised Aboriginals in South Australia. Led by Max Ellis, it was the forerunner of the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM).
Whether a fusion is possible between the fundamentally European nature of an orchestra and Indigenous musical traditions is of course another question. Gerry Bloustien’s book Musical Visions (1999) expressed doubts about this. “On paper, a fusion of the European symphony orchestra and Aboriginal music looks incredibly ambitious, if not impossible,” it argued. “At a deeper ideological level, the orchestra, or more particularly its central repertoire, expresses a European goal-oriented view of the world – a sometimes avaricious compulsion to reach constructed climaxes. It is music which reflects the concerns of a society which has to a large extent engineered its environment” (page 157).
Yet that barrier is being broken too, thanks to didgeridoo player William Barton’s extraordinary string of collaborative projects with symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles. What he has done is open the door to a surprising new array of sounds and experiences for these traditional mediums and thus rejuvenate them.
So the ground looks prepared for more to be achieved. Perhaps it requires a coordinated effort on the part of our major city orchestras to facilitate ways forward.