The two are just coming to the end of their tenure and the place is in chaos as they prepare to move. Didges jostle with guitars, music stands, effects pedals and exercise equipment in a lounge dominated by a full-size grand piano.
At 39, Barton has the world at his feet. The most feted didgeridoo player of his generation, he has collaborated with, among others, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Australian String Quartet and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and played all around the world, including Carnegie Hall and Buckingham Palace. Alongside his own compositions, he has also had many works written specifically for him, most notably by the late Peter Sculthorpe.
His achievements are dizzying but he wears his success lightly, with an aura of calm, good-humoured confidence and disarming humility.
I wonder whether the expectation that he will be both an ambassador for his culture and a bridge between cultures might sometimes be oppressive. Whether he would rather just be left to make his music?
He insists not, referring to his recent dramatic weight loss as an indication of how seriously he takes his role as a teacher and leader for his community.
“You expect those responsibilities when you are ready for them,” he says. “My transformation has been an important part of my journey to where I am now. It’s important for me to be fit and strong – mentally, physically and spiritually.”
Barton grew up in Mount Isa – Kalkadunga Land – surrounded by music of every possible kind. Even now he retains a great fondness for AC/DC. There was traditional music from his Uncle Arthur, a noted didgeridoo player, the classical influence of his mother, Delmae, known as the “Dreamtime Opera Diva”, and “old-school” R&B from his guitarist father, Alfred. Then there were the family trips to the Mount Isa Folk Club, where he heard Welsh, Scottish and Irish traditional music: “It all just builds up,” he says.
He was 11 when his Uncle Arthur died. The elders picked him out as the youngster best suited to carrying on the cultural music tradition, even giving him the old man’s didgeridoo rather than burying it with him as is the usual custom.
“I can remember sitting in the car in Mount Isa when I was a teenager and listening to an AC/DC tape. I turned it over and heard some classical music and thought: ‘It would be so cool to add didgeridoo to that’,” he says.
In 1998, aged 17, he was chosen to be the soloist for the world premiere of Dance Gundah, a piece for didgeridoo and orchestra by Philip Bracanin. Since then, a significant part of his life’s work has been to bring together the traditions of the world’s oldest continuous surviving culture with Western art music.
But that connection between the didgeridoo and orchestra has “always existed”, he says.
“It just had to be the right time. It’s all about timing. We are the modern-day storytellers of this land. There is no reason why we can’t create new repertoire and a new Australian voice. But at the same time we don’t want to dilute it by being showy and tokenistic.”
‘There is no reason why we can’t create a new Australian voice. But we don’t want to dilute it by being showy and tokenistic.’
Didgeridoo player William Barton
Much of the time, Barton improvises when he is playing with the orchestra, sometimes responding to written directions in the score (such as the one in Sculthorpe’s String Quartet Number 12 – “more kookaburras”). But mostly he walks on stage with a “mindset of innocent freedom”.
“That’s the true essence of what it should be. Even if it is notated note for note and you have seriously awesome musicians on stage and they are being conducted, the music is still going to be different each time because of the conductor, the musicians, the instrument and the space.”
Barton and Serret have been life partners for nearly four years and collaborated musically for longer. Of French-Mauritian heritage, Serret began playing violin aged just three.
A graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, her virtuosity is unquestioned (she’s long been a mainstay with the Australian Chamber Orchestra), but what marks her out from most of the nation’s other leading violinists is her extraordinary versatility, driven by a restlessness and an unwillingness to restrict herself to any one genre.
She is equally at home playing classical, folk, rock or experimental improvisations, and everything in between.
“I’ve always wanted to play with people and not be dictated to by whether they can read music,” she says. “I’ve always improvised and that’s allowed me to work with a lot of different musicians and bands.
“And I don’t only want to play other people’s music. That definitely informs what I do but I love what I have to say with my instrument, which is basically an extension of me.”
Of late, she has been exploring all of the possibilities of the six-string violin, using a battery of pedals and blending the sound of the violin with her own voice to create a “whole landscape”.
I’m wondering what different mindset she brings to the stage when she’s playing a rock gig with her band Coda, compared with sitting down with, say, the Omega Ensemble.
“I might have a beer before, but apart from that …” she says mischievously.
We break from our interview for photographer Steven Siewert to get his shots of the pair in their tiny, mozzie-filled backyard.
The couple is gracious and patient but it’s revealing when Siewert asks them to pose tightly together and Serret says only half joking: “No ‘couple’ shots – we’re musicians in our own right.”
That independence is underscored by the multitude of individual projects the pair pursues, but their major coming performance, part of Sydney Festival, will be a collaboration called Heartland.
Featuring poetry from Aunty Delmae Barton along with guitar, violin, didgeridoo and voices, Heartland began life as a six-minute improvisation commissioned for the 2019 Canberra International Music Festival by director Roland Peelman.
It has grown to become an hour-long work, partly improvised, partly written. What should we expect?
“It’s about bringing people into our sound world. It doesn’t sound like anything you’ve ever heard but it’s still very accessible,” Serret says.
For Barton it’s about bringing people into a “space of comfort” where they can choose their level of engagement but without being didactic.
“It’s not to be a space where we’re educating people about Aboriginal culture or music,” he says.
However, regardless of these intentions or where in the world his music takes him, every note he plays will continue to be deeply rooted in the red dirt of Kalkadunga country.
“It’s the stillness of the land and the first dawning of that breeze and the calmness that comes with the energy of the air in the morning – it’s the symphony of the earth,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how barren and dry that country is, it still has spirit.”
There will be two performances of Heartland at the Seymour Centre on January 15.
Blak Out and beyond
When Wesley Enoch first interviewed for the role of Sydney Festival artistic director more than five years ago, one of his key proposals was to present more Indigenous performers.
“I’d done a number of shows for the Sydney Festival over the years by black figures and so I was pitching that I would do more Indigenous work and the board were very interested in that,” says Enoch, a Noonuccal Nuugi man from Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island).
Enoch delivered a much expanded Indigenous program in his first year, and by the second year that component had been formally named Blak Out.
“The Blak Out program is very much about saying, ‘We’re going to shine a light on the most interesting talent and we’re going to help them develop over a number of years’,” he says. “There’s also the idea of providing a platform for artists to take the next step – to try new things out and be commissioned for large-scale performance works.”
He points to the continuing presence on the program of Moogahlin Performing Arts – a resident company at Carriageworks – as one of the many Blak Out success stories.
“Every festival, I have made sure there is a new work from Moogahlin that helps strengthen them and gives them resources and a higher profile,” he says.
This year, Moogahlin will present Yellamundie Festival, a celebration of storytelling at Carriageworks, as part of Sydney Festival.
Other Blak Out highlights for 2021 include Sunshine Super Girl, the story of Evonne Goolagong, and Heartland from William Barton and Veronique Serret.
And for the third year the festival will present The Vigil, from dusk on January 25 to dawn on January 26.
“The Vigil for me is where art and culture meet social change and politics,” Enoch says. “It’s one of those very thoughtful activities. It’s not a ‘Ra-ra, rip down the fence’ conversation. It’s really a beautiful artistic and cultural moment of reflection.”
Blak Out events run through the Sydney Festival, Jan 6-26, sydneyfestival.org.au
Nick Galvin is Arts Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald