At the end of 2020, Woroni sat down with award-winning composer and musician Christopher Sainsbury to discuss his work in promoting Indigenous voices through music. Sainsbury comes from the Dharug nation, and draws upon his Australian Indigenous heritage to create change in Australia’s classical music landscape. In 2020, he was awarded the APRA Art Music Inaugural National Luminary Award that recognised his efforts in lifting the profile of Indigenous peoples through his Ngarra-burria First Peoples Composers program.  

Woroni: Does winning the National Luminary Award have any special significance to you (other than it being very prestigious)? 

Christopher Sainsbury: It’s a good recognition of the success of a (to date) 5-year long program for mentoring Indigenous composers. It’s a recognition of the hard work I’ve put into that, but also lots of other people and of course the composers in the program. But it’s also a recognition that the program is built on the back of my 35 years work as a composer and 30 years work in Indigenous music education. So it’s good that the industry gets what I’ve been doing. In Australia the National Luminary Award goes to one musician each year, and it could have been given to anyone whose been around for a long haul. For instance a great Australian conductor, or a great recording engineer, or a great cellist or a great Festival Director, but they flicked it to me, so I must be doing something right. I thank Indigenous composer Troy Russell for the nomination. 


W: What future developments do you hope to see in the Ngarra-Burria program, and what do you think its most important contribution will be in the Australian music landscape? 

CS: Its most important contribution is that the Ngarra-burria program has now already broadened the soundscape of the classical sector, and their understanding of and responsibility towards Indigenous composers. It’s well underway, and has solid industry support. As to future developments, well in a related way I anticipate that music sections in many universities will begin to follow industry and respond with a preparedness to do things differently that may enable many Indigenous musicians (including composers) to become university students. We need to talk about education versus edu-demarcation (as I call it), and whether the latter prohibits access for Indigenous musicians who are often indeed experts in music and in cultural expression, maybe not in Beethoven or Prokofiev, but what is that anyway? And what is it to not hold an ATAR (if one doesn’t)? That’s one culture saying ‘our way is the benchmark’, but it’s no longer valid. Various benchmarks can co-exist, representing various communities that do co-exist. 

There must be an acknowledgement of Indigenous cultural wealth, musical expressions and experience as valid benchmarks for access to our music sections in our music schools in Australia. I anticipate fine Indigenous musicians can and should access our halls, validated by their own practice and culture alone, not by an imposed one. It is 2020 isn’t it? 

Furthermore, it has been raised with me at times that ‘we don’t want to set people up to fail’. However, that is also not valid, as it is effectively saying ‘our benchmark access points and existing curriculum will remain the dominant culture’, and also ‘we’re not going to do things differently or offer support’. So such comments are really bad form. Will what I suggest cost? Yes, but not much in terms of money, just in terms of a cultural shift! The School of Music here is well underway in these things, because of one ingredient – willingness. So that shift can be achieved within the space of a few short years, we’re showing that. That’s a very cheap ingredient I think – willingness. 

To maintain a ‘business as usual’ approach in a music school in Australia today (or any school in any Uni’ for that matter) is like saying ‘we’re not really interested or willing to make the shift.’ And having no Indigenous enrolments in a School in about the recent five years is a bit of an indicator of business as usual. It can’t sustain. Peter Yu is the new Head of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies here, and he is another one who is intent on making a cultural shift. There’s nothing too demanding in it for anyone who may be concerned, just a gentle turn, a bit of local action from individuals, and then Indigenous enrolments transpire, and the culture of a School starts to change. It doesn’t take more meetings or plans really – all that stuff could repeat forever without really engaging Indigenous applicants. You just jump in locally. My long term planning is this: what I do on the ground long term. It’s working. 


W: How would you describe the ANU’s level of support or involvement in helping Indigenous musicians prosper? 

CS: This is growing, and the Vice Chancellor certainly has a vision for Indigenous advancement at the ANU, in many ways, and he has a commitment to that. This is something which each staff member and students too need to support, because our Indigenous cultures enrich all of us, and assist us to interpret who we are as Australians, and how we can thrive into the future. It’s not just about righting past injustices, it’s about acknowledging the wealth that Indigenous people, our knowledge and practices bring to all. 

At the School of Music we’ve had four Indigenous musicians in programs recently, we have one professional staff member, and one Indigenous academic, me. We are in talks with more potential applicants to our programs. Some of the Schools staff are being transformed quite noticeably by the culture these students live and bring, and various staff are seeking advice on embedding Indigenous music into curriculum and are doing it, and how to foster Indigenous knowledge and approaches in a wider classroom space. It’s happening, and it’s benefitting the broader student cohort well too. So on the ground, the Music School staff and students are assisting to realise the vision of the Vice Chancellor. Once again, it’s just a local action thing. There is some level of support for the Ngarra-burria program from CASS which is great, and I hope this recent award will firm up that support and ramp it up even more, Covid budget restraints or not. 

The Covid emergency is this year, but Indigenous health and wellbeing needs have been around for some 230 years – since colonisation. Education needs are a part of that. Imagine if emergencies had to get in line! If we’re getting it right with the Ngarra-burria program, and Indigenous composers are involved and the industry is positively responding (which they both are), then we need to support it further. And I must thank Professor Royston Gustavson for being the first one here to have the vision to support the program and me back in late 2015/early 2016 when he put me on staff. He saw that this program should have a place in the School. Now what I really need is bosses or people who know where money sits to come to us in the Program (the various partners) and say ‘what are your running requirements for 2021 and 2022?’ That would be good. I hope that can happen under the Covid budget cuts. 


W: What have been the most significant changes you have seen in Australian music over the last 10 years in relation to Indigenous artists? 

CS: Indigenous musicians are leading in greater numbers in the mainstream, and are not just on the peripheries of contemporary music, but are being taken seriously, and are delivering at the highest level as songwriters, composers, performers. Until recently Indigenous artists, actors, comedians, TV hosts, film-makers and authors were quite widely known and embraced, yet our composers – in the classical/jazz context – were not. Now we have a voice. That’s been the major change in the last 5 years, and the School of Music here at ANU has been a big part of that because the Ngarra-burria program which is based here has shifted the industry permanently. Funnily enough, the last major shift in classical music composition in Australia also came out of the School of Music here, that was back in the 1960s when Larry Sitsky spear-headed the move to modernism amongst Australian composers. He wasn’t alone but was the main figure according to elder Australian composer James Penberthy (now deceased) who was 20 years Larry’s senior. He frequently made a point of that. So we’re kind of book-ending the two major changes in the composing sector from right here. 


Sainsbury would also like to thank several other partners (along with the School of Music ANU) including Moogahlin Performing Arts in Redfern, the Australian Music Centre, Ensemble Offspring, and the Eora Centre Redfern. Our composers regularly feature on ABC Classics, and are being commissioned by groups including the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Offspring, the Griffyn Ensemble, the Canberra International Music Festival, Sydney Living Museums, Four Winds Festival, and some 20 more major Australian music organisations. Mentors include Kevin Hunt (jazz director Sydney conservatorium, composer Jessica Wells, Head of the School of Music Kim Cunio, and myself). Composers include Nardi Simpson, Rhyan Clapham, Elizabeth Sheppard, Troy Rusell, Brenda Gifford, Tim Gray, James Henry, and more. It is their vision as much as mine that has made the program a success. 

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