SXS sits down with composer Sean O’Boyle and artist in residence Chris Williams to discuss the Concerto for Didgeridoo
Photo: Robert Cato
The innovative combination of the didgeridoo–an ancient musical voice of Indigenous Australia–with the traditional European classical orchestra has become somewhat of an iconic medium. Born out of a collaboration between maestro William Barton and the composer, Sean O’Boyle’s Concerto for Didgeridoo sits among a body of wonderfully unconventional compositions by leading Australian composers. After its conception, O’Boyle’s concerto soon earned a permanent place in the Australian classical repertoire; ranking #32 in ABC Classic FM’s “The Classic 100 Concertos” and ranked #87 in the 2011 ABC Classic 100 “20th Century”.
Sean, what was the impetus behind creating a concerto for didgeridoo?
I had composed the ABC Broadcast theme for the Sydney Olympics in 2000. William added a didgeridoo part. I was immediately struck with his musicianship and depth he brought to the work. I resolved to write a concerto with William Barton. William came to my studio for many hours and we discussed at great length what the concerto would entail. William recorded many sounds for me and sang some of his ancestral songs. I wove all this into the orchestration. We recorded the orchestra and then William took the recording away and returned a few weeks later to lay down his part.
How does a composer reconcile notating for the Didgeridoo? Does a standard notation for the instrument exist or did you create your own?
Dr Hal Kacenic in Milwaukee created a system of notation and transcribed William's part. Chris Williams has these original documents to work from.
How did you approach the cultural assimilation of western classical music and Australia’s First Nations People?
I looked at it from the viewpoint that the comparatively young western classical tradition could meld with the ancient didgeridoo tradition. We chose the themes of "Earth", "Wind", "Water" and "Fire". There is also extensive use of a bullroarer and clapsticks. The didgeridoo was treated as an improvising instrument and this gave enormous scope to the work.
Chris, how did you come to start playing the Didgeridoo?
My uncle played it, and we had one at home growing up. As brass players, my brother and I naturally gravitated towards the instrument as we developed musically. It was my dad however who explained the circular breathing to us. He was a self-taught pianist and brass player himself. Later after studying trumpet and developing my musical skills, refocusing on the Didgeridoo became a journey of discovery and understanding of my Indigenous heritage.
You own and play multiple Didgeridoos, which is fascinating! How do your instruments differ from one another? How do you decide when to use them?
I have eight or nine good instruments now. My first one–the one I learned to play on–was made by the legendary master maker Djalu Gurruwiwi from the Yolngu people in North East Arnhem land, where the Didgeridoo/Yidaki originated from. Djalu is considered to be the custodian of the Didgeridoo, so it has a special significance for me. It's made from stringybark eucalyptus and is a lot lighter than my other instruments.
The bulk of my instruments were made by Tommy Teece. These are incredible instruments made predominantly from woolybutt eucalyptus and have great resonance and timbre. One of the most beautifully crafted I have is bloodwood eucalyptus didgeridoo made by Adam Henwood. It’s pitched in low A and requires a lot of air to play, but it has the most earthy, rich tone.
Didgeridoos play in different keys or pitches depending on the shape, length, width and wall thickness. The deciding factor for which instrument to play in an ensemble depends on which key a piece or movement is in. When choosing an instrument, the other main factor for me is pitch. The ‘sweet spot’ of the drone needs to sit as close to 440htz as possible, as this is what orchestral instruments are tuned to. Most instrument makers generally aren't making instruments with the intention of tuning to western classical instruments, so it can be a challenge finding a good instrument in the right pitch without having to cut lengths off!
When you aren’t performing as concerto soloist, on what other occasions do you play Didgeridoo?
The Didgeridoo is traditionally used ceremonially. However, the bulk of my playing has been overseas to show-case this unique instrument and to share the Indigenous Australian culture. I’ve had the great honour of sharing this wonderful music in some well known and some more obscure places around the world.
You are also an established trumpet soloist. How interchangeable are trumpet and didgeridoo?
The production of sound is essentially the same; buzzing of the lips into a mouthpiece, reverberating down a length of tubing, then resonating from the bell at the other end. The didgeridoo is considered the oldest wind instrument in the world. It could be categorized as an early form of trumpet, like the shofar/rams horn trumpets from the bible days, or the early trumpets found in the tomb of Tutankhamun dating back to 1500BC.
A major difference to the trumpet are the valves to lengthen the pipe and change notes in conjunction with the harmonic series, enabling us to play all the notes of the chromatic scale. The didgeridoo plays a single, fixed pitched low drone, but utilises rhythmic breathing patterns with circular breathing, along with different tonguing and vocalization techniques.
On the whole, how does the musical assimilation of western classical music with musical traditions belonging to Australia’s First Nations People sit with you? Are there successful examples of this? Where does Sean’s concerto fit in this narrative?
For me, the Didgeridoo is about storytelling and communicating the heart and voice of a people, groups and places. We have a distinct shared history in Australia, with an understanding of the past and present, with a view towards a reconciled future. This idea can be given a powerful voice through musical collaborations like these. Both art forms are dear to my heart. In a lot of ways, I think the merging of the two reflect the world we live in today.
Peter Sculthorpe is considered to be a pioneer in capturing the essence of Australia in western classical music whilst incorporating the didgeridoo, different tonal palates and other compositional techniques. Many of his pieces eventually had didgeridoo added to the score. Other world renowned Australian composers like Sean have taken the artwork to another level and helped the instrument carve out a legitimate platform in this genre. In this piece, I love how he creates space for the improvised nature of the instrument as well as incorporating distinctive Didgeridoo rhythmic patterns and techniques. The piece is also very melodically pleasing and has a distinct narrative. I think the oldest culture and wind instrument in the world meeting with Europe’s rich musical tradition through pieces like Sean’s is a beautiful thing.