William Barton: Sky Songs

William Barton: Sky Songs
Clancestry Festival 2023. Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC), Brisbane. 9 November 2023

Sometimes when musical worlds collide, the resulting alchemy is simply magical. The musical landscape of multi-instrumentalist William Barton combines his influences – from birdsong and didgeridoo to acoustic guitar and concert piano – and Sky Songs, his stage show for Clancestry’s celebration of First Nations arts and culture, showcases his ability to incorporate the didgeridoo with classical music to create a unique soundscape. The stage is filled with 45 musicians from the Australian Pops Orchestra, conducted by John Foreman, but significantly incorporates William’s mother, Aunty Delmae Barton’s Earth poetry and opera-influenced vocals, and his partner, Véronique Serret’s classic and folk-infused violin. Yes, it’s quietly a family affair which gives Sky Songs an unexpected and unusual strength. Each participant is an outstanding individual artist in their own right, but blend brilliantly in a performance that welcomes you to William Barton’s musical journey.

The award-winning Queensland-born musician has been our Queensland Australian of the Year for 2023. And it is fitting that his year ends back in Brisbane (where he first performed with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra (QSO) when he was just 17), with a programme that reflects and celebrates his story so far. The opening piece, ‘Birdsong at Dusk’ sets the tone, taking us to country Queensland at early morning sunrise. William located himself in the crowd before walking to the stage, his rich singing voice a chant grounding us in a Dreamtime place at a crossroads of songlines. The addition of Aunty Delmae’s succinct poetry is calmly hypnotic – placing us deep in earth and space, with the gravitas of an elder’s voice.

In the pieces that followed, William was joined by Véronique, whose versatility has seen her perform with many different artists, from Archie Roach to Laurie Anderson, at festivals and with orchestras. William uses his unique didgeridoo and vocal talents to elicit a sonic landscape of birdsong, nature, space and sound effects; Véronique matches this with her own violin and vocal virtuosity. Her ability to blend classical tones with Celtic folk sounds also reflects William’s own background, soaking up a wide range of musical influences from his Mum’s love of opera, Western Queensland’s local folk musicians, country singers and First Nations performers from the Wannyi, Lardil and Kalkadungu tribes. The piece, ‘Song Circle’ introduces three Gold Coast didgeridoo musicians to the stage. As well as his own two didges, William also plays acoustic guitar and grand piano. Another piece, ‘Bushfire Requiem’, is so cinematic that you feel you have just witnessed the burning fire and rebirth of the land. The piece features birdsong, vocals, wind and the woosh of shaken branches, held aloft by the musicians in the orchestra. There was a spontaneous standing ovation – and that was just before the interval! Words I heard in the crowd included ‘transportive’ and ‘transcendent’.

From a young age, William learnt to embrace vast musical inspirations and improvisation. When he was 15 years old, he wrote ‘Kalkadungu’ for his own love of country, and was inspired to write ‘Birdsong at Dusk’ after waking up early at a mate’s place in Mt Isa. While touring Europe, he came across a friend’s CD collection and honed in on ‘Great Southern Land’ by Icehouse as a piece simpatico with his own love of the landscape. Its composer, legendary Aussie rocker, Iva Davies, joined the group on stage for a special performance of his iconic song. Following a further standing ovation, an encore performance of ‘My Island Home’ by Neil Murray and the Warumpi Band, had everyone singing along to this other “unofficial Aussie anthem”.

Sky Songs was truly a transportive and transcendent musical experience. It fuelled an appreciation of William’s creative journey (which continues in Queensland in 2024 with the QSO and the warrma pippa project) but also the tangible strength that comes from embracing creativity from all cultures, age groups and backgrounds.

QPAC’s Clancestry Festival is a week of celebrations curated and run by First Nations People. Find out more: www.qpac.com.au/clancestry

Beth Keehn

Image: Supplied by QPAC

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