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The didgeridoo sounds from beyond the barrier

The Sound Barrier : Blog

The didgeridoo is one of the oldest musical instruments to be continuously in use and, despite its still strong associations with traditional indigenous Australian music, it has over recent years been emerging more and more in other contexts, and has been incorporated into a large range of other types of music. While indigenous Australians are still the instrument's main players, others are learning to work with it and its unique method of circular breathing, which enables its distinctive sounds to be produced, too.

On the latest edition of The Sound Barrier I brought you a sampling of some of the music to have incorporated the didgeridoo in these less conventional ways, and yet many of which retain, or at least reflect, the still hugely powerful indigenous cultural significance of the instrument.

Nowhere is this more compelling than in the music of Peter Sculthorpe, much of which he composed originally without the didgeridoo in mind, but to which the didgeridoo parts were added many years later when Sculthorpe began collaborating with one of Australia's, and the world's, the leading proponents of the instrument, William Barton. The force of that collaboration is heard perhaps most of all in their performance of Earth Cry, a tribute to an anguished planet, bemoaning the violence that humans have committed to it. With William Barton's didgeridoo, the planet becomes like a wild beast, injured, and stirring in both pain and anger. It is an incredible work.

Sean O'Boyle's Concerto for Didgeridoo was also created in collaboration with William Barton. In fact, William Barton's work is really the basis of the Concerto's four movements that depict the elements of Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire. Sean O'Boyle composed the orchestral music out of the rhythmic patterns that William Barton originally created to capture the spirit and sounds of these fundamental forces of the earth. The result is a rich and engaging work that is driven along by those especially powerful, primal animal-like sounds that William Barton so famously draws out of the instrument. It is music that sounds like the Earth itself is alive and stirring to revelry.

On the other side of the world, America's Philip Glass has used the didgeridoo in a few of his works, but his Voices for Didgeridoo and Organ is probably the one that brings the instrument most potently to the fore. Its contrasting timbres with the organ marry perfectly in the music, stamped with Glass's trademark rhythmic and harmonic minimalism but given an almost guttural sense of drive and drama by the didgeridoo which navigates the music as if this was in fact the instrument for which Glass's style was always destined. The didgeridoo and organ parts were recorded on opposite sides of the planet – Michael Riesman's organ in New York, and Mark Atkin's didgeridoo in Sydney.

Of a very different nature in all respects is Sanctus by Ron Nagorcka, from 1976. It is scored for didgeridoo, organ, (untrained) singers, and electronics. It is moves in a single curve from very quiet, to very loud, to almost inaudible as these four hugely disparate sound sources come together in a homogenous blend, resonating in the huge reverberating acoustic of St Paul's Cathedral in Melbourne. The concept of the piece is about the unifying of the different cultural associations of each of the sound sources, and the place in which they are performing. The commanding tone of the digeridoo moulds into the softer sounds of the pipe organ, the subtle presence of the singers, and the restrained ambience of the electronics to create a piece that, in the cavernous space of the cathedral, really does seem to honour the universality of the cultures and histories it contains.

And yes, surprisingly (or perhaps not), I was able to find a link between the didgeridoo and Karlheinz Stockhausen too. His 1968 work SPIRAL is for any soloist, working with short-wave radio. The soloist picks signals from the radio and then responds to them, increasing or decreasing or echoing different elements of the signal in different ways, according to directions set out in the score. Electronic effects help blend the sounds with one another throughout the piece, building its sense of continuity even with its distinct 'events' that are formed out of each individual radio tuning that the soloist engineers throughout the performance. The world premiere of the piece was given by an oboist, and the recording I played for you on tonight's show, with Australia's Catherine Milliken, also used the oboe but incorporated voice and the digeridoo as well. It is a highly original realisation of this score – a score that offers so many creative opportunities to a performer while still determining, through the structure of its 'plus', 'minus', and 'equals' signs, the overall form and shape of the piece. Catherin Milliken's decision to incorporate the digeridoo alongside the sounds of the oboe and voice that are more commonly associated with the piece gave some new insights into how expansive and surprising the work's possibilities can be.

Remember you can, as always, listen back to the show and check out the details of the recordings right here on The Sound Barrier website.

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