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Memoir

Black unlike me

A WINDSWEPT WINTER'S day in February 1992. The Decatur branch of the First Union Bank. Newly arrived in Atlanta, Georgia, I am trying to open what the Americans call "a checking account". Seated opposite me is an elegant young black woman, dripping with costume jewellery. Two decades later, she could have passed for Condoleezza Rice.

She peers into her computer. I am being screened. Looking up, she shoots me a sneer.

"Honey, if you so much as go one cent over on this account," her finger waving at me now, "I'll have your ass."

The look on my face registers. She already has my ass.

"Just you remember, honey," the sneer becomes a smirk. "Here in Atlanta you is the nigger."

Over and again, in the few years I lived in pre–Olympic Atlanta, I was reminded that, indeed, I was the nigger. Of a city of about 4 million, nearly 70 per cent of its population is black. I was a member of the racial minority there, and over a few more years in race–troubled Charleston, South Carolina. I became a white nigger.

 

GROWING UP IN Adelaide, in the 1950s and '60s, I didn't know a single aboriginal person. Like most white Australians of my generation, I was scarcely aware of their existence, except as shadowy figures on television, on tea towels and lurking in the city squares.

They didn't enter our lives at all, except as objects of suspicion and ridicule. My grandmother used to regale us with stories about blackfellas who trespassed on the family property on the outskirts of the Barossa. "Grandpa would shoot at 'em," she said, in incontrovertible righteousness. "And that would scare 'em away." I sometimes wondered if she really meant to include the word "at" in that sentence. Either way, it was enough to scare me, and terrorise my boyhood imagination.

There was something about the Athens of the South. It was all too lilywhite, not at all like those cities of a million stories, those cities that never slept. Adelaide had only one face – white – and it seemed to be in a perpetual slumber. Rumour had it that the Adelaide Plains had been some kind of Aboriginal burial ground. Was that why blackfellas didn't live there?

Despite furtive glances through the windows of the family car – a green Austin A40 polished up for the sacrosanct family drive, 1pm to 4.30pm every Sunday afternoon, bar emergencies – I didn't see an Aborigine until I went to university.

During my first year as a music student at the University of Adelaide, a young ethnomusicologist gave a course called "Introduction to Music of the Australian Aborigines". Dr Catherine J. Ellis was then a lowly tutor, her groundbreaking research probing the cultural heritage of urban Aborigines still to be acknowledged. Passionate and inspirational, her diminutive figure and retiring nature afforded her only token status in the Eurocentric totem pole of Adelaide's musical life.

One day, she brought in an Aborigine to play the didgeridoo for the class. Our heads swimming in Beethovenian clouds, most of us thought the whole charade ridiculous and beneath our cultural station. But a few approached Dr Cath later and asked if there was any way we could learn more about the instrument, perhaps even hook a few lessons? She smiled wanly. Later, we learned that she had paid for this man's appearance from her own pocket.

A few years later, in 1971, George Dreyfus composed his Sextet for Didjeridu and Winds. A Musica Viva commission, it was designed for the embassy circuit in South–East Asia, a smokescreen masking our neglect of indigenous culture.

The didg player George Winunguj came down from Arnhem Land to rehearse with the University of Adelaide Wind Quintet. I went to a rehearsal and found the atmosphere uncomfortable, even prickly. It was hardly assisted by the composer's awkward attempts at cultural bridge building. To this day, though, I consider the first few minutes of that work, as the wind instruments create a new overtone structure atop the didgeridoo drone, to be among the most precious in Australian music. I cannot hear it without the hairs on the back of my neck standing to attention.

 

BY THE END of that year I was in Sydney. Now barely 21 years old, my marble spared in the Vietnam lottery, I was working at one of those "temporary" positions at the ABC that once morphed seamlessly into permanence. Intolerant of a federal bureaucracy, I soon found myself in a worse one, teaching at the Conservatorium where a new director, Rex Hobcroft, was running new brooms through the institution.

I had only been there a few days when Rex asked me to come to see him. The Con had been requested to mount a tryout of the Opera Theatre in the Sydney Opera House. Three nights in late July had been set aside. Rex, bless him, knew the symbolism of this moment and decided that the Con would present a double bill of two Australian operas, probably sensing that, in future decades, there would be precious little Australian music played there.

Rex had decided to present two operas he knew well from his days as director of the Tasmanian Conservatorium where, in the early 1960s, he ran conferences on aspects of Australian music. He would conduct the opera he had premiered there, Larry Sitsky's The Fall of the House of Usher, and Christopher Nicholls would direct Dalgerie, an opera by one of Rex's composer mates from the west, James Penberthy.

Dalgerie is based on the novel Keep Him My Country (1955) by Mary Miller, better known as Dame Mary Durack. It is set in Durack country, the Kimberley of north Western Australia. An Aboriginal station girl, Dalgerie, falls in love with the white station manager, Stan Rolt, and her tribe assembles in ritual ceremony to banish her. For the corroboree, Dame Mary said, "I've rounded up a couple of dozen blackfellas from the property for you and brought them down to Sydney."

They were dazed and confused by their first encounter with a city. Arriving in midwinter, they became ill with the flu. In the rooms of a Kings Cross backpackers' hostel, which the Con's penny–starved budget had provided, they set fire to some furniture to keep warm. I "liberated" every available radiator from the Con and showed them the magic of electric fire.

Down on Bennelong Point, there was total chaos. As crews worked around the clock, we prepared operas in a construction zone that had already been declared "black" by Aboriginal activists. To get anywhere, security guards demanded permits, but no such protocols had yet been devised. We printed our own and distributedfaux official documents to the nearly 400 people working on the project.

The greatest obstacles were fabricated by the small army of white "minders" who soon attached themselves to the dancers. Parodies of Bible–thumping Christians, they accused us of every conceivable debasement of our charges.

One day our accusers simply vanished. Dame Mary had played her trump card. Somehow, she managed to draw the Aboriginal tenor Harold Blair out of retirement. Blair had been in the original production of Dalgerieat the Perth Festival in January 1959. Fourteen years later, Dame Mary asked him if he could do something to "resolve" the issue. What Blair said, none of us ever knew, but when he stepped onto the Opera House stage on July 25, 1973, there was a thunderous cheer before he sang a single note.

Even after this, I could hardly claim to have known any of these Kimberley folk. We chatted and laughed in a kind of "demi–language" somewhere between English and something else. All communication was affected by white intermediaries – Dame Mary and her family, Penberthy, whose craggy Audenesque appearance and near–legendary background as an amateur boxer had come in handy, and, of course, the interloping "minders".

"You must come visit us soon," Dame Mary cooed after the whole ordeal was over. I promised her I would, but promised myself I wouldn't. Not yet, anyway.

 

ONLY ONCE HAD I connected with this world in my own music, and it was far from comfortable and encouraging. For the opening concert of the Seymour Group in July 1977, I decided to arrange a set of Australian folksongs for the baritone Lyndon Terracini. He could play the didgeridoo, or so he said. These days it would be more appropriate to say that he could get some noises out of the instrument.

Twenty–five years ago, Terracini could "play" the didgeridoo well enough to provide the spine of my somewhat sour setting of the folksong Jacky Jacky. I had set it as a kind of corroboree, with emphasis on percussion and drone duets between didgeridoo and baritone saxophone. A composer friend, Martin Wesley–Smith, joked that the entire piece had everything in it but audience participation. For an expanded stage version in May 1978, I added that as well. In the new version of Jacky Jacky, the ensemble led the audience in a round based on the doggerel chorus:

Cricketta bubbula
Will de Mah–hah
Billie na–jah
Jin–Jinny wah.

Australian Folksongs has been performed about a dozen times around the world, with several singers, and was recorded in 1987 (Australian Music Centre CD OZM 10003). Whenever we feel brave enough to attempt it, audiences seem to enjoy singing the round. After each performance, I would go home and go to bed, relieved and pleased with our accomplishment. It would take only a few days for the first letters to arrive in the mail. Invariably, the text went something like this:

Dear Mr Plush,
I was present at the performance of your Australian Folksongs the other evening. On the whole, I enjoyed the experience, but for one matter. In your evocation of an Aboriginal corroboree, I feel that you have overstepped the mark of good taste and ownership. You have no right to use or abuse Aboriginal culture. It is not yours to use. I hope you will not repeat your lack of discretion.
Yours sincerely ...

On one occasion, I engaged my correspondent in a debate, a foolish decision that simply inflamed her passion and deepened my discouragement. Fortunately, the piece is not performed much these days, although it is included in school syllabuses. Now an entirely new generation of demurrers, younger and fortified by spellcheck, write with observations such as:

Dear Mr Plush,
I am a 16–year–old student studying Australian music. We are presently looking at those Australian compositions that have abused Aboriginal culture. Your Australian Folksongs has been the topic of much discussion and I have been designated to write to you to ask: do you now regret your decision to compose the work in such a way, and have you ever considered withdrawing it from circulation?

Yours sincerely ...

No, I don't regret writing Australian Folksongs one little bit, and certainly not my setting of Jacky Jacky. But I would not venture into such quicksand territory again.

 

MY YEARS IN America placed me in a kind of cultural limbo.  I had had no preparation for being a white person in a predominantly black environment. In Australia and in northern United States, I was part of a powerful racial majority. In the South, the stereotypes and prejudices were reversed. I would be kept waiting at supermarket checkout counters and banks, there were always problems when I attempted to buy anything on credit, when I tried to contact City Hall, the post office, the phone company. I became Sidney Poitier, invited to dinner with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

Very early in my time in Atlanta, I had dinner with an old friend. A PhD in composition from the University of California at Santa Barbara, Jeffrey Babcock had been executive director of the New World Symphony, that wonderful youth orchestra in Miami directed by Michael Tilson Thomas. Now he had turned up in Atlanta, director of the Cultural Olympiad.

"Well, Vince, tell me what we should have from Australia," he said, almost shouting to get over the din of the yuppie Italian restaurant in Buckhead. "What is your best orchestra? Who are your most interesting composers, choreographers, artists?" I paused to buy time. "Do you have any kind of theme, something to hang a hook on?" I asked.

"Well, actually yes," he replied. "I think we're gonna try something like this: what happens when you put a white guy in a black environment and a black person in a white environment. How does that sound?"

It took a while to register. What a perfect, stunning summation of Atlanta, the sassy, in–your–face capital of the New South, with its myriads of interracial connections. With Georgia on My Mind oozing from the restaurant ceiling, I tossed out a few ideas.

My years in the South taught me things about myself, about the prejudices ingrained by my grandmother's stories and my lilywhite Adelaide upbringing, by the stereotypes in ABC schools broadcasts and in our storybooks. I learned to tell stories better, to laugh more, to take "time out". Clocks melted in Salvador Dali's searing suns. Appointment diaries drowned in the torpor of languid afternoons on the prawn scullers that plied the backwaters of the Carolina Low Country.

In my early 40s, I was too old to become a Southerner. An Aries and of Irish descent, I was too prone to frenetic nervousness. But for those five years, it was fun to become another person, to have one long day ooze into another, to lose oneself in a clockless zone of song, liquor and fixins'. I didn't realise it at the time, but I don't think I have ever been happier.

 

FOR NEARLY THREE years, I was based in the holy city of the South, Charleston, South Carolina. I had first gone there in late 1992, to prepare an ABC radio and television documentary on Porgy and Bess set in its sleepy dockside tenement dwellings. Over several months, it became a refuge from the nerve–end bustle and sheer physical danger of pre–Olympics Atlanta.

By August 1993, I was living in an imposing four–storey beach house on Folly Island, with panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean on one side, sweeping Prince of Tides marshland vistas on the other. It was only a few kilometres up the road from "Follywood", the beach house owned by writers DuBose and Dorothy Heyward that had been Gershwin's base for several weeks in the summer of 1934. Most days, I rode my bike there for long chats with its owner, Steve Nolan, an antiquarian bookseller and a passionate Porgy–buff.

In my pursuit of the Porgy–geist, several remarkable things happened. At churches and dinner parties, I met old–timers, feisty Southerners in their 80s and 90s, who remembered Gershwin's visit there 60 years earlier. I discovered the existence of a second Gershwin–Heyward collaboration, an opera based on an abortive slave revolt in Charleston in 1822. Most of all, I discovered the existence of a really good black composer whose work had virtually disappeared.

Edmund Thornton Jenkins had been born in Charleston in 1894. A superlative clarinetist and composer, he studied, performed and composed in London. He died, under mysterious circumstances in 1926 and trunks of his belongings and music found their way back to the US. His sister, Mildred, an opera singer, tried to interest the Boston Symphony in her brother's compositions but was politely shown the door. Now her son, Jomo Zimbabwe, wanted to hear what his enigmatic uncle's works sounded like.

In Chicago, I located sketches for an orchestral tone poem called Charlestonia, composed in 1917, a kind of Dvorak–meets–Delius–meets–Duke Ellington mélange. Reassembled from a couple of pencil scores, it was played by the Charleston Symphony in September 1996, an occasion that sparked a deal of local interest, from both black and white. After the first performance of Charlestonia, a clutch of elderly white women came up to congratulate me. "Such a lovely and interesting piece, Mr Plush," one of them said. "What a pity he wasn't one of ours." Shocked, I could barely get out the words to reply. She winked, "You know what I mean."

Conversely, the black community of Charleston was overjoyed at the "homecoming" of a native son. I found several more scores, prepared them for performance and distributed them among the handful of classical black musicians in the city. Mayor Joseph P. Riley III declared a week of the Piccolo Spoleto Festival "Edmund Thornton Jenkins Homecoming Week".

Occasionally, in fancy restaurants on King Street, a group of well–to–do black women met to plan the Jenkins Memorial Fund to assist black music students. They adopted me and invited me to their gatherings. For their luncheons, they would outdo one another in their choice of wardrobe, particularly hats. Some of theirchapeaux would have put those of the Queen Mother in the shade. One particularly outrageous creation caught my attention. "Why do you wear such things, Dulcetta?" I asked. "My dear," she said, her hands sweeping in the direction of a few tables of white women a respectable distance away. "See those honkies?" I nodded. She leaned forward and hissed loudly for the entire table to hear, "Because it upsets them so!"

The luncheons were jolly affairs. I was usually assigned the task of choosing the wine. Somehow, Australians were supposed to know about such things. After a few glasses, they began to drop their guard. "Now, nigger," one would say to another. Soon it was "Yes, nigger", "No way, nigger" and "Y'don't say, nigger". No self–respecting white person could bring himself to use the n–word, yet here it was being tossed around the table by a bunch of Oprah Winfrey wannabes. Sensing my discomfort, one of them muttered, in semi–conspiratorial tones, "Don't worry, honey. You's one of us. You's a nigger, too."

 

ASK ANY AUSTRALIAN music person this simple question: When did you first encounter William Barton? The response is usually vivid, highly detailed, animated and accompanied by a grin you could drive a truck through. Rather like Barton's smile. He has that kind of effect on people: disarming, endearing and loveable, an intuitive and natural musician who brings out the best in others.

My first encounter with Barton was at the International Chamber Music Festival in Townsville in August 2001. He played didgeridoo with the Goldner Quartet in Peter Sculthorpe's String Quartet No.11, subtitled Jabiru Dreaming. Frankly, I was sceptical of the marriage of didgeridoo and string quartet. But the chemistry was electric, generating a powerhouse of energy and conviction that I had rarely encountered. They had ideas about the music that carried through to the final downbow.

Almost overwhelmed by the experience, I don't actually recall what I said to Barton after that performance. We had a brief conversation, planning to meet again a few weeks later in Brisbane. Then he would play with the Queensland Orchestra, performing Sculthorpe's Earth Cry, the orchestral version of that 12th string quartet. That performance, too, was sheer electricity. Something transformed Sculthorpe that evening. Charged with Barton's dynamism, the composer seemed to lose 50 years. Few could have known that he had entered a new chapter of his long compositional life.

That evening, Sculthorpe had an epiphany. In all his orchestral music there were strong pedal bass tones. Whether stated overtly or concealed, they could readily be underlined by the addition of didgeridoo drones at various pitches. Why not revise all the recent orchestral pieces and include parts for didgeridoo? Certainly, those pieces – Kakadu, Earth Cry, Memento Mori – had their roots in the soil of northern Australia and shouted pleas for the national environment. The didgeridoo would be their voice.

On the spot, it was decided that the Queensland Orchestra and its young American maestro, Michael Christie, would record all Sculthorpe's recent orchestral music with the addition of Barton playing didgeridoo. Moreover, the orchestra was about to go to Tokyo to perform at the inaugural Festival of Asian Orchestras. By the end of the concert, funds had been found for Barton to accompany them to Japan. His ceremonial entrances through the auditorium and engrossing stage presence melted the hearts of the normally very formal and correct Tokyo audience.

In the streets of Tokyo, a strange trio appeared. An elderly white Australian and a young Aborigine were escorted to various parks and temples by a Japanese–Australian – my partner, Toshi. Several times the trio was stopped by people requesting autographs and photographs.

Some months later, I asked Barton to play at the Mini^Max Festival of post–Minimalist music I was curating at the Brisbane Powerhouse. This involved joining The Cathedral Band, an ensemble of improvisers from various world cultures who would respond to the online computer music of composer William Duckworth and web designer Nora Farrell, the husband–and–wife team of post–Cage new–music mavens from New York.

Normally, musicians would ask to see parts before committing to such dubious ventures. With Barton, there were no such misgivings. "Sure thing, mate," came the cheery voice down the phone. "Sounds like fun." A techno–buff himself, Barton looked forward to playing with computer–generated music and with DJ turntables and the like.

The first "rehearsal" on the stage of the Powerhouse Theatre brought an extraordinary encounter. When I introduced Barton to Stuart Dempster, the virtuoso trombonist–composer–music healer from Seattle, there was a moment's hesitation. From the background came the tiny voice of Renko, Dempster's Japanese–American wife. "Willie?" Renko remembered a precocious young didgeridoo player, from a previous visit to Brisbane in 1999, someone who had shared improvisations with Dempster. "It's actually William," the young man said, with that disarming smile.

Little Willie had become William Barton, didgeridoo player to the world. A year later, Duckworth arranged for Barton to perform with The Cathedral Band in New York City. This followed Barton's appearances with Michael Christie at the Summer Music Festival in Boulder, Colorado. In the post–September 11 world, securing the necessary visas was a nightmare, when Barton appeared at Los Angeles International Airport brandishing three didgeridoos in their special canvas bags, he was very nearly deported on the spot.

Beyond Boulder and New York, Barton participated in a week's retreat with Pauline Oliveros and her sonic healing group near Woodstock, New York. "We have all been Williamised," Oliveros emailed later. "He can come back any time he wants." From there, Barton flew to Seattle to spend a week with the Dempsters, recording and performing with Stuart. I could not help but think: what an extraordinary meeting of music – this 23–year–old didgeridoo master from Australia and one of the world's most venerated and beloved musicians, Stuart Dempster, almost 45 years his senior. In Seattle, Barton completely won over Dempster and his circle. Another American city had been Williamised.

 

IN THE INTERVENING few years, Barton has been crisscrossing the globe, a highly visible and effective cultural ambassador. His résumé a growing list of glowing orchestral appearances – with all the Australian orchestras, the Boulder and Phoenix symphonies, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, at festivals, even a controversial dawn appearance at Gallipoli on Anzac Day.

At the Adelaide Festival in March 2004, there was a remarkable concert in the Adelaide Town Hall. Festival director Stephen Page, the director of the Bangarra Dance Company, created a program that premiered a new work by Sculthorpe, a birthday tribute to Australia's elder statesman of music in his 75th year. As he had done 25 years earlier on the occasion of his 50th birthday, Sculthorpe turned his hand to creating a second Requiem, utilising the form and text of the Latin Mass. At just over 45 minutes, it became his most extended composition in some years. Scored for full orchestra and mixed chorus, it had one soloist, a didgeridoo part created for Barton.

Several decades earlier, in March 1968, singers from Ernabella, the former mission south–west of Alice Springs, had appeared in Adelaide, hoping to perform at the festival. The good colonels and lunching ladies of the Athens of the South would not hear of such a thing. So the Ernabellans sang at a concert of their own, in the Pitt Street Uniting Church, an event that gave birth to the Adelaide Fringe that today rivals the festival itself in terms of scope and size.

Back then who would have imagined that, one day, the Adelaide Festival would be directed by a black Australian? In 2004, Page invited the Ernabellans back, this time as a centrepiece of his program. They would sing on the stage of the Adelaide Town Hall during the first half of the program that featured Sculthorpe's new Requiem.

In Sydney, I listened to the direct broadcast of the Bach chorales sung in their own harmony and language, Pitjantjatjara, tears welling in my eyes. Barry Conyngham, a close friend and former student of Sculthorpe's, had composed a new work, also premiered that evening. At intermission, Conyngham ran into Page in the Adelaide Town Hall. "Well, Barry, what did you think of the Ernabellans?" Page inquired. He could barely find the words to reply. "They were heartbreaking," Conyngham said. "I was so ashamed and embarrassed." "Good," replied Page. "You were supposed to be."

 

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN Australian composers and Indigenous music, while largely invisible and mute, is hardly new. The very first transcriptions of Aboriginal music were made in 1804 by two French anthropologists, Peron and Freycinet, members of the Baudin expedition. Two hundred years later, Sculthorpe's Requiem appeared, a work regarded by many as the most perfect fusion of the two cultures yet achieved. That 200–year arc, a sheer accident of history, provided the framework forEncounters, an event at the Queensland Conservatorium in mid–April 2005 which aimed to explore, "two hundred years of contact between the European mind and Aboriginal culture".

I resisted the urge to call Encounters a festival. In many respects, in outlining the contact, there was little to be festive about. The week–long event would be an "exploration of an idea". The musical centrepiece an orchestral concert that would couple the two works that best illustrate Australian composers' contact with indigenous culture, John Antill's landmark ballet score Corroboree and Sculthorpe's Requiem. Sculthorpe and Barton would be the principal guests, but we needed more indigenous stars.

Like most institutions of its kind in Australia, the Queensland Conservatorium of Music is a very "white" environment. Sure, there are several dozen Asian students these days, most locked in solitary confinement with their pianos, ferociously playing Beethoven and Liszt louder and faster than ever before. Aside from a few indigenous singers, the population is very white, with attitudes to match. On Ivy League campuses in the US, black faces are prominent, if fewer. Teaching an introduction to music history course in Charleston, the racial scales tipped. In that class of 31 students, 25 were black.

How could the Con become more inclusive? I scanned my address book and lists of contacts for people who might help. I was shocked to realise that my Australian circle was overwhelmingly white. In my rarefied world of concert music, broadcasting and journalism, there are very few dark faces. I started to ask my friends and colleagues: how many indigenous people do you know? The usual response was stunned silence.

To jolt our comfortable world into a realisation of its privilege and good fortune we needed more indigenous musicians. The participation of the Ernabellans, 45 males and females between 40 and 70, was essential. Their craftwork, batiks and beanies would charm and seduce, and when they sang, our hearts would melt. The full story of how we were unsuccessful in securing funding to bring them from the South Australian desert to Brisbane is too intricate and painful to relate in detail. Attempts to include other indigenous people also failed. One by one, our funding applications began to look beige.

In this crucial respect, I began to fear that we might have failed before we had even started. There was some small comfort in knowing that the nearly 200 students in the Con's orchestra and choirs, would be "Williamised", as Oliveros and her cohorts had been. To that extent at least, their lives would be changed, as mine had been by that experience in the American south.


From Griffith Review Edition 8: People like Us © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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