NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Indigenous collaborations and the Creative Academy: It is never too late, is it?

By Associate Prof Chris Sainsbury, Professor Frank Millward and Professor Kim Cunio — The title of this edition is a provocation. While it is not too late, we at the Academy have for too long done too little, and this issue takes a journey into the life of a music school that has decided to get on the ground and do its bit.

Our Acknowledgement: Chris Sainsbury as our school’s Indigenous Convenor has made it clear that we should all take this on as a part of our lives, and we developed a version of acknowledgement for the school, which is adapted for this issue.

“Look to the heavens, and look to the earth … Whatever we think of those concepts we can all reflect that this ‘always was and always will be”’ – that we are all here on virtual and physical Country. With that thought we pay our respects to the elders past, present and emerging and especially welcome First Nations readers from Australia and abroad. We say that this land was never ceded and that all of us have a sacred duty to make things better, right here, right now.”

The ANU School of Music is a great place. You might remember that 10 years ago the entire staff had their employment upended, and the trauma in this music school was significant. We in the school were stuck between a rock and a hard place, the community distrusted the university for what it had done, and the university distrusted the school and to some extent the community. It was not an easy place to work, but we could tell that something was growing out of the ashes.

When Chris Sainsbury arrived at the music school we realised that we had another choice. Instead of playing out the past we could transform ourselves into a place of radical change.

Chris brought Ngarra Burria with him, so within a year we were hosting the first group of five First Nations composers who were all comfortable in a university. They worked with our students, presented at conferences, and they made their art, good art, and we did this without enrolling anyone in anything or putting out a press release. As this program developed so did we. We needed more First Nations staff to get things done, so we appointed an Open School (non-tertiary) Indigenous Convenor – the composer/rapper Rhyan Clapham (Dobby), so that this section could move into lots more styles and ways of making music. Then we went for it, going for a big grant in the area of health and wellbeing, which we got. From that we opened our Yil Lull studio, named after the song by Uncle Joe Geia, and as part of the grant TI musician Will Kepa was appointed as producer/engineer in that space, and now combines his studies and his passion for studio work at the school. Joe Geia too, was our first Nugget Coombs Indigenous Fellow in 2020–2021. As well, two of our other staff have been on their own journey as they reconnect with their Indigenous heritage and the communities from which they come in meaningful ways, so things have started to get exciting. We have become a place for First Nations musicians to hang out. We have had partnerships with the Australia Council and more recently Yamaha to support this work. Now we are developing an Indigenous governance model for the school.

What we are really learning is how to accept the inherent generosity of First Nations musicians, which will transform all of us to some degree, and our music school. What we are learning is how to make a place where truth can be told and trauma released as it needs to be, all the time making music. And there is no justice until power is shared.

There is lots more to do, next year we will launch a First Nations audio engineering program, we want to get on the road more, we want to go up North, out West, down South, and we want to look after the older First Nations artists as well as the emerging ones. At all times we include both professional First Nations musicians, and community musicians, for just like anywhere no professional nor industry exists without community.

Now to this edition …

In this issue we think about time and place. The times are changing and Indigenous leadership is growing both in our sector and in our country. The Academy offers a potential for deep and significant collaborations that can respond to Indigenous ways of thinking, art making, knowledge practice and truth telling. We believe that artists have an inherent ability to show things as they truly are. The rise of Indigenous artists in the Academy is both necessary and overdue.

The creative arts are deeply understood by our First Nations people. First Nations artists and thinkers often have multiple artistic practices, showing us that multi-disciplinary arts are part of deep time and our shared history. We are seeing a growing cohort of Indigenous creative arts scholars who make sense of our world and encourage a process of truth telling for the nation.

This edition of NiTRO invited contributions from Indigenous artists, scholars and non-Indigenous allies who are working in these spaces at the ANU School of Music.

We ask a number of questions:

  • What projects are we doing and how are they going?

  • What is Indigenous led co-design and how might it be applied to the creative arts?

  • Is there an artistic methodology or methodologies for First Nations collaboration?

  • How do we navigate and transcend the power imbalances that are often present in the academy?

  • How do recent developments resonate with larger issues of decolonisation in the academy?

The edition looks at a number of initiatives in play at the ANU School of Music, the acclaimed Ngarra Burria program, Yil Lull studio, the rise of Indigenous leadership and governance at the school and the complex interrelationships that emerge as First Nations artists take up more space in a music school. Chris Sainsbury writes in relation to the “gentle correction” he has spearheaded in the composition sector in Australia and at the school, audio engineer Will Kepa tells his story to Frank Millward showing that our First Nations artists will always be much more than their work, and Tor Frømyhr reflects on his journey of identification and collaboration as a Yuin man who plays classical music.

Scott Davie demonstrates how the historical resources of a music school can be repurposed into bold new activities, Jen Newsome makes the point that Indigenous governance and leadership needs to be systematised into our structures, Pat O’Grady reflects as part of a new generation of scholars who see this process as a given, Frank Millward reminds us of the tide of forgetfulness that besets settler culture, and Kim Cunio describes a potential great work of our time through the metaphor of unpacking layers of meaning. Corporate partners Yamaha make the point that this task needs to be move beyond the academy as a matter of urgency.

We hope you find this edition as compelling as we did and that all of us can reflect together from this case study on what we can do right now to make things better.

Don’t be a stranger.

More from this issue

More from this issue

By Pat O’Grady — My office in the ANU School of Music shares a wall with Yil Lull studio, one of the few studios in Australia dedicated to recording First Nations’ music. The walls are thin. I often hear the wonderful music taking place on the studio floor.
By Professor Kim Cunio — I am really proud of our music school. It has accomplished a great deal, rebuilding, decolonising and allowing an evolution in First Nations practice to occur.
By Tor Frømyhr — Many wander through life unaware of the real story that led to their existence and the course their lives have taken. Is it important? For many, not really. For me, vitally important.
By Jennifer Newsome — The ANU School of Music is currently pursuing a bold and progressive approach to the way it engages and does business with First Nations’ People and communities.
By Dr Chris Sainsbury — When a music school gets it right pertaining to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement, a certain feeling grows within the school. “Feel” is a word that I intentionally borrow from music-making. Speaking from our in-house example, it feels positive and empowering for First Nations students, staff and visiting First Nations peoples who often engage with us.
By Matt Livingstone, Mat Taylor and Steven Vranch — Yamaha is the world’s largest manufacturer of musical instruments. Formed in 1887, the company has a long history of engineering innovation, design creativity and supporting musicians, producing music making devices ranging from reed organs and pianos, through trumpets, saxophones and violins to digital mixing consoles, recording interfaces and software.
By Dr Scott Davie — In 2020, the ANU School of Music devised an innovative research project aimed at engaging Indigenous composers with an old keyboard instrument, the Henrion piano.
By Professor Frank Millward — There are many things that need to be remembered in relation to Indigenous Australians. Here are three we may have chosen to forget or have faded enough from our collective memory that they may be considered as forgotten...
Professor Frank Millward talks to Will Kepa, producer, engineer and director of the Yil Lull Indigenous Recording Studio at the ANU School of Music