NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Remembering what we chose to forget: Indigeneity, modernism, music and the academy

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...

a. terra nullius – (nobody’s land)

After the 1967 referendum, amendments to Section 51 and Section 127 of the Constitution finally acknowledged the existence of Indigenous peoples in Australia. Following this, there was the Mabo decision, where the High Court of Australia recognised that a group of Torres Strait Islanders, led by Eddie Mabo, held ownership of Mer (Murray Island). The court held that native title existed for all Indigenous people. This decision made a significant contribution to undermining the strength of terra nullius in the memories of Australians. Unpacking the deep influence terra nullius has had on our sense of nationhood however, is still a huge item on the agenda of truth telling and reconciliation.

b. The White Australia policy

Whilst the policy was aimed at limiting non-white immigration to Australia its impact, by default, was to embed the binary of white and “other” in Australian and international memories.

c. There was also the issue of racism in Science. Revisiting the nineteenth-century attempt to compare brain size between non-European and Europeans, the discourse suggested that because of brain size, Indigenous peoples could not be considered equitable to Europeans. In the contemporary context this is unbelievable.

What do these three points mean for Indigeneity, modernism, music and its position in the Academy? Remembering these things is wrapped up in colonialisation. Modernism is an intrinsic part of that. Much of music curriculum in the academy has been grounded in modernist thinking, shaping its approach, particularly in relation to music dissemination and developments in technologies.

Repertoire-based teaching and common practice music theory have been a core of music teaching in universities. Jazz and world music perhaps disrupted this momentarily, but slowly, jazz studies has been absorbed into the Western art music model. Indigenous music been given occasional focus, usually as part of musicology. The study of Australian Indigenous performance has not been adopted as a major study at tertiary level. Is there a university music course where the study of didgeridoo performance exists, or a degree program in Indigenous music performance?

In the book Another Day in the Colony, Chelsea Watego points out the ongoing racism that First Nations People continue to suffer in Australia. She relates stories of her experience as an Indigenous academic, working in a university and dealing with the presence of an embedded colonialist culture. Her ultimate message, delivered to Indigenous readers: “Fuck hope, give us sovereignty”.” This book of essays provides a great experiential insight to prompt “white” Australia to consider an Indigenous perspective. “Imagine how it feels to turn up to work in the colony?”

Colonialisation has had an impact on a number of levels. Profoundly in the first remembering. First Nations Peoples’ land has never been ceded and is still owned by the Crown. In addition, the King of England is our head of state. Queen Elizabeth II’s recent death has invigorated discussion about the formation of an Australian republic. Initially, the new Labor Government is committed to honouring the Uluru Statement from the Heart, to put in place an Indigenous Voice to Parliament along with a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making and truth-telling between government and First Nations peoples. There is no doubt that universities should and will be involved in this process.

It could be said that we are in a period of significant change. For university music education, it is time to address the issue of decolonisation of music curricula. To find a place for such action in a multicultural society, will be complex and challenging.

If we consider the enormous success Australian Indigenous music enjoys internationally, one might question the need for formalising study of its performance. There is a growing list of successful Indigenous performing artists who have done well without reference to further education: William Barton, Baker Boy, Jessica Mauboy, Dan Sultan, Thelma Plum, Kid Laroi and Yothu Yindi, to name a few. Support for the success of these artists has come from state arts organisation funding, along with opportunities at specialist Indigenous Performing Arts schools, TAFE and private providers.

Since 1972, the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM) at the Elder Conservatorium of Music can claim some influence in the establishment of Indigenous music in the popular mainstream. Bands such as No Fixed Address, Coloured Stone and more recently Electric Fields and Ellie Lovegrove have emerged partly as a result of their courses.

The article by a team of First Nation Australian, transcultural Australian and South African writers titled Decolonisation through Poetry: Building First Nations’ Voice and Promoting Truth-Telling by Catherine Manathunga; Paul Williams; Tracey Bunda; Sue Stanton; Shelley Davido; Kathryn Gilbey; Maria Raciti, is an innovative and practical idea. This article suggests that poetry could be used in the decolonising process. It includes the poetry of “the co-authors and Aboriginal Elder of the Kungarakan people in the Northern Territory, Aunty Sue Stanton, with poetic responses by some of her co-authors.”

The impact of this poetic idea is philosophic, spiritual and intellectual. The notion that poetry speaks across these “needing to be remembered” areas, is something that explains itself through rhythm, sound, voice, art and affect utterances. Combining the sound world of drones with poetry can clear the way for truth telling about the things we may have chosen to forget. The article’s text suggests:

“We seek to demonstrate how our call-and-response (Sale 1992) methodology enables deep listening or listening with the heart (dadirri) (Ungunmerr-Bauman 2002) that promotes truth-telling and builds connections between First Nations and white settler communities in Australia.

This is such a beautiful idea, a sonic, lexical anthropology of remembering. When considering the great poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal, (aka) Kath Walker along with the many great indigenous poets, song writers and rappers, from Jimmy Little to Baker Boy, the way forward shows the possibility that poetry could play a role as a “powerful vehicle for decolonisation, Indigenous Knowledges and truth-telling.”

The way forward is through collaboration. Music-making is by nature collaborative, and it stands to reason that Indigenous musicians and music schools can and will enjoy collaborations, and currently do so at the School of Music at the ANU. It simply needs further fostering in our various institutions.

References and reading:

Campbell, I. (2017). John Cage, Gilles Deleuze, and the Idea of Sound. Parallax, 23:3, 361-378, DOI: 10.1080/13534645.2017.1343785

Eppley, C. (2017).  Beyond Cage: On Sonic Art History & Historiography.  Taylor & Francis Online

Guy, S.B. (2015). Bodies, Myth and Music: How Contemporary Indigenous Musicians are Contesting a Mythologized Australian Nationalism. Myth and Nation Issue 23

Havemann, P. (2005). Denial, Modernity and Exclusion: Indigenous Placelessness in Austraila. Macquatie Law Journal, 5, 57-80. Https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.335933246027253

Hazelhurst, Cameron. (1979). Australian conservatism: essays in twentieth century political history. Canberra: Australian University Press

Manathunga, C., Davidow, S., Williams, P., Gilbey, K., Bunda, T., Raciti, M., & Stanton, S. (2020). Decolonisation through Poetry: Building First Nations’ Voice and Promoting Truth-Telling. Education As Change, 24, 24 pages. https://doi.org/10.25159/1947-9417/7765

Watego, C. (2021). Another day in the colony. University of Queensland Press.


Frank Millward is a composer, musician, and educator. He has a research interest in Visual Music, connecting ways of seeing and hearing sound. His audiovisual approach includes traditional and contemporary ideas involving the creation of work where spectrographic imaging is used to develop a distinctive isomorphic language between sound and image.

The DVD Uneasy Dreams, by Delta Saxophone Quartet uses abstract three-dimensional spectrographic moving images as both score and representation of musical content in interactive performance. Recent works include the albums: The Museum of Hope, solo piano and Knowing Where to Belong. Soon to be released, an album of chamber music titled Trying to Remember What I Chose to Forget, which contains Sonatas for Violin, Viola and Cello all with piano. He is Professor of Music Composition at the Australian National University.

More from this issue

More from this issue

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.
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.
Professor Frank Millward talks to Will Kepa, producer, engineer and director of the Yil Lull Indigenous Recording Studio at the ANU School of Music