NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Russian dolls and music schools

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.

We have a convenor, Chris Sainsbury, we have a good number of First Nations staff, we have initiatives, we are welcoming First Nations musicians who have the kindness to teach us, and importantly we are doing our best not to appropriate. But this is the easy part, the Western way, the way of doing. What I wish to explore is a process of building regard as we undertake transformative work.

For this process I would like us to work with the Russian dolls of the mind. With this simple idea I hope to understand our work better. With clarity in mind I want to know how we can make things better at a time when rapid evolutionary change is needed. I want to know whether it is possible to uncover the truths that can help us to imagine those changes. I want to know what is the real purpose of the music school I work at, so bring on the dolls.

The first doll is one we know well. It is survival. No matter how grand our intentions, things are not that easy in universities or the arts. Many of us have to make a case to survive, we have to show that we are a) good value, b) able to work within our budgets no matter what we think of them, c) able to explain the social dividend of a music/art/creative school and explain its process of cultural enrichment to those who do not naturally get the arts, and d) make world-class research that can make us look like our colleagues in the “system”.  This is a large doll and it takes up much of our working time, for in addition to this, we need to recruit students and manage ourselves and our colleagues. It is no wonder that our schools often work primarily on this level.

The second doll is the doll of the evolution our discipline so desperately needs, and this is significant. We may talk about the “here and now” of music or the arts, but in music schools we too often teach what we were taught, and in most cases, this is either European church or court music, a white derivative of black jazz, or popular music mythology and practice, as expressions of musical universality that are not shared by the billons of the Global South. We ask our students to specialise when they listen to the music of a hundred genres, to believe in the myth of the soloist when so few become one. We might critique this in our musicology courses, but the critique is hollow; for the buildings of music schools are the towers that maintain tradition as it currently is – a simple provocation should make this clear. if we were to stop training orchestral musicians today the primacy of western classicism might be lost in as little as 30 years. Are we prepared to give this up?

The third doll is where the action really starts. To quote the maxim of the ANU School of Music, it all starts and ends with our First Nations. To understand this doll, we have to realise that all of us, no-matter how nice or reasonable we consider ourselves to be, are profiteers of a settler state that was established at gunpoint. This is what the words “never ceded” mean to me – that this land and its bounty was stolen, that no reparations have been paid, and that the time for justice is upon us. This is the politics of our time. Apart from climate change and the state of our planet there is in my opinion no greater challenge. If we are to work on this level we need to cede power, our music school needs to be led by Indigenous musicians, we all need to be of service – no strings attached.

The fourth doll is cultural: we have to unlearn some of our ways of thinking and learn embodied First Nations ways of being, to understand even a little of what Indigenous knowledge is. We need to explore what this means to our universities, the country and most importantly to ourselves.  There might be a way of thinking that is not linear, deterministic or evolutionary that we are yet to master. We need to learn new ways of working and being, not to appropriate, but to allow our systems to evolve. To do this we need to make space. I have the feeling that some of us will need to retire.

The fifth doll might be the most visceral. In my opinion there is no point in entering into a reflective process unless we do some serious soul searching. Reflection allows us to think about a word that is too rarely heard or written in the academy, love. We need to come to terms with the fact that this country was (until 1788) an intensely moral and spiritual place, where miraculous understandings were understood and applied. Can we heal our hearts as we attempt to heal this country? If we do not, all our well-meaning works may yet turn to dust.

To finish, I would like to be personal. There is an old saying, that we do not need to complete the task, that we only need to play our part. This is from my tradition, we can encounter it and a lot of other wisdom in the Talmud, a series of commentaries that made sense of morality around the time of the destruction of the Jewish State. With that thought I ask all of us to play our part in this great work of our time, to not worry if we do not complete the task.


Kim Cunio, Head of the School of Music at the ANU is an activist composer interested in old and new musics and the role of intercultural music in making sense of our larger world. A scholar, composer and performer, Cunio is active in each of these areas.

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 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