Dear colleagues,

I am so pleased to share that William Barton is the recipient of the 2021 Australia Council Don Banks Music Award. This award honours a distinguished artist who has made an outstanding and sustained contribution to Australia’s musical culture. It is named in honour of Don Banks, acclaimed Australian composer, performer and the first Chair of the Council’s Music Board.

William Barton is a proud Kalkadunga man, a distinguished artist of extraordinary musicality and a virtuoso performer of the didgeridoo. He is also a renowned composer of the highest acclaim.

I warmly invite you to engage with William through this fascinating 8-minute video, where Lyn Williams AM, former recipient of this award and Artistic Director of Gondwana Choirs, talks with William about his life in music.

Over his long and remarkable career, William has performed across Australia, from large concert halls to regional music festivals. William has performed at many landmark events, reflecting the central importance of his music to Australian identity.

His generosity of sound and spirit have seen his work commissioned by some of the most outstanding ensembles from around the world.

The importance of William’s outstanding and enduring contribution has been recognised by many awards including the Artist Residency Peggy Glanville-Hicks Composers House (2020), Artist in Residence Melbourne Recital Centre (2019), Best Original Score for a Main Stage Production – The Long Forgotten Dream – Sydney Theatre Awards (2018) and ARIA Best Classical Album – Kalkadungu: Music for Didjeridu and Orchestra (2012). In his performances and compositions, William holds the awe and attention of audience members around the world.

Please join me in congratulating William on receiving this award.

Warm regards,
Kirsty Rivers
Head of Music
Australia Council for the Arts

From Richard Letts, Director of the Music Trust

The Music Trust established the Freedman Music Fellowships in 2001, in collaboration with the President of the Freedman Foundation, Laurence Freedman.

William Barton was awarded a Fellowship in its third iteration in 2003. At the time, William was not well known but he was known well enough to be nominated for the national Freedman Classical Fellowship. His application rose to the top and he became one of three finalists.

But in choosing the winner, could the didgeridoo and its music be considered eligible for a major award in Western classical music? Pianist Tamara-Anna Cislowska was otherwise the winner but William was very impressive. One of the judges, Andrew Ford, who will be well-known to readers as host of ABC Radio’s The Music Show, asked could we not resolve our dilemma by sharing the award between Tamara and William. The judges grasped this solution with enthusiasm. They were right on both counts.

For William, I believe this was an important moment in a career that subsequently led him to performances in major venues around Australia and in Europe and America, to further world-first music invention and performance on this unique instrument of the Australian First Nations people, and to collaborations between the musics of Aboriginal and Western cultures.

William Barton is one of the most important, culture-changing musicians in post-settlement Australia.

Janine Marshman reported for the Australia Council

“To have such an award, being gifted to an artist and to be a part of that legacy of all the other amazing people who have received the Don Banks Music Awards, is a great thing,” said Barton.

A proud Kalkadungu man, Barton’s remarkable career has bridged performance and composition. Growing up on a cattle station just outside of Mt Isa in northwest Queensland, he started learning didgeridoo around the age of seven from his uncle, Arthur Peterson, an elder of the Wannyi, Lardil and Kalkadunga people.

He has performed as a soloist with some of the most prestigious orchestras around the world, including the Berlin and London Philharmonic orchestras, as well as many orchestras and ensembles in Australia.

Barton has said of his music:

“I’m doing what I love. I want to take the oldest culture in the world and blend it with Europe’s rich musical legacy.”

“I guess what I’m doing is giving back: giving back to my culture and my people because I was given something when I was very young and like the old fellas who taught me years ago, I’m just passing it on.”

With music deeply connected to culture, on receiving the Don Banks award, Barton explained, “Mum would often say, you sang to the bush and listen to the birds sing. You can travel to all these wonderful amphitheatres and concert halls of the world, but we have the most beautiful concert halls here in Australia and that’s our landscape.”

Early in his career, Barton worked closely with composer Peter Sculthorpe, who wrote and re-wrote several pieces to include Barton’s didgeridoo playing. Barton’s compositions have focused on creating relationships between his didgeridoo and singing (in language) and diverse classical ensembles. He also collaborates regularly with his mother, Delmae Barton, a respected singer, songwriter and poet.

Barton’s previous awards include the ARIA for Best Classical Album (2012) for his ABC Classic release Kalkadungu: Music for Didjeridu and Orchestra. In 2018 he won Best Original Score for a Main Stage Production for The Long Forgotten Dream at the Sydney Theatre Awards. He has been the Artist in Residence at the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Composers House (2020), and the Melbourne Recital Centre (2019). In 2019, Barton premiered his composition Kalkadungu’s Journey, at Westminster Abbey for Queen Elizabeth II at the Commonwealth Service.

In 2020, Barton collaborated with violinist Véronique Serret on the Heartland series, drawing upon the expansive sounds of the native Australian landscape. He premieres a new work at the Charleville Cosmos Centre as part of the Queensland Music Festival’s Music Trails series in June 2021.

The Don Banks Music Award is peer nominated, and presented as part of the Australia Council Awards. Recipients in other artforms include Arnold Zable (literature), Vivienne Binns (visual arts), Marianne Wobcke (established leader), Mama Alto (emerging leader), Sue Healey (dance), Chelsea McGuffin (theatre), and Cat Jones (emerging and experimental arts). Instead of a physical awards event, this year’s recipients will be showcased in a series of online presentations, which will be streamed on the Australia Council website.


William Barton and Veronique Serret

Kalkadungu composer and didgeridoo virtuoso William Barton and improvising cross-genre violinist and composer Veronique Serret created Heartland for the 2019 Canberra International Music Festival. In 2020, they took their project in studio at the ABC to create a brand-new work, Kalkani. Meaning ‘Eagle’ in the Kalkadoon language of William’s people, Kalkani fuses didgeridoo and violin with their voices and percussion to evoke an image of connection between sky and earth – the soaring eagle watching over them and the country.

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This project was commissioned by ABC Classic as part of the Fresh Start Fund

Dr Richard Letts AM is the founder and Director of The Music Trust, founder and former Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and Past President of the International Music Council. He has held senior positions in music and culture in Australia and the United States, advocated for music and music education, conducted research, written policy documents, edited four periodicals, published four books and hundreds of articles.

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