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INSIDE THE MUSICIAN. Kim Cunio: Cultural journeys and music making in a changing world

Kim Cuneo


I write for you while the pandemic makes certain things much more obvious. These include the struggle that so many artists go through to just survive, an incredible ‘whiteness’ of art and music in this country, a growing sense of questioning Australia’s place in the world, the start of many more people comprehending the depth of the dispossession of our First Nations, and a sense that Covid-19 is a rehearsal figure for the symphony of climate change in which we are all offered a part.

I would like to start with a disclosure, it still feels slightly strange to me to be a part of this conversation. I am a mixed raced Iraqi Indian Jew born in Australia, and as I do not have an accent I fit in pretty easily. My early memories of music were in a Mizrachi prayer room filled with a micro community of Far Eastern Jews who worshipped communally, singing tunes descended from the destruction of the First Jewish Temple in 586 BCE. My family were ‘boat people’. My mother had been a refugee from Burma to India, who then migrated to Australia via the UK. My father, who grew up in the Iraqi Jewish community of Shanghai, survived imprisonment by the Japanese and was given 6 months to leave China when Mao came into power – the boats of the late 1940s that took people like him to Australia were vilified just as they are today.

Though I always loved music it was an impossible dream in my childhood. We listened to an astonishing array of music and musical stories, my own communities’ tunes; stories of Indian classical music from my mother; the incredible Indian jazz scene of the 1940s. Just about everyone in Mum’s family played something, but despite this for me there were no music lessons, no exams, no scholarships. We simply did not have the money, and this is still the case for the many thousands of kids who would love to study music right now. When I reached High School, I started working every afternoon. My parents were not in good health, so I got a job cleaning out the horse stables at the Sydney Show Ground to help out. Don’t worry, I was not at all traumatised, for I had something that few kids ever had, family parties where the music would burn. Dad had sung in National Opera of the 1950s before it folded, getting his position after only a few lessons. He would sing with his good friend (name withheld), who had survived the Shoah because of her voice, she had been hidden in her teacher’s house. Dad had a voice like Alexander Kipnis, and not to be outdone Mum had some pretty serious musical relatives in the UK including jazz guitar legend Ike Isaacs and classical violinist Maurice Isaacs. When they came to Australia (and Ike later came to retire here), it was like a party had come to town and anything was possible.

Kim Cunio and oud. Photo by Anthony Ammar

Which musical life would you choose? It reminds me of the story in the Mahabharata where the two great warring kingdoms of Ancient India were about to start the war to end all wars. The two leaders were Yudhishthira, the embodiment of virtue and Duryodhana, the typical bad guy. They both turned up at Krishna’s palace asking for aid. Krishna said, I will offer either my army or myself unarmed to bear witness to proceedings. Which would you choose?

Cut. In my twenties I got very interested in music and at 25 I was accepted into a degree studying composition and voice, although I had to suffer the humiliation of getting only 2% in the theory entrance exam! I did not dare to disclose my out-sidedness because I was frankly scared of the privileged world I had entered. I practised the oud and baglama at night knowing there was no place for them in my studies. I studied the tunes of the Iraqi Jewish diaspora with the elders in my community, while catching up on my theory, JS Bach and Xenakis. I can say that some things really changed me, the Bartok string quartets, Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, the Cantigas de Santa Maria, the Quartet for the End of Time. I realised that people much greater than I had worked in mixed spaces and made extraordinary music by being open to the world. I had lecturers who inspired me to do my best, even though I was probably quite a pain, an intense, politically active leftist who would not shut up about Ghandian non-violence. At the end of my degree I had one of those epiphanies. It was a musicology exam on early Western music, and medievalism was the part of Western music I most loved. I admired Jordi Savall, and had worked with Winsome Evans as a student, so I finished the exam early and asked myself what am I going to do in this life?

Music was still burning but I had no desire to write the music I had been taught to write. I was a young man investigating Said’s Orientalism, free improvisation and microtonality who loved mucking around with technology and I did not hear people like myself on the radio. I hankered for the scales of my childhood, and a melodic ease that might only be matched in a baroque cadenza. I wanted to hear it in new art music. In a moment of blind optimism that has informed the rest of my life, I realised that I might be able to live and work in these two worlds. I could be a musicologist composer, an activist composer.

After this I had a period of bringing these worlds together. In 1998 I wrote my first openly activist orchestral work, Doye Doye, a response to a 1988 uprising in Burma. This was written when the world saw Aung San Suu Kyi as an angel (though she was still quite openly anti-Rohingya back then). My mother had grown up in the street where she was being held under house arrest, and Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama were the world’s beacons of political non-violence. One evening at a Free Burma meeting a young man handed me a tape, a recording of the military slaughtering students and monks on the 8/8/1988. I transcribed it and suddenly I had something to really say.

In 2000 I had the chance to set the Dead Sea Scrolls for the Olympic Arts Festival as they visited the Art Gallery of NSW. I had a chance to refine what I had been working on – a process of what we now call applied musicology, working with my own and other communities to learn, transcribe, and compose, validating my work with elders in a method of co-creation.

This way of working went on for years. I set a number of the world’s great religious and artistic collections to music, realising that a combination of scholarship and unbridled creativity can really move people. I reimagined an orchestra of the ancient world, bringing out instruments of the time of Jesus, I scored Genghis Khan’s saddle, the Houghton Shahnameh, the Egyptian antiquities from the Louvre, the Maharajah of Jodhpur’s sacred art collection. I worked with the Gyuto Monks of Tibet, Indian Vedanta Monks and nuns, master sufi and Persian musicians. I met my wife Heather and fell in love with her pure intonation. I found someone who was willing to experiment with me; and we went back to Western medievalism, exploring the music of my Grandfather, the Ladino repertoire of the Sefarad. I had the opportunity to find my other love, inter-religious scholarship, inspired by some of our great women broadcasters and thinkers: Rachael Kohn, Geraldine Doogue and Stephanie Dowrick and years later undertook a second Doctorate for my sins.

At some point I started to miss Western classicism. I love experimentalism and dissonance, and (don’t tell anyone) I quite like Beethoven; and Schubert lieder makes me weak at the knees. I had run away from the academy out of fear that I may not be good enough for it or strong enough to survive it. When I realised that I came back. I did my Masters and Doctorate, went back to writing new music, and started working with technology as a means to tell stories and inspire social change. Some good people started to believe in me, and when the 2008 Global Financial Crisis ended my freelance work I applied for an academic job. Some months later I started a formal academic career.

Kim Cunio. Photo by ANU Media

My two lives were glued together again, I was around excellent western classical musicians, I worked with composers and researchers and I realised how much the academic world has to offer despite itself. I also saw a role for myself to be a change maker in that world and our larger world, because there was no-one like me on staff at my first tertiary music school when I started. I started to challenge what music is and can be in a university – to say that a musician can have an opinion on politics, economics, global warming, the mining industry, racism, spirituality, anything. I spent a lot of my time composing to Quaker notions of bearing witness… I started to get doctoral students interested in very different types of music and this has grown and grown.

Kim Cunio. Photo Peter Damo

Cut. Five years ago I moved to the ANU, and you could still smell the blood on the walls, for it was only 5 years since the massive cuts of 2012. I learned a great lesson in my first year at the ANU, that music can never be silenced, and that our roles are to safeguard what we have for future generations, whatever we might think at the time, for it is just too easy to blow things up. In a climate where the arts are too easily disposable (we are the original gig economy after all), all of us have a sacred challenge to safeguard the arts, and a responsibility to music to help them grow. The arts are our canary.

Since 2019 (writing this article in September 2021), I have had the honour and poisoned chalice of being the Head of a music school that is highly visible and scrutinised. Everything I am, all of my contradictions and attempts to build bridges are judged. The pandemic has almost broken the model for elite music education and I feel a like the Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail saying it is only a flesh wound. I am still writing and making music, and for some years I have had a feeling that I as a composer need to support our scientists in an age where their work is too often contested by vested interests. I am proud of my work with the British Antarctic Survey and a recent project to set the forced feticide of Indian girls to music and sound. I have relaxed a little, sometimes writing music just for the sake of it.  I still do deep cultural work, and I have the chance to think about what a music school can be on an almost daily basis. As far as I can see I am the first person who identifies with brownness, the first child of refugees, the first Indian or Middle Eastern person, to lead an Australian music school. I am not going to waste the opportunity.


At the moment our faculty are discussing the Global South and responding meaningfully to debates about decolonisation that are not easy to articulate. We will do this without destroying what is precious about Western music, for Western music is also endangered. I ask all of you the question that I asked when I started my music studies many years ago.

Why is it that the people we train and employ in elite music are the people whose parents paid for them to learn a western instrument when they were young?

There are thousands of kids with perfect pitch sitting in the outer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne who have little access to music making as we define it, as well as thousands of Indigenous kids who have no music of any sort at school. At the ANU we have been championing Indigenous music, with Chris Sainsbury, our Indigenous convenor. We have the Ngarra Burria program of First Nations composers (along with other partners). We will soon appoint our 6th Indigenous staff member, and we offer a free recording studio to Indigenous musicians. It’s a great start and it did not happen by accident. It happened because of people like you have been generous, but none more so than the ANU, which has funded our Indigenous studio and a lot of this work. We have programs in neuroscience, music and creativity and a new generation of scientist / musicians studying double degrees; if 2012 had not happened none of this would have taken place. I still talk too much about Ghandian non-violence and I play tasteless jokes on my colleagues every April 1, like the launch of our Music for Pets Major in 2019, but something is happening in Canberra and it has nothing to do with Federal politics.

I have little to do with our major orchestras, companies and festivals of this country or ABC Classic FM. I have made my career with little or no contact with these institutions. If you do not mind reading from my soap box one last time I would say respectfully that someone needs to get in and mess things up in these places so that they can more truthfully reflect the society we live in. This will take much more work than a concert in Parramatta or piece in your favourite festival that gives the weird musician a concert to be an exotic other in. There is deep work to do.

Despite some recent initiatives our institutions are largely silos of whiteness, not silos of white people, and this is an important distinction, for we can ascribe to whiteness whether we are white, yellow, brown or black; it simply involves not questioning dominant paradigms of race and privilege. The huge rise of western classical music as an arbiter of class and economic success in emerging economies offers a telling example of the currency that western music represents. It is worth reflecting on the perilous funding for tertiary music in this country as well. When we see a great player in our favourite professional ensemble it is worth remembering that they went to a government funded music school. Someone paid for that training and that someone is mostly the university that loses a lot of money in the process, for one-on-one music teaching is the largest loss maker in all education. If we want a world beyond economics we will have to advocate for it. Will you?

I would like to finish with a short blessing.

May each of us play a part in making a world of greater justice. May we meaningfully respond to the forced dispossession of our First Nations, for this land was never ceded. May we fix this planet before we burn it. Go in peace, Kim.



Sounds of Space Project
Two albums working with space sounds from Earth to gravitational waves.

Aurora Musicalis: Film by Diana Scarborough accompanying my setting of the sounds of natural radio receiver at Halley V1, Antarctica.

Beyond Karma, with the Gyuto Monks of Tibet

O Ignis Spritus (excerpt). Hildegard of Bingen, realised by Cunio.

The Dance of Life, written for South Indian flute virtuoso Dr Natesan Ramani, Vivid Festival, film Martin Renwick.

Thrum, collaborative project with clarinettist Jason Noble

A/Prof Kim Cunio, Head of the School of Music at the Australian National University (ANU), is a composer, performer and researcher interested in old and new musics and the role of music in making sense of our larger world. Kim is a Grammy Long listed composer and recipient of the ABC Golden Manuscript Award whose compositions have been played at the White House, United Nations, and in many countries. Commissioning organisations include the Sydney 2000 Olympics, the Art Gallery of NSW, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Melbourne International Arts Festival, and the Foundation for Universal Sacred Music (USA). Kim is working on a series of albums with the Gyuto Monks of Tibet; a project setting the sounds of space with the British Antarctic Survey; a music and health research hub at the ANU and a project on forced feticide in India. Kim writes for the Deans and Directors of the Creative Arts, the Crawford Centre for Public Policy at the ANU. He has a regular segment on ABC Radio to discuss music and the larger world and also hosts a daily half hour TV show on Indian television with an estimated audience of 100 million.

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