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Australian Story -

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William the Conqueror - Transcript

PROGRAM TRANSCRIPT: Monday, 14 May , 2007

CAROLINE JONES: Hello, I'm Caroline Jones. Tonight's Australian Story follows the journey of a
young Aboriginal man from outback Queensland to the concert halls of Paris. William Barton had
little formal education and didn't learn Western classical music but despite these obstacles and
with some surprising mentors, William Barton's natural talent is attracting worldwide attention.
This is his story.

LINDSAY HARDY, BROTHER: William is, I suppose, an awesome looking sight. He towers over me, long
black hair. You could say he's a gentle giant. He'd be a scary sight in a laneway for someone if
they didn't know him, then when you meet him he's probably the most humble, the humblest of all
guys. Mum and William have always been unseparable. Everywhere William's gone mum's gone, or mum's
gone William's gone. That's been part of the culture with them two for many years, performing
together, like the didgeridoo and mum's singing the opera. It's so spiritual. It just goes straight
through you.

PETER SCULTHORPE, COMPOSER: Here we have a young Aboriginal boy, born in Mount Isa, who by the time
he's in his mid twenties he's played didgeridoo with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, he's played
in many parts of the States and in Europe - even as far flung as Estonia.

BARB HENSON, FORMER ARTS MAGAZINE EDITOR: There has never been another didgeridoo player to perform
with the London Philharmonic and that is the most extraordinary thing to have happened I think.
And, also, there's never been another didgeridoo player to perform any classical music overseas as
far as I'm aware.

PETER SCULTHORPE, COMPOSER: And now he's written a string quartet and it's about to be performed in
Paris - and this is by his mid twenties. It's phenomenal!

WILLIAM BARTON: What I guess binds mum and I together is the relationship of the music and the
struggles growing up, you know. The passion that burns all the time from within is something
undescribable because, I guess it's the feeling that you get when you create music. I always
reflect on where I come from. It's important to keep that in mind. What I miss the most about
Australia is the surrounding bushlands outside of Mount Isa. Yeah, that's where I draw my
inspiration from, out in the bush.

LINDSAY HARDY, BROTHER: For someone who left school at year seven and is now composing his own
music - I had a go at him about leaving school so early and his words to me were, "I just want to
concentrate on my music," and that's all he's ever done. Every instrument he's put his hands on,
he's been able to play - drums, guitar, you name it. But the didgeridoo has been his life. In his
school days he experienced the racism. And that's another reason why he left - he just didn't like
all the name calling or whatever and that.

DELMAE BARTON, MOTHER: I remember his one desire was to play cricket, so he got all the proper
attire and everything and they were supposed to all have equal turns but his turn never came. I've
even got an old photo of him in a complete cricket outfit posing there in the backyard and I took
that photo. But then if he became a great cricketer, he wouldn't be, you know, taking music to the
world to you know, to heal people through music.

WILLIAM BARTON: Obviously there was always times of discrimination but you learn how to move
forward and move beyond that. My escape from all that was to play the didgeridoo. It really
fascinated me, just sitting around and chatting with my elders, in particular my uncle, Uncle
Arthur Peterson, and he taught me the didgeridoo at an early age - around seven years old. What I
really enjoyed was the story telling properties of the instrument and how the person could tell the
story through the sound and the elements of the Australian landscape. The resonance of the
instrument, especially when you're out in the bush, it sort of cascades around because it echoes
off the trees as well.

DELMAE BARTON, MOTHER: Music was in his genes and even at an early age, I used to play from grass
roots to classical music. Like, even when Elvis Presley was out I remember William in his playpen
rocking to Elvis's music.

WILLIAM BARTON: I remember specifically like listening to ABC Classic in my old mum and dad's car
and then thinking, oh wow, that would be so great to actually play the didgeridoo with that one
day.

MICK ROCHE, BHP BILLITON: I first met William's parents when I came to Cannington which was then a
silver, lead and zinc operation which BHP Billiton had just discovered in 1990. And at the time
William's father, Alf, was the Chairman of the Kalkadoon Tribal Council based in Mt Isa and he was
the primary contact for dealing with the aboriginal people that had custodianship of that area
where the Cannington operation was.

WILLIAM BARTON: My dad knew of the cultural sites from his grandmother and great grandmother. So
that's where my dad had to work closely with the mining company along with many others to, you
know, assist in preserving the land that was of cultural significance to the Kalkadunga people and
surrounding tribes.

MICK ROCHE, BHP BILLITON: And of course young William as he was then also tagged along. I first
heard William play the didgeridoo when we had about 60 people on the site at the time and William
came along with his didgeridoo and Alf with the guitar and his mother sang. It was a very moving
performance and as a result of that we had William coming back to Cannington with his parents on a
number of occasions and that culminated in William and his mother performing at the opening of the
Cannington Mine in August 1998. About two weeks after I had a phone call from one of the mining
engineers that was present saying there was this composer called Philip Bracanin who had written a
piece for didgeridoo but was looking for a didgeridoo player. And I guess that was the turning
point. We helped him negotiate a bit of a contract and from there William has gone on and played
with orchestras and bands throughout the world. I've also been present at a number of world
premiers of William playing and it made the tears well in the eyes and it was, you know, very
proud.

DELMAE BARTON, MOTHER: It doesn't matter where he is in the world, him and William you know ring
each other and will meet, you know, when ever he's in town or you know, William might go up there
to Townsville. But he, you know, he's very special.

WILLIAM BARTON: There was a long time between gigs in the classical world because it was still a
very tokenistic idea to orchestral management and there still had to be a great deal of education
to prove that, look this is an instrument, and if played correctly great things can be achieved.
The obstacle that you come across are people assuming that because you don't have music theory
behind you, because you're Aboriginal, because you come from a small town that, you know, how on
earth do you know how to communicate to an audience, you know, especially a classical audience?

LINDSAY HARDY, BROTHER: I wasn't so much involved in them days because I was out creating a world
of me own. But William and mum I remember coming down here in rags, busking so they could get a few
dollars just for a feed. And look at him today, travelling the world business class.

WILLIAM BARTON: My busking days was actually quite fun. I think when I saw my mates there at
Circular Quay you know I wanted to get up and just rattle off a couple of tunes with them you know
just for the hell of it. Because it's fun you know.

BARB HENSON, FORMER ARTS MAGAZINE EDITOR: I've heard quite a few didgeridoos being played over the
years. However not many of those probably would have listened to Vivaldi when they were growing up
as little children out at Mt Isa as William had. A few years ago now, when William was 19, I was
actually writing a magazine called "Travelling with Music, Opera and the Arts". I visited
Townsville for the Australian Chamber Music Festival and it was an amazing experience because they
played the usual chamber music and suddenly we heard Peter Sculthorpe's "From Ubir" and this large
fellow, Aboriginal, with his wonderful didgeridoo, played with this music and it just took the
audience by complete surprise and it was the most wonderful experience for everyone and it just
got, it brought the house down. Then I was speaking to Peter Sculthorpe and I wanted to get the
recording and he said, "There isn't a recording at the moment because I've never met anyone who can
play the didgeridoo the way I'd like it played." And I said, "Well I think I've met the person who
could do it."

PETER SCULTHORPE, COMPOSER: I was so taken by him that it wasn't difficult for me at all to rewrite
some of my music especially to incorporate him and his didgeridoo. It's almost as though, in my
music, it's been wanting a didgeridoo all the time, because almost everything I've written seeks
the spirit of Australia, even the sacred, in the landscape. William was more important to my life
than he realised and perhaps more important than I realised at the time because in 2001 I had
really quite serious depression. And looking back I've often thought, that was it caused by the
fact that I'd felt that I'd done everything I wanted to do with my work and in my life, and where
do I go now? What do I do? You know, or do I want to continue even? And William offered me another
direction.

WILLIAM BARTON: He's just humble - a very humble man and appreciative of Australian Aboriginal
culture. So I guess there's a great sort of spirit connection there because that's where he's drawn
the inspiration from, the Australian landscape and so that's why I was so familiar with it - or
felt familiar with it.

LINDSAY HARDY, BROTHER: A number of times I know, William, he'd just put himself back out in the
bush and spend a couple of weeks there, just building his own didgeridoo again from scratch. And
there's not that many people of today that have been taught that traditional way. It was a way of
him bringing back his culture and just getting the land after being stuck in cities and travelling
the world and totally foreign places, to get back I suppose, the dust in his veins you could say.
That's important.

WILLIAM BARTON: Of course the didgeridoo, they're only in one key and so in an orchestral
performance, if it's a big twenty minute, forty minute piece, I might need up to four didgeridoos
depending on the key changes in the music. So if I was going out in the bush today to find a
didgeridoo in the key of D or G, I'll look for the length and the diameter of the branch.

LINDSAY HARDY, BROTHER: You've got to find your tree that's been worked on a bit by the termites
and you go in to buy one, feel the inside of the didgeridoo and if it's smooth, you know it's been
machine made, whereas the termites leave a grooved incision all inside the didgeridoo which
actually creates that sound, as from the wind blowing through it.

PETER SCULTHORPE, COMPOSER: He has incredible musicality. He needs to listen to the orchestra or
the string quartet and mould, because I mean that music is fixed and William's is not, it's
improvised, and he has to find a way to mould and merge and at times dominate with the music that
is written down, and it's just an extraordinary gift.

MICK ROCHE, BHP BILLITON: He's multi-talented. I mean he just doesn't play a didgeridoo and I guess
that helps him because he plays a lot of heavy metal, you know, he's a mad guitar player, so his
musical repertoire is very diverse.

WILLIAM BARTON: I spoke over the phone with Simon Tedeschi, a great pianist, some months ago and
decided we wanted to work together and so forth, him being an extraordinary pianist as well as
being a great improviser as well. I actually wrote a piece for Simon, called Petricore. It's the
smell that comes out after the rain releases the oils in the rocks in the earth out in the bush and
so I wrote it for piano, didgeridoo and electric guitar and I guess it's just like a little fun
piece. It's always about pushing the boundaries and almost living on the edge. You've got to take
risks to achieve the next greatest thing.

PETER SCULTHORPE, COMPOSER: I care a great deal for indigenous people and it was inevitable really
that we should become very close. It's like a, I was going to say a father son relationship. It's
probably more like a grandfather grandson relationship. When I met William for the first time he
couldn't read music but he's now becoming a fully fledged composer even though he can't quite read
music because he does it through the computer.

WILLIAM BARTON: So I didn't have any idea whatsoever about the groupings of notes. But then of
course working more and more and more with Peter Sculthorpe and becoming more familiar with the
sounds of the orchestra and how things work.

PETER SCULTHORPE, COMPOSER: As far as I know William is the first indigenous composer of Western
classical music. It's just extraordinary that, you know, he should write a string quartet and that
it should be played in Paris. I'm so excited about it.

MICK ROCHE, BHP BILLITON: William uses his didgeridoo as an instrument of communication. So he uses
the didgeridoo as an entrée if you like into people understanding his traditional culture. People
talk a lot about reconciliation. Well I think William with his didgeridoo has done more for
reconciliation than most other Aborigines in Australia.

DELMAE BARTON, MOTHER: Even though there's been the hurt in the past, William has managed to look
on the positive side rather than the negative and that's what's kept William going personally, and
also myself. It's learning to not forget the past but always remember it but to try and get your
message out there to people to all come together you know, equally. And that's what humanity is all
about.

(Excerpt from ABC News, March 7 2006)

REPORTER: Delmae Barton collapsed at this bus stop on her way to Griffith University, lying
helpless for five hours. She was finally rescued by two Japanese students who offered her water and
called an ambulance.

LINDSAY HARDY, BROTHER: She'd been left on the side of the road there virtually regarded as a
vagrant or a drunk. She'd had a turn, she was lucky to be alive, and no-one wanted to help her.

WILLIAM BARTON: Mum's a respected elder. She had a residency at Griffith University so you know,
she was just on her way to work doing what she loves doing working with students in a mentorship
role. It was a shame that it happened to her on a day that when you know, she wanted to share her
culture and her love to other people as well.

DELMAE BARTON, MOTHER: There was this fellow standing beside me with his briefcase on the ground
and when I started being sick he just moved the briefcase and himself on the other side of the pole
and stood there 'til the bus. He didn't even ask me was I alright or anything.

(Excerpts from Channel Nine News, March 7 2006)

WOMAN: It's a terrible indictment on how far we haven't come in race relations in this country.

PETER BEATTIE, QLD PREMIER: I just say to Aunty Delmae, I'm sorry this has happened to you.

MICK ROCHE, BHP BILLITON: I was furious that today in Australia that racism still exists, that I'd
seen people and audiences around the world benefiting from what William and Delmae could do, but
no-one would put out a hand to help her in her time of need.

DELMAE BARTON, MOTHER: There's always a positive side there - a message. And for me you know, I
feel I am one of the lucky people because I'm alive.

LINDSAY HARDY, BROTHER: I said to William just after the incident in Brisbane, mum should come down
and relax and spend some time on the water - very calming and soothing. I'm the managing director
of the Tribal Warrior Association. We created the first ever indigenous maritime training company
in Australia which is for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. We had our own special cruise just
specifically for William and mum. I pointed to William, the Opera House there, which is I said,
isn't it ironic that you are performing here again at this place that was, prior to European
settlement, was a ceremonial place.

WILLIAM BARTON: What drives me to the next level I guess is the next big gig, the mindset of how I
feel when I perform with a symphony orchestra - the addiction of that and the addiction of creating
new sound and meeting great people.

DELMAE BARTON, MOTHER: So quickly he has risen to heights that we've never dreamed he would rise or
anyone else has dreamed.

BARB HENSON, FORMER ARTS MAGAZINE EDITOR: But when you think of where he is now at 25, well I don't
think there'd be many musicians in Australia today, whether they were opera singers or what ever,
who could have accomplished as much as what William has accomplished in his short life.

LINDSAY HARDY, BROTHER: He's broken a barrier too that's taken him a long time and hard work and he
has put the many hours into it to get where he is today. For someone that I criticised for leaving
school so early and I didn't think he'd go to where he is but he did assure me that he was going to
be successful and he proved me wrong. I ate me own words!

PETER SCULTHORPE, COMPOSER: William is almost like a magician. He does have a magic. It's to do
with his presence. When he's on stage, he feels so proud to be there. I think he represents his
people in the most wonderful way. I just have a feeling of deep satisfaction. Having William and
his didgeridoo in my life is almost like bringing my music home.

WILLIAM BARTON: I always was appreciative of music, the feeling that it gave me to perform in front
of people and to perform on the instrument. It was just another way of connecting with people and
so that's why I stick to doing the classical stuff as well, because it gives people an opportunity
to understand more about Aboriginal people. We're just normal people and music is music.