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Australian musician and composer. Born 1981, Mount Isa, Queensland.

Barton plays several instruments, but is known for his didgeridoo. He has worked with orchestras and classical composers across the world, in particular Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. Their work together has created a totally unique sound: the scale and precision of a western orchestra with the grounded richness and the breadth of sounds of a didgeridoo.

Barton's mother Aunty Delmae Barton is an opera singer and artist of the Bidjara people, from Queensland. Barton himself started to learn didgeridoo as a boy, and has been performing as a professional musician since the age of seventeen. He was the first person to graduate from university with the didgeridoo as his primary instrument. 

Music is probably the most difficult thing to write about. I can describe to you the scene of a painting, or the form and colour of a sculpture, or the action in a play. Music is different. Very few people ever manage to describe a piece of music successfully. When we do, we rely on the listener already knowing the piece of music, or on the listener hearing the piece of music while we describe it.

This is why I rarely node about music. I can wax melodic for hours and it will give you absolutely no idea what it feels like to listen to William Barton play the didgeridoo. Here there are no lyrics to act as anchor points, just music that lifts and soars and surrounds the listener. There isn't even much of a melody to speak about, not in the traditional Western way of thinking about such things. A didgeridoo is no mere tin whistle blowing out single notes. A didgeridoo is an orchestra all on its own.

Stripping back the melodies, though, and the sounds, the bare fact remains: one of the finest musical experiences in my life was hearing William Barton play the didgeridoo. It was August 2013, the dead of winter, and I was on my annual 'cultural retreat' with a few Mummy Friends. We would scrounge accommodation in the home of a rich relative somewhere in Sydney, pack a few quiches and sandwiches so we could save our pennies for dessert at the chocolate cafe, and book cheap seats at the Opera House. It didn't matter too much what was playing: an orchestra, an operatic revue, new or old music. We were there for the whole experience. An evening ferry ride across Sydney Harbour in the comparative warmth of a coastal winter. The tingling anticipation of the stroll along Circular Quay, drawing ever closer to those big white sails, knowing that tonight we were the lucky ones going inside. The chocolate cakes and icecreams afterwards, just close enough to hear the music of the nightclub below, and the midnight ferry back across the Harbour, sitting outside so we caught the salt air and the spray and the views.

This particular year, the cheap tickets (which I hadn't looked at until we arrived) were for the Australian Youth Orchestra, with guest artists Joshua Bell and William Barton. The AYO could hardly have aimed higher: two musicians considered to be the best in the world at their particular instruments. Barton and the AYO played Sculthorpe's Earth Cry, a work written in the 1980s and arranged later for Barton's virtuosic playing. It's a work expressing frustration, even rage, and a deep love of the earth. 

Barton is a large man. He looks like he ought to be a tenor. He entered the stage already playing the percussive opening of Earth Cry. The solemn opening chords from the orchestra melted into his playing, and for fifteen minutes it sounded as though the whole orchestra was an extension of his didgeridoo, all the sounds in the hall emanating from that one hollow tube of earth, the rich warm length of wood (with a funny looking white bit at the end). My synesthetic friend sitting beside me described earthy colours, dappled soft greens and browns shot through and scarred with orange and metallic glints. I simply sat back, eyes closed, tasting the music.

After Barton, Joshua Bell and his Stradivarius played Tchaikovsky; after an interval the AYO on their own played Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. I remember listening to the Stravinsky (the synesthete said it looked like explosions, but I was seeing dinosaurs) and thinking that the night's programme was about the juxtaposition of old and new. We, the audience, were wowed by Bell's four hundred year old instrument, but a violin is a recent invention compared to the didgeridoo, which has been around for at least 1500 years. The classical gravitas of Tchaikovsky contrasted with the modern sounds of Sculthorpe, who - although he was an old man - was there to walk onto the stage and congratulate the orchestra at the end of the piece. And the Rite of Spring, a modern composer's interpretation of ancient and 'primitive' cultures, further reinterpreted (for me, at least) by cutting edge animators to tell a story that ended 65 million years ago.

A week or so later I was back home, listening to Classic FM in the car, when I heard a snippet of an interview with Barton. He had packed the wrong didgeridoo when he came to Sydney, he said. He had brought a didgeridoo that was too small. There wasn't time to have the right one sent from home, and one does not simply pop down to the shop and buy a new didgeridoo. So he used a 'traditional Aboriginal method'. He got a bit of PVC pipe, stuck it on the end, and cut it off at just the right length.

The ancient and the new.


A reQuested writeup

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