ACO 2024: Meet didgeridoo virtuoso William Barton
William Barton is a composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, recognized as one of Australia’s leading didgeridoo players and composers.
For two decades, Barton has forged a peerless profile as a performer and composer in the classical music world, from performing with the Philharmonic Orchestras of London and Berlin to marking historic events at Westminster Abbey and Anzac Cove.
With his prodigious musicality and the quiet conviction of his Kalkadunga heritage, he has vastly expanded the horizons of the didgeridoo and the culture and landscape that it represents.
From cattle station to concert hall
Barton is a Kalkadungu man who grew up in northwest Queensland on a cattle station. His uncle, Arthur Peterson, who was an elder of the Wannyi, Lardil and Kalkadunga people, taught him to play the didgeridoo.
From seven years old he learned the instrument’s craft and by 12 was sure music was his calling. He listened to Elvis Presley as much as he did Vivaldi and Beethoven, all alongside his digeridoo playing.
“What I remember so clearly from my uncle is him telling me that the didgeridoo is a language. It’s a speaking language and like any language, it’s something that you’ve got to learn over many months, and many years. It’s got to be a part of you, and what you do.”
At the age of 17, he shared that language in a performance with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra.
In 2004, Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe’s Requiem was premiered by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra with William Barton as guest soloist. He would go on to tour to the USA and New Zealand with the orchestra, he and Sculthorpe continuing to collaborate.
“Having had the privilege of working with all of Australia’s elite musicians over such a long period of time I have no hesitation in saying that William Barton is the only one who I consider to be a genuine musical genius.”– Martin Buzacott, ABC Classic
The son of a singer, songwriter and poet
Barton’s mother is the singer, songwriter and poet Aunty Delmae Barton, who has shared stages around the world with her son.
She created a logo for Barton, featuring the emu’s foot, a territorial sign of the Kalkadungu tribe of the Kalkadungu Territory of Australia.
“The emu foot is the territorial sign of the Kalkadungu people and very sacred to the Kalkadungu tribe (Kalkadungu Territory, Australia). My interpretation in this painting: The gold on the emu claws represents a positive pathway to songlines of the world, to the universe for humanity as a whole – all creatures of creation – entire creation of our Creator’s dreamtime,” she says.
Queensland Australian of the Year
Barton is an ARIA Award-winning composer of music for River, composed and recorded with the ACO, and his classical album Kalkadungu.
He has honorary doctorate degrees from the Universities of Griffith and Sydney, and in 2023 was named Queensland Australian of the Year.
“Barton, held the audience in thrall with this spiritual work which conjured up bush sounds, birds singing, wind whispering through trees, and late evening and early morning songlines.”– Stage Whispers
Performances with the ACO
Barton has collaborated with Richard Tognetti and the ACO for several years, including touring internationally with the Orchestra, and regularly appearing in front of Australian audiences alongside our musicians, most recently as part of the Sydney Opera House’s 50th Birthday Inside/Out concert, Celebrating Icons: From Bach to Barnes.
Works by Barton in their River collaboration include Spirit Voice of the Enchanted Waters – which features Barton’s absolutely breathtaking vocals in performance – Ritual and Wildness.
Barton says describes drawing upon his Kalkadunga heritage during the improvised performance of Spirit Voice, sharing, “I was connecting to my ancestral ties, to the mother country, to my experiences of going out bush as a young kid on Kalkadunga country and seeing the little water holes out there connected to emu dreaming, and to the significance of songlines.”