Researching Indigenous culture

BY ANTHONY LINDEN JONES

I come to the position of SAR research fellow with the NFSA from a background as a performing musician, a composer of film and concert music, and an engineer. I am currently completing a PhD in Musicology at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and I teach music at both the Sydney Con and the Eora Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Chippendale.

For my research fellowship, I am looking at the representation of Indigeneity in Australian film music, and particularly focusing on films made before about 1960. In conversation with Vincent Plush and James McCarthy, we identified a need to look especially at original scores written for documentaries made by Film Australia (and its predecessors). Vincent is a composer and broadcaster, as well as Manager of Research Programs at the NFSA. James draws from his experience as the Music Editor at Film Australia for some 20 years, and then manager of the Sydney office of the NFSA up to the time of his retirement. James was directly responsible for coordinating and commissioning some of Australia’s finest composers to work on the Film Australia documentaries.

Narrowing the field even further, I am looking at three documentaries made by Charles P Mountford, resulting from the 1948 National Geographic Society American-Australian Expedition to Arnhem Land. The three films, Birds and Billabongs (1951), Arnhem Land Expedition 1948 (1950), and Aborigines of the Sea Coast (1950), were scored by Alfred Hill and his wife Mirrie Hill. For inspiration, Mountford gave Mirrie recordings he had made of traditional song. She drew from these in composing the score to Aborigines of the Sea Coast (1950) and also a number of concert works afterwards.

Colin Simpson (far right) and Raymond Giles (2nd from right) record songs at Oenpelli during the Arnhem Land Expedition. The Aboriginal men are as yet unidentified.

Photo: attributed to Howell Walker, from the Papers of Colin Simpson, courtesy National Library of Australia MS 5253/133

This process, by a white Australian woman, is quite remarkable as a rare attempt at integration of Indigenous musical resources with Western instrumentation.

I am attempting to find the recordings that Mountford had given Mirrie to allow me to map them against her compositions. This involves drawing on resources outside the NFSA in conjunction with the films, scripts, correspondence and other ephemera held in the NFSA collection.

A big challenge in the progress of the research is that, looking at film and other media dealing with Indigenous culture, much of the material was collected without consideration for their suitability for use outside the culture. Many of the recordings and some of the films are now restricted, and cannot be viewed/heard until vetted by an elder from the country in question. The film Arnhem Land Expedition 1948 (1950), for instance, features a men’s ceremony that is not appropriate to be viewed outside the culture. It is crucial that such research be conducted with sensitivity to appropriate cultural practice.

Pyrox wire recorder

Photo: Gerry O'Neill

I am drawing heavily from the NFSA collection, looking at films, recordings, scripts, and other materials that deal with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. I have had an extremely interesting experience handling precious materials and viewing a very broad range of films. With a background in sound, I was especially blown away by the collection of recording devices in use at the NFSA — including a wire recorder! I look forward to exploring these resources further.