Evana Ho reports on how Indigenous composers are confronting Australia’s colonial past with an antique piano.

In one corner of the ANU School of Music sits an unassuming piano. At around 250- years-old, the Henrion square piano is the oldest keyboard in the School of Music’s collection.  

The Henrion is the centrepiece of a new project coinciding with the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s landing in Australia and led by Keyboard Institute manager Dr Scott Davie. It was deliberately chosen for its age, and to mark the beginning of Australia’s colonisation. 

“This skilfully crafted instrument is a product of a distant culture,” Dr Davie says.  

“To think of it being made as Captain Cook first explored this land seems weirdly anachronistic. Yet, it still works, is still capable of making music, which I think is extraordinary.” 

Dr Davie is now using this very old instrument to make new music. He’s asked four musicians from the Ngarra Burria First Nations Composers Initiative – Nardi Simpson, Tim Gray, Elizabeth Sheppard, and Rhyan Clapham – to write music for the piano. The Ngarra Burria initiative is headed by Dr Chris Sainsbury. 

“It occurred to me that asking Indigenous composers to write music for the instrument might evoke some meaningful responses,” Dr Davie says.  

“This project is a way of mixing and juxtaposing two very different cultures, but doing it in a harmonious way. I think the composers agree that this is a great opportunity to address race and diversity issues in a positive and creative way, as well as making a meaningful contribution to the artistic life of the country.” 

PhD candidate, musician and composer Nardi Simpson with an Henrion keyboard at Llewellyn Hall. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

Two of the four composers are current students at the School of Music, including Yuwaalaraay musician, performer, writer, and composer Nardi Simpson. Ms Simpson, whose history of performing spans 22 years, began her PhD this year. Her research is based on the premise that Yuwaalaraay country is always “singing” to her. 

“My compositions will aim to bring a First Nation’s worldview to music making and scholarship,” Ms Simpson says. 

Ms Simpson was initially hesitant about taking part, saying that she thought deeply about her involvement.  

She notes the piano is foreign to First Nations people. And, that it’s a “precursor to the erasure and destruction of the oldest compositions in the world.” 

“I thought a lot about whether I could create a piece of music for this particular instrument that was useful, significant, interesting and accessible to my homelands,” Ms Simpson says. “In the end I decided to take up the challenge and try and create this significance.” 

Tim Gray, who started learning classical piano at age seven, didn’t have qualms about participating in the project.  

“I wanted to do this so I could continue this wonderful journey of creating music with the amazing composers and mentors from the Ngarra Burria project,” Mr Gray says, who identifies as a Gumbaynggirr/Wiradjuri/Bidjigal man with Irish, Scottish, and gypsy heritage mixed in. 

“I think the Henrion is a very interesting instrument and that this will be fun and challenging at the same time.” 

A Henrion keyboard, donated to the ANU School of Music. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

The Henrion was donated to the School of Music in 2009 by medical doctor Andrew Nolan. Dr Nolan’s fascination with the mechanics of musical instruments began in his teens. In 2000, he acquired the Henrion from “our great marketplace eBay”. 

When the Henrion arrived from Europe, Dr Nolan restored it to playing condition. 

Dr Nolan says that Henri Henrion, the piano’s maker, was quite a significant figure in Alsace during the French Revolution and afterwards. 

Back in Sydney, not far from where he grew up, Mr Gray explains how his piece for the piano, which is his first composition, is intertwined with another darker chapter of his past. 

“I wrote my first song in an alcohol and drug rehab,” he says. “The classical piano training I had earlier in life gave me some tools for my composing. 

“My composition is called ‘Gypsy Waltz’ and is an extension of a story I’m writing about an alcoholic werewolf named Lupe.” 

Ms Simpson decided that rather than composing a piece for the Henrion, she wanted to use it as a tool “to create an environment of sound, creating a landscape of resistance and struggle”, that also elicited country and her community’s deep connections to place. 

All five compositions were recorded by the ABC at Llewellyn Hall in October. Dr Davie, who is a professional pianist and musicologist specialising in Russian music, performed the pieces.  

The project was supported by the ABC’s Australian Music Fund. As part of this, the pieces will receive airplay on ABC Classic, and commercial digital release via ABC Music.

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