Concord’s Didgeridoo Concerto
The didgeridoo, the signature musical instrument of Aboriginal Australia, simply had to be in the theme music for the 2000 Olympics, which were held in Sydney. Sean O’Boyle, commissioned to write that music, figured he ought to learn something about it. So, he turned to then-teenaged William Barton, widely regarded as one of the top young Aboriginal players of the instrument.
Thus began the chain of events that would result in Hal Kacanek playing the solo part of Boyle’s Concerto for Didgeridoo with Jamin Hoffman conducting the Concord Chamber Orchestra in Milwaukee this Saturday. The composer, by a sheer stroke of luck, was in Canada visiting relatives and will attend the performance.
The Olympic connection to Barton resulted in the subsequent concerto. In a phone interview Wednesday, O’Boyle credited Barton as co-composer of the concerto, in four movements of about five minutes each.
The score is unique, in that it was published without a solo part. The didgeridoo is an improvisational instrument. Its traditional use is illustrative, as accompaniment to a storyteller. Players can use it to produces a low drone and a manner of animal barks and calls. Circular breathing allows them to sustain sounds indefinitely. The tradition also calls for singing into the horn, traditionally made of a eucalyptus branch. Beats of clashing pitches between voice and horn and sympathetic vibration of certain frequencies of the overtone series can give the impression of three sounds at once from one instrument.
“I only got wind of this performance a couple of weeks ago,” O’Boyle said, in a phone interview Wednesday. “William is the only one who’s ever performed it until now. Jamin and Hal Kacanek are putting a score together and writing out a solo part. I thought that was nuts. It’s incredibly difficult to notate what the didgeridoo does. I’m very curious to see what they’ve come up with.”
Kacanek, a trumpeter by training and ethnomusicologist by passion, isn’t trying to make a literal score to be read as one might read a Mozart score. It’s more like a mnemonic aid. He’s trying to make it so a player can listen to Barton’s recorded rendition, look at Kacanek’s notation, and approximate what Barton played. It could give the concerto life beyond Barton himself.
“I’m trying to give other players a fair chance at doing it,” Kacanek said, in a phone interview Thursday. “Sean has been very generous in doing everything he can to help.”
The main thing was giving Kacanek access to his Sibelius computer file of the orchestra score. So Kacanek can loop a bar of the orchestra part to hear it again and again, and properly align his invented notation of Barton’s part without hours and hours of manual copying.
“I had never heard of a concerto for didgeridoo,” Kacanek said. “I said yes because of the opportunity to focus on the didge and put some time into it. I’m at a very different level than when I said yes.”
Kacanek, 68, first played the instrument in 1989. He had taken a sabbatical from the music faculty at Carroll University (then Carroll College) and was amid a four-month world tour studying indigenous music. The intent was to put together a world music and culture course for Carroll. Australia was an extended stop in a tour that included India, Bali, Java, New Zealand and Greece.
“I became enormously enamored with the didgeridoo, and I swore I wasn’t going to leave Australia until I could play it,” he said. “But I didn’t really get the circular breathing part until I got to Bali.”
“I wanted to participate in the music of the world, to interact and be a part of it,” Kacanek said.
Now the world has come to him.
The Concord Chamber Orchestra will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 19, at the Basilica of St. Josaphat, 2333 S. 6th St. Tickets are $20, $15 for students and seniors, at the orchestra’s website.
Complete Repertoire: Danzas Latinoamericanas, by Jose Elizondo; Three Nigerian Dances, by Samuel Ekpe Akpabot; Concerto for Didgeridoo, by Sean O’Boyle; La Fiesta de la Posada, by Dave Brubeck, with The Master Singers of Milwaukee.