As a composer, performer and musicologist, Michael Atherton has made a sustained contribution to Australian music through a creative output that is not limited to a single genre or style. Atherton’s creative work began in popular music. He played early music in the Renaissance Players from 1974-1980, and was a founding member of the world music group, Sirocco, exploring musical syncretism through Anglo-Celtic, Balkan and Middle Eastern musics. Atherton produced landmark recordings for Sirocco and left the group in 1986 to form Southern Crossings, which focused on cross-cultural musical expressions and commissioned repertoire.
In 1993 Atherton was appointed Foundation Professor of Music at the University of Western Sydney where he conceived a new music department strongly committed to Australian music making. Since that time, Atherton has also been influential in establishing a centre for music therapy at UWS, the Golden Stave Music Therapy Centre. He was foundation Head of the School of Contemporary Arts (2000-2) and has been Director of Research for the College of Arts, Education, and Social Sciences since 2003.
Atherton has undertaken significant collaborations with Indigenous Australian performers including Matthew Doyle, Mark Atkins, Alan Dargin, Debra Cheetam and Yanawirri Yiparrka. A collaborative highlight was the completion of a music theatre work, Woman Dreaming, involving Tiwi people from Bathurst Island, dancers from Bangarra, musicians and singers from Music Theatre Sydney, and librettist, John Wregg.
Atherton is also an accomplished composer for the screen for which he has achieved several nominations. Credits include the feature film Dogwatch (2000), as well as APRA and Australian Guild of Screen Composers nominations and awards for the documentaries, Admission Impossible and Riding the Tiger. His concert music includes Kamawarah (2001) for orchestra and Indigenous performers; The Mahogany Ship (1994) for the Sydney Children’s Choir; Exhortation (1996) for the Contemporary Singers and Synergy (1996); Songs for Imberombera (1997) for Gondwana Voices; Inside the Storm (1998) for the Hunter Singers; and Kalliopeia Sopha (2001) for the Gondwana Voices.
His most recent recordings include A pocketful of songs (2004) – songs and instrumentals for pre-school and infant children; Sea and Mountain: music in the Korean style (2003); Melismos (2003) – an investigation of ancient Greek music; Aurora (2003) with James Ashley Franklin – an investigation of space and spatiality; and Ankh - the sound of ancient Egypt (1998).
Atherton has a passionate research interest in Australian made musical instruments, and authored the pioneering Australian Made… Australian Played. In 2003 he compiled and edited “Sounds Australian Number 62” – Sounds Unlimited: building the instruments.
Photograph: Sally Tsoutas
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