As part of its Australian season, the British Museum hosted a concert this afternoon by the internationally known didgeridoo* player William Barton. This took place in an Australian Garden temporarily planted in front of the museum -- a beautiful setting, but one that unfortunately triggered Mr Barton's hay fever. Still, he gave a great performance, sneezes and all.
Mr Barton bought three instruments with him. One was a pristine didgeridoo; one was an old one held together with duct tape; and one was two lengths of PVC pipe fitted together.
He explained that the advantage of the last one -- besides the fact that you could buy it in any hardware store -- was that you could change pitch by moving the pipes, whereas wooden didgeridoos are built for one pitch only. As a traditionalist, though, he prefers the wood instruments.
One thing that surprised me was the didgeridoo's versatility. I don't just mean the number of sounds it can make at once, though that's pretty impressive. Mr Barton also showed it can be used for a wide variety of musical styles. He didn't announce every song he played, but some seemed to be traditional pieces. Another was a story in sound about a hitchhiker trying to get a lift on a busy highway. There was a classical piece of Mr Barton's own composition, "Dust Storm," which he played to a recorded backing track. He even used the instrument for a rap. Whatever he was playing, he drummed his fingers on the didgeridoo or gestured in the air with his free hand, as if conducting himself.
The Museum also has two free exhibitions to tie in with the season. One is a collection of baskets woven by women from various Aboriginal groups, and the other is an exhibition of Australian prints from the past 70 years. There was a strong Aboriginal presence in the prints exhibition, too, and a sign warned any indigenous Australian visitors that the gallery contained the names and works of Aboriginal artists who had recently died (a taboo among some groups). Three works by indigenous artists particularly caught my eye: Garry Namponan's totemic map of his people's territory, showing a dog, brolga, eagle and dugong; Judy Watson's salt water country, with swirls mimicking the landscape of northwest Queensland; and Janice Murray's delightful picture of a Jabiru Stork.
Among the white Australian artists, I particularly liked John Brack -- the intense expressions on the faces of his Jockeys Returning, and his portraits of young dancers in Junior Latin American and Arabesque. Sidney Nolan's pictures of Ned Kelly didn't do much for me, but I loved his stark Ram Suspended in Tree. I was puzzled by the museum's claim, under a picture of Nebuchadnezzar by Arthur Boyd, that "Nebuchadnezzar's experiences during his period of insanity had no iconographical precedent in Western art." Really?
* Actually, in its publicity material the Museum spelled the instrument "didjeridu"; I don't know if that's the politically correct spelling now or what.