Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

Screen Worlds, Sound Worlds and School: A Consideration of the Potential of the Ethnomusicology of Australian Indigenous Film for Music Education

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

Screen Worlds, Sound Worlds and School: A Consideration of the Potential of the Ethnomusicology of Australian Indigenous Film for Music Education

Article excerpt


In this article we discuss the potential of Indigenous film for meaningful classroom engagement with Australian indigenous music. Selected Indigenous films, we believe, can serve as a profitable starting point in educational encounters with Australian indigenous sound worlds. Drawing on a new sub-field, the ethnomusicology of film, we sketch out how Indigenous film might be brought into school music programs, by examining the sound worlds and sound space of the films, Yolngu Boy (2000) and One Night the Moon (2001) (1). We are prompted by our own (differing) convictions regarding the urgent need to discover diverse, motivating, and authentic ways through which school students might experience Australia's indigenous musical culture. Our (again, different) personal experiences with One Night the Moon in particular, in school performance contexts, have convinced us of the positive learning benefits of such film study, which we believe deserves to be more fully developed. Additionally, we are interested in exploring ways to develop a more rigorous musicological methodology among students, since it is our opinion that this area of music education has been neglected in recent times.

We believe this novel approach is promising for a number of reasons. First, films comprise "screen worlds," that is, they present human societies in microcosm, whereas in the school classroom, the totality of a culture and its music overwhelms. "Placing people in motion," Slobin writes, "means you have to construct an integrated and logical society, music and all" (Slobin 2008, p. 4). As such, films can handily indicate ways music works in and as culture, and significantly, Indigenous films communicate insider understandings of a musical culture and exert a different kind of control over it to mainstream film. Second, approaching music through a screen world can help curb a tendency to objectify music since music is complexly woven into the social and cultural fabric of this "world". Third, feature films, including the ones considered here, often present the range of musics of a society, thus conveying something of the richness and complexity of social and cultural reality. Fourth, films employ narrative as a way of knowing, in contrast with knowing by notion or rational approaches to knowledge. Not only is this approach to transmitting knowledge common in many indigenous societies; it may also have greater immediacy in classroom contexts. Finally, as Wood explains, Indigenous films are often made expressly to "transmit languages and cultures" (Wood, 2008, p. 85), that is, to "support the survival of the people depicted" (Wood, 2008, p. 72), and they also offer a corrective to views of cultures and societies constructed by dominant groups. As Langton (2006) notes, with films such as One Night the Moon in mind, "fictional or cinematic accounts have until recently depended on preconceived notions of people, place and culture" (p. 58).

Following a discussion of terminology used in the article and a brief synopsis of each film, we set out a kind of introductory ethnomusicology of the film Yolngu Boy such as might be undertaken in the school context. Next, we discuss projects we have developed or co-developed involving adaptations of One Night the Moon for "live" performance. We bring additional film and video material into the discussion at several points, to emphasise that the possibilities for classroom study extend beyond our two "focus" films.


Slobin (2008) proposes that from an ethnomusicological point of view, "every film is ethnographic" because it "presents the viewer with a human society," and "every soundtrack acts like an ethnomusicologist" since the film soundtrack offers "sonic substance to the housing, clothing, language, and customs of the place" (pp. 3-4, emphasis removed). From Slobin's perspective, an ethnomusicological approach to film highlights the "extroversive" elements of a film's soundtrack--the music and sounds of the natural and social worlds--"since they signal and interpret most of the cultural and social content" of a film (p. …

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