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Acclaimed violist, conductor and composer Aaron Wyatt is pragmatic about his Noongar heritage. “To totally paraphrase [former prime minister] Julia Gillard, it’s not everything about me but it’s not nothing about me. It’s just one of many parts of who I am.”

He had a typical lower-middle-class suburban upbringing; his father was a teacher, mum a librarian. “My Indigenous culture wasn’t a huge part of my life,” he says. “For instance, if I was filling out a form and there was a box to tick if you were Aboriginal, I didn’t, because I didn’t think those details should matter. It’s one of those weird things, I suppose; it’s only recently that I’ve had a chance to re-embrace my cultural heritage, particularly as a composer.”

The son of Ken Wyatt AM, Australia’s first Indigenous federal minister (appointed to the health portfolio in 2015), Aaron also has several firsts attached to his name. Notably, he’s the first Indigenous person to conduct an orchestra in Australia. Like his father (one of 10 children, and one of the Stolen Generations), he too started from humble beginnings and has worked his way up the octaves.

“Music has always had a special place in my life,” Aaron recalls. “Fooling around with the piano at a family friend’s house and listening to my parents’ eclectic record collection – my mum didn’t care about the Beatles; it was all classical music to her – gave way to more formal studies at age five when I picked up the violin.” 

Aaron first picked up a violin at age five.

Aaron admits he was “no child prodigy”, but he was headstrong and opinionated about how best to navigate the instrument. “It’s a huge credit to my teacher that I didn’t end up with more self-imposed technical issues to fix in my teenage years,” he says.

With a burning curiosity about the natural world, he didn’t throw himself “too deeply into practice” and, like many children, he went through phases. “I had dreams of becoming a palaeontologist, an astronomer – what kid doesn’t like dinosaurs and space? – a chemist, a geologist, before finally settling on studying biomedical science and electronic engineering at uni.” But music was always a constant refrain in the background.

Aaron credits this sustained love affair to having grown up through the youth orchestra system in his home town of Perth. “Although there were times where it felt like it was as much a social activity for me as a musical one,” he says, “it was the sounds of orchestral music that I always found myself particularly drawn to.” As his first year of university was ending, he realised there’d be a world he would miss in a few years time when he’d be too old to be considered “youth”.

There were community orchestras, but the standard wasn’t quite the same. “I’d only just recently switched to the viola as well and found that the oddball reputation of my new instrument was one that seemed to fit me perfectly,” he says. “On top of that, I’d managed to pretty much cruise my way through high school with very little effort, and it was becoming increasingly obvious that that approach wasn’t going to cut it for too much longer.”

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Faced with the choice of study or practice, he picked the latter. “Walking away from the offer of an engineering scholarship to pursue a career in music is a choice I’ve never regretted,” he says. Graduating with a Bachelor of Music from The University of Western Australia, Aaron spent years as a regular casual playing symphonic repertoire with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO).

During this time he also took on the musical director role with Perth’s youngest community orchestra, South Side Symphony Orchestra, was a regular conductor of the city’s Allegri Chamber Orchestra, and performed in a number of acclaimed fringe and festival shows. These included the award-winning City of Shadows, a musical performance of stories inspired by Sydney crime scene mug shots from the early 1900s.

Created and directed by Rachael Dease, it (and Aaron) went on to perform seasons in New York and Melbourne. He also played a lead role in Perth-based Barking Gecko Theatre’s critically acclaimed adaptation of Wolf Erlbruch’s Duck, Death and the Tulip – a heart-warming story about a duck that strikes up an unlikely friendship with Death. 

Aaron further supplemented his income by giving private music lessons and, for fun, he sang bass with the eclectic choir Spooky Men of the West (“we all had to wear black and a hat, and sing in Georgian style – not the state, the country – but polyphonic”) and played violin with an Indian/jazz fusion group.

In 2020, a year after he was nominated for a Helpmann Award for his role as musical director of Speechless – a wordless opera composed by Cat Hope intended as a response to the plight of refugees worldwide – Aaron relocated to Melbourne, taking up a lecturing position at the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music and Performance at Monash University. He continues to teach there and is working on his PhD, focused on animated graphic notation – the representation of music through the use of visual symbols outside the realm of traditional music notation.

Aaron Wyatt playing violin on an escalator
Aaron is the first Indigenous person to conduct an orchestra in Australia.

In 2012 Aaron released the first iteration of this work, called the Decibel ScorePlayer – an iPad app that allows graphic, synchronised playback of non-traditional musical scores. He shares an example: Across the screen move images of jewellery and overlaying this are sounds of jewellery being swished, jingled, rattled and shaken. 

Aaron moved to Melbourne to further work opportunities and for the financial stability a permanent job provides, for him, his partner, Cathrin Sumfleth, and their busy 12-month-old son, Noah, only to be stymied by COVID. “Isn’t it always the way?” he says. “Melbourne had the most prolonged and stringent lockdowns so performing in front of live audiences was non-existent, whereas in WA life largely went on as normal [due to a hard close on the border]. People were still going out to performances, orchestras were still playing…but life has worked out as it has meant to.” Since restrictions lifted, Aaron has made hay. 

In 2022 he became the first First Nations person to conduct a state symphony orchestra in concert. It was with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) performing Long Time Living Here, a musical Acknowledgement of Country penned by another history-maker, MSO First Nations creative chair and composer Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO.

“It was such an amazing opportunity and represented such a huge step forward, both for me as an individual and for Indigenous representation in Australian classical music,” Aaron says. “Of course it was good being the first, but also it wasn’t…because it was 2022 when it happened. It seems crazy it’s taken that long. Obviously there are socioeconomic reasons why there aren’t more Indigenous people in classical music. But it’s still a shame it has taken that long.”

Walking away from…an engineering scholarship to
pursue a career in music is a choice I’ve
never regretted

Aaron Wyatt

He’s since had engagements with the Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney symphony orchestras, and in early 2024 he conducted the premiere of Noongar opera Wundig wer Wilura, composed by Gina Williams AM and Guy Ghouse.

Sung entirely in language, it’s an ancient tale of a forbidden love, desperate desire and feuding families. As a composer, Aaron has written for new and groundbreaking groups such as Ensemble Dutala, Australia’s first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander chamber ensemble, currently consisting of nine Australian musicians and providing scholarships to promising young students.

I ask Aaron why it’s important to specifically champion First Nations artists and his answer is emphatic: “We’re not at the point where we’re in a colour-blind society, and if you try to ignore colour at all you’re just entrenching the status quo, so we do have to speak up and make a point about these sorts of issues. Representation matters.”

This was boldly on show in March when Aaron conducted his own work, The Coming Dawn, to open WASO’s 2024 season at Perth Concert Hall. Originally written for a string quartet, vibraphone and yidaki (didgeridoo), it was expanded by Aaron to include brass, percussion and timpani, and is a masterful marriage of Western and Indigenous instrumentation.

Written during the hopeful crescendo of the 2023 Voice referendum, The Coming Dawn was, Aaron says, imbued with even more meaning after the No vote prevailed. “It wasn’t created for that specific purpose, to herald in a new age, but I think it speaks to the fact that the union of Western and First Nations cultures has never been more important,” he says.

The powerful piece flags a full-circle moment for the boy who refrained from ticking the Aboriginal box in high school. It also reaches back a generation, for his father, who as a WA Liberal MP in 2012 was referred to by then PM Tony Abbott as an “urban Aboriginal”, not an “authentic” Indigenous representative. 

“A lot of Indigenous Australians remain stuck between a rock and a hard place, with a broken connection to culture,” Aaron says. “But if music – if my music, if our music – can help broker greater bonds…then cue the music.”

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