Of Stars and Birds


A musical exploration by composer and author Nardi Simpson's of her Yuwalarray heritage and the traditional story of birds and the creation of the Southern Cross.


This kit created with support of
Santa Sabina College and
Ensemble Offspring, for the 2021

Santa Sabina "Australian Music Day".


Of Stars and Birds developed from a significant Yuwaalaraay story ending in the creation of the southern cross but traversing the enormity of land, lore, death and rebirth. Birds weave this story into our dreaming cosmos, the conventional limitations of earth, sky, death, day, life and night dissolving and creating its own universe of existence – a bit like my compositional craft, a mixture of tradition and innovation- teachings that extend between the storytelling and songmaking of Australia’s First People's and the explorations and expressions of a new music composer at the beginning of exciting, musical journeys.       

photo Trevor Dalton

Visiting Eucalyptus - Education Kit

Damian Barbeler © 2021

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Reflecting into the Stars

Of Stars and Birds was written after an invitation to contribute to Ensemble Offspring's birdsong collection. As a new composer in the earliest development stages of my craft, I worried how my work would stand alongside the pieces of experienced, accomplished composers who had already contributed to this series. As an Aboriginal musician with limited music theory, I also worried if I could create something of a standard suitable for the ensemble and its project partners.

In times like this I look to culture to provide guidance. I quickly realised Yuwaalaraay knowledge, connection and relationship to birds equalled the complexity and detail of advanced musical theory, compositional practice and creative conception. So, I worked hard to imbue this piece with the things I know well, cultural concepts and knowledge, enabling a transformation away from a commissioned composition and into an extension of my own lived and practiced cultural experience.

Visiting Eucalyptus - Education Kit

Damian Barbeler © 2021

Composing a Forest

To compose forests in sound Barbeler layers short motives to create textures. In one case the botanical names of gum trees are set to simple rising arpeggios. Performers must use the names as speech patterns to inform their interpretation of the motives.


Using words to compose instrumental melodies is a surprisingly common technique. The film composer John Williams does this, however Barbeler learned the technique from Peter Sculthorpe for example in his String Quartet No.6 and the end of the 2nd movement of his The Fifth Continent "Outback".

Visiting Eucalyptus - Education Kit

Damian Barbeler © 2021

Composing Birdsong

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Of Stars and Birds features a number of simple gestures that capture the character of birdsong. Short phrases with a combination of small and large leaps, plus pointillistic articulation give a string sense of the dynamic character of Australian bird song.

These bird-like motives appear at times in more tempo based situations, and at other times the indiaction "Ad Lib, Birds trying to settle and sleep" tells the performer to play in a more loose and atmospheric manner.

Visiting Eucalyptus - Education Kit

Damian Barbeler © 2021


A simple lyrical melody winds through the forest textures. Barbeler wrote this melody while visiting Tunks Hill in Lane Cove National Park in Sydney. The above image was taken that day. The angular patterns and sections of bark peeling off a Spotted Gum inspired the "up-then-down" leaping intervals of the melody.

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The melody is an emotional foreground to the forest, as if we are sensing the thoughts of a person passing through. A similar approach appears in Debussy's La Mer where textures depict the flow of the sea, and with melodies express a persons feelings watching the sea. In the quartet version of Visiting Eucalyptus variations on this melody appear across the work, but especially from Page 4 Rehearsal Mark "E"

Visiting Eucalyptus - Education Kit

Damian Barbeler © 2021

Harmony, Voicing and Orchestration

The harmony for Visiting Eucalyptus does not follow the traditional system of triadic chords. Rather the harmonies are loosely based on using characteristic intervals, especially semi-tones, tones and fourths. These intervals where chosen intuitively. Basically when Barbeler went walking in the bush visiting eucalyptus trees he wrote down the melodies that came to him along the way. The harmonies then are taken from the intervals that feature in these melodies.

There is also a kind of "synaesthetic" connection between the visual work and sound. One should remember that it is intervals (not the specific notes) that give a work it's character. And so we can see in this work, that when an open forest is being depicted, larger, intervals are favoured. When a darker, more dense forest needs to be characterised small intervals and "closer" voicings between instruments.

Barbeler's main strategy for orchestration is extract maximum contrast from the instruments. For this reason we see instruments being used in multiple registers and often highly contrasting sounds and techniques are heard right next to each other.

Visiting Eucalyptus - Education Kit

Damian Barbeler © 2021

Visiting Eucalyptus - Education Kit

Damian Barbeler © 2021



Birdsong and other landscape composing processes you can try yourself.

DIY 1 - Bird Song Composing

Go for a walk in your local suburb and record sounds of birds. Choose a couple of short phrases that you like and try to notate them. You can draw the contour of the bird song first using graphic shapes. Then go to a piano and try to find APPROXIMATE pitches. Get a sense of the natural pulse of each bird song by singing the song and tapping your thigh at the same time.


N.B. Remember that your version will be a simplified version of the real thing. You do not need to use complex rhythms.

DIY 2 - Visual Harmony

Take photos in a natural landscape. Review these at home. Take note of the atmosphere of the photos. Go to a piano and find intervals that suit that atmosphere. Large intervals will suit more open landscape and smaller intervals will suit more dense landscapes. Register is important also. Higher notes have a lighter feel, whereas lower notes have a darker feeling. Write a series of 4 note chords which capture this atmosphere in different ways. Now make an ostinato using these notes.

DIY 3 - Star Texture Accompaniment

Now that you have mastered birdsong and landscape you can try a star texture. Firstly write a list of characteristics that a star texture would have. What type of instruments, register, intervals, articulations and dynamic would you use?

Go to a piano and improvise a star texture... notice what sort of pulse the music has. How would you capture that likely LACK of a sense of pulse with notation. Could you use extended musical notations to achieve the desired atmosphere?

photo Paean Ng

Visiting Eucalyptus - Education Kit

Damian Barbeler © 2021

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Nardi Simpson


Nardi Simpson is a Yuwaalaraay storyteller from NSW’s north west freshwater plains.  As a member of Indigenous duo Stiff Gins, Nardi has travelled nationally and internationally for the past 22 years, performing in the US, UK, Ireland, Canada, Vietnam and the Pacific Islands.  She is also a founding member of ‘Freshwater,’ an all-female vocal ensemble formed to revive the language and singing traditions of New South Wales river communities.

Nardi is a graduate of Ngarra Burria First People’s Composers with compositions performed and recorded by the Royal Australian Navy Band and Ensemble Offspring and in 2020, two of Nardi’s compositions featured in ABC Classic’s Fresh Start Initiative.

Currently undertaking PhD study through ANU School of Music in Composition, Nardi is the current musical director of Barayagal, a cross cultural choir based at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. With countryman Matt Doyle, she also co-teaches Chamber Ensemble, exploring cultural narratives and improvisational performance.

Nardi’s debut debut novel ‘Song of the Crocodile’, winner of the 2017 Black&Write! Fellowship has been shortlisted for the 2021 Victorian and NSW Premiers Literary Awards and was longlisted for the 2021 Stella Prize and Miles Franklin Award. Nardi currently lives in Sydney’s inner west and continues to be heavily involved in the teaching and sharing of culture in both her Sydney and Yuwaalaraay communities.


Visiting Eucalyptus - Education Kit

Damian Barbeler © 2021