Professor Michael Atherton

Michael Atherton playing ancient greek harp


Following research in literature at the University of NSW, Michael studied music at the University of Sydney and the University of New England. He played early music in the Renaissance Players (1974-1980); pioneered cross-cultural music in Sirocco (1980-6); and directed his own ensemble, Southern Crossings (1986-93). He has performed around the world at festivals, on tours, and for inter-governmental government exchanges. Prior to appointment in 1993 as the founding Chair of Music at UWS, he was a music therapist (1978-81) in the team of Professor Marie Bashir, her Excellency the Governor of NSW.  Michael came to UWS to lead the development of a music department with a teaching and research focus on a range of Australian expressions in our time. He is considered an expert in musical instruments and sound-making objects of Australia and the Asia-Pacific.

Michael is a composer and performer of concert music, screen scores; sound designer; multi-instrumental performer, artistic director of sonic circuses; researches intercultural music collaborations, electroacoustic improvisation, musical instruments and sound-making objects of the world; asserts a research-led practice/practice-led research approach. Significant outputs listed in the ERA Trial Cluster 2 (UWS achieved a rank of 4).  Creative work may involve community diverse background and experience including audience interaction: Sonic Boom Boom! (opens in a new window) – a mayhem for motorbikes, opera singers, percussion, brass and keyboard ; Big Drum Up (opens in a new window) combines 100 performers from Pacific Islander families, Lebanese-Australian youth, and a Uruguayan cultural group. Utility Horn Groove (opens in a new window) combines 5 Ford Utilities and drivers, a funk band, percussion and two rappers, DJ; young people playing alloy wheels, and audience playing panpipes and pebbles.

Supervises doctoral candidates in music therapy, Indigenous music, composition, non-western music, music and literature, music in early childhood (21 completions). Recent book publications - 2010, Musical Instruments and Sound-Producing Objects of Oceania, Peter Lang AG, Berne, Switzerland; 2009, Music of the Spirit: Asian-Pacific musical identity, (co-edited with Bruce Crossman) Australian Music Centre: Sydney. Recent recordings - 2009, Resophonica (with Bruce Crossman); 2008, Surface, Texture, Line (with Garth Paine). Recent published music – 2012 Tuned-In collection of original and collected melodies; 2011 Me lo ha detto la Nonna, piano, 4’; 2009, Patina, clarinet, vibraphone and percussion, 9’; 2009, Songs of Stone and Silence, sop, mezzo, cl, c, pn, 17’.

View Michael Atherton's Vimeo Channel (opens in a new window)

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Music composition and performance; Film music; Cross-cultural collaboration; Ethnomusicology; Music therapy; Asia-Pacific organology.

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Utility Horn Groove

Grants / Current Projects

Current Projects

  • 2012-13 Music and social networking technology for creative events with disadvantaged young people
  • Book in press : Musical instruments and sound producing objects of Oceania Commission:  For Ars Australis and the University of Sydney  -  compose a major multicultural work  2011.

Recent Projects


  • 2012 Sonic Boom Boom! – brass fanfares, piano ensembles and a ‘motorbike opera’ for the Powerhouse Discovery Centre
  • 2011 Kantara – a composition commissioned by the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and Ars Musica Australis for its international series - Composers 101.
  • 2009 SynC ensemble – electroacoustic music exploration.
  • 2009 Resophonica – piano, percussion and found sound improvisation.
  • 2009 Music Director, 100 percussionists, RiverBeats Festival opening.
  • 2008 Sonic Alchemies - a Sync project for a New Music Australia concert.
  • 2008 Aurora Festival of New Music – featured composer (4 world premieres).


  • 2008-10 ARC Discovery Indigenous Research Grant (co-investigator).
  • 2008 UWS IRIS Grant (co-investigator).
  • 2008 ABC composition commission for Runsten.
  • 2008 College publication support for Music of the Spirit.
  • 2003 Community partnership, ORD, for Sprung: a 'sonic circus', Riverside. 2002 Community partnership, Office of Regional Development, UWS.
  • 2001 NSW Ministry of Arts funding research with Machine for Making Sense.
  • 2000 NSW Ministry of Arts funding research with Steel Pan percussion.
  • 1999 Australia Council funding research with the Song Company.


  • 2008 Ars Musica Australis commission for Songs of Stone and Silence.
  • 2006 ABC Radio commissioned score for Darwin’s Wings.
  • 2004 Sydney Children’s Choir commission for Magpies, ssa choir.
  • 2000 NSW Centenary of Federation Commission for Kamawarah.
  • 2000 Music Theatre Sydney, Woman Dreaming, music theatre work, 70’.

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In this video Michael Atherton and Garth Paine (Sync) perform at the opening of the VIPRE facility at UWS.

Sync perform at the opening of the VIPRE facility at UWS, June 2009.

Awards and Recognition

  • 2008 Vice-chancellor’s Award for Excellence - High Commendation for Postgraduate Research Training and Supervision.
  • 2003 Australian Centenary Medal for service to the community.
  • 1998 Elected fellow (FRSA), Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.

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Shoalhaven Rise

Professional Memberships

  • Royal Society for the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.
  • Australian Music Centre - full composer representation.
  • Australian Guild of Screen Composers.
  • Australasian Performing Rights Association.

Public Offices

  • 2009 Blacktown Council Arts Advisory Body (ongoing).
  • 2008 Arts NSW (government's western Sydney arts funding panel (chair).
  • 2003 Australia Council Music Advisory Committee.

Academic Appointments

  • 2005- Associate Dean (Research), College of Arts.
  • 2003-4 Acting Director of Research, Management, and Training, College of Arts, Education & Social Sciences.
  • 2000-2 Founding Head, School of Contemporary Arts, College of Arts, Education & Social Sciences.
  • 1998-9 Acting Chair, Visual and Performing Arts, UWS (Nepean).
  • 1993- Foundation Professor of Music, University of Western Sydney. 


Governance - committees, panels and working partiesBloodwood

  • 2006 Member of Academic Senate (ongoing).
  • 2003 Member, University Research Committee (ongoing).
  • 2003 Member, University Research Studies Committee (ongoing).
  • 2008 Chair, College of Arts Peer Review Committee (ongoing).
  • 2003 Chair, College of Arts Research and Higher Degree Committee (ongoing).
  • 2004 Member, Planning and Quality Committee.
  • 2004-5 UWS Arts Advisory Panel.
  • 2004 University Research Committee (ongoing).
  • 2004-6 Elected Deputy Chair, Academic Senate.
  • 2003 College of Arts Executive Committee (ongoing).
  • 2003-9 Chair, Golden Stave Music Therapy Centre Management Committee.
  • 2001 Elected member of Academic Senate. 

Principal supervisor of successful higher degree research candidates


  • 2009 The Aqueduct: an intercultural chamber opera
  • 2008 Towards a species songbook: illuminating the vocalisations of the Australian Pied Butcher bird.
  • 2008 Intercultural composition of ancient medieval music.
  • 2008 Accordion exposition.
  • 2007 Music therapy in the management of acute psychosis.
  • 2004 The flow of imagery elicited by G.I.M. music programs during unguided music imaging.
  • 2004 The creative ear: ABC ‘Listening Room' and Sound Art in Australia.

Master of Arts (Hons)

  • 2008 Singing to reduce depression in dementia.
  • 2007 Investigating electroacoustic music.
  • 2006 Creating musical theatre in an Australian context.
  • 2006 The electric bass in contemporary music.
  • 2006 Performing Hindustani music in Australia.
  • 2004 Music of balance: circles and squares.
  • 2004 Knocking on heaven's door: dismantling estrangement in performance relationships.
  • 2003 An intercultural approach to composition and improvisation.
  • 2003 Investigating a singing voice.
  • 2002 Composing sound art.

Principal supervisor of current doctoral students

•    ‘Blue collar’ fiction and music.
•    Choral and depression in aged care.
•    Early childhood songs.
•    Turkish Alevi Music.
•    Contemporary Indigenous music. 

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  • 2008 Music of the Spirit: Asian-Pacific musical identity. (co-edited with Bruce Crossman). Australian Music Centre: Sydney.
  • 1992 The ABC Book of Musical Instruments, ABC Books, Sydney, 2nd edition
  • 1990 Australian Made...Australian Played, UNSW Press. Foreword by guitarist John Williams

Book cover: Music of the SpiritBook Chapters

  • 2008 ‘Music of the spirit’ in Atherton, M. & Crossman, B. (eds.), Music of the Spirit: Asian-Pacific musical identity. Sydney: Australian Music Centre.
  • 2008 Oku ou talanoa ma hoku loto in M. Atherton & B. Crossman (Eds.), Music of the Spirit. Sydney: Australian Music Centre ( in press).
  • 2007 'At the edge of what comes next: 'comprovised' meaningfulness in Jiriyai, a new work for percussionist and dancer'
  • 2005 'The composer as alchemist: an overview of Australian feature scores post 1990s', in Coyle, R (ed.) Reel Scores John Libbey/Perfect Beat: Sydney

Journal Articles

  • 2010, Harry Vatiliotis: Luthier, HEAT, New Series, no. 23, pp 169-176.
  • 2004 'Cross-artform collaborations', Sounds Australian, Australian Music Centre, Number 64, 20-22.
  • 2003 'Sounds unlimited: building the instruments, Sounds Australian, Australian Music Centre, Number 62, 3-5.
  • 2003 'Educating the Screen Composer in Australia' Sounds Australian, Australian Music Centre, February 2003.
  • 2000 'The didjeridu in the studio and the dynamics of collaboration' in Changing Sounds: New directions and configurations in Popular Music. Mitchell, T and Doyle, P, International Association for Popular Music: UTS
  • 1996 'Asian Influences on Australian Music' TAASA: Journal of the Asian Arts Society of Australia, Sydney.
  • 1995 'Identities: Ashok Roy' for TAASA: Journal of the Asian Arts Society of Australia Sydney.

Editorial role

  • 2003 Sounds unlimited: building the instruments, Sounds Australian, Australian Music Centre, Number 62, 3-5.
  • 1990 Soundtracking: composing for film, Sounds Australian, Australian Music Centre, Number 25, Autumn, 8.

Companions, Guides & Encyclopaedia Entries

  • 2003 'Intercultural music', Currency Press Companion to Music and Dance. Currency House: Sydney.
  • 2003 'Australian Instrument Making', Currency Press, Companion to Music and Dance Currency House: Sydney.

Published Conference ProceedingsCreative Explosion

  • 2009 Patina, clarinet, vibraphone and percussion, Creative Explosion, 9’.
  • 2008 Songs of Stone and Silence, s, ms, cl, c, pno. Aurora Festival, ABC, 17.'
  • 2008 Runsten, 13-course lute. Aurora Festival, ABC, 12'.
  • 2008 Utility Horn Groove, rappers, dj, timp, tbells, 2 sax, 2 tr, gt, bass, drums, mag wheels, pno, car horns, percussion, narrator. Aurora Festival, 20'.
  • 2008 Oku ou talanoa ma hoku loto, mezzo and percussion. Aurora Festival, ABC, 13'.
  • 2008 ta ka tin go ga kin, West African, Indian, Polynesian & orchestral percussion. Aurora Festival, 8'.
  • 2008 Sonic Alchemies, (with Garth Paine), percussion & electronics Aurora Festival, ABC, 9'.
  • 2006 Score for Darwin's Wings. ABC Radio National.
  • 2006 Jiriyai, percussionist and dancer. Aurora Festival, ABC, 12'.
  • 2004 Magpies, SSA treble choir, 3'.
  • 2001 Kalliopeia Sopha, SSA treble choir, 6’.
  • 2001 Mixo Masho percussion, flexible scoring, 12’.
  • 2000 Kamawarah, orchestra, soprano, Indigenous performers, commissioned by the Centenary of Federation. Centennial Park and ABC Television, 7'30".
  • 2000 Advance Australia fair, orchestra, ssatb choir, commissioned by the Centenary of Federation, 4’.
  • 2000 Woman Dreaming, music theatre work, commissioned by Music Theatre Sydney, 70’.
  • 2000 Dogwatch score, 35mm feature film, Black Ray productions.

Creative Works

  • Atherton M, 2010, Nonna mi l'ha detto!, for solo piano

CDs Released (selected)Australian Made, Australian Played

  • 2009 Resophonica (with Bruce Crossman)
  • 2009 Creative Explosion (with Bruce Crossman, Diana Blom, et al)
  • 2008 Surface, Texture, Line (with Garth Paine)
  • 2008 Nine-Elemental Songs (with James Ashley Franklin & Tony Wheeler).
  • 2007 Jo-Wha (with Ross Edwards, Ann Boyd, Bruce Crossman, et al)
  • 2006 Parallel Lines (with Garth Paine).
  • 2003 Sea and Mountain: music in the Korean style. (Solo)
  • 2003 Aurora (with James Ashley Franklin).
  • 2002 Resonance: sounds for music therapy (with Alan Lem)
  • 1998 Ankh: the sound of ancient Egypt. (Solo)

Podcast Interview (audio only)

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