Michael Atherton was born in 1950, Liverpool, England – the eldest of five children. His father is of Irish and Welsh extraction. His mother is German. The family migrated to Australia in 1965 and lived at Bunnerong Migrant Hostel, a former army barracks, NSW. He went to Matraville High School and mixed with the Indigenous community at La Perouse. He taught himself to play guitar and formed bands with friends – who were Greek, Italian and Maltese migrants – as well as playing soccer with them.
The migrant experience and his curiosity about vernacular as well as notated music led Atherton to study music formally at the University of Sydney and the University of New England where he was attracted to ethnomusicology.
Atherton's career began in popular music. He played early music in the Renaissance Players (1974–1980), and played with Sirocco (1980–6). He formed Southern Crossings (1986–1993) with a focus on commissioned repertoire.
Atherton became Professor of Music at the University of Western Sydney in 1993, building a department committed to contemporary Australian music making. He helped establish a music therapy centre and is now an Associate Dean (Research).
Atherton is also a film composer with several nominations. Credits include the feature, Dogwatch (2000), as well as APRA and Australian Guild of Screen Composers nominations and awards for the documentaries: Admission Impossible and Riding the Tiger. His concert music includes Jiriyai! (2006) for percussionist and dancer; Kamawarah (2001) for orchestra and Indigenous performers; The Mahogany Ship (1994) for the Sydney Children's Choir; Exhortation (1996) for the Contemporary Singers and Synergy (1996); and Kalliopeia Sopha (2001) for Gondwana Voices.
Recordings include Parallel Lines (2006) – electroacoustic music with Garth Paine; A pocketful of songs (2004) – songs and instrumentals for pre–school children; Sea and Mountain: music in the Korean style (2003); Melismos (2003) – an investigation of ancient Greek music; Aurora (2003) with Jim Franklin; Ankh (1998); and Ankala: rhythms from the outer core (1997) with Janawirri and Mark Atkins.
Atherton supports research into Australian made musical instruments and sound producing objects. He authored Australian Made, Australian Played (1990) and compiled 'Sounds Unlimited: building the instruments', Sounds Australian No. 62. Atherton is an elected fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce and in 2003 was awarded a Centenary Medal for service to the community.
Recent performances include New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME) opening concert, New York, June 2007 and NIME, Paris, 2006.
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