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Ellis, Catherine Joan (Cath) (1935–1996)

by Jennifer K. Newsome

This article was published online in 2022

Catherine Joan Ellis (1935–1996), ethnomusicologist, was born on 19 May 1935 at Birregurra, Victoria, youngest of three daughters of Scottish-born parents James Caughie, plumber, and his wife Sarah, née Connor, bookkeeper. Cath’s family resided in the Melbourne suburb of Highett and she was educated at the nearby Hampton High School. A talented pianist, she later learnt the bassoon and attended National Music Camp in the 1950s playing that instrument. She completed further study at the University of Melbourne (BMus, 1957), having been awarded an Ormond exhibition (1953). After her degree she secured employment as assistant to T. G. H. Strehlow at the University of Adelaide, and commenced research into the music created and performed by Aboriginal people.

On 9 November 1957 Caughie married Arthur Maxwell Ellis, a musician and clerk. A year later they travelled to Scotland where she undertook doctoral studies at the University of Glasgow (PhD, 1961). Returning to Australia in 1962, she continued her research into Aboriginal music and in particular that of South Australia. Based at the University of Adelaide, she held a series of fellowships in the 1960s before being appointed lecturer (1970), senior lecturer (1975), and reader (1985). Max, her devoted companion, was an active collaborator in her research work, regularly accompanying her on field trips and often caring for their young children.

Ellis became recognised as a pioneering researcher and tireless advocate in the fields of Aboriginal music and intercultural music education, whose legacy had a profound influence on succeeding generations of researchers and educators. Of central importance in her research from the beginning was a focus on structural analysis and an understanding of Aboriginal music both from the perspective of the performer and with reference to the meaning of associated extramusical information. Using notation, she believed she could shift the ‘time-bound aural form of these [musical] patterns to a visual approximation,’ revealing complexities that might ‘otherwise pass too quickly’ (1985, 83), and help overcome difficulties of understanding for those who had not grown up within the relevant culture. However, she was also aware of the limitations of analysis and believed that it was only when these patterns were combined in performance experience that this could be of ‘more than purely intellectual interest’ (1985, 82). It was in this synthesis of the analytical and the practical that the ‘great artistry and incredible skills’ (1985, 82) of the performers could be appreciated.

Through her work Ellis made a lasting contribution to Aboriginal music-making and music education. With Leila Rankine and others, she played a pivotal role in the establishment (1975), founding philosophy, and early work of the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music at the University of Adelaide, a ground-breaking applied research initiative which supported the career development of prominent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander performers, composers, researchers, and educators. She was author of more than 120 publications, including ‘Aboriginal Music and Dance in Southern Australia’ in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980) and the internationally influential book Aboriginal Music, Education for Living (1985), in which she detailed her insights into the communicative potential of music cross-culturally and in relation to music education and music therapy. One of the earliest researchers to document Aboriginal women’s ceremonies, she had recognised the necessity for interdisciplinary approaches to Indigenous music research, exemplified in the group project on Andagarinja (Antikirinya) women (1966–68).

In 1985 Ellis took up the appointment of inaugural chair in music at the University of New England at Armidale, New South Wales. There she undertook a series of collaborative research projects focused on the music of Aboriginal people in Central Australia, supported by the Australian Research Grants Scheme. Her professional associations included committee membership of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, the council for the Society for Ethnomusicology, and the Musicological Society of Australia (president 1988–89). In 1995 she retired owing to ill health and returned to Adelaide. She donated her professional papers, field notes, manuscripts, photographs, slides, films, and recordings to the National Library of Australia. Appointed AM in 1991, she was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of New England in 1995.

A warm, visionary, inspiring, and no-nonsense individual, Ellis was described by one of her close university colleagues as an ‘integrated person’ of moral principle, who was willing to challenge prevailing views about music and education, and who held her own as a woman in academia with dignity and ‘quiet resolution’ (Swale 1996, 7). Survived by her husband and their son and two daughters, she died on 30 May 1996 at her home at Kingston Park, Adelaide, and was cremated. With her death, one of her former students remarked, musicology had ‘lost one of its most prominent and original scholars’ (Barwick 1996, n.p.). Her memorial service was held at the Cathedral Church of St Peter in North Adelaide.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Barwick, Linda. ‘Catherine Ellis 1935-1996.’ Yearbook for Traditional Music 28 (1996): n.p
  • Cathedral Church of Saint Peter, Adelaide. ‘Memorial Service Professor Catherine Joan Ellis AM.’ Unpublished program, 1996. Copy held by State Library of South Australia
  • Ellis, Catherine. Aboriginal Music, Education for Living: Cross-Cultural Experiences from South Australia. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1985
  • Halton, Rosalind. ‘Education Inspired by Native Songs—Obituary of Catherine Ellis Music Educator and Authority on Aboriginal Music.’ Australian, 20 June 1996, 15
  • Kartomi, Margaret. ‘Catherine Ellis (1935–1996).’ Musicology Australia 20 (1997): 2–5
  • National Library of Australia. MS 9465, Papers of Catherine Ellis [1957–1995]
  • Newsome, Jennifer. ‘Collaboration and Community Engaged Practice in Indigenous Tertiary Music Education: A Case Study and Model from South Australia.’ COLLeGIUM 21 (2016): 122–41
  • Newsome, Jennifer. ‘From Researched to Centrestage—A Case Study,’ Muzikoloski Sbornik 1, no. 44 (2008): 31–49
  • Swale, David. ‘Professor Catherine Joan Ellis AM: A Pioneer of Ethnomusicology.’ Adelaidean, 17 July 1996, 7
  • University of Adelaide Special Collections. 1969/435, Personnel File—Catherine J. Ellis. Mediated access

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jennifer K. Newsome, 'Ellis, Catherine Joan (Cath) (1935–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ellis-catherine-joan-cath-31764/text39224, published online 2022, accessed online 8 October 2022.

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