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Coralie Rockwell (1945–1991)

by Michael Sawer

Coralie Rockwell Sawer (nee Sims) was born on 10 February 1945 in Tamworth, NSW.

She died on 29 September 1991 in Woden Valley Hospital, ACT, after a long illness.

Her father was a primary school principal; her mother was an organist, singer and choral conductor. Ms Rockwell became a teacher like her father and a musician like her mother. She was educated at state schools in Inverell and Lithgow, then completed her Honours degree in music and her Diploma of Education at Sydney University.

Partly inspired by her lecturer Peter Sculthorpe, Coralie developed while at Sydney University her fascination with the music of East and South-East Asia. She wrote her Honours thesis on Korean music and then won a scholarship to UCLA, where in 1969 she completed her Masters Degree in ethnomusicology, specialising in Korean vocal music. Her thesis was later published as a book.

After returning to Sydney, Ms Rockwell taught music at high schools there. She later taught at high schools and secondary colleges in Canberra and from 1989-1990 was largely instrumental in founding and teaching the first non-Western music course at the Canberra School of Music. She was an inspiring teacher and a true pioneer of Asian musicology in Australian education.

In 1973 Ms Rockwell achieved her ambition of going to Asia for further research. Supported by several grants, she undertook fieldwork in Indonesia, and fieldwork and music and language study in South Korea, where she specialised in the 12-string zither (kayagam).

Coralie came to Canberra to study Chinese in 1975, later completing the Chinese major at CCAE. She spent three years with her husband Michael Sawer in Shanghai and Beijing, teaching English, studying Chinese language and researching Chinese music.

From 1988-1990, Ms Rockwell undertook doctoral research under Dr Allan Marett of the Music Department at Sydney University. She worked on the reconstruction of ninth century musical scores unearthed at Dunhuang, Gansu Province, China, and on modern Chinese interpretation and performance of these scores. Tragically, this work remains incomplete.

Ms Rockwell was an active member of the Musicological Society of Australia, serving as President of its ACT Chapter from 1987 until 1989. She contributed strongly to MSA conferences, seminars and publications. She worked hard to forge links with the Shanghai Conservatorium, and to establish a gamelan ensemble at the School of Music and ANU, linked with the Indonesian Embassy. Apart from her above-mentioned book, Ms Rockwell published 12 articles on and translations from Korean, Chinese and Japanese musicology.

Ms Rockwell was a fine alto who in the 60s and 70s sang with the Leonine Consort, the Sydney University Renaissance Players, and the ANU Choral Society. She also conducted the ANU Choral Society and the Beijing International Choir. From 1984 onwards she was closely involved with music at St Philips Anglican Church in O'Connor, conducting the choir and playing the organ there.

A Thanksgiving Service for her life held at St Philips on 2 October included Chinese, Korean, Indonesian and Australian aboriginal music, as well as music of Bach, Mozart and Mendelssohn.

Coralie Rockwell is survived by her husband Michael Sawer, daughter Jenny Sawer, and stepdaughters Hilary and Harriet Sawer.

The Musicological Society of Australia's ACT Chapter has decided to commemorate Coralie by establishing the Coralie Rockwell Foundation to raise funds to purchase a gamelan for the School of Music and the ANU. For enquiries about this Fund please contact Ms Robyn Holmes at the School of Music on 2495750.

Original publication

Citation details

Michael Sawer, 'Rockwell, Coralie (1945–1991)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Sawer, Coralie
  • Sims, Coralie

10 February, 1945
Tamworth, New South Wales, Australia


29 September, 1991 (aged 46)
Woden, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.