A laneway in Alexandria, Egypt; photograph dated 1941. Source: Australian War Memorial.

I’m not sure why I haven’t mentioned it.

Of course, I have mentioned it, on social media and sometimes in person, and there is also a reference to it in my bio on the About page, but there’s no post. Which I am fixing now.

The point is, in the first half of 2019, my novel BODIES OF MEN will be published by Hachette Australia.

Which is really very thrilling.

What’s a little odd, though, is that I currently don’t want to talk much about it, except to say half a dozen quick things.

The first is that the novel began when, in 2013, I spent three months as a writer-in-residence at UNSW Canberra, which provides the campus for the Australian Defence Force Academy. During the residency I researched different expressions of masculinity under military pressure; I left the residency with the scratchy, sketchy handwritten first draft of a manuscript. (I recorded some thoughts on the residency experience in The ADFA Diary section of this blog).

The second thing is, yes, BODIES OF MEN is a war story, but my intention has been to shine a light on a previously hidden (or unwanted) war experience, to tell a story that is as much about love and intimacy as it is about what happens when men have guns in their hands.

The third is that most of the story takes place in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1941.

The fourth is that I wrote 38 drafts of the manuscript.

The fifth is that towards the end of the drafting process I collapsed. But more about that at a later date.

The editing begins – for real.

And the sixth is that earlier this week, which was complete with high family dramas and financial pressures and crap weather (wind and freezing rain and snow in the countryside and mountains down south, so the opposite of Egypt), the astute, caring, and eagle-eyed editorial team at Hachette Australia sent me their edit of the manuscript – and a blue sky opened in my heart and everything feels better.

I have one month to review the editorial suggestions and get an updated version of the manuscript back to Hachette. If you see me looking frazzled again, please administer whiskey and chocolate.

Sincere apologies for not telling you more about the actual story in BODIES OF MEN, but I am so looking forward to sharing it with you.

For now, I’ll leave you with a quote from a diary of an Australian serviceman who served in the Middle East in 1941; the diary is in the Australian War Memorial:

Be yourself: simple, honest, unpretending.

‘Self-Portrait’ by Myuran Sukumaran (2015, detail)

The closer it got, the more agitated I became.

Back in February this year the Tuggeranong Arts Centre in Canberra invited me to participate in The Final Hours, a day-long, vigil-like residency to be held in conjunction with Another Day in Paradise, the exhibition of paintings by Myuran Sukumaran, an Australian man convicted for drug-trafficking and sentenced by the Indonesian government to be killed by firing squad. (Another Day in Paradise was first presented, in 2017, at the Campbelltown Arts Centre.) I’ve been a long-time opponent of the death penalty and had followed the story of ‘The Bali Nine’, as did most Australians, so I said yes to the Tuggeranong Arts Centre’s invitation, but decided that I would collaborate with Pete Lyon, a singer-songwriter and good friend – no doubt I didn’t want to do this alone.

In the weeks before The Final Hours, Pete and I met twice. At our first meeting, we talked about our approach – we decided that it might be best to simply see what happened on the day and when surrounded by Myuran’s art work. At our second meeting, we sat down with Pete’s proposed equipment set-up to confirm what we’d take with us (it had to fit in the back of a small car); this discussion also included making notes on the preliminary themes or ideas we might explore, such as raw, authentic, reflective, compassionate, hope, and the possibility and redemption of change.

While our proposal was for Pete to write the music and I would write the lyrics, we had also indicated that I might try and write some of the music, which is a bit like asking a dog to be a cat. Not wanting to make a fool of myself – the gallery would be open to the public – I practiced a set of very basic guitar chords as well as some scales and notes on the piano in my house, the piano I used to play by ear as a teenager. While I adore music, my musicianship is extremely limited; Pete has spent the majority of his life writing, performing, and recording.

But when in doubt (which is almost always the case), just jump in, hey?

After all, that was my approach to THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, a song cycle I wrote with composer James Humberstone, which has gone on to become something much bigger than either of us and is still being performed.

In the gallery and to work. Image courtesy of the Tuggeranong Arts Centre

The day came for The Final Hours to commence and by 8am Pete and I had set up the gear in the gallery. It was time to get down to work. We chose the nearest series of paintings, titled ‘Prison Life’, plucked out some notes on guitar and keyboard (one of which was another instrument from my childhood but ended up in Pete’s hands); meanwhile I banged together some lyrics – we practiced the song once, then pressed the record button on the laptop. We chose another painting, selected some more notes and lyrics, and pressed record again.

Until, rather miraculously, we had five demos, or sketches.

Done, for now

It was intense, of course, and gut-wrenching – Myuran’s work is powerful, unapologetic, intellectually and emotionally open, and confronting for those of us lucky enough to have to do nothing more than engage, reflect, and respond. However, the experience was also surprisingly uplifting, even joyful: the human spirit, even when extinguished, is a mighty beast. But also because Pete and I have known each other for thirty years; back in the late 1980s we used to live in a Canberra share-house together and mucked around with guitars in the living-room, eventually recording some songs together but never releasing or performing them. I threw myself headlong into literature, and Pete found collaborators who could actually play their instruments and sing a note. But there we were, on 29 April 2018, sitting in a corner of a gallery, passing guitars between us, pressing keys and buttons, creating music.

What happens now? Both of us are committed to developing the songs as much as we can, eventually making them available by the end of the year on a platform yet to be decided. Right now we are not sure how the development process will unfold, or what the final outcome will be, but we very much would love to share the experience given to us by Myuran Sukumaran and the Tuggeranong Arts Centre.

Orang ini tak akan terlupakan.

A short diary entry today.

What’s been happening with THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT? Quite honestly, the creative team has been taking a bit of a break; well, from this project anyway. Not for any reason other than we spent four years working on this song cycle, and getting it ready for the stage was an extraordinary build-up of months and weeks and days and hours and minutes, and then to experience the audience reaction and read the reviews – it was exhilarating, but also exhausting. And utterly wonderful.

A central online place for THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT

Only two real developments.

Firstly, thanks to the technical wizardry of James Humberstone, who not only creates such beautiful and haunting music can build websites, we now have an online depository for THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT.

Secondly the next performance is confirmed, which should read performances, both on Friday 27 July, at 1pm and 7.30pm, at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. We’re thrilled that the performers will be the same: baritone Michael Lampard as ‘the soldier’ with Alan Hicks as accompanist.

If you happen to be in or near Sydney on 27 July, it’d be terrific to see you.

Baritone Michael Lampard performing the role of the soldier in THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT at The Street Theatre in Canberra. (Image credit: The Street Theatre)

Holy moley, what a ride.

The first three WEIGHT OF LIGHT shows – two in Canberra and one in Goulburn – have happened and it’s hard to put into words how it felt, and how it continues to feel.

It’s amazing (such a weak word in this instance) to have the work performed by such fine artists as baritone Michael Lampard and accompanist Alan Hicks. It’s also been fantastic – an education, really – to be able to observe what goes into staging a work professionally, and a part of that has been spending time with the show’s tireless director Caroline Stacey, set-designer Imogen Keen, lighting designer Linda Buck, and stage-manager Anni Wawrzynczak. Then there is the sheer thrill (and almost overwhelming nerves) of opening night and the relief that comes from seeing an audience demand two curtain-calls from the performers. And then there’s the energy of the foyer afterwards, as punters talk about the show over a glass or seven of wine. As I’ve mentioned before, writing for the page is such a slow-burn of a process; writing for the stage offers immediacy, in every way.

Last weekend saw THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT head to Goulburn, where it was performed in an intimate and atmospheric space to an incredibly enthusiastic audience at the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, the organisation that bravely commissioned the work. Not only did Michael and Alan yet again perform spectacularly, it was wonderful to see the show come across so very well in a smaller venue.

In the lead-up to the shows, there was a wide range of media, including:

It’s pleasing to report that there have been a number of wonderful reviews, with the following the crux of it:

Accompanist Alan Hicks performing in THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT at The Street Theatre in Canberra. (Image credit: The Street Theatre)

‘THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT is a gem of a piece, combining the performance rhythms of a song cycle with the force of theatre. Much of its power comes from the delicate way the combination of Nigel Featherstone’s spare text and James Humberstone’s dark and carefully mournful music touches on issues of masculinity and trauma. Michael Lampard finds even the smallest scrap of light and uses it to the advantage of the performance. THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT will certainly have a life beyond the two Canberra performances’ – The Canberra Times

‘THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT is a richly crafted production with universal themes of grief, despair, hope and fear’ – Australian Stage

‘Seamless, exquisite, mesmeric poetry of text, music, drama and the conversation of light and shadow on a spare, evocative set that had me ‘falling / in my (own) chest / my guts / my legs / my head’, but then carried me as I fell, lifted me until I became the weight of light’ – award-winning author, poet and performer Merlinda Bobis

‘An enthralling visual and aural experience’ – Australian Arts Review

‘A beautiful show. The whole package – words, music, performance, set and lighting. Highly moving’ – Whispering Gums

‘Composer James Humberstone, librettist Nigel Featherstone, director Caroline Stacey, baritone Michael Lampard and pianist Alan Hicks have put together a dark and spellbinding tale of a soldier who has returned from his latest tour of Afghanistan. As they move through the songs, a sense of a person lost and wondering emanates through the music, the lyrics, and the strongly effective staging and lighting, all in a well thought-out story that is touching and dramatic in every aspect. What this song cycle shows is that if there is anything good to come out of war, it is the beauty of creations such as THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT’ – Canberra City News

‘A truly stunning piece of work. Bravo’ – Sydney Voice Project

Baritone Michael Lampard and accompanist Alan Hicks. performing together in THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT (Image credit: The Street Theatre)

So, enormous – let’s say endless – gratitude from me to every single person who came to the shows, to those who shared their thoughts (and tears) in the foyers, to those who wrote me an email or sent a text message or shared their response on social media. It’s meant the world to me.

What’s next?

A breather for all, before THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT hits Sydney on Friday 27 July at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. It’s also pleasing to announce that composer extraordinaire James Humberstone has secured a deal for the work to be professionally recorded and released physically and digitally.

Oh yes, what a ride.

An excerpt from the libretto; art work by Katy Mutton.

Yes, it’s true: it’s show-time week.

That sound you can hear? My knees shaking. Pretty sure my ribs are rattling too.

After four years of wrestling 1400 words into 14 songs, The Weight of Light will have it moment in the sun this weekend and next. It has been such an amazing – daunting at times, but ultimately highly rewarding – experience, and here we are and I’m feeling incredibly grateful. Grateful to have this opportunity to write for performance, which, as I’ve noted before, is a new and different way of working for me. Grateful to be able to bring together three things I adore: words, story, and music. And grateful because it takes a team of skilled and extremely committed people to bring a work like this in front of an audience.

Recent adventures in media-land can be found in the Sydney Morning Herald, Resonate (the magazine of the Australian Music Centre), and the Canberra City News.

There are only three performances: 7.30pm on Saturday 3 March and 4pm on Sunday 4 March at The Street Theatre in Canberra; and 7.30pm on Saturday 10 March at the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium.

Tickets can be purchased here.

What is the show about?

Having completed his latest tour of Afghanistan, an Australian soldier is on leave and taking the opportunity to return to his family’s farm in regional New South Wales – he is looking forward to resting. However, as he makes his way home he is confronted by news that is both life-affirming and devastating, which pushes him to reveal a dark secret that clings like a ghost. Ultimately he must question everything he knows. What sort of man is he? What does it mean to be brave? And what future might be waiting for his family?

Who are the key artists in the show?

Michael Lampard rehearsing at The Street Theatre, February 2018 (Image: James Humberstone)

Baritone Michael Lampard will be playing ‘the soldier’. Born in Hobart, Michael has performed widely across Australia, Europe, UK, USA and Asia in operas, oratorios and many recitals. Competition success includes being an award-winning finalist in the Australian Singing Competition (2006 & 2008), being a Quarter Finalist in Placido Domingo’s Operalia in Paris (2007), placing third in the 2013 RMP Aria in Melbourne and winning the 2015 Melbourne Welsh Male Choir ‘Singer of the Year’ competition. Aside from his singing activities, Michael is also an experienced composer, conductor, chorus-master and voice teacher having taught privately and at the University of Tasmania. Since relocating to Melbourne in 2013 he has quickly established himself as one of Australia’s most exciting young operatic baritones. He has recently worked with Victorian Opera, Lyric Opera of Melbourne, Emotionworks, Melbourne Opera, CitiOpera, the Forest Collective, Camberwell Chorale, Victorian Youth Symphony Orchestra and as a chorister for Opera Australia. With the pianist Rhodri Clarke, Michael established the Zenith ensemble, a recital duo that have performed critically acclaimed recitals at the Melbourne Recital Centre, for 3MBS (Winterreise as part of the 2014 Schubert Marathon) and for many societies and organizations around Melbourne and Tasmania. He is establishing himself as a leading interpreter of new art music, commissioning and performing the premieres of many works by Australian and international composers.

Alan Hicks rehearsing the bowing technique required by the score (Image: James Humberstone)

Accompanist Alan Hicks is one of Australia’s foremost vocal coaches and accompanists. As Head of Voice at the ANU School of Music (2008-2012) he developed an exciting and innovative programme which provided voice students with high-level performance opportunities at embassies and consular venues throughout Canberra (in collaboration with the Friends of Opera), at Wesley Music Centre through the Wesley Music Scholarships and the Wednesday Lunchtime Live series, at the Street Theatre in fully staged operatic productions and at the Canberra International Music Festival. In April 2012 his students appeared in three of the five ABC Sunday Live concerts broadcast from Canberra. Alan is in demand as a recitalist with national and international artists. He performs in duo partnerships with Geoffrey Lancaster (Canberra International Music Festival 2009-2012) and Alan Vivian (Clarinet Ballistix and ABC Sunday Live). At the 2011 Australian Flute Festival he gave recitals with Aldo Baerten (Belgium), Jane Rutter (Aus) and Luca Manghi (Italy/NZ). Alan has appeared with his wife, mezzosoprano Christina Wilson, in Europe and Australia, performing regularly for the Canberra International Music Festival and on ABC Classic FM. Alan is a graduate of the Newcastle Conservatorium of Music and of the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, UK.

Composer James Humberstone during the creative development sessions at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, December 2017 (Image: Ryley Gillen)

Of course, there is also The Weight of Light’s composer, James Humberstone. James’s output is influenced by his research background in experimental music, and his interest in composing for children and community ensembles. Born in London, Humberstone migrated to Australia in 1997 after completing a degree in composition at the University of Exeter. His honours thesis was on the music of Howard Skempton, with whom Humberstone studied briefly after graduating. Humberstone has often cited Skempton as his greatest influence. By combining postgraduate studies in composition and experimental music with education qualifications and an 11-year residency at Sydney’s MLC School, Humberstone developed an approach to combining new and challenging music for children with a pedagogical approach, and continued to extend his experimental research and practice. He also combined knowledge about technology gained through nearly a decade at Sibelius Software with his compositional and education experience, and has become a leading authority in this field, publishing and regularly speaking at conferences internationally. In 2013 Humberstone completed his PhD and joined the faculty at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where he remains as a tenured senior lecturer. Today he works in the fields of composition, music education and technology research, as well as experimental music.

Director Caroline Stacey (Image courtesty of Canberra City News)

Last but by no means least, the director of The Weight of Light is Caroline Stacey. Caroline is currently Artistic Director/CEO of The Street Theatre, Canberra’s creative hub for professional and independent artists. In 2012 Caroline received the Canberra Artist of the Year Award for her outstanding contribution to theatre and the performing arts. Other awards include: ACT International Women’s Day Award for her contribution to the performing arts in the ACT (2011), ABAF Margaret Lawrence Bequest Scholarship (2010), and the MEAA ACT Green Room Award for leadership in the cultural sector (2009). Caroline has a Master of Theatre Arts and BA in Sociology and English. Caroline has been nominated for Green Room Awards many times (including MO’s Madame Butterfly) and is the recipient of Canberra Critics Circle and Victorian Music Theatre Awards. Other creative roles include:  Artistic Director Castlemaine State Festival, VIC; Artistic Director Melba Festival; lecturer VCA Opera School; Cultural Planning and Development Manager Knox City Council; National Artistic Directorate member of ChamberMade; board member Rotary Puccini Foundation Awards, and Artistic Director of Outback Youth Theatre, NSW. Caroline has an extensive career as a stage director of theatre and opera. Opera/music theatre credits include: Love & the Art of War (Sydney Opera House), L’Orfeo (Queensland Music Festival), Pimpinone (West Australian Opera); The English Eccentrics, L’enfant et les sortilèges (Melbourne Festival); Lakme (Canterbury Opera); Madame Butterfly, The Magic Flute (Melbourne Opera); Medea (Adelaide Symphony Orchestra); The Tender Land, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Albert Herring, Nelson (Operalive); The Happy Prince (Victorian Opera), Rusalka, L’amour des Trois Oranges (VCA), Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Dido and Aeneas, Medea, The Jade Harp, The Six Memos, Albert Herring, and From a Black Sky (The Street).

So that’s the calibre of a team that’s required to bring a song cycle to the stage. Extraordinary, don’t you think?

It would be terrific to see you at one of the shows.

Now, to the bath with a glass of whiskey…

Shit’s just got real.

Those were the words from the commissioner of The Weight of Light, Paul Scott-Williams, after I tweeted a picture of the poster for the show (below).

Last Friday afternoon I had dropped into the Street Theatre in Canberra to chat with the show’s director, and there it was, the poster, beaming beautifully from the entrance. Needless to say, I was gobsmacked: not only is the poster exquisite – the art work is by Australian visual artist Katy Mutton – but, to be frank, I never thought I would have the opportunity to write for performance. Or have a full-sized poster outside a theatre…in the national capital.

But here we are. And it’s wonderful.

A thing of beauty, and nerves, and excitement.

As I’ve written before, The Weight of Light has been in development since late 2013, when Paul, the director of the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, and I had a coffee in Canberra; he wanted a contemporary song-cycle that would be relevant to current social concerns. We chose masculinity (these days that word would be preceded by ‘toxic’) as the core theme, though it’s also about war, home, and healing – and the show is not without love, too.

The story involves an Australian soldier who has come home from another tour in Afghanistan: he has a dark secret, but, as he soon finds out, so does his family. The music has been composed by James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium, is being directed by Caroline Stacey from the Street Theatre in Canberra, and will be performed by Melbourne-based baritone Michael Lampard and Alan Hicks, one of Australia’s foremost accompanists.

We go into a two-week rehearsal stage starting on 19 December. Yikes.

A short video of the creative development sessions we held in December at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music can be found here. (It includes footage of me laughing, possible in all the wrong places.) A brief Q&A with yours truly can be found here; I talk a little about what it is like to work on a collaborative project, and provide some insights into how James and I developed the songs. Also, a short piece about the making of The Weight of Light that I wrote for Resonate, the magazine of the Australian Music Centre, can be found here.

What does all this feel like?

Preliminary staging ideas by Imogen Keen and Caroline Stacey, from the Street Theatre in Canberra

Exciting. Terrifying. Exposing.

Especially when Caroline showed me the drawings (above) for the staging – it really does feel as though the show is becoming ‘real’.

If you’re in the ACT region in early March, it would be really great to see you at one of the performances!

This year has been a wild ride in so many ways (more about that at a later date) and, as usual, reading has provided solace, sustenance, challenge, and adventure. I’ve reached the point where I’d like to be given home-detention so all I can do is read; being given home-library detention would be even better. For what it’s worth – very little, most likely – the following are the books that got beneath my skin this year. Needless to say, if I made the list tomorrow, it would probably be different. In any case, here goes.

Position Doubtful: mapping landscape and memory by Kim Mahood (Scribe) is a fearlessly articulate – and appropriately dry-eyed – love-letter to the Australian desert, in particular the Tanimi. So very skillfully Mahood takes us through her decades-long experience of that part of the world, slowly revealing what to many (most?) will always be a place of both mystery and spirit. Threaded throughout are observations about friendship and the search for home. Sublime.

Despite, or because of, my advancing years, I very much enjoyed No Way! Okay Fine by Brodie Lancaster (Hachette). Sub-titled ‘a memoir of pop culture, feminism and feelings’, Lancaster adroitly explores a range of challenging issues, such as body image, love in all its often messy and confusing guises, and the pleasures and power of pop music. Even though at heart I remain a skinny-black-jeans-wearing indy-music kid, I was genuinely moved by Lancaster’s adoration of pop-music stars such as One Direction, Kanye West, and Taylor Swift. Thoughtful and entertaining.

Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions (UWAP) won this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award and deservedly so. The story focuses on a man, a retired structural engineer, who has recently moved to a retirement village. It takes an enormous amount of skill to build narrative momentum out of such a constrained scenario, but gradually Wilson goes deeper and deeper into the man’s history and his family environment. What especially appeals is the humour, the knife-sharp prose, and the sheer ambition. A unique reading experience.

Speaking of unique reading experiences, in The Museum of Modern Love (Allen & Unwin) Heather Rose takes a similarly constrained premise – a group of people watching performance artist Marina Abramović sitting at a table and staring at the ‘sitter’ opposite – and crafting a story that does exactly what it says on the tin: explores many facets of what it’s like to love in this day and age. Ticking two other boxes for me, Rose’s 2017  Stella Prize-winning novel also delves into music and architecture. Very memorable. Side note: it’s been reported that it took Heather Rose seventy drafts to get the novel right. How’s that for tenacity.

Pushing uniqueness to the limit, George Saunders’ Man Booker-winning Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury) is all it’s cracked up to be. Like many readers, the first 30 pages almost had me tossing the novel into the nearest bin, but then something clicked and I was able to enjoy this fresh and eminently playful reading experience. What especially appealed to me was how the work busts out of all the known forms: in a way it’s a play, but it could also be a film-script, even a verse novel. It’s really quite extraordinary.

Staying with the playful, I’ve written previously about my admiration for Cassandra Atherton’s work. Exhumed (Grand Parade Poets) is another collection of prose poems that is such a delight it really is quite magical. Atherton’s work bounces from one word and phrase to another, without ever losing sight of the core idea in each piece. Do search it out and be delighted.

Back to more conventional storytelling, in To Become a Whale (Allen & Unwin), Ben Hobson tells a tale about a thirteen-year-old boy dealing with the loss of this mother and a father who is in all kinds of trouble. Setting much of the novel in the world of whale hunting (which, thankfully, in Australia is a thing of the past), Hobson explores masculinity in all its contradictions and strangeness. The prose is crystal-clear, and enveloping this rather sad story is a loving swell of emotion and humanity.

Being a resident of the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, I’m fortunate to live in one of the most peaceful parts of the world. Edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldma, in Kingdom of Olives and Ash: writers confront the occupation (HarperCollins), a diverse range of authors, from Geraldine Brooks to Colm Tóibín, experience what it’s like to live in Palestine under the occupation of Israel. Despite the variety of voices and the different writing forms, the conclusion is always the same: when one nation has a stranglehold on another, human beings are diminished. No doubt it is naïve, but one can only hope that this dire situation is resolved sooner rather than later – it certainly can’t be left to go on for another 50 years.

This year I also thoroughly enjoyed Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko (UQP), Wimmera by Mark Brandi (Hachette), and As the Lonely Fly by Sarah Dowse (For Pity Sake).

This feels like the first year during which I’ve found myself buying less new music and, instead, rediscovering albums from my past. Part of it, maybe, is being somewhat financially challenged and I’m investing more and more in reading. Part of it, maybe, is to do with changing – or evolving? – tastes: more and more I’m enjoying post-classical music (Ólafur Arnalds, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Dustin O’Halloran, among others) and that kind of music does warrant deep immersion. And, rather regrettably, this may be due to rapidly advancing years – I’m after beauty and contemplation these days. Still, I have bought some new records this year. The following are the highlights.

Everything Now by Arcade Fire – quite honestly, Arcade Fire are an interesting proposition: they are arguably the English-speaking world’s biggest alternative rock band (for want of a better term), but their work can be patchy; further, there can be a rather condescending tone in their songs, as though only they know exactly what’s wrong with the world and, apparently, it all comes down to consumerism and the internet. Some fans have dismissed ‘Everything Now’ due to the record straying too far from Arcade Fire’s core sound, but it’s silly to chastise a band for experimenting. The titular song is basically ‘Reflektor’ mashed with ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’, which, frankly, is no bad thing. However, the only other truly memorable track is ‘Put Your Money on Me’, which offers a delicious chord progression and lush shifts of gear. In between those two songs are a number of tunes that are throwaway , with only ‘Electric Blue’ offering any kind of reprieve. But I’m being harsh: overall the set is eminently listenable and it does expand the band’s impressive oeuvre. If only Everything Now didn’t come across as rather slight.

American Dream by LCD Soundsystem – this, for me, is the record of the year. In a word, it’s stunning. But it’s also dark, angry even (despite the latter half of the album sounding a little like a braver, less self-obsessed version of The Killers, which, no doubt, is a reference James Murphy would detest). It’s true that LCD Soundsystem having been mining their form of minimal riffing for years, and some of the songs don’t quite have the emotional pay-off they deserve, but for mine American Dream well and truly rises above all else I’ve heard this year. As opposed to Everything Now, there is not a single throw-away track here, and once again LCD Soundsystem appear to be inspired by Remain in Light by Talking Heads, one of the truly adventurous and astonishing records from the mid-1980s. But unmistakably American Dream comes out of Trump’s fucked-up version of America, hence the darkness and anger. If there’s one song that makes for an intriguing – though menacing – introduction to the album it would be ‘How Do You Sleep?

Three Worlds: Music for Woolf Works by Max Richter – this is a collaboration between prominent new-classical composer Max Richter and the Royal Ballet, and it explores the works of Virginia Woolf. There are three sections, each corresponding to three of Woolf’s novels: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. Overall Three Worlds is melodious, minimal, and accessible, even if the Orlando section does contain pieces that are more meanderingly atmospheric than musical. For sheer visceral power, the final piece, ‘The Waves’, almost rivals Arvo Pärt’s ‘Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten’. For a work that is essentially the soundtrack to a ballet, Three Worlds is a rich and rewarding listening experience. A good place to start might be ‘In the Garden’. Beyond Pärt, other influences are Michael Nyman and even The Knife.

Slowdive by Slowdive – it’s a tough ask for a once-revered band to disappear for twenty years and then return with a record that retains the core elements of their distinctive sound while being vital and relevant. Remarkably, that’s exactly what Slowdive have done with their self-titled album. Let’s be honest: being a band that was labelled ‘shoegaze’, that infamously introverted if not vacuous movement (if that’s the right term for it), Slowdive was always about mood; they never really had anything much to say, except, perhaps, that beauty can be found in walls of noise. Little has changed, although in this collection there is evidence of stronger song-writing – ‘Sugar for the Pill’ is a gorgeous pop song – and there’s an appealing diversity of sound and structure throughout; with its repeated but building piano motif, ‘Facing Ashes’ is almost epic. Slowdive have an avid (if not ageing) fan-base, and if you would like to know why, this latest record is a terrific place to start.

Specially commissioned art work by Katy Mutton

How lucky I am.

That’s what I keep thinking whenever I’m working on Homesong, or The Weight of Light as the song cycle is now known. Lucky because this is a project that brings together my two main creative loves: words and music. Lucky because it’s a project that has taken me well beyond what I usually consider my area of expertise. And lucky because I’m working with a team of incredibly skilled professionals.

So, what’s happened since the last Homesong Diary update?

Firstly, based on feedback from the creative development at The Street Theatre in June, which included responses from an invited audience, I did a lot of work on the libretto. I decided that the text would be more coherent if the story was told from one point of view with the present story told in present tense and the narrative elements that related to the past told in the past tense – this makes sense considering the entire story is told through the voice of one performer, a baritone. Also, when in doubt, go with simplicity! Then I spent some days examining the story in an almost clinical way: what was happening and when and why? Should some songs get the axe and new ones added? And what might be the most logical order of songs? Director Caroline Stacey and I then spent a few hours over coffee in Canberra going through the latest draft, eventually deciding that some elements of the libretto were clearer while some needed further refinement. And, yes, some songs got the axe and new ones were written.

Then the core team – project initiator Paul Scott-Williams from the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, composer James Humberstone, and myself – got together in Goulburn to investigate the latest version of the libretto, essentially to check in with each other to make sure we were happy with the direction in which the work was going. It was at this point that we settled on the title, which is not only a line from one of the songs, but also, we thought, references the contrast in the work’s themes and elements. I’m especially fond of the title, as it reflects the somewhat wild mood-swings of the light in the Southern Tablelands, where the story has been both written and set.

While James worked on revisions and additions to the score (a process that was challenged by my near-constant fussing with the words), The Street Theatre commissioned Canberra visual artist Katy Mutton to create an image that would be used to support the project’s publicity campaign. The work Katy produced, which is above, beautifully reflects the sense of failing masculinity that is explored in the song cycle; we’re absolutely thrilled.

As the story revolves around an Australian soldier who has served in Afganistan I wished to check some of my assumptions by having discussions with professional support personnel at Soldier On, an organisation whose mission is to work side by side with those who serve and protect Australia, and their families, helping them to secure their futures

Baritone Michael Lampard and accompanist Alan Hicks try out the songs in ‘The Weight of Light’

Finally, last week, the team, including Caroline and new baritone Michael Lampard, and accompanist Alan Hicks met at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music to spend two days exploring the new songs and also to do a full run-through to see how the work was coming along. It’s a buzz hearing my words come to life, but perhaps what I have been enjoying the most is working collaboratively. As I have said elsewhere I’m primarily a writer of fiction, which means I spend most of my time in my writing room dreaming up characters and narrative scenarios and crafting sentences; sometimes the resultant stories come to life and sometimes (often?) they don’t. At heart I am a recluse, and I enjoy spending the majority of each week alone. However, working with a team and collaborating with other artists opens up so many possibilities. Mutual respect, I think, is a key ingredient and this team has that in spades.

Overall, it was agreed in Sydney that The Weight of Light is starting to rise off the page, which is exactly what any writer wants to hear. As James has observed, this song cycle is an emotional ride, and, in parts, it’s difficult (after all it explores themes of nationalism, fear, masculinity and family dynamics under extreme pressure), but there are also moments of beauty. Paul Scott-Williams’ original proposal – indeed requirement – was to create a work that would make a contribution to art song in Australia. We’ve certainly taken some risks; some pianos won’t be the same afterwards! But we really won’t know if it is any good until it’s back in front of an audience…

Next stop?

The work will have its world premiere at The Street Theatre in Canberra on 3-4 March 2018 – tickets are already on sale. It will be premiered at the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium on 10 March. There is talk of a tour and a recording, which would be completely terrific if they came to fruition. If you’re around this neck of the woods it would be wonderful to see you at one of the performances.

For now, a few days’ rest is warranted, before rehearsals begin in February. I hope to spend some time on the couch, with a pile of novels, and a very large glass of wine.

 

So here’s a thing.

A few weeks ago James Humberstone, the composer I’m working with on the ‘Homesong’ song-cycle, sent me what he humbly described as a cheeky out-take of music. I loved it, so much so that I offered to write some words, perhaps about my thoughts on the current marriage-equality debates that’s going on in Australia. James immediately sent back a text: ‘Yes, let’s do it!’

The next day I wrote some words down on a scrap of paper and then put them on Twitter to see how people might respond. Thankfully, folk responded positively. James then set the words to music, asked Sydney-based vocalist Katie Salisbury to work up a melody, and then the song was mixed and mastered by Jordan Thomas Mitchell in LA. Last but not least, Tina Costessi from Red Gadget Films in Canberra created a wonderfully positive – and emotionally powerful – video.

Click on the above image to have a look and listen.

Why did we do this? Because all people, regardless of their sexuality, deserve to be recognised by the law, to move through the world with dignity, and to feel included. And because much of the political campaign is negative, destructive, and, in many cases, dishonest.

Plus we had a great deal of fun.

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