Millie ‘Tubs Malone’ Featherstone: the best place in the house.

It was always going to be a challenging day, and by challenging I mean gutwrenching – after seventeen years of good living, Millie was to draw her final breath.

Being a black Labrador, she had been a most loyal and intelligent companion. At dawn every morning, I would hear the clip-cop of her paws on the floorboards as she came to say hello to me in bed. We walked together every day.

She loved going in the car, which was something I appreciated because living in regional New South Wales means I travel a lot; she would stand on the backseat and rest her head on my shoulder as I drove, as if she was pretending to be a pirate’s parrot. At the end of every day, she would sit beside me on the couch as I watched the news on TV or listened to music.

In her last two years, however, Millie had been suffering from arthritis, especially in her back legs. Despite excellent veterinary treatment, her daily walks had gone from ten-kilometre adventures up and down hills to a ten-minute stroll to the nearest street corner and back. A heat-wave had also knocked her around, to the point that she was panting all day.

One morning, on one of her strolls, she developed a bad limp; as I carried her home in my arms I knew the time had come.

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Keep reading at the Sydney Morning Herald, where the story was published on 26 June 2017. It was commissioned by the Tuggeranong Arts Centre in relation to the 2017 Empire Global Art Award. Correction to the attribution: I am a resident of the Southern Tablelands in New South Wales (not ‘the southern highlands’).

It was, to be frank, a day that felt both terrifically exciting and utterly terrifying. Like skydiving, perhaps, or climbing a cliff without ropes.

I am referring to the recent creative development day for Homesong, which, in the larger scheme of life’s trials, should have been a breeze. But the fact is I’m primarily a fiction writer, meaning most of what I do is private. I write in private, I read in private. Quite frequently I meet with other writers to talk about this thing we do, but those conversations are, in the main, private too. Ultimately the work is made public, but then it becomes a private experience for a reader. I’m simplifying, of course, because there might be reviews, public readings, festival appearances, and book-club attendance. But writing for the stage is a different kettle of fish: it’s a living and breathing three-dimensional human space. Hence the reference to terror.

So what happened?

Team in development: Paul Scott-Williams, James Humberstone, myself, and Antony Talia. Photo credit: The Street Theatre

The creative team – project initiator Paul Scott-Williams from the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium and composer James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and I – spent a day at The Street Theatre in Canberra. Under the guidance of the Street’s artistic director Caroline Stacey, the work was performed behind closed doors by pianist Alan Hicks and baritone Tristan Entwistle. Together with actor Antony Talia, the team then reflected on the work, teasing out areas that needed further development. Was this song sufficiently articulate? Was that word really the best for the purpose? How do we want the audience to respond? Were the themes clear? (Apologies for being a little vague about the actual story, but more of that in later posts.)

After making some minor adjustments and resolving technical issues (i.e. staging), the doors were opened to an audience of thirty brave souls who fortified themselves with a glass of wine and then watched the first public performance, before providing feedback, again under the guidance of Caroline.

Baritone Tristan Entwistle getting to know the score before the first public performance. Photo credit: The Street Theatre

For a fiction writer, whose idea of a good day is spent from dawn to dusk at home in tracksuit pants and ugg-boots talking with sparrows, this was a confronting experience. Reading and responding to a piece of fiction, especially something as long as a novel, involves a period of commitment – hours, if not days, maybe even weeks – and then, after the last page is turned, there is time for reflection before conclusions (if any) are reached. Not so with a live song-cycle: at the Homesong creative development, once the last word was sung and there was a moment for applause, the response came immediately. Despite still processing the work myself, it was fascinating to learn what resonated, what was clear and what was not, and to hear possible solutions.

Rather predictably, as soon as I was in my car and driving in the night away from the theatre, doubt reared its head. Was I the best librettist for this project? Was I even ‘a librettist’? Would I be able to process the feedback in a way that would benefit the project? But then I realised that, as opposed to traditional fiction (as it were), where I am responsible for every mark on the page, with a collaborative work such as a song-cycle there is a team, and every member of the team is required to take the project to the next stage.

Which is where we are at now.

There have been many frank and open (but always loving) email exchanges, and some generous colleagues who attended the creative development performance have sent me emails that described their experience of Homesong, which were most hopeful. While I won’t detail here the areas of the work that need to be addressed, it comes down to – and perhaps with any writing project this is inevitably the case – intent, precision, and impact on the audience. I would be lying if, despite my doubts, I told you that I am finding this next stage daunting. The guts of the work are present; it is about revealing more of the heart. And, thankfully, I am not alone in this task.

So, where’s my paper copy of the libretto and a red pen?

 

One minute, so it seems, I’m a spotty teenaged boy sitting on the living-room floor listening to records by Kate Bush and The Cure as well as, erm, the soundtrack to the BBC’s serialisation of Brideshead Revisited; the next I’m writing the libretto for an original song cycle initiated by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium of Music in collaboration with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Of course, a fair bit has happened to that spotty teenaged boy: various jobs that sounded interesting but never set my soul on fire; dipping my toe (and fingers) into the world of short stories before, miraculously, the better ones began appearing in Australian literary journals; three published novellas; a published novel; further tertiary study in the creative arts; as well as much living, including relationships and all the lovely/heartbreaking messiness of that. But the fact remains I never thought I’d be commissioned to be the librettist on an original song cycle.

The beginning: on the living-room floor and listening to a record.

In December 2014 Paul Scott-Williams, the director of the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, met with me in Canberra at an inner-city bar. In the garden courtyard, Paul said he had an idea to create an original song cycle. ‘Art song,’ he told me, ‘did not have much of an Australian tradition and I want to do something about that. And I want you to be the librettist.’ I thanked him for the offer but said that I wasn’t a poet, though I could put him in contact with some poets who’d be terrific for the project. But Paul would have none of my prevarication. He said that he’d recently read my third novella, The Beach Volcano, which concerns an Australian singer/song-writer trying to find himself in the world (and includes snippets of song lyrics). He also said that he knew I had a great love of music, which I do – music, as well as books, primarily novels, are what sustains me. ‘I really want you to be the librettist,’ said Paul, ‘and I want to engage James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium as the composer.’ Paul went on to say that he would sing the work. ‘I think the three of us would make a very good team.’

As I walked to the car I thought that it was lovely to be asked but I was not the right person. Then again, what scares us – creatively at least – is what we need to do…possibly. Needing advice, I spoke to an eminent Australian author who’d had some experience of being a librettist.

‘Just give it a go,’ she told me, ‘but remember that it has to be a three-way dance, between the words, the music, and the audience. You must leave room for all three.’

In a way, I never really made a decision; I just let the project roll on. Although I was largely unfamiliar with art song, I knew enough to be attracted to the minimalism of a work that centred on voice and piano only, and that across the breadth of a song cycle a story could be told, and that perhaps – just perhaps – collectively we could bring an Australian perspective to the form.

After the contractual side of things was sorted, I got town to work in early 2015. Two years earlier, in 2013, I had completed a three-month residency at UNSW Canberra, the campus of the Australian Defence Force Academy, where I had undertaken creative explorations into masculinity under extreme pressure, and I was still thinking about what masculinity (and femininity) actually meant. The then Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, had recently said that he would like to ‘shirt-front’ Russian president Vladimir Putin, which seemed to me to be a good example of what modern masculinity should not be about. Paul agreed and said that he was keen for me to continue with this line of inquiry.

I prepared three concepts: a multiple drowning incident during a family picnic; a soldier returning from war; and a contemporary take on Frederick McCubbin’s iconic painting The Lost Child (1886). Paul asked me to further explore in more detail the drowning and soldier stories, and then together we agreed that the latter had the greatest dramatic scope.

For weeks I immersed myself in my favourite poets – ee cummings, Philip Larkin, Dorothy Porter – as well as the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. I filled my head not so much with art-song but music by Nina Simone, Antony and the Johnsons, Ólafur Arnalds, Jóhann Jóhannsson, and Max Richter. And then I got down to work. Which was when the doubts came pounding on my temple. I read and enjoy poetry, and for a reason I’m yet to understand I am drawn to poets (perhaps it’s their fondness for giving the finger to conventional ways of living), but, no, I am not a poet. Some readers have said my fiction is quite poetic, one even going so far as to say that I am a poet who writes fiction, but that doesn’t make me a poet either. And in terms of music, I am more comfortable in my local independent music shop buying records by Four Tet and Kiasmos than in a concert hall.

Really, what could I bring to this project?

To convince myself that I should proceed, I wrote out a list of objectives:

  1. do this my fucking way
  2. find my own voice
  3. find my own form and structure
  4. ‘show us something new’
  5. be driven by the work

I now had an articulation of how I could keep going, but then I was struck by different concerns. How to create a story of truth and resonance about a modern-day soldier who was returning from a tour of duty? Was this my story to tell? I told myself that, mercifully, only a few Australians would know what it’s like to serve in a military capacity, but many people can empathise with coming home to find their dark secrets exposed. So now I had my themes: home and secrets and fear. I also decided that I would tell the story from three points of view: the soldier’s as well as his mother’s and father’s. Further, I would set the work on the Hume Highway, a stretch of road I’ve been getting to know for nearly five decades, as well as on the Southern Tablelands where I live. I would write from a position of love and interest. Ultimately, and reflecting what novelist/poet Merlinda Bobbis has said about these things, I could walk in the shoes of my main character and his parents, but I couldn’t own those shoes.

Scribbles: the start

At my desk in my little Goulburn house, I planned the work the way I plan a piece of fiction: I created characters and got into their history; I formed a story arc and then plotted where the key events would be – this process went back and forwards until I knew enough, but not too much. For each plot point I wrote additional notes and then – after some deep breathing and much staring out the window – I put pen to paper. Some of the songs came together relatively easily; others were like trying to unearth a granite boulder with my teeth. While the doubts remained, somewhat surprisingly I found myself having fun: this was exciting new territory, especially in terms of working with brevity and compression, and I enjoyed playing with the architecture of a piece of writing; I was keen to see where it all might go. As the initiator of the project Paul could end up hating what I had produced, and James might find it impossible to score, but all I could do was create a text that only I could create.

Once I had a complete though rough set of lyrics, I decided that I wanted feedback from a practicing poet. I approached Melinda Smith, who had won the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry for her magical collection Drag Down to Unlock or Place an Emergency Call (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013). In a noisy Canberra café Melinda went though which pieces of mine were working, which were wobbly (as evidenced by the amount of red ink she’d put on the page), and which ones could be jettisoned. While Melinda’s feedback was frank and constructive, she also said, ‘Nigel, you’re creating a work that’s going to have considerable emotional resonance with an audience. You’ve got this.’ Which was the best possible thing for someone to say at such an early stage of the work, especially from someone of Melinda’s stature.

After reworking every word of all thirteen songs, I gave the new draft to Paul.

And waited nervously for his response.

In a Goulburn pub, with some kind of sport being played on the television in the corner, Paul said, ‘I’ve got to tell you, I had a very strong emotional reaction when I first read your work.’ I could only hope that was a good thing.

The score in development by James Humberstone

James spent much of 2015 progressing the score, feeding through to us sketches as he developed them. He specialises in experimental new music and although my role isn’t so much to engage in the musical composition I  enjoyed what he was producing. James was investing in the work a high degree of artistic intelligence, and even at an early stage it was coming across to my ears as intricate and very moving.

Some tantalisingly brief extracts from James’s score are available here.

The three of us met a number of times during that year, at the Sydney Conservatorium and at the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium. At one stage James said to me, ‘How precious are you with the libretto?’ I said, ‘I see this as a collaboration so do whatever you need to do with it.’ He said, ‘That’s a relief. Some librettists won’t allow even a single comma to be changed.’ I was glad to have had the advice from the eminent author, that there needed to be a dance between the text and the music and the audience. How could that dance happen if there isn’t some kind of give and taken between the components of the work?

Creative development, December 2016, Paul Scott-Williams and Alan Hicks. (Photo courtesy of James Humberstone)

In 2016 Caroline Stacey, the Artistic Director of The Street Theatre in Canberra, took a keen interest in the project, and in December we had our first creative development – the work, at least as much of it as had been completed, was performed in a rehearsal space. I was eager for feedback, but I was also completely terrified. How would my words sound when sung? When there is nothing but piano and voice there isn’t much to hide behind. Would there be emotion and intimacy? Or would the whole thing come across as artifice? As each song was played it felt as if someone was projecting on the wall images of my naked body. Unsurprisingly, Paul sang the work beautifully and with considerable power (though he would soon decide that it would be best to engage another singer to take the work to public performance). By the end of the creative development, James and I knew what needed to be improved, and Caroline suggested that we undertake another creative development before the work was premiered.

Which is where we are at now.

On Thursday 1 June, again at The Street Theatre in Canberra, and through the First Seen program, we will do a second creative development; at 5pm there will be a public showing of the full work – the audience will be asked to provide feedback. If you live in the ACT region you are most welcome to come along. More information here. A Canberra Times article published on 12 May can be found here. You will find me in the corner, curled into a ball and wishing I was still that kid in the living-room and listening to Kate Bush’s ‘Running up that Hill’ on repeat.

I still have doubts about the work. Perhaps, back in December 2014, I should have done more to convince Paul to engage another librettist – an actual poet. While I have given the text my all, reworking, revising, polishing, over and over and over and over, I just don’t know how audiences will respond. Will there be an enticing, enthralling dance between the words and the music? Will the story be emotionally textured, or will it come across as a bald polemic? Have we made a contribution to art song in Australia? Was that ever possible?

I should say that doubting my ability is not new; after 20 years of practice, I doubt my ability no matter what the form. For example, despite having 50 short stories published in Australian literary journals, I seriously and genuinely feel as if I barely understand what makes a short story come to life.

Perhaps all this comes down to expectations. When I’m thinking pragmatically, I tell myself that I’ve had a certain amount of time to give to Homesong, and I’ve invested in it as much skill and heart and soul as I can. Soon it will be public and I will have to let go.

What is this work about? Home and secrets and fear.

It’s all that, and more. I hope.

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I’ve decided that I will keep writing about Homesong as the project comes to fruition, so if you’re interested in knowing more, including opportunities to see and hear the work, do drop in again.

 

 

 

It’s almost become part of an author’s job description, hasn’t it: finish the year writing about favourite books. To be sure, it’s an odd ritual – who cares what one author thinks of another author’s work? In a way, we don’t care, or at least shouldn’t. But there is one good thing that can come from a post like this: more books might be bought and read; lives might even be changed. So with that rather lofty (even outrageous) ambition down on the page, here’s my list of memorable reads from the last twelve months. Needless to say, this is not a definitive list, and if I wrote it tomorrow the books would probably be different.

solar-bonesOne of the novels I have been doing a lot of talking – and thinking – about this year is Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press). In a text that has very little punctuation (certainly no full stops) and frequently slips between prose and poetry, McCormack records a dead man’s reflections. Although not short on philosophical meanderings, Solar Bones is a deeply human novel, and often very funny. Unique and extraordinary.

Another utterly original novel is Locust Girl – A Lovesong by multi-lingual Australian novelist and poet Merlinda Bobis (Spinifex Press). Quoting from the blurb: ‘Most everything has dried up: water, the womb, even the love among lovers. Hunger is rife, except across the border. One night, a village is bombed after its men attempt to cross the border. Nine-year-old Amedea is buried underground and sleeps to survive. Ten years later, she wakes with a locust embedded in her brow.’ Exploring issues of climate change and migration (among others), Locust Girl is a most deserving winner of the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Here’s hoping someone has popped this novel in Peter Dutton’s Christmas stocking.

Speaking of climate-change fiction, or ‘cli-fi’, I also enjoyed Jane Abbott’s Watershed (Vintage) though when I say ‘enjoy’ I should clarify. This is a harrowing novel about a hellish world: due to near-total climate collapse, society is in ruins; bad things happen to good people and despicable people get away with murder – literally. Watershed is not an easy read, but it is an important one; in a way it provides an interesting contrast to James Bradley’s Clade. There is no doubt that Abbott had a very clear vision for what she wanted to do with Watershed, and she achieved that vision artfully. Unforgettable. (My Verity La interview with Jane Abbott can be found here.)

glasshousesFour poetry collections impressed, including Michele Seminara’s Engraft (Island Press), Cassandra Atherton’s Trace (Finlay Lloyd; my review here), Andrew McMillian’s Physical (Cape Poetry), and Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes (UQP), which was the winner of the 2015 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. All four collections mix inventiveness with accessibility, the latter especially so.

the-hate-raceNon-fiction works that I found particularly memorable include Lasseter’s Gold by Warren Brown (Hachette), which tracks one of the most bizarre episodes in Australian history, Karen Middleton’s Albanese – Telling it Straight (Vintage), which is a surprisingly poignant documenting of one of Australia’s most prominent – and potentially most principled – politicians, and Maxine Benebe Clarke’s The Hate Race (Hachette), which I found both highly readable and distressing. Lucy Palmer’s grief memoir A Bird on my Shoulder (Allen & Unwin) was also terribly affecting. Read together, these works show that while Australia may well be the lucky country (whatever that is), we’re also a people who are capable of being so much better, especially in the way we treat those considered different or other.

the-writers-roomIn terms of writing practice, two books deserve a mention. The first is The Writer’s Room (Allen & Unwin), which is a collection of interviews with prominent Australian novelists by Charlotte Wood, a prominent novelist herself. Reminiscent of the long-form interviews published in The Paris Review, The Writer’s Room provides a fascinating insight into how novelists work. From a personal perspective, it’s always refreshing to hear that for most writers the making of fiction is an extraordinarily beautiful (though sometimes – often? – frustrating) mystery. I also thoroughly enjoyed Under Cover – Adventures in the Art of Editing by Craig Munro (Scribe). This is a colourful and entertaining memoir of Munro’s time as a publisher and editor at UQP, one of Australia’s most feisty presses.

Before I go, some other works of fiction I really liked this year are Inexperience and Other Stories by Anthony Macris (UWAP; my interview with Macris can be found here), Wolf Wolf by Eben Venter (Scribe), which is a disturbing but moving account of life (especially gay life) in contemporary South Africa. Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World (Hachette) and Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek (Picador) also resonated, particularly in the way both novels deal with the migrant experience and the beauty and challenges of the Australian continent.

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A suggestion: by all means order online, but – if you can – do support your local bookstore. We all know that physical books bought in a bricks-and-mortar store are more valuable.

As I say every year (every day, more like), I would be lost without music: it’s my oxygen, my water, my heart-beat. There is no point comparing it to reading or writing – literature is a whole other world – but music certainly forms an aesthetic space that I adore. As I’ll touch on below, my taste is evolving, as it should; I seem to be searching for beauty more than ever. But, in the main, it’s not a pretty kind of beauty. There has to be light and shadow, darkness even, and edginess, even ugliness. In short the music needs to express the full range of human experience. Sheesh, as if that’s even possible. Thankfully, composers, songwriters and musicians are up for the challenge.

Anyway, enough rambling. Here we go.

puberty-2Mitski is a conservatorium-trained alternative rock musician from New York and, quite frankly, Puberty 2 is one of the most enjoyable records I’ve bought in a long while, though it’s oddly difficult to describe. Here are a few words that may help: low-fi, angular, gutsy, poetic, PJ Harvey-esque, a touch of Weezer, and melancholic (of course). This is certainly a record to turn up loud so you can air-guitar to the knowledge that love is sublime, fraught, messy, and infuriating. ‘Your Best American Girl’ is an almost orgasmic rush of alt-rock goodness. Also have a listen to ‘My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars’. Tough, but highly memorable.

Centres by Ian William Craig got me on first listen and it has not let me go. It’s such an elegant mix of keyboard washes and drones, topped with loads of treated voice (Craig is a trained singer). All up, it’s a little like M83, but without the cheesy 1980s pastiche. Album opener ‘Contain’ is the perfect place to start. Great that the album finishes with an acoustic version of the opening track, proving that despite all the studio-trickery there are real songs at the heart of this work.

kiasmosKiasmos by Kiasmos: even though this album dates from 2014 and I’ve long been a fan of Ólafur Arnalds, I only discovered this in the last few months; I knew immediately that it would be one of my favourites of the year. Kiasmos is intricate, smart, thumping, and – that word again – beautiful. If excellent dance music moves the head, the heart, the crotch, and the legs, this album is beyond excellent. A stunning collaboration between Arnolds as composer and Janus Rasmussen as DJ. Here’s hoping they are working on another record, because I must admit: I can’t play Kiasmos without turning out the lights and dancing like no one’s watching.

In my list for last year I briefly mentioned that I had discovered Floating Points and liked what I’d heard. Well, didn’t things go gangbusters from there. Floating Points is essentially one person, Sam Shepherd (another conservatorium-trained composer), and his Elaenia album is as near-perfect as you’re going to get. A little glitchy, oddly funky, more than a bit jazz-inflected, on paper this album is a contradiction, but once you connect with it you’ll find yourself drifting into a galaxy where heartbeats pulse and surprise and, yes, float.

It’s hardly startling, but as I get a bit long in the tooth I’m interested less in alternative rock (Mitski being an exception) and more interested in ‘new music’, especially the sort at the minimal – and, dare I say it, left-field – end of the spectrum. Dmitry Evgrafov’s Collage album is gorgeous, even pretty (that terrible word), but always keen on strange twists and turns. ‘Cries and Whispers’ is reminiscent of the The Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble , while other pieces are washed in Sigur Ros-like aesthetics. Evgrafov is certainly a new composer to watch.

chopin-projectSpeaking of composers to watch, Ólafur Arnalds is everywhere at the moment, including further up in this list as one half of Kiasmos. On The Chopin Project, he collaborates with Alice Sara Ott on the recomposition of the famous composer’s work. As Arnalds says in the lines notes, ‘By looking at his music in a different way, through the prism of recording technique in its different facets and through my own compositions, I didn’t intent to question the integrity of Chopin’s music. I wanted to find my very personal interpretation, like so many other great musicians have done before me.’ A subtle, wonderful success.

Dag Rosenquist’s Elephant is at times an unsettling listen: there’s a fair amount of static, a lot of repetitive piano tinkling, and, every so often, blasts of sheer noise. But there’s also plenty of beauty to be found, as well as some artful orchestration. ‘Come Silence’ is the most accessible piece here – it’s a gorgeous combination of slow-building keyboards and horns and then strings, before a Jan Garbarek-like saxophone brings us home. Stunning.

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