You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2017.

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.

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