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

When I first met James Humberstone, over dinner in 2015, he looked like a guitarist in Radiohead: joggers, funky trousers, coloured T-shirt, and a cardigan that looked like something a soccer player would wear in the garden. With his English accent (he was born in London and migrated to Australia in 1997) and a brain full of opinions, which range from veganism to marriage equality, James is terrific company. In terms of music, I remember us that night chatting about Malcolm Williamson, the Australian composer who was also the Master of the Queen’s Music from 1975 until his death in 2003, but also the stratospheric English rock band Muse. James has an irreverent sense of humour, with political conservatives coming off second best.

With the Sydney shows for THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT just around the corner – Friday 27 July, to be precise – James and I had a chat about our influences, and, after all these years, what we think is at the core of our song cycle.

NIGEL

In terms of music, who inspires you?

JAMES

Howard Skempton (image credit: Clive Barda)

The biggest influence on my own composition has been Howard Skempton, the English post-experimental composer. I remember the first time I heard his Lento, at the age of 16, I was struck by a music that was timeless in more than one way. Timeless because it was obviously new, but seemed ancient, too. And timeless because structurally it felt like the piece didn’t go from A to B to C, but instead just occupied the time for which it lasted.

At university I was able to find more of his music, and loved it equally. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Howard’s music over 20 years ago and was lucky enough to study with him privately for a short time before migrating to Australia.

In Australia, the biggest influence on me has been Anne Boyd, who was my supervisor during my Masters in composition, but also influenced me through the study of her own work, as I engraved it as she wrote it over a few years, and as a friend. I knew I wanted to be an academic-composer early on, but it was Anne who made me sure of it.

Of course, I’m inspired by many other composers and performers. In the last decade I’ve drawn on so many of J S Bach’s ideas, which are still so radical even today. I think Beethoven was probably the greatest composer to live, and don’t ever try to emulate him. As a young teenage composer I was inspired by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Britten, and still often revisit their scores to see how they achieved the amazing sounds that they did, especially orchestrally. While I’d describe myself as a (post-)experimentalist (though if Cage didn’t like that label, why would I?), I’m one of the few who loves the music of both minimalists and the serialists/complexists. In fact, there isn’t much music that I don’t like, although to me the stuff that’s truly inspiring is the music you don’t ‘get’ the first time and hear new things in every time you listen.

I’ve listed traditional western art music composers there, but I must also say that last qualification applies to all of the genres I listen to. The greats include Radiohead and Björk, but there are many writing such interesting music in all fields now – I’m listening to hip-hop, punk and EDM just as much as I am to any art music composer. It’s a feast.

What about your musical inspirations?

NIGEL

My musical life started with Kate Bush and The Cure and has progressed (maybe?) from there. Bands that continue to resonate are The Smiths, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Red House Painters, Frightened Rabbit, and The Go! Team, as well as artists such as Nina Simone, PJ Harvey, Peaches, and DJ Shadow. I went through a huge dance-music stage – series by Global Underground and Renaissance – and I still enjoy the more intricate side of that kind of music e.g. Burial, Kiasmos, and Jon Hopkins. After getting into some wonderful post-rock – primarily Sigur Ros, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Explosions in the Sky – I’ve been immersing myself in more minimal music; I’ve always loved Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, and Arvo Pärt, but more recently I’ve been listening to Dustin O’Halloran, Jóhann Jóhannsson (rest his soul), and Max Richter – I love his re-scoring of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as well as Three Worlds, his score for a ballet based on the novels of Virginia Woolf. Nils Frahm’s All Melody is that newest album that I adore, as well as Singularity by Jon Hopkins.

I could go on…

Tell me about the literature that has interested you?

JAMES

I’m a complete lightweight, but not because I want to be. I have a job that involves reading thousands of words every day, and while I do find reading for research extremely pleasurable (I won’t say the same for marking university assignments, but they are an essential part of the education process, so I try not to complain), I have little energy left for reading for pleasure, so tend to read page-turners.

Margaret Atwood

Rather like my choice of films and TV series, my tired brain enjoys science fiction as Philip K Dick described it (anything where reality has changed a little bit – not necessarily with spaceships and laser guns!). I’m a huge Phillip Pullman fan, and really want his permission to create an opera trilogy of the Dark Materials books (I’ve asked; his agent says no), just reread Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale after the excellent new TV adaptation, and have been enjoying reading Tolkien and Rowling to my kids.

That may not sound very inspiring for a composer, but I should point out that when one works with words, as I have in my two largest recent projects, The Weight of Light and Odysseus: Live, I’m constantly inspired by the texts that I’m setting. One begins with the words, their emotion, their structure, their intent, the narrative, and everything is planned around that. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with some amazing writers, and have never had to set a ‘dud’ text yet. I imagine that it would result in a piece of music that wasn’t much cop, either.

Over to you: what’s the literature that inspires?

NIGEL

I love the Russans, especially Chekhov and Tolstoy. More often than not I’m stunned by JM Coetzee. Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx is one of the most extraordinary pieces of literature I know, as is Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave. Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and The Riders were an early influence, and I’ve also found much inspiration in Helen Garner, as well as Patrick White and Randolph Stow. Of course, there’s Hemingway – what a perfect piece of writing is The Old Man in the Sea. Other authors who regularly inspire are Aminatta Forna, Kazuo Ishiguro, Colm Tóibín, Evelyn Waugh, Michelle de Kretser, Alan Hollinghurst, Anne Enright, Evelyn Waugh, Christos Tsiolkas, and EM Forster. In terms of poetry, for me it’s Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, ee cumings, Philip Larkin, and Dorothy Porter. Recent novels that knocked me for a six: Solar Bones by Mike McCormack and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, both of which are thrillingly, bravely experimental – but with heart.

To finish, in terms of THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT I’ve been thinking that, at its core, the work is about the pressure nations put on individuals to do near impossible things, but the unpredictable chances we get to heal and make new.

What do you think the work is about at its core?

JAMES

Humanity, or the human spirit if you prefer, pulling us through.

Whether we live in Australia, where most of us live in the top levels of wealth in the whole world, or in poor countries where the majority struggle to survive, or in war zones, where it might not matter how wealthy or poor you are, but whether you can save your life and the lives of your family — we all have stories of adversity that we have survived. Most adults have lost someone very close to them. Many of us, even in this country, have struggled with questions of our identity or against forces and misassumptions out of our control. Perhaps just thinking back on those things is enough to make us cry, or break down again.

Yet most of us get up. And get on. And when we see someone who can’t, or at least not yet, we help them. Or, at least, the best of us do.

In THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT a series of devastating events shake our soldier to the core, all over one short weekend. He is down, he is down again, he is hurt, hurt, hurt, and breaking. Yet he gets up. We endure and express so much pain, but we get up. And when we can’t, we ‘cry out for help’, and hopefully our family and our friends are there for us. I hope in this Trumpian, post-Brexit, keep-out-the-boat-people time that we live in, that the tide might change, soon, as we remember our humanity and find a little more compassion and love for those around us – or far away – who are hurting.

Michael Lampard as The Soldier, at the world premiere of THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, Canberra, The Street Theatre, Canberra, 2018. (Image credit: Shelly Higgs)

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THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT: Friday 27 July 2018, 1pm and 7.30pm. Venue: Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Featuring Michael Lampard as The Soldier. Pianist: Alan Hicks. Direction: Caroline Stacey. Tickets ($25/$15) available here.

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THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium and developed by The Street Theatre in Canberra.

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.

Godspeed_You!_Black_Emperor_-_Allelujah!_Don't_Bend!_Ascend!In this day and age when there are machines all over the house demanding our attention and, perhaps worse, telling us what to do, it’s rare – or just fucking fantastic – when something comes along that truly reaches out and grabs you, yes, grabs you, around the neck, until all you can do is sit stunned on the couch, a candle or two lit, and you just stare into the near-darkness until you’re weeping, or you’re up on your feet and doing air-guitar in front of the French doors (the blackness on the other side adoring thousands, although in reality it’s just a crumbling old house in the night).  What is this something?  Godspeed you! Black Emperor’s new album, Allellujah! Don’t bend! Ascend!

Godspeed you! Black Emperor, or Godspeed, or GYBE, or, as they call themselves on this album, God’s Pee, is a Montreal-based collective that combines a wide range of instruments into what often amounts to a truly cacophonous climax of distorted and disturbing sound.  On Allellujah! Don’t bend!  Ascend!, their first record in ten years, members play guitars, drums, violins, cellos, dulcimers, something called a ‘portasound’, something called a ‘kemance’, vibraphones, marimbas, glockenspiels, even a hurdy-gurdy.  Think Sonic Youth mashed with a string-quartet mashed with a few blown-ins who will play whatever the hell they want to play, all of them in flannies and rip-torn jeans, bottles of vodka at their feed, and a hatred of rabid, rampant capitalism in their hearts.

I’ve been following the band since their extraordinarily epic Lift your skinny fists like antennas to heaven (2000), and then discovered their back catalogue, which was equally impressive.  Godspeed is a post-rock band, so it’s all patient ebbs and flows until building into near-out-of-control conclusions, resulting in general devastation all-round.  There’s no singing, though every so often there’s a field-recording of someone speaking, an unhinged street-poet, say, or a manic preacher.  The band is famous for not promoting themselves – for example, there’s barely a mention of this latest album on the band’s website – and they’ve only rarely allowed their music to be used in films.  This is not easy-listening music, nor is it summer music, which makes it even more miraculous that I just can’t turn this latest bloody album off.

To give you an idea of the terrain we’re in, Godspeed offer us a blurry photo of an abandoned farm-house on the cover and on the back are the following words: ‘WRECK’D US OUR COUNTRIE’S AMOK/TORN THRU/WITH BIRDS THEE SKY’S A BRUIS’D UNRECKONING/THEE SHORE’S BED DRY BUT TEPID WATERS’ (the capitalisation is theirs).  The Bible-esque broken English and fly-blown poetry is perfectly appropriate for what’s on the actual disc: a collection of four relentless but never-the-less strangely uplifting pieces of music.

The first, ‘Mladic’, is an 18-minute masterpiece of noise and riffing, all of it rising and falling before rising again but never losing the tension that is at the song’s pained and twisted heart.  It’s such a grand gesture, but there’s no mistaking the typical Godspeed anger – even on low volume this song makes your ears and nose bleed.  ‘Mladic’ deserves to be heard through half-decent speakers, but you can get a taste of how it’s performed live here.  Interesting that the band allow fans to record their shows; also of interest in this video is the use of looped projections, which have been a long-time feature of their gigs (they include the artists’ names in the list of band members).

Contrasting ‘Mladic’ is ‘Their helicopters’ sing’ (is that poorly placed apostrophe on purpose?).  This is a 6-minute drone where the strings are more prominent…and is that the sound of bagpipes?  It reminds me of something that the Estonian minimalist composer Arvo Pärt once said, and I’m paraphrasing here: ‘I have found that sometimes it is enough for a piece of music to be nothing more than a single note played beautifully.’  Pärt has always sought spiritual beauty, but Godspeed are after something much more frightening.  ‘We drift like worried fire’ begins in typically sparse fashion, being built around a simple plucked-string (guitar? violin? sample?) motif, before loose-limbed drumming kicks in and the song is off, traveling here and there, lifting and lowering as usual, finding lightness, darkness, and more lightness.  This song is Godspeed at their most majestic; in fact, it’s almost triumphant-sounding, maybe even beautiful, though be warned that this band would find beauty in a pair of sodden socks left behind by a wino.

Like those other post-rock marvels Sigur Ros, who came back from near oblivion with this year’s Valtari, which is a profoundly moving collection of songs, Godspeed you! Black Emperor prove with Allellujah! Don’t bend!  Ascend! that this punky, almost underground musical movement remains as valid and as valuable as ever.  This record is a plea for solidness, for depth and resonance, for real living, the sort that doesn’t begin and end with the click of a button.

‘It seems we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive.  There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them.’
George Eliot

‘If anything is fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought.’
Robert Louis Stevenson

‘I just want to write songs that make people feel loved.’
Brian Wilson

 ‘To compose a novel is to set different emotional spaces side by side – and that, to me, is the writer’s subtlest craft.’
Milan Kundera

‘Writing is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.’
George Orwell

‘Go boldly forward and write the email to Australia and the world that says, Your position is not sustainable.  You cannot keep going in this direction.  Something is going to give: it may be your relationships, it may be your infrastructure, it may be your children, or it may be you.’
John Marsden

‘Like most comic novelists, I take the novel extremely seriously. It is the best of all forms – open and personal, intelligent and inquiring.  I value it for its scepticism, its irony and its play.’
Malcolm Bradbury

‘I’ve discovered that it is enough for a single note to be played beautifully.’
Arvo Pärt

‘Never state what you can imply.’
Jean Cocteau

‘Find the place where passion and precision are one.’
WB Yeats

‘The first paragraph brought the tingle of expectation I know when theatre lights dim.’
Pam Skutenko (in a review of Dorothy Hewett’s A Baker’s Dozen, Overland 164 2001)

‘Before you start writing a book make sure you’ve got something to say.’
Manning Clark

‘Novels are always about time.’
Margaret Atwood

I’d be lost without music, I really would.  It underscores everything I do, everything I care about.  It makes the highs higher, the lows lower, and the mundane bearable.  If you said that I had to spend the rest of my life on a deserted island and could take my book library or my CD/LP library but definitely not both, I’d take neither and rely on my memory.  On this little blog-shaped pamphlet with the silliest title you’ve ever come across, I’ve written about albums so terrible that I’ve felt bruised for weeks, and albums so extraordinary that I’ve needed to sit with the chooks for half an hour, sometimes longer.  But here are three records that have snuck up on me until I’ve realised that I haven’t been playing anything else.

I’ve been following CocoRosie ever since I saw their videos on Rage about five years ago – Antony from Antony and the Johnsons had guest-programmed the show, which is a clue to where this is going.  There’s no doubt that the music these two sisters make isn’t for everyone.  For a start, one of them sings like a little girl, the other like an opera singer, which makes sense because that’s how she was trained.  They’re also fond of chucking everything into the mix, including…erm…toys, so that a song can sound like they’re cleaning their teeth while strangling a cat, all the while a carpenter’s in the background fixing the shelving.  And that’s in the first sixty seconds.  But when they get it right, which is more often than not, it’s an intoxicating concoction.  I take my music – my art in general – with a generous dose of risk-taking, bravery and heart, and you get all three on Grey Oceans (2010).  This is the sisters’ best record, and they’ve not compromised one bit.  In a more adventurous – and just – world, CocoRosie would be royalty.  Shit cover art though.

As you may know, I’m more than a little fond of melancholia.  Which means that Icelandic minimalist composer Johan Johannsson spins my nipples big-time.  His latest record, The Miners’ Hymns (2011), is the soundtrack to the movie of the same name by Bill Morrison.  The music reflects North-East England’s strong tradition of brass band music and its association with the mining unions.  Recorded in Durham Cathedral, these six pieces are slow, breathy, mournful and you can’t help feeling damp and pessimistic and that human beings really can treat each other apallingly.  However, this collection contains some of the most climactic music this side of Arvo Part, particularly ‘The Cause of Labour Is the Hope of the World’, which does nothing less than give me goose-bumps every time I hear it.  PS.  This is definitely not marching band stuff.  It’s more like the sort of music you might listen to in a coffin as you say to yourself, Well, I had a crack at life but in the end I was a bit rubbish at it.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the completely delightfully The Go! Team.  I’ve been following this Brighton-based collective (though really it’s just one person, the pop-music genius that is Ian Parton) since Thunder, Lightening, Strike (2004).  This is the Spice Girls crossed with Sonic Youth crossed with advertising jingles crossed with surf songs crossed with school-yard rap, all of it recorded on a boom-box from the 80s, but it’s ridiculously infectious.  On the first couple of listens, I wasn’t taken with Rolling Blackouts, because Parton and his cohorts seem to be treading old ground.  But then I realised that this ground is just so god-damn good; it’s as if the band is saying, Look, we know we can only do one thing, but we’re kinda good at it, plus it makes us smile, and that’s what matters huh?  In every one of these thirteen songs is so much tune and craft and sheer love that it’s difficult not to conclude that, actually, everything might be okay with the world.  If you’re anything at all like me, The Go! Team is the best drug imaginable.  Go buy it, slip it into your car stereo, and go for a drive in the country – you might end up never being happier.

Last week my little humble home stepped into a new era – I had a fire installed, a slow-combustion wood heater, I should say.  Technically I don’t need it.  There’s an old coal burner in the front room that’s now a library; I can use the coal burner to burn wood should I want a fire.  Plus I’m lucky to have ducted gas heating and a wall-mounted gas heater the size of a very large travelling suit-case.  And electric bar heaters.  And an electric blanket on the bed.  In this Southern Tablelands neck of New South Wales, winters do have a bite – heavy frosts are common, we regularly have minus-six mornings (which, according to the Bureau of Meteorology actually feel like minus-ten), even the odd snow flurry.  But I have my range of heaters, and, when I’m here alone, I wear thermal undies, because they make things just that little more bearable, and I really can’t afford to run the gas heating for long stretches.

Still I had a slow-combustion wood heater installed last week.  A man came by and did it for me, because I wouldn’t have had the first clue where to start.

Despite being a winter person, I’m finding more and more that I need heat, good, dry, radiant heat.  So there it is, the fire, sitting in the lounge-room where the piano used to be (the piano that’s now in the front room, glancing back at the coal burner).  My new slow-combustion wood heater is a big black cast-iron box of a thing, a massive black flue that gives the room an industrial aesthetic.  I can’t wait to get to 6pm tonight and light the fire, because I’ll want that good, dry, radiant heat, the flames, the glowing, dancing yellow-orange light, the smell of hardwood burning, the pop and crackle of it all, which scares the living daylights out of The Old Lady of the House.  I’ll pour myself a glass of white wine, or Cointreau, or American Honey whiskey, and sit in front of the heat.

Because I’m a melancholic – that’s the real reason why I love my new fire so much.  Melancholia is my natural habitat, it always has been.

I love melancholic books: The Remains of the Day, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, Holding the Man, Brideshead Revisited, Brokeback Mountain, Disgrace.  I love melancholic music: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Red House Painters, The Smiths, Bon Iver, Sigur Ros, M83, Arvo Part, Johan Johannson.  I’m not depressed, although there have been times when that’s exactly what I have been.  I’m just a miserable old melancholic – I have, as my Oxford Australian Reference Dictionary makes clear, ‘a habitual or constitutional tendency to pensive sadness’.  Pensive: deep in thought.  Don’t you love how words can take us on journeys, take us from one place to another!

I think my new fire takes me from one place to another, from the surface-tension of the present to deep within myself, to that core of melancholia that’s there, that which I was born with, that which I will die with.  Because, as strange as it may sound, I’m happiest in that place.  No doubt the fire is more friend than foe, taking me down there but, most importantly, bringing me back, warming me up, sending me to bed, reminding me that, more or less, everything will be alright in the morning.

It’s interesting, I think, to take note of the music we listen to when we’re alone.  Perhaps there’s a dog sleeping on a nearby bed, and a cat amongst the cushions on the couch, and, at least for me, it’s highly likely there’s a glass of wine involved, but essentially, at moments like these, it’s just us, our own breath, our own heartbeat, our own living.

Recently, my alone music has been one – or all – of the following.

The Optimist LP by London-based acoustic duo Turin Brakes.  I’ve known their cracking song ‘Underdog (Save Me)’ for years, but I first bought this album, which came out in 2008, only twelve months ago.  I was a writer-in-residence – such a grand term, probably a wanky term – and had made a trip from Launceston, my temporary home, to Hobart to give a workshop on writing about place.  The Tasmanian Writers Centre put my up in an 1840s whaler’s cottage, which I loved despite finding whaling despicable, even historical whaling, and I began feeling this way when I was a little boy.  Whenever I put on The Optimist LP I remember that little whitewashed whaler’s cottage, I remember the novella I was writing when not giving the workshop, and how much I enjoyed the writing of that story, because I was writing it for myself.  I remember the kitchen in which I wrote for those few days, the view up to Mount Wellington, the fact that the infamous Salamanca Place markets were literally at the back fence, I remember that I was so happy.

The second ‘alone’ record is March of the Zapotec and Realpeople Holland by Beirut, which, in this context, is not a whole country but just one person, the ridiculously talented Zack Condon, a young man from the United States.  It’s a two-disc set: the first is Condon’s typical street-side oompa-oompa brass-band confection; the second is more electronic, a little bit Depeche Mode, maybe almost full-on night-clubby, even if it sounds like it’s been made on a cheap Casio keyboard.  The record reminds me of another residency, this time Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people.  In 2009 I was on that isolated stretch of Shoalhaven River for a month, and I loved every second of it.  The words, the birds, the bushwalks, the late-night booze-ups with the other artists.  Each afternoon it was my little tradition to pour myself a glass of wine and sit on the verandah and listen to ‘March of the Zapotec’.  It felt like real living, true living, and I was so happy.

The third – and potentially the greatest – ‘alone’ record is playing right now and it’s Fordlandia by Icelandic minimalist composer Johann Johannsson.  There’s a fair dollop of Arvo Part in this music, plus some Craig Armstrong, a film-score composer, and, just a touch here and there, some Sigur Ros, perhaps even some Massive Attack, though I might be getting carried away there.  The point is lately I’ve been playing it most evenings, when a day of writing has been done, a meal’s been cooked and eaten, the television news has had its say, and the dark has come.  Yes, Fordlandia is dark music (check out the title track if you don’t believe me), but with its slow cascading minor-key string washes it’s also very, very beautiful music, and it will always remind of this great shift in my life, when I moved from a city to a town to put writing and creativity at the centre of my life, at least as central as we can ever do such a thing, because I can’t forget about love.

So.  Three albums. Two residencies, and a house that, sometimes, when I’m alone, I like to think of as a place where creativity might flourish.  Christ, where would we be without music?

There will be an art

of the future

and it will be so lovely

and beautiful

that we’ll give up our youth

for it but will surely gain serenity.

– Vincent van Gogh,

as quoted by Australian pop-art guru

Martin Sharp

Arvo Part: extraordinary

There’s a mug I love.  I found it on my first day of my first real job, in the office kitchen, and I’ve had it ever since.  On it is a forlorn-looking cow that has become stuck trying to jump over a half-moon.  And there are some words: ‘Nothing is ever simple’.  I didn’t choose the mug because of the cow and its caption.  I chose it because it’s white inside, which is so important to us coffee-drinking types.  Over the years, however, I’ve dwelled on the mug’s message and now, reaching the infamously clarifying middle years, I’ve decided that it is wrong – things are, in fact, always simple.

The best music is simple music.  Take Arvo Part’s Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten: this five-minute miracle starts with three clangs of a bell and proceeds with a series of cascading notes that gather into a protracted expression of heartache.  Part wrote it because he mourned the loss of Britten, his hero.  It may sound as if anyone could come up with such a simple piece of music, but the composer made so many choices, choices about excluding things.  This is the genius of simplicity.  I love Arvo.

The best technology is simple technology.  Last year my washing machine gave up the ghost.  After months of handwashing, resulting in a bung spine and crumpled clothes that made me look like a hobo, I walked into a white-goods store, the sort that promises the best deals in the galaxy.  To the nearest salesperson I said, ‘I need a new washing machine and it must be the simplest available.’  I was taken past all sorts of whiz-bang devices, including a washing machine-cum-dryer; now that’s absurd – it’s like making a heater that’s also a fridge.  The salesperson pointed to a humble unit tucked away in a corner.  It had just two dials: one for whites or coloureds, and one for on and off.  I bought it then and there, and am now in love.  Please don’t tell the mug (or Arvo Part).

Actually, my love is even more divided: I have a Polaroid camera on the side.  How beautiful it is!  Load up, press and click, and out they come!  It’s not the instant gratification that’s the pleasure.  Indeed, the speed at which the images appear only serves to emphasise how hard it is to take a great Polaroid photograph.  It’s the simplicity: there are no software-interface issues or memory constraints.  And it’s tough – you can treat it rough and it just keeps on fulfilling its happy little promise.

No doubt one day, perhaps in a moment of tiredness, I’ll drop my ever faithful but ultimately misguided cow-mug and it’ll smash on the floor.  Or maybe I’ll leave it in the kitchen only for someone else to decide it has no owner, just like I did all those years ago, and it’ll disappear.  I’ll try not to cry, I will, because the best philosophy is a simple philosophy: things come together, things fall apart – do we need to know any more about life than this?

Yes, the cow is wrong, things are simple.

At least, it’s best when they’re allowed to be.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, September 8 2007)

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