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Composer James Humberstone (left), baritone Michael Lampard (right) and myself post-show. Image credit: Anne Casey

Oh, massive thanks to all those who came out to see THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT in Sydney last week – it’s hugely appreciated and I’m most grateful. Thanks also to those who have been saying nice things and sending me messages. It means the world to me.

Really.

As mentioned in previous Homesong diary entries, it’s a nerve-wracking experience writing for the stage, partly because it’s so exposing – for all concerned, no doubt – and partly because it’s hard to know how an audience will respond. Indeed, in the weeks before a show, there’s a lot of worrying about whether or not people will come along at all. So, another thank you: to those who helped spread the word through social media or email – every effort was valuable and valued.

In the lead up to the Sydney shows, James wrote a wonderfully illuminating piece for Limelight Magazine about how he approached composing the music.

In the end we had good audiences, in terms of numbers and responses. We had some terrifically lively foyer conversations afterwards, and longer chats over beer and wine!

Some kind and generous folk put notes up on social media. This, from award-winning Australian poet Anne Casey, was especially appreciated:

THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT is spellbinding, spine-tingling, heartbreaking and gloriously uplifting. Extraordinary performance by operatic baritone Michael Lampard and pianist Alan Hicks. This was a stunningly moving, beautiful, haunting and inventive production from the very first breath to the last.

What happens from here?

Another rest. There’s talk of the show heading into regional NSW, which, after all, was the original intention of the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium who commissioned the work; there’s also the possibility of a run in Melbourne, perhaps next year.

Personally, I’m looking forward to preparing for (i.e. worrying about) my novel BODIES OF MEN, which is forthcoming from Hachette Australia in 2019.

Thanks again for all the interest and support.

It’s gold. And it’s a balm.

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.

One minute, so it seems, I’m a moody youth meeting friends on the steps of the Sydney Town Hall before heading to various record shops to buy new albums from The Cure, The Clash, and The Smiths. The next (i.e. 35 years later), THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, the song cycle I’ve written with James Humberstone, is about to be performed at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

YIKES.

Sydney is the place of my birth, childhood, and teenage years. I left at the age of 18 to have independent adventures, first in Canberra and then Perth; there was some time spent travelling overseas, and then another stint in Canberra; before, in 2010, I headed into the wilds of regional New South Wales. It’s all been wonderful (well, it’s all been an experience!), and throughout has been reading, writing, and music.

There have been two other constants, if I’m entirely honest: a quest for love; and a never-ending questioning of what it means to be a man.

Now I think about it, there’s been something else: an ongoing concern about Australia, this apparently happy, lucky country, this country with a conflicted, complicated soul, this country which has done terrible things both at home and abroad to achieve its aims, and continues to do terrible things.

THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT brings all these themes together. No wonder composer James Humberstone, when he first read the libretto, said, ‘Woah, this is intense.’

And he’s right.

Though there’s no point making art about big issues such as love and war if there isn’t a sense of hope, if we can’t heal from this. There’s definitely hope in THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT. Beauty even.

But best I don’t go on. All I really wanted to say is that if you’re in Sydney on Friday 27 July, it’d be terrific to see you at one of the two performances. Baritone Michael Lampard is extraordinary as The Soldier, and accompanist Alan Hicks is an orchestra with ten fingers.

Tickets ($25/$15) are available here. A brief, teaser video can be found here.

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

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.

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!

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?

 

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