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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.

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

Holy moley, what a ride.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next?

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

Oh yes, what a ride.

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

Yes, it’s true: it’s show-time week.

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

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

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

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

Tickets can be purchased here.

What is the show about?

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

Who are the key artists in the show?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director Caroline Stacey (Image courtesty of Canberra City News)

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

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

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

Now, to the bath with a glass of whiskey…

 

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