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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.

Two bits of news on The Beach Volcano.

Firstly, my alma mater, Verity La, has published a wonderfully thoughtful  and expansive review, one that manages to tease out some themes and interpretations that might have been buried even from me. It includes some generous conclusions: ‘The Beach Volcano rises and falls to a compelling beat. Not unlike John Cheever before him, Featherstone unpicks the threads of a successful family to reveal a hollow and corrupted core. With striking imagery, the twin themes of music and water are elegantly interwoven. Unforgettable.’

The full review can be found here.

A French man's reaction after hearing that there's new Burial music in the world.

A French man’s reaction after hearing that there’s new Burial music in the world.

Secondly, Blemish Books has now made The Beach Volcano, and its cousins Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now, available as e-books.

What’s more, for a very limited time Blemish is offering a massive 80% discount on the electronic versions. To purchase the e-books, and to claim the discount, head here and then put the relevant code into the coupon field. For The Beach Volcano use VARLUDO4S6, for I’m Ready Now DTS1RW4H2L, and for Fall on Me AEBE9D5AE6.

And finally, as you might know I’m obsessed with UK dub-step/electronica artist Burial. And he has new music: a single called ‘Temple Sleeper’. In a just world, there would be wild public celebrations, including dancing in the streets and drinking till dawn.

Onwards.

I almost threw it across the room.

In fact, I almost threw a lot of things across the room. First it was the mobile: textie after textie after textie; coffee meetings, deadlines. And then the landline: family dramas. Before the laptop: Facebook updates and private messages, Twitter feeds (I’m responsible for three) and more private messages. I had images of me boiling the mobile in the saucepan and snapping the laptop in half on my thigh. I had a fantasy of giving up everything and raising chooks for a living – bliss.

No doubt I’m not a natural fit for social media. (The only machine in my house that I truly adore is my record player.) No doubt I’m not really a natural fit for communication of any kind. Which can’t be true: I’m a writer with two decades of experience and I’ve been paid for the majority of my output. If a day goes by when some kind of story isn’t on the make – a short story, a novella, a novel, a review, an artist profile, a column – it’s a very bad day indeed. I have things to say, or in my little brain I think I have things to say. I want to move people, I want to be memorable. With writing at least. In real life I’m more than happy to be the guy leaning against the brick wall listening to Burial EPs on a ten-year-old MP3 player while adjusting the leather-plat buttons on his faded green, knitted cardigan.

I want to notice more of this.

I want to notice more of this.

So, is all this reliance on technologically-assisted communication really that necessary? Is social media essential? It must be. Everyday we see someone crossing the road while glued to their phone, scrolling, hoping, as a gang of sulphur-crested cockatoos bang around above. We’ve looked in the rear-view mirror to see a driver checking Instagram. For normal people, all this might be okay. (Not so okay, obviously, if you’re responsible for keeping a vehicle on the road.) The thing is, if art is an act of communication – we have a point, we want that point to be heard, we want to rearrange things so better lives are possible – aren’t we diluting our powers by communicating twenty-four-seven?

What if we shove a lid on it? What if we post nothing for weeks even, months? What if we invest all our frustrations at the world – our anger, our disappointment, our deep sadness, despair perhaps – into our work? But you’re probably thinking, is it so bad that I want to share on Facebook my view that our little country is going down like the devil wearing velvet trousers? Do I really have to refrain from gushing at my best-friend’s pic of his bright red Stratocaster? Please, please, please can’t I just send a tweet to say that I’ve burnt the rice while listening to the latest Kylie album? Seriously, is any of this really so wrong?

Yes, communicating absolute bollocks all the time might be wrong.

If we want to make art.

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First published in BMA Magazine on 23 May 2014.

Rare and illuminating

Rare and full of light

The day of Ian Thorpe’s ‘big reveal’ interview, in fact only a few hours beforehand, I went off to do what has become one of the highlights of my week. Sometimes I do it for hours, even whole days: in short, I take myself off on Sunday drives. Yes, I’ve reached that point in my life. Thankfully I don’t take with me ELO or Mariah Carey CDs, but albums by Sonic Youth or Red House Painters or Burial or Jon Hopkins. Last Sunday, however, I didn’t have time for a whole day’s adventure, just a quick drive to the edge of town. Because the drive is only partly the point, as is the listening of music; I actually go on the hunt for old shit. Not posh antiques so much, but bits and pieces that might look good in a crumbling 120-year-old house owned by a writer who too is falling apart.

Last Sunday’s trip could only be short because I’d spent much of the day preparing financial records for my accountant. Getting my tax together is officially the nadir of my year. It is a time of great, fathomless despair. So, after six hours of that, it was time to jump in the car and head out to my local purveyor of old stuff. The business is in what clearly used to be a corner-shop. It’s filled with good things from years forgotten (by most), but none of it is expensive, and very little of it is in perfect condition – excellent. The shop is neat, but it’s not the sort of place where you feel you should put on a pair of white gloves before checking the price-tag. It’s owned by a friendly middle-aged man called Mart. A Sunday not long ago he offered me one of the Tim Tams on his plate. During the week he drives a school bus to towns and villages further out; it’s an appropriate occupation because I can easily imagine him to have been the sort of cheerful, chatty kid that no one had a reason to dislike.

As always, as soon as I stepped inside the shop, Mart said g’day – literally – and commented on the weather. ‘A big frost this morning, eh mate, minus-seven, they reckoned, with a feels-like temp of minus-ten. Winter’s really hit, eh mate!’ I could only agree. Before my eye was immediately taken by a light-fitting from the very early 1900s. I’d been on the hunt for exactly it for years. I checked it over: not only was it appropriate, it was highly affordable. I asked him to get it down from its display. I checked it over one last time, before I said that I’d buy the thing.

At the counter, which is a low desk with an old brass sign cheekily declaring ‘OFFICE CLERK’, Mart began packing the fitting into a box and started writing out a receipt. Wanting to hold up my end of the conversational bargain, I told Mart that for at least a couple of years I’d been driving all over the district looking for a light-fitting like the one he was selling me. I told him about the shop I go to in a small town an hour’s drive way that specialises in antique lights and lamps. He said, ‘Oh yes, the joint owned by Andrew and…’ and immediately went back to finishing the wrapping of my purchase before getting to work on the EFTPOS machine.

But I got the drift.

The lights-and-lamps shop an hour’s drive away is owned and operated by a gay man. Mart obviously knows him and his partner; being the gregarious, welcoming, non-judgemental person that he’s always displayed himself to be, he’s probably on very good, friendly terms with his regional antique-trade colleagues.

Being fond of black jeans and hoodies and Blundstone boots that have seen much better days, and often having paint or chook-crap stuck on me somewhere, and a three-day growth, I may not present as the typical (whatever that is, Christ) same-sex-attracted bloke. But neither would I present as someone with limited views on these things. Still, for Mart, it was easier to not make it clear that the light-and-lamp specialists were gay men. It was easier just not to say. Who knows: to him I might have extreme views. So, yes, best not to say, best not to say. That’s not to charge my mate Mart with homophobia. It was just easier.

Until people like me and Mart can be open and honest about the relationships of the people around us, even Australian heroes will have to go through the painful, anxious, almost debilitating act of shedding one skin to reveal another. Which is why, despite all the media-people build-up, the strategic commerce, the close-to-scripted event of it all, what Ian Thorpe did last Sunday night was necessary, important, valuable, and gigantically illuminating.

Burial: mysterious, magnificent

Burial: mysterious, magnificent

No reading, no writing, no chooks
I’m in the middle of a Burial festival, and I might be here for some time, no reading, no writing, no chooks, no buying stupid old shit, just Burial. That capitalised B is important, because I’m not talking about an act or event (though I might be, I suppose), but a music, and it could really be a type of music. Before I get carried away, which, as you probably know, is a common occurrence around these parts, Burial is a dub-step/2-step garage/electronica producer from London, UK. Extremely reclusive to the point that for the first five or so years of his practice no one knew who he was, Burial was sometimes said to be in reality a persona of other musicians or artists, including Four Tet, and even Banksy for Christ’s sake. Burial is, however, just a bloke called William Bevan. Who happens to be one of the most extraordinary music producers of the last twenty years.

Doing the opposite
Burial’s self-titled first album (2006) was sparse and beats-heavy, intricately produced but perhaps a little cold aesthetically. On Untrue, released the following year, Burial started working with twisted, distorted vocals to remarkable effect, although some might have found the jaggered rhythms and reliance on constant glitches and scratches and drops for atmosphere grating to the point of distraction. It’s true that Burial’s music often sounds like it’s been made in a dripping toilet with a wild thunderstorm going on outside. Since Untrue, perhaps exhausted from creating a piece of work that’s uniformly magnificent (the record was nominated for the 2008 Mercury Prize), Burial has been spending his time collaborating (Exhibit A: with Four Tet on ‘Moth’), creating a series of celebrated remixes (Exhibits B and C: a haunting, muddy reworking of Massive Attack’s ‘Paradise Circus’, or, if you really want to head into very dark terrain, his remix of Massive Attack’s ‘Four Walls’) and a set of a EPs available for digital download and on limited edition vinyl. Most musicians seem to go from rough to polish, but Burial appears to be doing the exact opposite, while becoming increasingly artful in the process.

Burial's 'Rival Dealer': more mysterious, more magnificent

Burial’s ‘Rival Dealer’: even more mysterious, even more magnificent

I’m going to love you more than anyone
So we have Kindred, Rough Sleeper and, released late last year with almost no fanfare, now Rival Dealer. Are EPs music’s equivalent of novellas? Burial may well answer yes: despite their brevity, in his hands they are deep and expansive and profoundly affecting. Dance and electronica are often charged with being hedonistic, insular, and ultimately vacuous, but Burial has described his latest three-song collection as his anti-bullying statement. In fact, he’s gone further: ‘It’s like an angel’s spell to protect [the bullied] against the unkind people, the dark times, and the self-doubts.’ But easy-listening this is not. Despite vocal grabs including ‘come down to us’ and ‘I’m going to love you more than anyone’ and ‘tonight we feel alive’, ‘Rival Dealer’ the song is a frantic, urgent, beautiful mess centring on a sample that sounds like it comes from screeching brakes; the whole construction stops, it starts, it collapses, it turns in on itself; it sounds as though someone’s escaping torment. Proceedings ease up with the brief (a 5-minute duration is short in Burial’s world) ‘Hiders’, which is all falling piano chords before a surprisingly cheeky serve of almost soft-metal power-drumming comes in for company. ‘Come Down to Us’ is epic in a majestically meandering way, and with its references to minority sexuality – bisexuality and transgender in particular – the sense of loss and loneliness is evaluated to an almost spiritual level…in the most tender way.

No doubt
There’s no doubt that Burial is an acquired taste – with Rival Dealer many will be frustrated by Bevan’s insistence on ignoring familiar structures and dishing out beats that just shouldn’t add up – but once you’ve had the taste it’s almost impossible to forget.

May the Burial festival continue.

For a long time.

Crystal CastlesCrystal Castles are the punks of dance music, to the point that III was apparently made without computers (which is quite something considering this really is dance music, as in the electronic thumpa-thumpa kind) and three of the tracks appear on the record unmixed.  If you’re intrigued, you should be.  Inevitably this collection is shouty and rough around the edges, so at times you turn these tunes down rather than up.  But it’s also extraordinarily majestic, and it’s music for the brain, even the soul, not just for the dance-floor.  We really do need to love musicians – any artists – who are committed to pushing the boundaries of whatever genre they’re working within, and not caring a damn about whether dollars will flow or not.

homepage_large.053aea55As I wrote earlier on Under the counter, I wasn’t convinced that this latest Sigur Ros long-player was going to be any good, primarily because we’d heard how difficult it was for the band to get their act together and record something they themselves actually liked.  In the end they roped in lead-singer Jonsi’s boyfriend to make sense of it all.  The fact is Valtari is one of Sigur Ros’ best albums.  Yes, it’s glacial, and ethereal, the words that you’d expect to be used in connection with these Icelandic post-rockers.  But it’s also their bravest, and richest, and deepest.  As always the music patiently builds and builds and peaks before gliding out into nothingness, but it’s in the stillness where the real beauty is to be found, and that’s in the stunning closing third.  You really shouldn’t miss this.

Patrick WolfI’m a longstanding fan of Patrick Wolf, and we were lucky enough to see him at the Sydney Opera House this year right at the beginning of his worldwide acoustic tour.  I’d feared that the rather flamboyant Wolf would be precious and precocious and – dammit: let’s call a spade a spade – outright queenie, but on this evening at least his company was warm, engaging and surprisingly self-effacing; I would have been more than happy to go back the next night and sit through it all again.  Sundark and Riverlight is essentially a best-of collection, but the Lupercalian has re-arranged and re-recorded the selected tracks into a folksy, baroque stew, and it’s tasty fare indeed.  And intimate.  In short: a rare joy.

CoexistThis second album by The XX is, as others have said, a little on the underwhelming side, though there’s something appealing about that – like a wine that’s not much on first taste but keeps on getting better and better until it’s all that you want to drink, and think about.  The XX sound like no one else, which is something we should be very grateful for as it’s the best thing about the band, that and their skills in arrangement and production, which are always excellent.  I like Coexist best at the end of the day, just as the light’s fading and the melancholy sets in.

GodspeedLike Sigur Ros, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are moody bastards, but this time around (after the band put themselves on a long self-imposed hiatus) it’s all straight-out grim anger.  At what exactly, it’s hard to tell – capitalism, the state of political discourse, modern life in general? – but this record is certainly a rally against something or other.  Perhaps it’s against anything that’s safe and predictable and lovely and polished within an inch of itself.  Enter Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! at your own peril – it’s utterly relentless – but this is a very sublime kind of misery.

That one special extra: if you’re a fan of thoughtful, haunting and intricate electronica that’s all dripping-wet streets, shadows in the dark and an overall feeling that hope is slithering down the nearest gutter-drain, go search out Kindred, a three-track gem from UK dub-step pioneer Burial.  The coda of ‘Astray Wasp’ is simply staggering and is easily some of the best music recorded all year; it starts around eight minutes into this eleven-minute epic, but you really need to engage with the whole track to get the maximum effect.  You can listen to it by clicking on this.

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