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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 year has been a wild ride in so many ways (more about that at a later date) and, as usual, reading has provided solace, sustenance, challenge, and adventure. I’ve reached the point where I’d like to be given home-detention so all I can do is read; being given home-library detention would be even better. For what it’s worth – very little, most likely – the following are the books that got beneath my skin this year. Needless to say, if I made the list tomorrow, it would probably be different. In any case, here goes.

Position Doubtful: mapping landscape and memory by Kim Mahood (Scribe) is a fearlessly articulate – and appropriately dry-eyed – love-letter to the Australian desert, in particular the Tanimi. So very skillfully Mahood takes us through her decades-long experience of that part of the world, slowly revealing what to many (most?) will always be a place of both mystery and spirit. Threaded throughout are observations about friendship and the search for home. Sublime.

Despite, or because of, my advancing years, I very much enjoyed No Way! Okay Fine by Brodie Lancaster (Hachette). Sub-titled ‘a memoir of pop culture, feminism and feelings’, Lancaster adroitly explores a range of challenging issues, such as body image, love in all its often messy and confusing guises, and the pleasures and power of pop music. Even though at heart I remain a skinny-black-jeans-wearing indy-music kid, I was genuinely moved by Lancaster’s adoration of pop-music stars such as One Direction, Kanye West, and Taylor Swift. Thoughtful and entertaining.

Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions (UWAP) won this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award and deservedly so. The story focuses on a man, a retired structural engineer, who has recently moved to a retirement village. It takes an enormous amount of skill to build narrative momentum out of such a constrained scenario, but gradually Wilson goes deeper and deeper into the man’s history and his family environment. What especially appeals is the humour, the knife-sharp prose, and the sheer ambition. A unique reading experience.

Speaking of unique reading experiences, in The Museum of Modern Love (Allen & Unwin) Heather Rose takes a similarly constrained premise – a group of people watching performance artist Marina Abramović sitting at a table and staring at the ‘sitter’ opposite – and crafting a story that does exactly what it says on the tin: explores many facets of what it’s like to love in this day and age. Ticking two other boxes for me, Rose’s 2017  Stella Prize-winning novel also delves into music and architecture. Very memorable. Side note: it’s been reported that it took Heather Rose seventy drafts to get the novel right. How’s that for tenacity.

Pushing uniqueness to the limit, George Saunders’ Man Booker-winning Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury) is all it’s cracked up to be. Like many readers, the first 30 pages almost had me tossing the novel into the nearest bin, but then something clicked and I was able to enjoy this fresh and eminently playful reading experience. What especially appealed to me was how the work busts out of all the known forms: in a way it’s a play, but it could also be a film-script, even a verse novel. It’s really quite extraordinary.

Staying with the playful, I’ve written previously about my admiration for Cassandra Atherton’s work. Exhumed (Grand Parade Poets) is another collection of prose poems that is such a delight it really is quite magical. Atherton’s work bounces from one word and phrase to another, without ever losing sight of the core idea in each piece. Do search it out and be delighted.

Back to more conventional storytelling, in To Become a Whale (Allen & Unwin), Ben Hobson tells a tale about a thirteen-year-old boy dealing with the loss of this mother and a father who is in all kinds of trouble. Setting much of the novel in the world of whale hunting (which, thankfully, in Australia is a thing of the past), Hobson explores masculinity in all its contradictions and strangeness. The prose is crystal-clear, and enveloping this rather sad story is a loving swell of emotion and humanity.

Being a resident of the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, I’m fortunate to live in one of the most peaceful parts of the world. Edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldma, in Kingdom of Olives and Ash: writers confront the occupation (HarperCollins), a diverse range of authors, from Geraldine Brooks to Colm Tóibín, experience what it’s like to live in Palestine under the occupation of Israel. Despite the variety of voices and the different writing forms, the conclusion is always the same: when one nation has a stranglehold on another, human beings are diminished. No doubt it is naïve, but one can only hope that this dire situation is resolved sooner rather than later – it certainly can’t be left to go on for another 50 years.

This year I also thoroughly enjoyed Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko (UQP), Wimmera by Mark Brandi (Hachette), and As the Lonely Fly by Sarah Dowse (For Pity Sake).

Ten books that have completely and utterly moved me to the core so that even now, when I look at the titles below, something reacts in my heart:

  • Disgrace by JM Coetzee
  • Holding The Man by Timothy Conigrove
  • The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin
  • Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx
  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  • The Riders by Tim Winton
  • Last Orders by Graham Swift
  • Eminence by Morris West
  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishigo
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Twenty-three things these books have in common (and I’ve been thinking about this for ages, years really, and for a long long time I had this list up on my wall and I’d add to it and take things off until now I think it might actually mean something):

  1. They’re all late twentieth-century literature
  2. They’re all set in relatively contemporary times (i.e. 1980s and beyond), except, perhaps, Brokeback Mountain, In Cold Blood, The Remains of the Day
  3. The main characters are all men, except those in The Blackwater Lightship
  4. They’re all written by men, except Brokeback Mountain
  5. They’re all about men, even The Blackwater Lightship in a roundabout way
  6. The writers are all Caucasian, except Kazuo Ishigo
  7. They’re all fiction, except In Cold Blood and Holding the Man
  8. They’re all set in the Western World
  9. They’re all dramas
  10. Only one of them is gay-lit per se: Holding the Man
  11. Most of the main characters have clear occupations: academic, schoolboy, cowboy, butler, priest
  12. They all understand their political context
  13. They all ask questions about nationhood, except The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
  14. The passage and complexity of time is very important to them
  15. Family – in the broadest sense – is at their heart
  16. They all have strong senses of place
  17. Apart from Brokeback Mountain, they’re all single point-of-view narratives – simple
  18. They’re also all relatively straight-forward in terms of structure, but they lead the reader into tough and dark terrain: murder, mental illness, racism, religion, homophobia, right-wing ideologies, death, grief, the weight of history…but there’s also a whole lot of love
  19. They’re all driven by clear ‘what ifs’ e.g. Eminence: what if the Pope-in-waiting was in fact an atheist
  20. The prose is accessible, sometimes understated, but always beautiful
  21. The writers appear to be burning to find something out through the writing of their works
  22. There’s an overt sense of warmth and humanity – this is their true power
  23. My life would be less without them

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