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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.

What a complete cracker of a year it’s been for music.  Beside me on the desk is a small tower of CDs, all of which I’ve bought this year and almost all of them could – or should – appear in any kind of best-of-2011 list.  As opposed to this year in reading, where, in the main at least, the books I’ve read have been slow-burners, the records that have come into my house in the last twelve months have demanded immediate attention.  Some of these records will go on to achieve the status of classic, which is thrilling for all concerned, even if the 80s seems to be having a greater influence on contemporary musicians than is strictly necessary.  Anyway, enough introductory crap from me.  Here’s the best of music of 2011.  I’ve tried to keep it to only six albums, but who knows what will happen.

Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming by M83 – this record is so extraordinarily ambitious that it’s impossible to ignore.  It’s also made with such craft and love, and you can’t ask for more than that.  This time around the main M83 provocateur Anthony Gonzales has created a double album of depth, delight, texture, joy, sadness, and – like Coco Rosie and DJ Shadow, who are a little further down the list – sheer inventiveness.  Sure this is synth-pop shoegaze with a touch of Toto, Thompson Twins and Simple Minds thrown in for good measure (there’s also a hint of the Seinfield theme tune to a couple of songs, which is rather worrying), but somehow it all hangs together so magically that it traps you until you realise that you’ve been playing it for days on end without a break.  ‘Midnight City’ on the first disk makes me want drive up to Sydney in the middle of the night, which would be a five-hour return trip, and it’d never happen, but when I listen to music as fine as this it makes me think that anything might be possible.  ‘Midnight City’ is also the song of the year, there’s no doubt about that.

Grey Oceans by Coco Rosie – it’s true that this album came out in 2010 but it seemed to go under the radar until this year, so it’s going to be in this year’s list, damnit.  I’ve written about this album previously, and it’s clear that Grey Oceans is Coco Rosie’s masterpiece.  It’s just as inventive as their previous albums, but this time the half-sisters at the core of the Rosie are searching for purity of musical expression.  They’re achieving a greater musical range, from balladry to weird-arse pop, to even nudging the dance-floor, though Christ knows what sort of dance-floors exist in the Coco Rosie universe.  If M83’s ‘Midnight City’ is the song of the year, the title track of Grey Oceans is a very, very close second.  In a just world, every household would have a copy of this album.

The Less You Know, The Better by DJ Shadow – Josh Davis is undoubtedly a cantankerous bloody thing, refusing to do anything other than make the music that he wants to make, and he’s had his missteps, that’s for sure.  He’s also in that infinitely tricky position of having made a much revered first album, that being Entroducing… from 1996.  Is The Less You Know as good?  Almost.  It’s more like the Psyence Fiction album he did with James Lavelle as UNKLE (1998): it’s widescreen, sentimental, experimental, all the while refusing to be categorised.  It’s fair to ask the question: what’s the point of DJ Shadow?  He’s neither a rap/hip-hop artist nor MC, nor is he the sort of bloke who spins records in nightclubs.  Davis makes music with samples, but the samples are put together so cleverly and seamlessly that it may as well be the product of an actual band.  But who cares when the music is as good as this.  The best way to approach The Less You Know is as a mix-tape put together by a friend who decided to make his own music because he couldn’t find any real stuff he liked. In a way, ‘Border Crossing’ is atypical of DJ Shadow; then again, because he does whatever the fuck he wants, it’s a good illustration of his modus operandi.

The Riptide by Beirutagain I’ve written about this album previously, but let me say at the outset that I love Zac Condon and his wandering (wondering?) band of troubadours, and I’ve been following this lot from the beginning.  This time, Condon strips things back to carefully crafted songs that are almost pop but thankfully – luckily – the melancholy remains.  These are intimate vignettes, almost as though they weren’t made for public listening.  In the past Beirut has sounded like a bunch of street-drunks trying to remember the hymns from their childhoods, but now they sound as though one of them has made a go of things, getting a flat, maybe even a dog, and is starting to think that the world may not be as hopeless as previously thought; perhaps there will be comfort, maybe even love.  The Riptide could be Beirut’s best yet.  Search out the title track if you want to hear what all this is about.

Rolling Blackouts by The Go! Team – yet again I’ve already written about this album, but I still mean every word of it.  I’m just so happy that I live in a world where bands like this exist.  Perhaps like Beirut (or M83 or DJ Shadow for that matter) The Go! Team shouldn’t work: a mix of Sonic Youth, Spice Girls, school-yard rap and 1960s TV-show theme tunes anyone?  No, didn’t think so.  It’s just that it’s all so freakin’ clever (‘freakin’’ really is the right word in this context), and the song construction so faultless.  It’s true that at first Rolling Blackouts didn’t initially grab me as much as I wanted it to – as others have said, it did sound like The Go! Team had run out of puff just a little (and who wouldn’t, quite frankly, when you’ve made a habit of making every song on an album sound like a single).  But I now realise that this one of the band’s best, because there’s more devil in the detail, and, dare I say it, maturity.  In the end this is bubble-gum pop-music with an edge, and it’s bonkers, but it’s also genius. Here’s T.O.R.N.A.D.O., which kicks-off the album.

Bon Iver by Bon Iver – the world’s probably written enough about Bon Iver, and I have too, but suffice it to say that music lovers around the globe were relieved to discover that Justin Vernon and Co had come up with something as good as For Emma Forever Ago (2008), potentially even going one step further.  I’m not entirely convinced that Bon Iver has anything truly meaningful to say, but in this purposeful obtuseness is also a very majestic kind of beauty.  Everything on this record is impeccably constructed so that not a nano-second is wasted.  I’m also not convinced that ‘Beth/Rest’ was a good idea – it’s just too REO Speedwagon for my taste – but there’s no mistaking Justin Vernon’s ability to make music that moves listeners, and we can’t ask for much more than that.

I can’t stop.  So here are two more wonderful albums from 2011.

Metals by Feist – if there’s anyone who could turn me from my wicked gay ways it’s this Canadian songstress.  Not only is she completely gorgeous, she has the voice of honey – if hers was the last voice I heard I’d die a happy man.  She follows up the resolutely poppy The Reminder (2007) with this collection of ballads; there’s nothing to get the toes tapping here (though it’s not hard to imagine that many of the songs become punchier live).  This is aloof music, austere even, and there’s more than a hint of Kate Bush, which is never a bad thing.  But what makes this record so very special is Feist’s strength (so to speak) in saying, I will not get poppier, I will go in the opposite direction, I don’t want popularity, I just want to be good.  Any artist who does that is an artist of confidence, and Feist is confident.  But also humble – how does that work?  If you want a good place to start with Metals, go looking for the soulful, bluesy meander of ‘Anti-Pioneer’.

Lupercalia by Patrick Wolf – here is yet another fiercely original artist, even if on this record Mr Wolf does get dangerously close to being this decade’s Rick Astley.  But everyone has a soft spot for a bit of Astley, don’t they?  What I love about Lupercalia is that as opposed to Feist, Patrick Wolf has specifically set out to make a poppy, commercial record.  Strange then that not much of it got commercial-radio airplay.  Perhaps Wolf is just too camp for these supremely conservative times.  Which is exactly why we need an artist like this, an artist who refuses to be anything but himself.  Despite his pop intentions, Wolf hasn’t lost his keenness for exploration, for experimentation, for new musical perspectives.  This album includes ‘William’, a song he wrote for the man he clearly loves and will marry in 2012; in his rich, articulate baritone he sings, ‘And I showed you my ugly/heart yet you did not/surrender’.  Now we just need Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott to listen.  Here’s another gem from Lupercalia: ‘House’.

With that, happy festive season.  Whatever that may mean to you.

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