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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 feels like the first year during which I’ve found myself buying less new music and, instead, rediscovering albums from my past. Part of it, maybe, is being somewhat financially challenged and I’m investing more and more in reading. Part of it, maybe, is to do with changing – or evolving? – tastes: more and more I’m enjoying post-classical music (Ólafur Arnalds, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Dustin O’Halloran, among others) and that kind of music does warrant deep immersion. And, rather regrettably, this may be due to rapidly advancing years – I’m after beauty and contemplation these days. Still, I have bought some new records this year. The following are the highlights.

Everything Now by Arcade Fire – quite honestly, Arcade Fire are an interesting proposition: they are arguably the English-speaking world’s biggest alternative rock band (for want of a better term), but their work can be patchy; further, there can be a rather condescending tone in their songs, as though only they know exactly what’s wrong with the world and, apparently, it all comes down to consumerism and the internet. Some fans have dismissed ‘Everything Now’ due to the record straying too far from Arcade Fire’s core sound, but it’s silly to chastise a band for experimenting. The titular song is basically ‘Reflektor’ mashed with ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’, which, frankly, is no bad thing. However, the only other truly memorable track is ‘Put Your Money on Me’, which offers a delicious chord progression and lush shifts of gear. In between those two songs are a number of tunes that are throwaway , with only ‘Electric Blue’ offering any kind of reprieve. But I’m being harsh: overall the set is eminently listenable and it does expand the band’s impressive oeuvre. If only Everything Now didn’t come across as rather slight.

American Dream by LCD Soundsystem – this, for me, is the record of the year. In a word, it’s stunning. But it’s also dark, angry even (despite the latter half of the album sounding a little like a braver, less self-obsessed version of The Killers, which, no doubt, is a reference James Murphy would detest). It’s true that LCD Soundsystem having been mining their form of minimal riffing for years, and some of the songs don’t quite have the emotional pay-off they deserve, but for mine American Dream well and truly rises above all else I’ve heard this year. As opposed to Everything Now, there is not a single throw-away track here, and once again LCD Soundsystem appear to be inspired by Remain in Light by Talking Heads, one of the truly adventurous and astonishing records from the mid-1980s. But unmistakably American Dream comes out of Trump’s fucked-up version of America, hence the darkness and anger. If there’s one song that makes for an intriguing – though menacing – introduction to the album it would be ‘How Do You Sleep?

Three Worlds: Music for Woolf Works by Max Richter – this is a collaboration between prominent new-classical composer Max Richter and the Royal Ballet, and it explores the works of Virginia Woolf. There are three sections, each corresponding to three of Woolf’s novels: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. Overall Three Worlds is melodious, minimal, and accessible, even if the Orlando section does contain pieces that are more meanderingly atmospheric than musical. For sheer visceral power, the final piece, ‘The Waves’, almost rivals Arvo Pärt’s ‘Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten’. For a work that is essentially the soundtrack to a ballet, Three Worlds is a rich and rewarding listening experience. A good place to start might be ‘In the Garden’. Beyond Pärt, other influences are Michael Nyman and even The Knife.

Slowdive by Slowdive – it’s a tough ask for a once-revered band to disappear for twenty years and then return with a record that retains the core elements of their distinctive sound while being vital and relevant. Remarkably, that’s exactly what Slowdive have done with their self-titled album. Let’s be honest: being a band that was labelled ‘shoegaze’, that infamously introverted if not vacuous movement (if that’s the right term for it), Slowdive was always about mood; they never really had anything much to say, except, perhaps, that beauty can be found in walls of noise. Little has changed, although in this collection there is evidence of stronger song-writing – ‘Sugar for the Pill’ is a gorgeous pop song – and there’s an appealing diversity of sound and structure throughout; with its repeated but building piano motif, ‘Facing Ashes’ is almost epic. Slowdive have an avid (if not ageing) fan-base, and if you would like to know why, this latest record is a terrific place to start.

I might not be big on tradition, but I’m certainly big on habit and routine, and my winter habit and routine is, at 6pm, exactly at 6pm, I call it quits on writing, pour myself a glass of white wine, light the fire, and put on some of the best melancholic minimalist music I can find.  As you can probably imagine, I have quite a store of it, and I do order in new CDs and digital downloads at an alarming rate.  I’m not really sure why I love this stuff in the early evening, but I do, and I’d die without it.  Maybe it’s about the close of the day, especially a winter’s day, which around my neck of the words can be pretty severe – some days, if the wind-chill factor is taken into account, daytime temperatures never go above zero Celsius, and the nights can go down well below freezing.  And it can be grey, so so so grey.  Regardless of the weather, listening to melancholic minimalist music is what I do.

Here are three albums currently on high rotation.

Piano Solos by Dustin O’Halloran (2004).  Mr O’Halloran’s music is a favourite of film-maker Sofia Coppola, who is a very special kind of spunk – some of these tunes were used to great effect in her completely marvellous Marie Antoinette.  As is made clear by the title of this album, there’s nothing but piano here, and it’s all extraordinarily simple – your teenager daughter with a few keyboard skills (the musical kind, not the inane Facebook kind) could probably knock this stuff out.  However, there’s a stack of feeling on this record, and if O’Halloran was to be found playing it in a hotel foyer you could bet your bottom dollar that everyone would be watching and listening, and probably weeping too, which would be a bit nice.  Try ‘Opus # 12’ on for size.

Eulogy for Evolution by Olafur Arnalds (2006).  On the surface, this is just pretty piano-and-strings music.  It would certainly soundtrack a slightly miserable European film where people try to love and live well and be the best people possible, but in the end it all falls apart, only a hint of hope as the credits roll, so you clutch your partner’s hand, drop by the servo on the way home to get a family-sized block of chocolate, and you knock it all off before sliding into bed and each other’s arms, slowly falling asleep to the realisation that all is not lost, not yet.  But Arnalds offers more depth than your standard soundtrack, and, dare I say it, more sophisticated musicology.  Be warned: this bloke’s from Iceland, and there is just little of Sigur Ros here, particularly in terms of the background strings, but also in the way some of the songs end up in quite unexpected places.  Check out this little beauty – ‘3055’.

For the tired and ill at ease by Scissors and Sellotape (2012).  This is a pretty damn special thing, partly because it’s only available on very limited edition handmade vinyl (the packaging, not the actual record…I’m assuming), although I heard it’s well and truly out of stock, and digital download – there are no CDs in sight.  Originally from the UK but now based in Melbourne, the main protagonist here, John McCaffrey, makes the grimmest of music, slow and rumbling and almost drony, despite being based around simple minor-key piano motifs.  Dimension and perspective come from the addition of field-recordings to some tracks, such as a father and child talking, and, on the utterly intriguing ‘I say ‘get used to it’’, the subtlest of beats, almost as though they’ve come from a human heart.  Many may find For the tired and ill at ease (a title written fairly and squarely at me) just too macabre, but after repeated listens it reveals its warmth and beauty.  In short, it’s a ripper.  I’m off to hunt down the vinyl version.  But as it’s now 6pm I better pour myself a glass of white wine, light the fire, and listen to one of these albums.  Which one, I have no idea – it’ll be a lovely surprise for all of us.

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A great source of information on contemporary minimalism, check out Headphone Commute.  Actually, it’s the only source you need.

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