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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 book may appear on my Best Ever Reads list.

This book may appear on my Best Ever Reads list.

I’m surrounded by fire, year in and year out, day in and day out.

I’m not a smoker, nor am I some kind of professional fire-breather, I just live in an old house in an old country town. In summer, with bushland and paddocks just up the street, there’s the forever whiff of smoke; some days, when it’s bad, the sky is white with it, sirens rushing in this and that direction.  In winter, to keep the house warm, there’s a fire in the living-room, another in the library, which really is a library, the shelves stacked and packed with books, novels mostly, though there are quite a few short story collections, and poetry collections too.

It’s the library I worry about the most, because the fire, which is actually a Hordern and Sons coal-burner that I use for wood, is surrounded by the books – a stray spark and whoosh up it all goes.  So I’ve organised the books into categories: up high, as if I’m also worried about flood (in the past three years the river has flooded annually, though I’m alright in this regard – my house is high on a hill), are my favourite novels, the ones I’d risk life and limb to rescue.  There’s a full shelf of these favourites, so if I really was in the midst of an emergency and only had a few seconds to decide I’d have to make the choices of a lifetime.  As a trial run, as if this is a part of my Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan, I just ran from my writing room into the library and bundled up a baker’s – a writer’s – dozen.

Now, back in the writing room, piled on the desk, are thirteen books I’ve rescued in this mad drill…

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Keep reading over at the Universal Heart Bookclub. Many thanks to Walter Mason and Stephanie Dowrick.

Wow.  Today, right now, I find myself feeling peaceful, so very peaceful.  It might have something to do with the blue sky, which is such a relief after the weather we’ve had around these Southern Tableland parts, blustery and drizzly, sleety even, so it makes your hands turn grey-black and your nose feel as though it’s going to snap off.  But it’s not just the weather, that deep dark blue Goulburn sky.  No, it’s because yesterday, I feel, something momentous happened.  It’s not momentous as in a change of government, or a great sporting achievement (as if sport can ever be such a thing), it’s just momentous to me.

You see, yesterday I submitted my second novella to my publisher.  Yes, I’ve done this before; I’d thought I was finished, because I felt finished.  It must have been some kind of trick, because Blemish Books came back with changes, good changes, and wise, which then set in train changes I wanted to make.  So that’s how the last seven days have been, making changes to a manuscript and thinking about changes, even at night, and making more of the bloody things, until everything – everything – is perfect.

So I hope.

I’ve been going through I’m Ready Now with a fine-toothed comb, well, in reality it was just a Bic pen.  I’ve agonised over words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters.  I’ve never forgotten something that the Australian children’s-book author Mem Fox once said: ‘Care about writing because it matters.  Ache over every detail.  Be involved in the painful and intolerable wrestle with words and their meaning.’  So that’s what I’ve been doing: wrestling with words and their meanings until I’ve ached.  Until the deadline loomed, the deadline that was 5pm yesterday.

At 4.45pm yesterday I bundled up the manuscript onto a flash-drive, loaded it onto my laptop, crafted an email…and pressed SEND.  The next time I see the manuscript it will be professionally laid out, and the opportunity for making changes will be limited.  Oh, what a relief.  Last night I celebrated with a glass of wine and a fire in the hearth.  And two steaks of salmon, which was an extravagance, but why not.  I slept well.

Today, yes, such extraordinary peace, as though every worry I’ve had has simply dissolved.  But I’ve not given myself a day off – I’ve been in the writing room, in uggboots and tracksuit pants and an old stripy-brown jumper my mother knitted for me when I was a teenager and I’ve kept it with me all this time, it has holes but who cares.  And I’ve worked, going back to another project, except I’ve taken it easy.  I’ve even allowed myself to listen to music: the soundtrack to the BBC serialisation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.  When I was a teenager I loved nothing more than wrapping myself in a blanket, lying down on the couch, and writing school-boy fiction to the Brideshead soundtrack, which would be on LP and on repeat.

So here I am, thirty years later, doing exactly that, although I’m at a desk and the music is on CD and I hope the words I write amount to more than school-boy fiction.  Whatever I write, however I’m Ready Now is received, today has been one of the most peaceful days in my life.  And I am so very thankful that writing remains with me.  Tomorrow I might feel differently, perhaps even the opposite, but today is today and today is calm, serene, still.  So very still.

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