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One minute, so it seems, I’m a spotty teenaged boy sitting on the living-room floor listening to records by Kate Bush and The Cure as well as, erm, the soundtrack to the BBC’s serialisation of Brideshead Revisited; the next I’m writing the libretto for an original song cycle initiated by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium of Music in collaboration with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Of course, a fair bit has happened to that spotty teenaged boy: various jobs that sounded interesting but never set my soul on fire; dipping my toe (and fingers) into the world of short stories before, miraculously, the better ones began appearing in Australian literary journals; three published novellas; a published novel; further tertiary study in the creative arts; as well as much living, including relationships and all the lovely/heartbreaking messiness of that. But the fact remains I never thought I’d be commissioned to be the librettist on an original song cycle.

The beginning: on the living-room floor and listening to a record.

In December 2014 Paul Scott-Williams, the director of the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, met with me in Canberra at an inner-city bar. In the garden courtyard, Paul said he had an idea to create an original song cycle. ‘Art song,’ he told me, ‘did not have much of an Australian tradition and I want to do something about that. And I want you to be the librettist.’ I thanked him for the offer but said that I wasn’t a poet, though I could put him in contact with some poets who’d be terrific for the project. But Paul would have none of my prevarication. He said that he’d recently read my third novella, The Beach Volcano, which concerns an Australian singer/song-writer trying to find himself in the world (and includes snippets of song lyrics). He also said that he knew I had a great love of music, which I do – music, as well as books, primarily novels, are what sustains me. ‘I really want you to be the librettist,’ said Paul, ‘and I want to engage James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium as the composer.’ Paul went on to say that he would sing the work. ‘I think the three of us would make a very good team.’

As I walked to the car I thought that it was lovely to be asked but I was not the right person. Then again, what scares us – creatively at least – is what we need to do…possibly. Needing advice, I spoke to an eminent Australian author who’d had some experience of being a librettist.

‘Just give it a go,’ she told me, ‘but remember that it has to be a three-way dance, between the words, the music, and the audience. You must leave room for all three.’

In a way, I never really made a decision; I just let the project roll on. Although I was largely unfamiliar with art song, I knew enough to be attracted to the minimalism of a work that centred on voice and piano only, and that across the breadth of a song cycle a story could be told, and that perhaps – just perhaps – collectively we could bring an Australian perspective to the form.

After the contractual side of things was sorted, I got town to work in early 2015. Two years earlier, in 2013, I had completed a three-month residency at UNSW Canberra, the campus of the Australian Defence Force Academy, where I had undertaken creative explorations into masculinity under extreme pressure, and I was still thinking about what masculinity (and femininity) actually meant. The then Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, had recently said that he would like to ‘shirt-front’ Russian president Vladimir Putin, which seemed to me to be a good example of what modern masculinity should not be about. Paul agreed and said that he was keen for me to continue with this line of inquiry.

I prepared three concepts: a multiple drowning incident during a family picnic; a soldier returning from war; and a contemporary take on Frederick McCubbin’s iconic painting The Lost Child (1886). Paul asked me to further explore in more detail the drowning and soldier stories, and then together we agreed that the latter had the greatest dramatic scope.

For weeks I immersed myself in my favourite poets – ee cummings, Philip Larkin, Dorothy Porter – as well as the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. I filled my head not so much with art-song but music by Nina Simone, Antony and the Johnsons, Ólafur Arnalds, Jóhann Jóhannsson, and Max Richter. And then I got down to work. Which was when the doubts came pounding on my temple. I read and enjoy poetry, and for a reason I’m yet to understand I am drawn to poets (perhaps it’s their fondness for giving the finger to conventional ways of living), but, no, I am not a poet. Some readers have said my fiction is quite poetic, one even going so far as to say that I am a poet who writes fiction, but that doesn’t make me a poet either. And in terms of music, I am more comfortable in my local independent music shop buying records by Four Tet and Kiasmos than in a concert hall.

Really, what could I bring to this project?

To convince myself that I should proceed, I wrote out a list of objectives:

  1. do this my fucking way
  2. find my own voice
  3. find my own form and structure
  4. ‘show us something new’
  5. be driven by the work

I now had an articulation of how I could keep going, but then I was struck by different concerns. How to create a story of truth and resonance about a modern-day soldier who was returning from a tour of duty? Was this my story to tell? I told myself that, mercifully, only a few Australians would know what it’s like to serve in a military capacity, but many people can empathise with coming home to find their dark secrets exposed. So now I had my themes: home and secrets and fear. I also decided that I would tell the story from three points of view: the soldier’s as well as his mother’s and father’s. Further, I would set the work on the Hume Highway, a stretch of road I’ve been getting to know for nearly five decades, as well as on the Southern Tablelands where I live. I would write from a position of love and interest. Ultimately, and reflecting what novelist/poet Merlinda Bobbis has said about these things, I could walk in the shoes of my main character and his parents, but I couldn’t own those shoes.

Scribbles: the start

At my desk in my little Goulburn house, I planned the work the way I plan a piece of fiction: I created characters and got into their history; I formed a story arc and then plotted where the key events would be – this process went back and forwards until I knew enough, but not too much. For each plot point I wrote additional notes and then – after some deep breathing and much staring out the window – I put pen to paper. Some of the songs came together relatively easily; others were like trying to unearth a granite boulder with my teeth. While the doubts remained, somewhat surprisingly I found myself having fun: this was exciting new territory, especially in terms of working with brevity and compression, and I enjoyed playing with the architecture of a piece of writing; I was keen to see where it all might go. As the initiator of the project Paul could end up hating what I had produced, and James might find it impossible to score, but all I could do was create a text that only I could create.

Once I had a complete though rough set of lyrics, I decided that I wanted feedback from a practicing poet. I approached Melinda Smith, who had won the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry for her magical collection Drag Down to Unlock or Place an Emergency Call (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013). In a noisy Canberra café Melinda went though which pieces of mine were working, which were wobbly (as evidenced by the amount of red ink she’d put on the page), and which ones could be jettisoned. While Melinda’s feedback was frank and constructive, she also said, ‘Nigel, you’re creating a work that’s going to have considerable emotional resonance with an audience. You’ve got this.’ Which was the best possible thing for someone to say at such an early stage of the work, especially from someone of Melinda’s stature.

After reworking every word of all thirteen songs, I gave the new draft to Paul.

And waited nervously for his response.

In a Goulburn pub, with some kind of sport being played on the television in the corner, Paul said, ‘I’ve got to tell you, I had a very strong emotional reaction when I first read your work.’ I could only hope that was a good thing.

The score in development by James Humberstone

James spent much of 2015 progressing the score, feeding through to us sketches as he developed them. He specialises in experimental new music and although my role isn’t so much to engage in the musical composition I  enjoyed what he was producing. James was investing in the work a high degree of artistic intelligence, and even at an early stage it was coming across to my ears as intricate and very moving.

Some tantalisingly brief extracts from James’s score are available here.

The three of us met a number of times during that year, at the Sydney Conservatorium and at the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium. At one stage James said to me, ‘How precious are you with the libretto?’ I said, ‘I see this as a collaboration so do whatever you need to do with it.’ He said, ‘That’s a relief. Some librettists won’t allow even a single comma to be changed.’ I was glad to have had the advice from the eminent author, that there needed to be a dance between the text and the music and the audience. How could that dance happen if there isn’t some kind of give and taken between the components of the work?

Creative development, December 2016, Paul Scott-Williams and Alan Hicks. (Photo courtesy of James Humberstone)

In 2016 Caroline Stacey, the Artistic Director of The Street Theatre in Canberra, took a keen interest in the project, and in December we had our first creative development – the work, at least as much of it as had been completed, was performed in a rehearsal space. I was eager for feedback, but I was also completely terrified. How would my words sound when sung? When there is nothing but piano and voice there isn’t much to hide behind. Would there be emotion and intimacy? Or would the whole thing come across as artifice? As each song was played it felt as if someone was projecting on the wall images of my naked body. Unsurprisingly, Paul sang the work beautifully and with considerable power (though he would soon decide that it would be best to engage another singer to take the work to public performance). By the end of the creative development, James and I knew what needed to be improved, and Caroline suggested that we undertake another creative development before the work was premiered.

Which is where we are at now.

On Thursday 1 June, again at The Street Theatre in Canberra, and through the First Seen program, we will do a second creative development; at 5pm there will be a public showing of the full work – the audience will be asked to provide feedback. If you live in the ACT region you are most welcome to come along. More information here. A Canberra Times article published on 12 May can be found here. You will find me in the corner, curled into a ball and wishing I was still that kid in the living-room and listening to Kate Bush’s ‘Running up that Hill’ on repeat.

I still have doubts about the work. Perhaps, back in December 2014, I should have done more to convince Paul to engage another librettist – an actual poet. While I have given the text my all, reworking, revising, polishing, over and over and over and over, I just don’t know how audiences will respond. Will there be an enticing, enthralling dance between the words and the music? Will the story be emotionally textured, or will it come across as a bald polemic? Have we made a contribution to art song in Australia? Was that ever possible?

I should say that doubting my ability is not new; after 20 years of practice, I doubt my ability no matter what the form. For example, despite having 50 short stories published in Australian literary journals, I seriously and genuinely feel as if I barely understand what makes a short story come to life.

Perhaps all this comes down to expectations. When I’m thinking pragmatically, I tell myself that I’ve had a certain amount of time to give to Homesong, and I’ve invested in it as much skill and heart and soul as I can. Soon it will be public and I will have to let go.

What is this work about? Home and secrets and fear.

It’s all that, and more. I hope.

*

I’ve decided that I will keep writing about Homesong as the project comes to fruition, so if you’re interested in knowing more, including opportunities to see and hear the work, do drop in again.

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