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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.

Crystal CastlesCrystal Castles are the punks of dance music, to the point that III was apparently made without computers (which is quite something considering this really is dance music, as in the electronic thumpa-thumpa kind) and three of the tracks appear on the record unmixed.  If you’re intrigued, you should be.  Inevitably this collection is shouty and rough around the edges, so at times you turn these tunes down rather than up.  But it’s also extraordinarily majestic, and it’s music for the brain, even the soul, not just for the dance-floor.  We really do need to love musicians – any artists – who are committed to pushing the boundaries of whatever genre they’re working within, and not caring a damn about whether dollars will flow or not.

homepage_large.053aea55As I wrote earlier on Under the counter, I wasn’t convinced that this latest Sigur Ros long-player was going to be any good, primarily because we’d heard how difficult it was for the band to get their act together and record something they themselves actually liked.  In the end they roped in lead-singer Jonsi’s boyfriend to make sense of it all.  The fact is Valtari is one of Sigur Ros’ best albums.  Yes, it’s glacial, and ethereal, the words that you’d expect to be used in connection with these Icelandic post-rockers.  But it’s also their bravest, and richest, and deepest.  As always the music patiently builds and builds and peaks before gliding out into nothingness, but it’s in the stillness where the real beauty is to be found, and that’s in the stunning closing third.  You really shouldn’t miss this.

Patrick WolfI’m a longstanding fan of Patrick Wolf, and we were lucky enough to see him at the Sydney Opera House this year right at the beginning of his worldwide acoustic tour.  I’d feared that the rather flamboyant Wolf would be precious and precocious and – dammit: let’s call a spade a spade – outright queenie, but on this evening at least his company was warm, engaging and surprisingly self-effacing; I would have been more than happy to go back the next night and sit through it all again.  Sundark and Riverlight is essentially a best-of collection, but the Lupercalian has re-arranged and re-recorded the selected tracks into a folksy, baroque stew, and it’s tasty fare indeed.  And intimate.  In short: a rare joy.

CoexistThis second album by The XX is, as others have said, a little on the underwhelming side, though there’s something appealing about that – like a wine that’s not much on first taste but keeps on getting better and better until it’s all that you want to drink, and think about.  The XX sound like no one else, which is something we should be very grateful for as it’s the best thing about the band, that and their skills in arrangement and production, which are always excellent.  I like Coexist best at the end of the day, just as the light’s fading and the melancholy sets in.

GodspeedLike Sigur Ros, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are moody bastards, but this time around (after the band put themselves on a long self-imposed hiatus) it’s all straight-out grim anger.  At what exactly, it’s hard to tell – capitalism, the state of political discourse, modern life in general? – but this record is certainly a rally against something or other.  Perhaps it’s against anything that’s safe and predictable and lovely and polished within an inch of itself.  Enter Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! at your own peril – it’s utterly relentless – but this is a very sublime kind of misery.

That one special extra: if you’re a fan of thoughtful, haunting and intricate electronica that’s all dripping-wet streets, shadows in the dark and an overall feeling that hope is slithering down the nearest gutter-drain, go search out Kindred, a three-track gem from UK dub-step pioneer Burial.  The coda of ‘Astray Wasp’ is simply staggering and is easily some of the best music recorded all year; it starts around eight minutes into this eleven-minute epic, but you really need to engage with the whole track to get the maximum effect.  You can listen to it by clicking on this.

Godspeed_You!_Black_Emperor_-_Allelujah!_Don't_Bend!_Ascend!In this day and age when there are machines all over the house demanding our attention and, perhaps worse, telling us what to do, it’s rare – or just fucking fantastic – when something comes along that truly reaches out and grabs you, yes, grabs you, around the neck, until all you can do is sit stunned on the couch, a candle or two lit, and you just stare into the near-darkness until you’re weeping, or you’re up on your feet and doing air-guitar in front of the French doors (the blackness on the other side adoring thousands, although in reality it’s just a crumbling old house in the night).  What is this something?  Godspeed you! Black Emperor’s new album, Allellujah! Don’t bend! Ascend!

Godspeed you! Black Emperor, or Godspeed, or GYBE, or, as they call themselves on this album, God’s Pee, is a Montreal-based collective that combines a wide range of instruments into what often amounts to a truly cacophonous climax of distorted and disturbing sound.  On Allellujah! Don’t bend!  Ascend!, their first record in ten years, members play guitars, drums, violins, cellos, dulcimers, something called a ‘portasound’, something called a ‘kemance’, vibraphones, marimbas, glockenspiels, even a hurdy-gurdy.  Think Sonic Youth mashed with a string-quartet mashed with a few blown-ins who will play whatever the hell they want to play, all of them in flannies and rip-torn jeans, bottles of vodka at their feed, and a hatred of rabid, rampant capitalism in their hearts.

I’ve been following the band since their extraordinarily epic Lift your skinny fists like antennas to heaven (2000), and then discovered their back catalogue, which was equally impressive.  Godspeed is a post-rock band, so it’s all patient ebbs and flows until building into near-out-of-control conclusions, resulting in general devastation all-round.  There’s no singing, though every so often there’s a field-recording of someone speaking, an unhinged street-poet, say, or a manic preacher.  The band is famous for not promoting themselves – for example, there’s barely a mention of this latest album on the band’s website – and they’ve only rarely allowed their music to be used in films.  This is not easy-listening music, nor is it summer music, which makes it even more miraculous that I just can’t turn this latest bloody album off.

To give you an idea of the terrain we’re in, Godspeed offer us a blurry photo of an abandoned farm-house on the cover and on the back are the following words: ‘WRECK’D US OUR COUNTRIE’S AMOK/TORN THRU/WITH BIRDS THEE SKY’S A BRUIS’D UNRECKONING/THEE SHORE’S BED DRY BUT TEPID WATERS’ (the capitalisation is theirs).  The Bible-esque broken English and fly-blown poetry is perfectly appropriate for what’s on the actual disc: a collection of four relentless but never-the-less strangely uplifting pieces of music.

The first, ‘Mladic’, is an 18-minute masterpiece of noise and riffing, all of it rising and falling before rising again but never losing the tension that is at the song’s pained and twisted heart.  It’s such a grand gesture, but there’s no mistaking the typical Godspeed anger – even on low volume this song makes your ears and nose bleed.  ‘Mladic’ deserves to be heard through half-decent speakers, but you can get a taste of how it’s performed live here.  Interesting that the band allow fans to record their shows; also of interest in this video is the use of looped projections, which have been a long-time feature of their gigs (they include the artists’ names in the list of band members).

Contrasting ‘Mladic’ is ‘Their helicopters’ sing’ (is that poorly placed apostrophe on purpose?).  This is a 6-minute drone where the strings are more prominent…and is that the sound of bagpipes?  It reminds me of something that the Estonian minimalist composer Arvo Pärt once said, and I’m paraphrasing here: ‘I have found that sometimes it is enough for a piece of music to be nothing more than a single note played beautifully.’  Pärt has always sought spiritual beauty, but Godspeed are after something much more frightening.  ‘We drift like worried fire’ begins in typically sparse fashion, being built around a simple plucked-string (guitar? violin? sample?) motif, before loose-limbed drumming kicks in and the song is off, traveling here and there, lifting and lowering as usual, finding lightness, darkness, and more lightness.  This song is Godspeed at their most majestic; in fact, it’s almost triumphant-sounding, maybe even beautiful, though be warned that this band would find beauty in a pair of sodden socks left behind by a wino.

Like those other post-rock marvels Sigur Ros, who came back from near oblivion with this year’s Valtari, which is a profoundly moving collection of songs, Godspeed you! Black Emperor prove with Allellujah! Don’t bend!  Ascend! that this punky, almost underground musical movement remains as valid and as valuable as ever.  This record is a plea for solidness, for depth and resonance, for real living, the sort that doesn’t begin and end with the click of a button.

Last week my little humble home stepped into a new era – I had a fire installed, a slow-combustion wood heater, I should say.  Technically I don’t need it.  There’s an old coal burner in the front room that’s now a library; I can use the coal burner to burn wood should I want a fire.  Plus I’m lucky to have ducted gas heating and a wall-mounted gas heater the size of a very large travelling suit-case.  And electric bar heaters.  And an electric blanket on the bed.  In this Southern Tablelands neck of New South Wales, winters do have a bite – heavy frosts are common, we regularly have minus-six mornings (which, according to the Bureau of Meteorology actually feel like minus-ten), even the odd snow flurry.  But I have my range of heaters, and, when I’m here alone, I wear thermal undies, because they make things just that little more bearable, and I really can’t afford to run the gas heating for long stretches.

Still I had a slow-combustion wood heater installed last week.  A man came by and did it for me, because I wouldn’t have had the first clue where to start.

Despite being a winter person, I’m finding more and more that I need heat, good, dry, radiant heat.  So there it is, the fire, sitting in the lounge-room where the piano used to be (the piano that’s now in the front room, glancing back at the coal burner).  My new slow-combustion wood heater is a big black cast-iron box of a thing, a massive black flue that gives the room an industrial aesthetic.  I can’t wait to get to 6pm tonight and light the fire, because I’ll want that good, dry, radiant heat, the flames, the glowing, dancing yellow-orange light, the smell of hardwood burning, the pop and crackle of it all, which scares the living daylights out of The Old Lady of the House.  I’ll pour myself a glass of white wine, or Cointreau, or American Honey whiskey, and sit in front of the heat.

Because I’m a melancholic – that’s the real reason why I love my new fire so much.  Melancholia is my natural habitat, it always has been.

I love melancholic books: The Remains of the Day, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, Holding the Man, Brideshead Revisited, Brokeback Mountain, Disgrace.  I love melancholic music: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Red House Painters, The Smiths, Bon Iver, Sigur Ros, M83, Arvo Part, Johan Johannson.  I’m not depressed, although there have been times when that’s exactly what I have been.  I’m just a miserable old melancholic – I have, as my Oxford Australian Reference Dictionary makes clear, ‘a habitual or constitutional tendency to pensive sadness’.  Pensive: deep in thought.  Don’t you love how words can take us on journeys, take us from one place to another!

I think my new fire takes me from one place to another, from the surface-tension of the present to deep within myself, to that core of melancholia that’s there, that which I was born with, that which I will die with.  Because, as strange as it may sound, I’m happiest in that place.  No doubt the fire is more friend than foe, taking me down there but, most importantly, bringing me back, warming me up, sending me to bed, reminding me that, more or less, everything will be alright in the morning.

I really can’t do it. I can’t remember the last time I sat upright in an armchair and listened to a new album from start to finish, the cover in my hands, checking song titles, reading lyrics, scanning the acknowledgements, then just closing my eyes to focus on what’s coming out of the speakers. But that’s exactly what I did this morning, for Bon Iver’s Bon Iver.

It was a nervous few minutes as I put on the album and got to listening. Compared to the awe-inspiring For Emma, forever ago (2008), would this album suck dogs balls? I’d recently had an experience of a band trying in vain to follow up a masterpiece – you can read about it here – and I’m just not strong enough to go through it all again. But, quite frankly, Bon Iver’s second album is extraordinary. It is majestic in its scope, in its wide-eyed amazement. Goose-bump material.

‘Perth’ starts the record in typical Bon Iver fashion – strummed and finger-picked guitars, Vernon’s multi-tracked falsetto – but its conclusion is aggressive, as if to say, I’m back and this is my new album and you’re in for a fucking ripper of a ride. From here we meander through a musical landscape so beautifully crafted – so beautiful in and of itself – that it’s as if Vernon can barely believe his eyes and ears and heart and gut.

God is in the detail: in the crystal clear but so very warm production, in the sense of caring – aching – for every note, every beat, every word; you even get this impression in the cover art, the finest of brush-stokes in the idyllic lakeside scene depicted. As well as being majestic, Bon Iver is brave in its exploration and sense of play: song structures that go beyond what we know but stop short of where we thought we were heading. For Christ’s sake on this record saxophones duel with pedal-steel guitars.

Every so often there are hints of other bands: Red House Painters, Sigur Ros, even Godspeed You! Black Emperor. But Bon Iver is all Vernon’s; no one makes music like this, music which strives to get a handle on what it feels like to be alive in this shit-house world we call home, that strives full-stop.

It’s true that Vernon’s lyrics are a cousin of gibberish. Take this for example, the first line from ‘Minnesota Wi’: ‘Armour let it through, borne the arboretic truth you kept posing’. Others have concluded that at the end of it all Vernon really doesn’t have anything to say, and this is understandable. But it’s possible that Vernon might know exactly what he’s trying to say, it’s just that he wants us to work it out, in our own way, in our own time. A clue could be in the acknowledgements; like many artists, he thanks his parents, but it’s how it does it that’s interesting: ‘And to more than anyone, my Mum and Dad. Who never encouraged me to try anything different. Who raised me to always be the best person I could be. For being my best friends and loving me so much. For as much life as there is to live, I will never be able to thank you enough.’

It’s the intensity, the sheer wonderment.

If it’s true that Vernon’s lyrics mightn’t exactly be driven by clarity, it’s also true that ‘Beth/Rest’ is a bizarre note on which to finish the album. It’s an unashamed soft-rock ballad, the sort of thing that REO Speedwagon inflicted on us thirty years ago. Vernon’s take could well be seen as courageous, but it leaves a distinctly cheesy taste in the mouth, which is odd considering that For Emma was a paean to the heartfelt and authentic. Is it a misstep? Perhaps. But on the scale of wank to genius, it might possibly nudge genius. Maybe in structuring the album Vernon wanted to take us on a journey from the mountain cabin in which he recorded that first record to the bright-light cities of middle America, which, of course, has soft-rock firmly planted in its fat burger belly.

Forgiveness is possible – if you think forgiveness is needed – when you consider the sheer gloriousness of the nine songs that proceed ‘Beth/Rest’. On the elegant ‘Holocene’, Justin Vernon disingenuously claims ‘And at once I knew I was not magnificent’. You are magnificent, I’m afraid to tell you. On Bon Iver, you’re dangerously magnificent, and I for one am glad that I live in a world where music as rich and transcendent as this is possible.

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