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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.

Milan Kundera: the unbearable search for a decent coffee

Milan Kundera: the unbearable lightness of having drunk far too much coffee.

‘Novel = heightened story.’ (Philip Larkin in Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1941)

‘There are four ‘appeals’ of the novel: (1) the appeal of play; (2) the appeal of dream; (2) the appeal of thought; (4) the appeal of time.’ (Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel, 1986)

‘I think that novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or deep enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality-level.  In such cases, our appetite is quickly disappointed, and surges wildly in excess of what we are provided, and we tend to blame the author for not giving us enough – the characters, we complain, are not alive or round or free enough.  Yet we would not dream of accusing Sebold or Woolf or Roth – none of whom is especially interested in creating character in the solid, old-fashioned nineteenth-century sense – of letting us down in this way, because they have so finely tutored us in their own conventions, their own expansive limitations, to be satisfied with just what they give us.’  (James Wood in How Fiction Works, 2008)

‘If it is the job of the novelist in part to document an era, to define what is ‘novel’ about their time and to interpret in new ways that which they see, then it makes sense that the best novels are the ones that work hardest at tearing up the foundations of the world as we know it, shifting away from convention, spotlighting the marginalised, and imagining and re-imagining this life and the world.’  (Slightly paraphrased from a review titled ‘Unpicking the Universe’ by Louise Swinn, Overland Issue 189, 2007)

‘[Here are the] inviolable standards: (1) a writer must give the maximum amount of information about a character: about his physical experience, his way of speaking and behaving; (2) he must let the reader know a character’s past, because that is where the motives are present and the behaviours are born; and (3) the character must have complete independence; that is to say , the author with his own considerations must disappear so as not to disturb the reader who wants to give himself over to illusion, and take fiction for reality.’ (Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera, 1986)

‘Literature that’s worth reading should tell you something that you didn’t know, and at the same time make that knowledge indispensable.’  (Dorothy Johnston in The Canberra Times, 19 July, 2008)

‘Novels are always about time.’  (Margaret Atwood)

Oscar Wilde said it was useless.  DH Lawrence said it was like having a good sneeze.  Margaret Atwood does it for the man in the sky.  What are they talking about?  Art and writing, of course.  But witty quips aside, why do people become obsessed with artistic endeavours like putting words on paper?  Hell, in this crazy day and age of prime ministers asking us to spy on our neighbours in the name of ‘being alert’, why should we do anything out of the ordinary?  Because it’s better to write twaddle, anything, said Kiwi novelist Katherine Mansfield, than nothing at all.

The great Australian artist Sir Sidney Nolan said that he thought that a successful artist would have no trouble being a successful member of the Mafia.  Lately I’ve been trying to work out whether artists and terrorists have something in common.  You would hope that most artists don’t set out to create terror.  And surely the aim of most terrorists is not to bring beauty into the world.  But artists and terrorists do have one – albeit uncomfortable – commonality: they both want us to see things from new perspectives, think in ways that are foreign to us.  Of course, there’s a rather horrific romanticism to that statement, and I for one would rather live in a world where someone takes a good book into a public place than a bomb.  But sometimes a superbly-crafted sentence, like a bomb, can change us forever, whether we like it or not.

So why do artists religiously obey the alarm clock when it shakes them awake each day?  Is it because they think they can change the world by composing sounds on their computers?  Is it because life is inherently dull without making up stories, as if we should never really grow beyond being that six-year-old child?  Is it because there is glorious logic to the statement, ‘I don’t have a mohawk but I gave up full-time work to make ceramics?’  Possibly.  There is one writer I know who thinks she’d have more to offer if she spent the mornings just walking the dog up Black Mountain, absorbing herself in kangaroos, cockatoos and echidnas rather than sitting in her study, fingers looking for some words to work with.

The thing is most artists simply can’t stop making art.  They’re like drug addicts with no interest in being clean.  Which begs another comparison: like the terrorist and the artist, does the artist and the addict have something in common?  Both are looking for new realities, for adventures, great escapes.  If you take drugs, you take risks.  There is a sense of being more alive than ever when risks are in your veins.  Surely Brett Whitely would agree with that, though it’d be kind of handy to know what he would think about life in April 2012).

Why can’t artists stop?  What really drives them on, especially when the world around continues to turn itself inside out?

Thankfully, there is one major difference between the agendas of the artist, the terrorist and the drug addict.  In his book A Way of Being Free, the African novelist Ben Okri said, ‘Writers have one great responsibility: to write beautifully… But there is a parallel responsibility: and that is to sing a little about the realities of the age, to leave some sort of magical record of what they saw and dreamt… and to bear witness in their unique manner to the beauties, the ordinariness, and the horrors of their times.’  Substitute painters or composers or sculptors in the above and it makes just as much sense.  Substitute terrorists or drug addicts and Okri’s point slips out the window like a daydream on the run.

Yes, Australia did have prime minister who, in his infinite wisdom, recommended to us, the people, ‘the mob’, that we be alert.  But shouldn’t we aim to be fully alive rather than merely alert?  Ants can be alert – the ever-present threat of being squashed by a big fat sneaker makes sure of that – but when was the last time one produced an extraordinary film?  We’re human beings and human beings are creative sorts.  Whether we want to be actually called ‘Artists’ or not, Okri is right: in our own simple, humble ways we should bear witness to the beauties and horrors of our times.  Record and communicate, make and tell.

So as the bombs keep dropping, no matter who’s dropping them and whoever’s land they are being dropped on, let’s not settle for merely being alert: let’s write poems, compose songs, paint pictures, build sculptures.  Because no matter how amateurish the end product, we’ll be alive.  And even if we’re living in a world dominated by a sad-sack coalition of the willing rather than the council of the wise, being properly alive is inherently a good thing.  That’s what art in the everyday sense can do: bring blood-pumping, naturally ecstatic, unadulterated life.  Alert people might be awake, but truly alive people are powerful.

It’s true that Oscar Wilde said all art was useless, but he was just writing twaddle – and changing the world.

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This is a slightly edited/updated version of a piece that was first published in The Canberra Times on 3 April 2003.  Not much has changed huh?

‘It seems we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive.  There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them.’
George Eliot

‘If anything is fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought.’
Robert Louis Stevenson

‘I just want to write songs that make people feel loved.’
Brian Wilson

 ‘To compose a novel is to set different emotional spaces side by side – and that, to me, is the writer’s subtlest craft.’
Milan Kundera

‘Writing is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.’
George Orwell

‘Go boldly forward and write the email to Australia and the world that says, Your position is not sustainable.  You cannot keep going in this direction.  Something is going to give: it may be your relationships, it may be your infrastructure, it may be your children, or it may be you.’
John Marsden

‘Like most comic novelists, I take the novel extremely seriously. It is the best of all forms – open and personal, intelligent and inquiring.  I value it for its scepticism, its irony and its play.’
Malcolm Bradbury

‘I’ve discovered that it is enough for a single note to be played beautifully.’
Arvo Pärt

‘Never state what you can imply.’
Jean Cocteau

‘Find the place where passion and precision are one.’
WB Yeats

‘The first paragraph brought the tingle of expectation I know when theatre lights dim.’
Pam Skutenko (in a review of Dorothy Hewett’s A Baker’s Dozen, Overland 164 2001)

‘Before you start writing a book make sure you’ve got something to say.’
Manning Clark

‘Novels are always about time.’
Margaret Atwood

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