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There has been a bit going on this year in my neck of the woods: seeing The Weight of Light have its world premiere in Canberra and then performed in Goulburn and Sydney (plus two other music projects but more on these at a later date) and a final spit and polish of Bodies of Men before it heads into the world in April/May 2019. As always, reading has been the foundation. Stillness and immersion and revelation and depth: there will never be anything like it.

The following is not really a ‘best of’; it’s just a list of work that I have read that has got beneath my skin.

In Terra Nullius, Claire G. Coleman, a writer from Western Australia who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people, reveals the horrors and hypocrisies that underpin contemporary Australia. In a way, perhaps, the novel is speculative fiction, but the scenario is far too present to be ignored, as are the uncomfortable truths it reveals. This is one of the most unique novels I have read in years.

Speaking of unique, a work that I almost literally gobbled up is The Long Take by Robin Robertson. A verse novel, the narrative follows a D-Day veteran as he travels across the US so he can piece his life together. Rather surprisingly The Long Take is as much about urban planning and design as it is about war; there are also evocations of Hollywood. Disintegration appears to be the unifying theme, but this is not a grim read, nor is it inaccessible. Truly remarkable.

With her trademark lyricism, Robyn Cadwallader in Book of Colours brings to life the people and politics behind the making of a fourteenth-century prayer book; the novel is also about the making of art in general. It is fascinating – and highly moving – from first page to last. A beautiful novel in every way.

Also beautiful is Inga Simpson’s Understory, which is a chronicle of the author’s profound attachment to a small patch of Queensland forest. This is much more than a tree-change memoir: it is also about the desire to live a creative life and the need to find and survive love. Very moving.

Two poetry collections especially resonated: Melinda Smith’s Goodbye, Cruel and Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi. In the former, Smith once again displays her extraordinary range, moving seemingly effortlessly from the dramatic to the deep historic. In the latter, Chingonyi investigates music, masculinity and racism, in a tone that reads to me as muscular melancholia – it is wonderful. Both collections I have read more than once.

As others have said, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less is a surprisingly light read for a Pulitzer Prize-winner. It is a warm and accessible read, but it is ultimately a deeply yearning hymn to modern love in a global world. Although often hilarious, Less is also a broken-hearted novel and deserves to be read until the end for its full impact to be experienced.

A second heartbreaking novel from this year, though it is also brain- and soul-breaking, is Taboo by Kim Scott. Another writer of Noongar decent, Scott has created a deeply affecting story about race relations in Australia. In spare but lyrical – at times literally magical – prose, Scott writes about the layers of this country’s history that are far too often glossed over to tell a more appealing but largely false narrative. Taboo is powerful and very necessary.

I also thoroughly enjoyed The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser and, though it took me a long time (years) to get to it, The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, as well as On Patriotism by Paul Daley and No Country Woman: A memoir of not belonging by Zoya Patel.

Much of this year was dedicated to reading gay fiction, which I wrote about for Meanjin. I also loved All Being Equal from Griffith Review, because it includes a suite of novellas that explore the contemporary gay experience, and because the stories are deeply moving.

Finally, I was lucky enough to read advance copies of two wonderfully adventurous novels that will be released in 2019: The Artist’s Portrait by Julie Keys, which in a memorably unflinching voice reveals the complex and often fraught nature of creative identity; and Karen Viggers’ The Orchardist’s Daughter – told in the author’s typically unaffected prose, the novel explores the web of relationships and competing viewpoints that exist in and around a Tasmanian forest. Here’s hoping both novels will be much discussed and find a broad audience.

It is, in a way, an act of withdrawal, and I worry about it sometimes.

I am spending more and more time reading and alone. How healthy can that be? But let’s be honest: for a natural hermit, it is very healthy, especially when I am fortunate to have a room dedicated to books—a private library.

Eight years ago, partly due to good luck and partly due to a desire to put literature at the centre of my being, I left Canberra for a town an hour away, in regional New South Wales. Although I would need to continue earning an income, I could, if luck kept smiling on me, live on the smell of an oily rag. My plan was to spend the majority of each week writing, but I have found, thankfully, that I am spending as much time reading—day after day of it, all in the smallest room in my crumbling old cottage.

In the library is a pair of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that were there when I moved in, as well as an old green Hordern & Sons wood-heater (it is rarely used, because it tends to smoke out the house) and a tartan couch that I bought for $30 from the local Vinnies but is a bit too short for my body. In winter, when the mornings sometimes start with a horrifying minus 10 degrees, I read under two blankets: one, a mix of oranges and reds, was my grandmother’s; the other, which is as green as the wood-heater and the couch, was my mother’s and given to her by a school friend—my mother is now in a nursing home and battling dementia, so the gift came to me earlier this year.

In summer I am sprawled only in black T-shirt and grey shorts, the soles of my feet gritty with dirt because I like to get up every hour or so and hand-water the garden…

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Keep reading over at Meanjin, which commissioned this piece and first published it on 26 September 2018.

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.

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