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Specially commissioned art work by Katy Mutton

How lucky I am.

That’s what I keep thinking whenever I’m working on Homesong, or The Weight of Light as the song cycle is now known. Lucky because this is a project that brings together my two main creative loves: words and music. Lucky because it’s a project that has taken me well beyond what I usually consider my area of expertise. And lucky because I’m working with a team of incredibly skilled professionals.

So, what’s happened since the last Homesong Diary update?

Firstly, based on feedback from the creative development at The Street Theatre in June, which included responses from an invited audience, I did a lot of work on the libretto. I decided that the text would be more coherent if the story was told from one point of view with the present story told in present tense and the narrative elements that related to the past told in the past tense – this makes sense considering the entire story is told through the voice of one performer, a baritone. Also, when in doubt, go with simplicity! Then I spent some days examining the story in an almost clinical way: what was happening and when and why? Should some songs get the axe and new ones added? And what might be the most logical order of songs? Director Caroline Stacey and I then spent a few hours over coffee in Canberra going through the latest draft, eventually deciding that some elements of the libretto were clearer while some needed further refinement. And, yes, some songs got the axe and new ones were written.

Then the core team – project initiator Paul Scott-Williams from the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, composer James Humberstone, and myself – got together in Goulburn to investigate the latest version of the libretto, essentially to check in with each other to make sure we were happy with the direction in which the work was going. It was at this point that we settled on the title, which is not only a line from one of the songs, but also, we thought, references the contrast in the work’s themes and elements. I’m especially fond of the title, as it reflects the somewhat wild mood-swings of the light in the Southern Tablelands, where the story has been both written and set.

While James worked on revisions and additions to the score (a process that was challenged by my near-constant fussing with the words), The Street Theatre commissioned Canberra visual artist Katy Mutton to create an image that would be used to support the project’s publicity campaign. The work Katy produced, which is above, beautifully reflects the sense of failing masculinity that is explored in the song cycle; we’re absolutely thrilled.

As the story revolves around an Australian soldier who has served in Afganistan I wished to check some of my assumptions by having discussions with professional support personnel at Soldier On, an organisation whose mission is to work side by side with those who serve and protect Australia, and their families, helping them to secure their futures

Baritone Michael Lampard and accompanist Alan Hicks try out the songs in ‘The Weight of Light’

Finally, last week, the team, including Caroline and new baritone Michael Lampard, and accompanist Alan Hicks met at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music to spend two days exploring the new songs and also to do a full run-through to see how the work was coming along. It’s a buzz hearing my words come to life, but perhaps what I have been enjoying the most is working collaboratively. As I have said elsewhere I’m primarily a writer of fiction, which means I spend most of my time in my writing room dreaming up characters and narrative scenarios and crafting sentences; sometimes the resultant stories come to life and sometimes (often?) they don’t. At heart I am a recluse, and I enjoy spending the majority of each week alone. However, working with a team and collaborating with other artists opens up so many possibilities. Mutual respect, I think, is a key ingredient and this team has that in spades.

Overall, it was agreed in Sydney that The Weight of Light is starting to rise off the page, which is exactly what any writer wants to hear. As James has observed, this song cycle is an emotional ride, and, in parts, it’s difficult (after all it explores themes of nationalism, fear, masculinity and family dynamics under extreme pressure), but there are also moments of beauty. Paul Scott-Williams’ original proposal – indeed requirement – was to create a work that would make a contribution to art song in Australia. We’ve certainly taken some risks; some pianos won’t be the same afterwards! But we really won’t know if it is any good until it’s back in front of an audience…

Next stop?

The work will have its world premiere at The Street Theatre in Canberra on 3-4 March 2018 – tickets are already on sale. It will be premiered at the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium on 10 March. There is talk of a tour and a recording, which would be completely terrific if they came to fruition. If you’re around this neck of the woods it would be wonderful to see you at one of the performances.

For now, a few days’ rest is warranted, before rehearsals begin in February. I hope to spend some time on the couch, with a pile of novels, and a very large glass of wine.

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Sydney Cove back when it all started: are they ominous storm-clouds or is it an approaching bushfire?

Sydney Cove back when it all started: are they ominous storm-clouds on the horizon or is it an approaching bushfire?

It’s January in Australia and I’m hot and bothered. Hot, because that’s exactly what it is: for weeks now it’s been thirty degrees Celsius in the shade, some days thirty-five. Last Friday went over forty; Sydney, just two hours drive north of me, had its hottest day ever – it breached the forty-five-degree mark. Here at home the chooks have their beaks open and their wings out and hanging low, so I’ve covered their run as much as I can with an old tent-fly – it seems to help, for now. But hot is hot is hot and there’s not much I can do about it. And I can’t do much about the alarming waft of smoke as it comes into town and gets us coughing. Last week there was an automated message left on the landline: ‘Tomorrow’s bushfire conditions are CATASTROPHIC. Activate your bushfire survival plan now.’ I put the sprinkler into the garden and, rather uselessly, turned it on.

All this is enough to make anyone hot and bothered, but it’s not all.

On 26 January there’s Australia Day; yes, it’s come around yet again. So the flags are out and about: they’re being stuck on cars and utes and trucks, they’re hung in shop windows, and they’re sent flapping in front gardens, stating the bleeding obvious, but also as though staking a claim all over again. We do it every year, our national day to commemorate the beginning of British settlement, when Governor Phillip landed at Sydney Cove in 1788. I was born and bred here, my forebears arriving by boat only a handful of years after that adventurous governor. Despite this ancestral longevity, however, and whatever blood I have in my veins, and all my thinking on the topic, I don’t really know this nation of mine; as I age I’m understanding it less and less. So, this summer, this dreadful, pressure-cooked summer, I’ve turned to our writers for assistance, for succour even, because their imagination, observation and skilful way with words are surely better than simply hanging out a flag.

Keep reading at Overland.  Thanks to Jeff Sparrow and Jacinda Woodhead.

We survived!  Yesterday the partner and I returned from what organisers claim is the world’s biggest touring contemporary music festival – the behemoth that is Australia’s Big Day Out.  We attended the Sydney 22 January show, which was only the second time we’ve done a BDO, the first being in 2001 when we watched the likes of PJ Harvey (who was brilliant), Placebo and Coldplay go through their paces.  Whilst He Who Stayed Up Until Midnight To Book The Tickets and I both love our contemporary music, very much in fact, to the point that for me it’s rare that a week goes by when I don’t return from a visit to my favourite independent music store with a CD or vinyl record in hand, in the days leading up to our, well, big day out we began to feel more than a little apprehensive.

For a start our combined age is 77, which is bloody scary when put like that, so we’re not really in the festival’s target demographic.  Plus neither of us likes the heat and crowds make us nervous (which means we’re not huge fans of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras either).  And I hate city traffic.  So considering that we were driving three hours to Sydney to share Olympic Park with 50,000 revellers in temperatures hovering over 40 degrees we had every reason to feel a bit on the ‘this could be very scary’ side.

But, yes, we survived, with sore legs and a touch of sunburn our only war wounds.  Though I do have another wound, which I’ll share with you shortly.

The Horrors' Faris Badwan

All the bands we saw largely impressed.  Miami Horror did their New Order-pop thing.  Sugar Army were heavier and moodier than I expected.  Karnivool thrilled with their Tool-esque twists and turns and professionalism.  Decoder Ring were deeper and grungier live than their recordings would suggest.  What I heard of Oh Mercy made me want to learn more about these guys.  Passion Pit, whose Manners album is a bit too poppy for my taste, looked like a bunch of good people – more than once they reminded the audience to look after each other because of the scorching heat.  I thoroughly enjoyed The Horrors; I’d love to see a full-length gig from these guys, although the guitars were lost in what was a muddy mix, but that could have been due to the ear-plugs I wore throughout the day – I used to think ringing in the ears was the sign of a good night out, but these days I love my music too much to do any further damage.

Dizzee Rascal was certainly a crowd favourite – we watched a stadium filled with 30,000 people going, erm, bonkers for the East Londoner.  Lily Allen did her catchy pop thing.  Phrase and his band chucked everything but the kitchen sink into their set and thrilled a small though devoted crowd.  And then there was Muse, who rocked the stadium senseless.  Within a couple of minutes of walking onto the stage they had everyone – and I really do mean everyone – singing along to the chorus of ‘Uprising’, the first song on their overblown but great album ‘The Resistance’:

They will not force us,

They will stop degrading us,

They will not control us,

We will be victorious.

For me, however, it was Peaches who was the pick of the musical crop: funny, funky, sexy, theatrical, outrageous – she was the only act I saw who was committed to actually stirring the pot.

I wrote ‘musical crop’ in the previous sentence because my personal highlight of the entire day was being able to watch Angelica Mesiti’s ‘Rapture (Silent Anthem)’, a piece of video art that won the 58th Blake Prize, which is Australia’s oldest art gong dedicated to ‘spirituality and religious and cultural diversity’ (the latter being more than a little interesting in this context).  In a darkened tent we were invited to sit on bean bags and watch on a large screen slowed-down images of audience faces from the 2008 Big Day Out.  The hero-worshipping eyes, the ecstatic smiles, almost the pain of being so close (close to what? close to so many things) – this is art that knows precisely what it wants to say.  In twenty years time it’ll be this that I’ll recall.  For more information, visit http://www.angelicamesiti.com.

A screen grab from Angelica Mesiti's 'Rapture (Silent Anthem)', 2009.

The crowd?  Despite the heat and the amount of drinking going on and the bucket-loads of other substances thrown into the mix as well and the general overall intensity of the event, everyone in the main seemed polite, respectful and looking out for each other.  In the twelve hours we were there we saw only one altercation, and that was just between a drunk bloke who’d walked into a group of young girls, or the girls had walked into him, whatever, there were just a bit of harmless verbal jousting and that was it.  That the event organisers had set up free water stations, were regularly showering the crowd with water cannons, had volunteers spraying anyone who needed it and were evicting those who looked too wobbly on their feet no doubt helped to keep things as harmonious as possible without it turning into a hippy love-fest.

So, if you’re interesting in sampling what’s hot (huh!) in the Australian and international music scene, there’s probably no better opportunity than the Big Day Out.

But I’d be lying if I finished this post here, because there’s something very worrying going on with this festival.  If you’re looking for a crowd that reflects the diverse cultural mix of modern Australia then you’re not going to find it at Big Day Out.  I was hard-pressed to see anyone of Asian or African or Middle Eastern appearance.  The BDO crowd is 99% Anglo-Saxon.  And very proud of it: there’s a heck of a lot of Aussie-flag capes, Aussie-flag dresses, Down Under terry-towelling hats and nationalistic tattoos on display.  I really have no idea what motivates someone to have HANDMADE IN AUSTRALIA permanently emblazoned across their chest.  One Australian band that I won’t name observed of the crowd that they looked to be ‘a good Aussie lot’, as if this was the best compliment imaginable.  Christ, at one point even the young blokes manning the Skywalker ride got a crowd doing the completely inane ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi!’ chant – I mean, what’s that all about?

Obviously the fact that the festival runs over the Australia Day long weekend has something to do with it, but that can’t explain the intensity of the feeling that’s on show.

Statistics regularly reveal Australia to be one of the most multicultural societies in the world, reputedly second only to Canada.  The 2006 census showed that 50% Australians were born overseas or had one or both parents born overseas.  There are 266 languages spoken at home, the most common being Italian, Greek, Cantonese and Arabic.  But none of this is on show at the Big Day Out.  What’s on show is the most nationalistic crowd you’re ever likely to experience outside of an official Australia Day event.  And, even though I’m a six-generation Australian and rather fond of the country I call home, this display of nationalism didn’t sit comfortably with me one bit.  It’s just plain ugly.  And it’s not harmless cultural pride either.  It’s nationalism, pure and simple.  It’s protectionism, it’s aggressive xenophobia.

In 2007 the Big Day Out organisers infamously reminded attendees that the festival was not an Australia Day event and asked people to leave the flag-waving at home.  Predictably this caused an outcry, with the then prime minister, the fear-mongering John Howard, describing the move as ‘stupid’.  But I reckon the organisers could see the future of their festival and didn’t like it one bit, and I get the feeling they still don’t like it one bit.  Regrettably, though understandably, they’ve not had a second go at stopping the nationalism from getting out of hand.

The potentially frightening thing is this: what exactly did the Sydney crowd have in mind when it sang along so fervently to that Muse chorus?

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