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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.

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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.

As I say every year (every day, more like), I would be lost without music: it’s my oxygen, my water, my heart-beat. There is no point comparing it to reading or writing – literature is a whole other world – but music certainly forms an aesthetic space that I adore. As I’ll touch on below, my taste is evolving, as it should; I seem to be searching for beauty more than ever. But, in the main, it’s not a pretty kind of beauty. There has to be light and shadow, darkness even, and edginess, even ugliness. In short the music needs to express the full range of human experience. Sheesh, as if that’s even possible. Thankfully, composers, songwriters and musicians are up for the challenge.

Anyway, enough rambling. Here we go.

puberty-2Mitski is a conservatorium-trained alternative rock musician from New York and, quite frankly, Puberty 2 is one of the most enjoyable records I’ve bought in a long while, though it’s oddly difficult to describe. Here are a few words that may help: low-fi, angular, gutsy, poetic, PJ Harvey-esque, a touch of Weezer, and melancholic (of course). This is certainly a record to turn up loud so you can air-guitar to the knowledge that love is sublime, fraught, messy, and infuriating. ‘Your Best American Girl’ is an almost orgasmic rush of alt-rock goodness. Also have a listen to ‘My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars’. Tough, but highly memorable.

Centres by Ian William Craig got me on first listen and it has not let me go. It’s such an elegant mix of keyboard washes and drones, topped with loads of treated voice (Craig is a trained singer). All up, it’s a little like M83, but without the cheesy 1980s pastiche. Album opener ‘Contain’ is the perfect place to start. Great that the album finishes with an acoustic version of the opening track, proving that despite all the studio-trickery there are real songs at the heart of this work.

kiasmosKiasmos by Kiasmos: even though this album dates from 2014 and I’ve long been a fan of Ólafur Arnalds, I only discovered this in the last few months; I knew immediately that it would be one of my favourites of the year. Kiasmos is intricate, smart, thumping, and – that word again – beautiful. If excellent dance music moves the head, the heart, the crotch, and the legs, this album is beyond excellent. A stunning collaboration between Arnolds as composer and Janus Rasmussen as DJ. Here’s hoping they are working on another record, because I must admit: I can’t play Kiasmos without turning out the lights and dancing like no one’s watching.

In my list for last year I briefly mentioned that I had discovered Floating Points and liked what I’d heard. Well, didn’t things go gangbusters from there. Floating Points is essentially one person, Sam Shepherd (another conservatorium-trained composer), and his Elaenia album is as near-perfect as you’re going to get. A little glitchy, oddly funky, more than a bit jazz-inflected, on paper this album is a contradiction, but once you connect with it you’ll find yourself drifting into a galaxy where heartbeats pulse and surprise and, yes, float.

It’s hardly startling, but as I get a bit long in the tooth I’m interested less in alternative rock (Mitski being an exception) and more interested in ‘new music’, especially the sort at the minimal – and, dare I say it, left-field – end of the spectrum. Dmitry Evgrafov’s Collage album is gorgeous, even pretty (that terrible word), but always keen on strange twists and turns. ‘Cries and Whispers’ is reminiscent of the The Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble , while other pieces are washed in Sigur Ros-like aesthetics. Evgrafov is certainly a new composer to watch.

chopin-projectSpeaking of composers to watch, Ólafur Arnalds is everywhere at the moment, including further up in this list as one half of Kiasmos. On The Chopin Project, he collaborates with Alice Sara Ott on the recomposition of the famous composer’s work. As Arnalds says in the lines notes, ‘By looking at his music in a different way, through the prism of recording technique in its different facets and through my own compositions, I didn’t intent to question the integrity of Chopin’s music. I wanted to find my very personal interpretation, like so many other great musicians have done before me.’ A subtle, wonderful success.

Dag Rosenquist’s Elephant is at times an unsettling listen: there’s a fair amount of static, a lot of repetitive piano tinkling, and, every so often, blasts of sheer noise. But there’s also plenty of beauty to be found, as well as some artful orchestration. ‘Come Silence’ is the most accessible piece here – it’s a gorgeous combination of slow-building keyboards and horns and then strings, before a Jan Garbarek-like saxophone brings us home. Stunning.

I might not be big on tradition, but I’m certainly big on habit and routine, and my winter habit and routine is, at 6pm, exactly at 6pm, I call it quits on writing, pour myself a glass of white wine, light the fire, and put on some of the best melancholic minimalist music I can find.  As you can probably imagine, I have quite a store of it, and I do order in new CDs and digital downloads at an alarming rate.  I’m not really sure why I love this stuff in the early evening, but I do, and I’d die without it.  Maybe it’s about the close of the day, especially a winter’s day, which around my neck of the words can be pretty severe – some days, if the wind-chill factor is taken into account, daytime temperatures never go above zero Celsius, and the nights can go down well below freezing.  And it can be grey, so so so grey.  Regardless of the weather, listening to melancholic minimalist music is what I do.

Here are three albums currently on high rotation.

Piano Solos by Dustin O’Halloran (2004).  Mr O’Halloran’s music is a favourite of film-maker Sofia Coppola, who is a very special kind of spunk – some of these tunes were used to great effect in her completely marvellous Marie Antoinette.  As is made clear by the title of this album, there’s nothing but piano here, and it’s all extraordinarily simple – your teenager daughter with a few keyboard skills (the musical kind, not the inane Facebook kind) could probably knock this stuff out.  However, there’s a stack of feeling on this record, and if O’Halloran was to be found playing it in a hotel foyer you could bet your bottom dollar that everyone would be watching and listening, and probably weeping too, which would be a bit nice.  Try ‘Opus # 12’ on for size.

Eulogy for Evolution by Olafur Arnalds (2006).  On the surface, this is just pretty piano-and-strings music.  It would certainly soundtrack a slightly miserable European film where people try to love and live well and be the best people possible, but in the end it all falls apart, only a hint of hope as the credits roll, so you clutch your partner’s hand, drop by the servo on the way home to get a family-sized block of chocolate, and you knock it all off before sliding into bed and each other’s arms, slowly falling asleep to the realisation that all is not lost, not yet.  But Arnalds offers more depth than your standard soundtrack, and, dare I say it, more sophisticated musicology.  Be warned: this bloke’s from Iceland, and there is just little of Sigur Ros here, particularly in terms of the background strings, but also in the way some of the songs end up in quite unexpected places.  Check out this little beauty – ‘3055’.

For the tired and ill at ease by Scissors and Sellotape (2012).  This is a pretty damn special thing, partly because it’s only available on very limited edition handmade vinyl (the packaging, not the actual record…I’m assuming), although I heard it’s well and truly out of stock, and digital download – there are no CDs in sight.  Originally from the UK but now based in Melbourne, the main protagonist here, John McCaffrey, makes the grimmest of music, slow and rumbling and almost drony, despite being based around simple minor-key piano motifs.  Dimension and perspective come from the addition of field-recordings to some tracks, such as a father and child talking, and, on the utterly intriguing ‘I say ‘get used to it’’, the subtlest of beats, almost as though they’ve come from a human heart.  Many may find For the tired and ill at ease (a title written fairly and squarely at me) just too macabre, but after repeated listens it reveals its warmth and beauty.  In short, it’s a ripper.  I’m off to hunt down the vinyl version.  But as it’s now 6pm I better pour myself a glass of white wine, light the fire, and listen to one of these albums.  Which one, I have no idea – it’ll be a lovely surprise for all of us.

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A great source of information on contemporary minimalism, check out Headphone Commute.  Actually, it’s the only source you need.

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