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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.

Fall on Me: you be the judge

Giving away art for free - who benefits in the end?

Giving away art for free – who benefits in the end?  (Someone once said that I reminded them of a ‘better-looking Thom Yorke’.  I’ve never known if that was a compliment or not.)

No, regrettably this little novella isn’t going to be a contestant on The Voice, but there is a music connection.  In 2007 the British rock-band Radiohead famously released their seventh studio album, In Rainbows, on a pay-what-you-want-for-the-download basis.  Whilst definitive results of the experiment are hard to come by, indications are that about 60% chose to pay nothing, while the remainder paid on average a significantly discounted price.  Overall, however, once the album was released physically, In Rainbows was a financial and critical success, making more money than the band’s previous album across all platforms.  At the time, Radiohead’s approach was considered ground-breaking, but over the years there’s been debate about its impact on the music industry in general; even Thom Yorke, the band’s free-thinking frontman, said that the strategy may have been a mistake, as it played into the prevailing internet culture that everything should be free.

What’s this got to do with literature and Fall on Me?

For a limited time only, the e-book version of Fall on Me is available to download on a pay-what-you-want basis. Nice.

For a limited time only, the e-book version of Fall on Me is available to download on a pay-what-you-want basis. Nice.

As is increasingly obvious, the publishing world is currently in turmoil and in many ways is following on the digital coat-tails of the music industry, or at least trying to.  Publishers big and small are looking to try anything and everything to get their books in the hands of readers.  And my publisher, Blemish Books, is no different.  So, for a limited time only, Blemish have released Fall on Me as an e-book on a pay-what-you-want basis.  It’s a very interesting proposition, because it’s actually the mirror-reverse of the In Rainbows experiment: Fall on Me has already had a successful run as a physical book, in terms of both numbers sold and positive reviews achieved.  But will this new strategy generate downloads?  And how much will readers pay for it?  And what do I reckon about all this? I’m just glad that the life of Fall on Me is being extended, and if Blemish’s cheeky Radiohead-esque move means more readers can experience the novella then I’m all for it.  Plus I have a phone-bill to pay.

I’m Ready Now for Smith’s and the Southern Highlands

This little baby's gonna be out and about a bit more.

This little baby’s gonna be out and about a bit more over the coming months.  I’ll probably turn up as well.

Meanwhile, the most recent of the two novellas, I’m Ready Now, continues to make its way in the world as a hard-copy-only book.  A handful of reviews down, and some public-reading gigs in the bag, I’m Ready Now has a few more outings up its sleeve.  At 6pm on Thursday 20 June, I’ll be joining my Blemish stable-mates, including PS Cottier and JC Inman, at a special one-off event called A Very Blemished Evening, a title that suits me perfectly.  It’ll be held at the new Smith’s Alternative, which is a longstanding and iconic Canberra bookshop that’s recently had a major overhaul and is now as much a bar and performance space as it is a place of books and reading.  Do join us: there’ll be booze, which is the main thing, isn’t it.  Oh and I’ve heard gratuitous gossip that there’ll be music by Canberra’s favourite streetwise troubadours, The Cashews.  Now that’s something to get excited about.

Then, a few weeks later, at 4pm on Saturday 13 July, I’ll be taking part in the Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival.  Established only last year, this time around the Festival has on offer literary luminaries such as Anne Sommers, Mark Tredinnick, Ursula Dubasarsky, and Geordie Williamson, all in a charming venue with an intimate atmosphere.  Don’t like the massive crowds of the big-city festivals?  Me neither, so come to this one.  I’ll be sharing the stage with Christine Howe, which is a bit nice as we’re both alumni of the University of Wollongong’s creative writing program.  We’ll be talking ‘Fantastic Fiction’ – apparently this requires us to dress as superheroes.  Me in lycra?  It’ll never happen.  But I’m sure Christine and I will still be able to keep you entertained.  Especially if there’s booze at the end of it.

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As always, thanks for your support and interest.  Fingers crossed that I’ll see you at one – or maybe both? – of these events.  And if you’re in the market for the highest quality e-book known to mankind, I do hope you’ll be able to press the right buttons and make a very independent publisher and their very independent author just that little bit happier.  Plus there’s that phone-bill to pay.  Chink-chink.

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