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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.

Rare and illuminating

Rare and full of light

The day of Ian Thorpe’s ‘big reveal’ interview, in fact only a few hours beforehand, I went off to do what has become one of the highlights of my week. Sometimes I do it for hours, even whole days: in short, I take myself off on Sunday drives. Yes, I’ve reached that point in my life. Thankfully I don’t take with me ELO or Mariah Carey CDs, but albums by Sonic Youth or Red House Painters or Burial or Jon Hopkins. Last Sunday, however, I didn’t have time for a whole day’s adventure, just a quick drive to the edge of town. Because the drive is only partly the point, as is the listening of music; I actually go on the hunt for old shit. Not posh antiques so much, but bits and pieces that might look good in a crumbling 120-year-old house owned by a writer who too is falling apart.

Last Sunday’s trip could only be short because I’d spent much of the day preparing financial records for my accountant. Getting my tax together is officially the nadir of my year. It is a time of great, fathomless despair. So, after six hours of that, it was time to jump in the car and head out to my local purveyor of old stuff. The business is in what clearly used to be a corner-shop. It’s filled with good things from years forgotten (by most), but none of it is expensive, and very little of it is in perfect condition – excellent. The shop is neat, but it’s not the sort of place where you feel you should put on a pair of white gloves before checking the price-tag. It’s owned by a friendly middle-aged man called Mart. A Sunday not long ago he offered me one of the Tim Tams on his plate. During the week he drives a school bus to towns and villages further out; it’s an appropriate occupation because I can easily imagine him to have been the sort of cheerful, chatty kid that no one had a reason to dislike.

As always, as soon as I stepped inside the shop, Mart said g’day – literally – and commented on the weather. ‘A big frost this morning, eh mate, minus-seven, they reckoned, with a feels-like temp of minus-ten. Winter’s really hit, eh mate!’ I could only agree. Before my eye was immediately taken by a light-fitting from the very early 1900s. I’d been on the hunt for exactly it for years. I checked it over: not only was it appropriate, it was highly affordable. I asked him to get it down from its display. I checked it over one last time, before I said that I’d buy the thing.

At the counter, which is a low desk with an old brass sign cheekily declaring ‘OFFICE CLERK’, Mart began packing the fitting into a box and started writing out a receipt. Wanting to hold up my end of the conversational bargain, I told Mart that for at least a couple of years I’d been driving all over the district looking for a light-fitting like the one he was selling me. I told him about the shop I go to in a small town an hour’s drive way that specialises in antique lights and lamps. He said, ‘Oh yes, the joint owned by Andrew and…’ and immediately went back to finishing the wrapping of my purchase before getting to work on the EFTPOS machine.

But I got the drift.

The lights-and-lamps shop an hour’s drive away is owned and operated by a gay man. Mart obviously knows him and his partner; being the gregarious, welcoming, non-judgemental person that he’s always displayed himself to be, he’s probably on very good, friendly terms with his regional antique-trade colleagues.

Being fond of black jeans and hoodies and Blundstone boots that have seen much better days, and often having paint or chook-crap stuck on me somewhere, and a three-day growth, I may not present as the typical (whatever that is, Christ) same-sex-attracted bloke. But neither would I present as someone with limited views on these things. Still, for Mart, it was easier to not make it clear that the light-and-lamp specialists were gay men. It was easier just not to say. Who knows: to him I might have extreme views. So, yes, best not to say, best not to say. That’s not to charge my mate Mart with homophobia. It was just easier.

Until people like me and Mart can be open and honest about the relationships of the people around us, even Australian heroes will have to go through the painful, anxious, almost debilitating act of shedding one skin to reveal another. Which is why, despite all the media-people build-up, the strategic commerce, the close-to-scripted event of it all, what Ian Thorpe did last Sunday night was necessary, important, valuable, and gigantically illuminating.

I really can’t do it. I can’t remember the last time I sat upright in an armchair and listened to a new album from start to finish, the cover in my hands, checking song titles, reading lyrics, scanning the acknowledgements, then just closing my eyes to focus on what’s coming out of the speakers. But that’s exactly what I did this morning, for Bon Iver’s Bon Iver.

It was a nervous few minutes as I put on the album and got to listening. Compared to the awe-inspiring For Emma, forever ago (2008), would this album suck dogs balls? I’d recently had an experience of a band trying in vain to follow up a masterpiece – you can read about it here – and I’m just not strong enough to go through it all again. But, quite frankly, Bon Iver’s second album is extraordinary. It is majestic in its scope, in its wide-eyed amazement. Goose-bump material.

‘Perth’ starts the record in typical Bon Iver fashion – strummed and finger-picked guitars, Vernon’s multi-tracked falsetto – but its conclusion is aggressive, as if to say, I’m back and this is my new album and you’re in for a fucking ripper of a ride. From here we meander through a musical landscape so beautifully crafted – so beautiful in and of itself – that it’s as if Vernon can barely believe his eyes and ears and heart and gut.

God is in the detail: in the crystal clear but so very warm production, in the sense of caring – aching – for every note, every beat, every word; you even get this impression in the cover art, the finest of brush-stokes in the idyllic lakeside scene depicted. As well as being majestic, Bon Iver is brave in its exploration and sense of play: song structures that go beyond what we know but stop short of where we thought we were heading. For Christ’s sake on this record saxophones duel with pedal-steel guitars.

Every so often there are hints of other bands: Red House Painters, Sigur Ros, even Godspeed You! Black Emperor. But Bon Iver is all Vernon’s; no one makes music like this, music which strives to get a handle on what it feels like to be alive in this shit-house world we call home, that strives full-stop.

It’s true that Vernon’s lyrics are a cousin of gibberish. Take this for example, the first line from ‘Minnesota Wi’: ‘Armour let it through, borne the arboretic truth you kept posing’. Others have concluded that at the end of it all Vernon really doesn’t have anything to say, and this is understandable. But it’s possible that Vernon might know exactly what he’s trying to say, it’s just that he wants us to work it out, in our own way, in our own time. A clue could be in the acknowledgements; like many artists, he thanks his parents, but it’s how it does it that’s interesting: ‘And to more than anyone, my Mum and Dad. Who never encouraged me to try anything different. Who raised me to always be the best person I could be. For being my best friends and loving me so much. For as much life as there is to live, I will never be able to thank you enough.’

It’s the intensity, the sheer wonderment.

If it’s true that Vernon’s lyrics mightn’t exactly be driven by clarity, it’s also true that ‘Beth/Rest’ is a bizarre note on which to finish the album. It’s an unashamed soft-rock ballad, the sort of thing that REO Speedwagon inflicted on us thirty years ago. Vernon’s take could well be seen as courageous, but it leaves a distinctly cheesy taste in the mouth, which is odd considering that For Emma was a paean to the heartfelt and authentic. Is it a misstep? Perhaps. But on the scale of wank to genius, it might possibly nudge genius. Maybe in structuring the album Vernon wanted to take us on a journey from the mountain cabin in which he recorded that first record to the bright-light cities of middle America, which, of course, has soft-rock firmly planted in its fat burger belly.

Forgiveness is possible – if you think forgiveness is needed – when you consider the sheer gloriousness of the nine songs that proceed ‘Beth/Rest’. On the elegant ‘Holocene’, Justin Vernon disingenuously claims ‘And at once I knew I was not magnificent’. You are magnificent, I’m afraid to tell you. On Bon Iver, you’re dangerously magnificent, and I for one am glad that I live in a world where music as rich and transcendent as this is possible.

In six days time this man could be Australia’s next prime minister.  Seriously.

Could we stand turning on the TV each night and seeing this?

Could we handle him strutting the world stage?

What would I do to stop this happening?

Do a nuddy run around the block (and please note that it’s still winter in this neck of the woods).

Listen to every Red House Painters song in chronological order.

Read Atonement.

Eat only celery.

Anything.

Where I live I get to drive past the Canberra Airport at least a couple of times a week, and for the last month or so I’ve been chuckling at this sign (though also just a little distressed, not much, just a little).  I can’t help thinking the sign is suggesting that this is a place to roll out very sick hospital patients, not quite a cemetery but a dumping ground, a place to leave people in whom we’ve lost interest because they have become too hard to care for, or their case too hopeless.  Or it’s a place for people who’ve lost interest in their days to dispose of their bodies.  A handy chute for poor souls, then.  A place to discard, not to fly.  Though perhaps flying and discarding might be more closely related than I give it credit for.  Who doesn’t shed something, or die a bit, even just emotionally, internally, when they climb aboard a trusty jet and get away for a while?

PS Suggested music for this post: Red House Painters and associates.  Pick a song at random.  You’ll know what I mean.

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