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A short diary entry today.

What’s been happening with THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT? Quite honestly, the creative team has been taking a bit of a break; well, from this project anyway. Not for any reason other than we spent four years working on this song cycle, and getting it ready for the stage was an extraordinary build-up of months and weeks and days and hours and minutes, and then to experience the audience reaction and read the reviews – it was exhilarating, but also exhausting. And utterly wonderful.

A central online place for THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT

Only two real developments.

Firstly, thanks to the technical wizardry of James Humberstone, who not only creates such beautiful and haunting music can build websites, we now have an online depository for THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT.

Secondly the next performance is confirmed, which should read performances, both on Friday 27 July, at 1pm and 7.30pm, at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. We’re thrilled that the performers will be the same: baritone Michael Lampard as ‘the soldier’ with Alan Hicks as accompanist.

If you happen to be in or near Sydney on 27 July, it’d be terrific to see you.

Baritone Michael Lampard performing the role of the soldier in THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT at The Street Theatre in Canberra. (Image credit: The Street Theatre)

Holy moley, what a ride.

The first three WEIGHT OF LIGHT shows – two in Canberra and one in Goulburn – have happened and it’s hard to put into words how it felt, and how it continues to feel.

It’s amazing (such a weak word in this instance) to have the work performed by such fine artists as baritone Michael Lampard and accompanist Alan Hicks. It’s also been fantastic – an education, really – to be able to observe what goes into staging a work professionally, and a part of that has been spending time with the show’s tireless director Caroline Stacey, set-designer Imogen Keen, lighting designer Linda Buck, and stage-manager Anni Wawrzynczak. Then there is the sheer thrill (and almost overwhelming nerves) of opening night and the relief that comes from seeing an audience demand two curtain-calls from the performers. And then there’s the energy of the foyer afterwards, as punters talk about the show over a glass or seven of wine. As I’ve mentioned before, writing for the page is such a slow-burn of a process; writing for the stage offers immediacy, in every way.

Last weekend saw THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT head to Goulburn, where it was performed in an intimate and atmospheric space to an incredibly enthusiastic audience at the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, the organisation that bravely commissioned the work. Not only did Michael and Alan yet again perform spectacularly, it was wonderful to see the show come across so very well in a smaller venue.

In the lead-up to the shows, there was a wide range of media, including:

It’s pleasing to report that there have been a number of wonderful reviews, with the following the crux of it:

Accompanist Alan Hicks performing in THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT at The Street Theatre in Canberra. (Image credit: The Street Theatre)

‘THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT is a gem of a piece, combining the performance rhythms of a song cycle with the force of theatre. Much of its power comes from the delicate way the combination of Nigel Featherstone’s spare text and James Humberstone’s dark and carefully mournful music touches on issues of masculinity and trauma. Michael Lampard finds even the smallest scrap of light and uses it to the advantage of the performance. THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT will certainly have a life beyond the two Canberra performances’ – The Canberra Times

‘THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT is a richly crafted production with universal themes of grief, despair, hope and fear’ – Australian Stage

‘Seamless, exquisite, mesmeric poetry of text, music, drama and the conversation of light and shadow on a spare, evocative set that had me ‘falling / in my (own) chest / my guts / my legs / my head’, but then carried me as I fell, lifted me until I became the weight of light’ – award-winning author, poet and performer Merlinda Bobis

‘An enthralling visual and aural experience’ – Australian Arts Review

‘A beautiful show. The whole package – words, music, performance, set and lighting. Highly moving’ – Whispering Gums

‘Composer James Humberstone, librettist Nigel Featherstone, director Caroline Stacey, baritone Michael Lampard and pianist Alan Hicks have put together a dark and spellbinding tale of a soldier who has returned from his latest tour of Afghanistan. As they move through the songs, a sense of a person lost and wondering emanates through the music, the lyrics, and the strongly effective staging and lighting, all in a well thought-out story that is touching and dramatic in every aspect. What this song cycle shows is that if there is anything good to come out of war, it is the beauty of creations such as THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT’ – Canberra City News

‘A truly stunning piece of work. Bravo’ – Sydney Voice Project

Baritone Michael Lampard and accompanist Alan Hicks. performing together in THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT (Image credit: The Street Theatre)

So, enormous – let’s say endless – gratitude from me to every single person who came to the shows, to those who shared their thoughts (and tears) in the foyers, to those who wrote me an email or sent a text message or shared their response on social media. It’s meant the world to me.

What’s next?

A breather for all, before THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT hits Sydney on Friday 27 July at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. It’s also pleasing to announce that composer extraordinaire James Humberstone has secured a deal for the work to be professionally recorded and released physically and digitally.

Oh yes, what a ride.

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.

It was, to be frank, a day that felt both terrifically exciting and utterly terrifying. Like skydiving, perhaps, or climbing a cliff without ropes.

I am referring to the recent creative development day for Homesong, which, in the larger scheme of life’s trials, should have been a breeze. But the fact is I’m primarily a fiction writer, meaning most of what I do is private. I write in private, I read in private. Quite frequently I meet with other writers to talk about this thing we do, but those conversations are, in the main, private too. Ultimately the work is made public, but then it becomes a private experience for a reader. I’m simplifying, of course, because there might be reviews, public readings, festival appearances, and book-club attendance. But writing for the stage is a different kettle of fish: it’s a living and breathing three-dimensional human space. Hence the reference to terror.

So what happened?

Team in development: Paul Scott-Williams, James Humberstone, myself, and Antony Talia. Photo credit: The Street Theatre

The creative team – project initiator Paul Scott-Williams from the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium and composer James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and I – spent a day at The Street Theatre in Canberra. Under the guidance of the Street’s artistic director Caroline Stacey, the work was performed behind closed doors by pianist Alan Hicks and baritone Tristan Entwistle. Together with actor Antony Talia, the team then reflected on the work, teasing out areas that needed further development. Was this song sufficiently articulate? Was that word really the best for the purpose? How do we want the audience to respond? Were the themes clear? (Apologies for being a little vague about the actual story, but more of that in later posts.)

After making some minor adjustments and resolving technical issues (i.e. staging), the doors were opened to an audience of thirty brave souls who fortified themselves with a glass of wine and then watched the first public performance, before providing feedback, again under the guidance of Caroline.

Baritone Tristan Entwistle getting to know the score before the first public performance. Photo credit: The Street Theatre

For a fiction writer, whose idea of a good day is spent from dawn to dusk at home in tracksuit pants and ugg-boots talking with sparrows, this was a confronting experience. Reading and responding to a piece of fiction, especially something as long as a novel, involves a period of commitment – hours, if not days, maybe even weeks – and then, after the last page is turned, there is time for reflection before conclusions (if any) are reached. Not so with a live song-cycle: at the Homesong creative development, once the last word was sung and there was a moment for applause, the response came immediately. Despite still processing the work myself, it was fascinating to learn what resonated, what was clear and what was not, and to hear possible solutions.

Rather predictably, as soon as I was in my car and driving in the night away from the theatre, doubt reared its head. Was I the best librettist for this project? Was I even ‘a librettist’? Would I be able to process the feedback in a way that would benefit the project? But then I realised that, as opposed to traditional fiction (as it were), where I am responsible for every mark on the page, with a collaborative work such as a song-cycle there is a team, and every member of the team is required to take the project to the next stage.

Which is where we are at now.

There have been many frank and open (but always loving) email exchanges, and some generous colleagues who attended the creative development performance have sent me emails that described their experience of Homesong, which were most hopeful. While I won’t detail here the areas of the work that need to be addressed, it comes down to – and perhaps with any writing project this is inevitably the case – intent, precision, and impact on the audience. I would be lying if, despite my doubts, I told you that I am finding this next stage daunting. The guts of the work are present; it is about revealing more of the heart. And, thankfully, I am not alone in this task.

So, where’s my paper copy of the libretto and a red pen?

 

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.

*

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.

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