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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.

*

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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What would you say to your 20-year-old self?

What is the one thing you’d say to your 20-year-old self?

Quite frankly, I didn’t know if I was Arthur or Martha, intelligent or stupid, boy or a man, barely sane or as mad as a cut snake.

I simply didn’t know.

Looking back from the grand heights of now being in my mid-40s, back then, as a 20-year-old, I was just a gangly, still pimply, dreamy post-youth who loved wearing Blundstone boots and listening to The Cure and The Smiths and playing my 12-string acoustic guitar. I attended university. I lived in a suburban grouphouse, which I didn’t like—my housemates that year were narrow-minded bigots from the bush. But I loved being in Canberra, Australia’s designed-from-the-sky-down national capital, which at the time had a population of only 220,000, most of whom were university students, or university students who’d become public servants. But I didn’t know anything about population figures or public servants; I didn’t really know anything about university students either. I only knew about melancholic pop music and the mystery I was to myself and the small group of friends around me.

Despite being born and bred on Sydney’s affluent North Shore, I really did love those Blundstone boots—they were the sort workers wear—and was fond of black jeans and dark-colored shirts with floral prints and black, misshapen woolen jumpers with holes in the sleeves. My browny-black fringe hung long and low; I seem to recall that I could easily get the end into my mouth and taste the stringy grit of the thing. It was, after all, the 1980s. I was tall, sometimes painfully thin, sometimes portly.

I studied landscape architecture, but really I’d always wanted to do something with music: be a rock star, or be a rhythm guitarist in a band (Robert Smith and Johnny Marr were my heroes, obviously). Or perhaps I could just become a studio technician so at least I’d be in the company of rock stars and rhythm guitarists; I remember how in my last year of high school I rang a private music studio training academy and asked them to send me a brochure. My mother, however, made it clear that a life in music would be tough, perhaps even an embarrassment (for her at least), so that dream ended in a series of long sulks over dinner.

At some point that final high school year, no doubt sensing that someone better come up with a decent idea before this situation dragged on too much longer, my older brother said that as I liked art and was good at geography, maybe I should look into landscape architecture. I’m convinced that he had no inside knowledge of the profession; perhaps he’d just heard mention of it and now it was an idea for my consideration. My mother, being a keen gardener, liked this proposal very much. So, not wanting to be a problem for anyone, I applied, got in, left home, and became a university student in Canberra who liked wearing Blundstone boots and listening to The Cure and The Smiths and playing 12-string guitar.

Keep reading over at Role/Reboot.  Thanks to Meredith Landry.

A confession: I’ve got the hots for a chick, and have had so for quite time.  Of course, she doesn’t have flesh and bones, at least not to me; she’s a voice, a music, and what an extraordinary voice she has, and what extraordinary music she makes.  And her most recent album: well, it’s been a long time since I’ve adored an album as much as this, how I’ve learnt every song, as in I’ve become to understand it all, it’s seeped into me, getting beneath my skin.  You know when you’re young and you listen to an album so often that you start to become sick of it?  So you wisen up and get into the habit of drip-feeding albums that you’re loving.  Or you love an album immediately only to find that it doesn’t hold its own ground.  Or you don’t like an album immediately, but soon find yourself playing it over and over, loving it intensely, obsessively, until it’s all-consuming.

PJ Harvey’s most recent album Let England Shake is the sort of album that makes me remember the great records from my deep, dark past – Faith by The Cure, London Calling by The Clash, The Queen is Dead by The Smiths – and I do own this latest Harvey opus on record, as in on vinyl, because that’s how I like to listen to the best albums that come my way.

Despite being an age-old though not uncritical PJ Harvey fan, I’ve come a little late to Let England Shake.  It was recorded over a five-week period at a church in Dorset UK in April and May 2010 (when I was bunking down in Launceston Tasmania, I realise rather deliciously) and released later that year.  In 2011 Harvey won the coveted Mercury Prize for this record, making her the only musician to have bagged the honour twice; she’d previously won it for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea back in 2001.

What makes Harvey such an exciting, beguiling, and sometimes, let’s face it, frustrating singer-songwriter is her dogged refusal to repeat herself (Tim Winton should take notice, in more ways than one).  Her albums have covered such various terrain as riot-grrl grunge, folk, pop, electronica, sparse piano ballads (check out 2007’s White Chalk), and now she adds a dozen war songs to her, er, canon.

Harvey wrote Let England Shake over a two-and-a-half-year period, producing the lyrics first – she claims to be inspired by Harold Pinter and TS Elliot – before sitting down to set the lyrics to music.  Her mission, it’s clear, was to explore what it means to live in a country that’s at war.  However, this isn’t some table-thumping polemic; it’s intimate, it’s beautiful, it’s harsh, it’s haunting.  Her voice is higher than on previous records, and it’s complemented – more than appropriately – by the deep timbre of her long-time collaborators, John Parish, who Harvey has described as her music soul-mate, and Mick Harvey (no relation), who for many years has worked with Nick Cave.

Using instruments as diverse as autoharp, zither, piano, trombone and saxophone, as well as some cheeky and downright hilarious samples, Harvey has crafted an album that is as engaging as it is adventurous.  And it’s packed with tunes; it would almost be thigh-slapping good fun if it the subject matter wasn’t so serious.  Check out ‘The Last Living Rose’, the gut-wrenching ‘On Battleship Hill’ and ‘Written on the Forehead’ to experience the musical and emotional range of the album.

It’s true that PJ Harvey can be awkward company: I imagine that you’d have a delightful cup of tea with her, she’d smile, she’d talk sweetly but with brutal honesty, before she’d stand up, excuse herself, and go and play with her chooks or pot up some salvia.  And I haven’t always been faithful to her; in fact years have gone by when I’ve not had much to do with her.  But, despite the latest fixation on how ugly human beings can be to each other, how supremely violent for no real logical reason, we’re back together now.  And I feel that this time she’s with me for quite some time.  Even if she does a runner on me again, or I do a runner on her, I have no doubt that in twenty years time I’ll still be playing Let England Shake, and on vinyl, and loud, very very loud.

It’s been that weekend again in Sydney, that annual weekend, and perhaps it’s more than one weekend, a whole fortnight of it, maybe even a month, which would be a special kind of hell.  But it’s the weekend that I’m talking about, that’s been on my mind, the Saturday night in particular, it’s always the first weekend in March, which puts it smack-bang in the middle of my partner’s birthday week.  The Saturday night, the parade and party, all that dancing in the streets and in the great cavernous halls of Fox Studios, if that’s where the party’s held, as you can see I really have no idea about much of this Mardi Gras stuff.  Sydney Mardi Gras, they’ve dropped the ‘gay and lesbian’ bit, which, to me, is good and wise.

I always dread this time of year, a bit – a lot – like how I dread Christmas.  All the celebration, the public displays of some kind of joy and affection.  But it’s an empty celebration, both Christmas and Mardi Gras, because neither means anything to me.  If you wish me a happy Mardi Gras I’ll stare blankly at your face. If you wish me a happy gay Christmas, I may well bludgeon you with a baseball bat.

Have I been to a Mardi Gras?  Yes, twice: two parades (one of which was the 20th anniversary, in 1998), and one party.  Did I have a good time?  From what I can remember the parade was as it appears on the telly: so many guys in red Speedos and/or angel wings, so many drunk drag queens trying not to fall off the back of trucks, dykes on bikes, some political floats – it’s always good to see gay marriage getting a mention.  And the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, those men dressed up as nuns, which, if I’m to tell you the truth, never fails to give me a little chuckle.  And men in black leather, so many men in black leather, their butts hanging out.  And on the sidelines: thousands and thousands and thousands of people who come out to watch the show, the spectacular.  That’s what it seems to me: wheel out the funny sexuality people to entertain the drunk masses from the suburbs.

But my sexuality isn’t a show, it’s not a spectacular.

I became a teenager in the 1980s; I was in my own little world; music was my thing: The Cure, The Clash, New Order and, erm, Culture Club.  Early on, around twelve years old, thirteen, I knew I had feelings, strong feelings, explosive feelings for other boys.  I didn’t have a name for it, I didn’t want a name for it.  As scary as it was, how downright frightening, this thing, whatever it might have been, was mine, all mine.  I wanted to explore it; I wanted it to take me places.  Despite knowing that it wasn’t normal, whatever normal might be, might mean, I loved it, it was beautiful.  How good and golden it made me feel, how alive, blood-pumpingly alive.

I was shy, I was nervous, cautious.  I took little steps, just inched along, finding my own path, and never did I want a name for what I was doing, who I was, and if I did discover names for it I turned the other way.  Oscar Wilde may have infamously called love between men ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, but, to me, it’s the love that doesn’t need a name, because it’s in my blood and bones, my DNA, in every breath I take.  I wouldn’t change it for the world, it’s been my absolute delight, despite the heartache, the shock and horror.  So I fell in love with a boy in Fourth Form (or was it Third?), it happened again at university, which took me into the post-uni world, that cliff that’s jumped off, and then, in my mid-twenties, I met another boy, who became a partner, my partner to this day, who too isn’t fond of this weekend that’s been, this Mardi Gras.

Am I proud to be gay?  What is pride?  Self-respect, dignity, self-esteem, honour.  Must these words relate to me?  It’s just who I am, just what I’m made of – my sexuality comprises me.  Of course, I live in better times; it hasn’t always been easy for people like me to say the sort of things I’m saying.  In fact, I’m frankly astonished to learn that homosexuality was illegal in my home state of New South Wales until 1984, the year of my first love affair, puppy-love for sure, sweet and innocent, but also rich and intense and beautiful and profound; I was none the wiser of how a brush of the hand could put me in jail.  And in Tasmania, that dark island state of my nation, it was illegal until as recently as 1997, though that place has gone from zero to hero in no time as it now has some of the most progressive same-sex relationship laws in the country – but not in the world, not yet.

Australian Nobel Prize-winning novelist Patrick White, who was openly gay, said that he wished the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras would be stopped forever.  ‘A lot of screaming queens in Oxford Street will not help the cause for which we shall have to fight,’ he wrote.  Do I agree?  No, I don’t.  Like Christmas, it can go on, but it will have to go on without me, because it means nothing, it simply doesn’t represent my life.  Like all fair and decent people, I stopped wearing red Speedos in my last year of school, and even though I’m fond of angels, over-sized wings on me would look ridiculous – and hypocritical.  And drag queens?  Good for them, I say, but if that’s your thing and you come around to my place, well, please just be yourself, and cut the sarcasm, and that voice.

All I wanted when I was young is all I want now: beauty and love and intimacy.

I don’t need to dance in the street for these things.  I just want to feel it pulsing through my veins, as it always has, as it always will.

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