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Surrounded by the paintings of Myuran Sukumaran , April 2018. Photo credit: Tuggeranong Arts Centre

One of the joys – and, to be frank, surprises – of the last few years has been collaborating on music projects. I’ve spent much of the last three decades in my writing room with only a cup of coffee for company, so it’s wonderful to work in a different form and with others, even if, in the main, I continue to be focused on the words.

There has been THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, for which I was commissioned by the Hume Conservatorium to write the libretto for a new song cycle, with the music composed by James Humberstone – this work was developed by The Street Theatre in Canberra, where it had its premiere in 2018, before being performed in Goulburn and Sydney. During the writing of THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, James and I took a few days out to write ‘Yes of Love’, a song in support of Australia’s push to enshrine marriage equality. Late last year, Andrew Bull AKA Hyperconfidence, asked me to write and – gasp – perform some spoken-word lyrics, which he turned into a dance track called ‘We are Freedom’.

There’s been a fourth music project bubbling away.

Back in February last year, the Tuggeranong Arts Centre invited me to spend a day sitting in ‘Another Day in Paradise’, a travelling exhibition of paintings by Myruran Sukumaran, a convicted drug smuggler who the Indonesian Government executed by firing squad in April 2015. Other artists participated in the event, which was called ‘The Final Hours’. I decided to invite my old friend Pete Lyon to join me – he is a singer-songwriter who for many years has performed with the popular acoustic-pop duo The Cashews. I first wrote about this project here.

Inspired by Sukumaran’s work, Pete and I left the Tuggeranong Arts Centre at the end of the day with the sketches of five songs, most of which were recorded on Pete’s phone. We then developed the songs: I rewrote, edited, and polished the lyrics; and together we reflected on the music we had made in the Arts Centre, slowly rebuilding them into songs that people might be interested in listening to. Although my musicianship is extremely limited, from the beginning of this project I said that I would like to try and play some of the music, even ‘write’ some of it – in other words, put my fingers on a piano’s keyboard or on some guitar strings and see what happened.

Gear in Goulburn, June 2018

For the rest of the year, once every few weeks, Pete and I met up to work – in Goulburn, before we moved to his place in Canberra, where he has a small studio. Slowly we layered up the tracks, adding vocals and harmonies. We put the work aside, before we came back to it, adding new elements and re-recorded parts that needed improving.

One of the things I love about collaborative projects is the discussion about creative choices, and both Pete and I were keen to make simple songs in which listeners would be able to find room to reflect on Sukumaran’s work, either directly or indirectly. Even though we both have a longstanding position on the death penalty, we were not making a protest album – our goal was to make a suite of secular hymns. We also chose to limit our musical pallet to piano and acoustic guitar, which would be recorded as raw as possible. Imperfections were embraced.

Although our original intention was to finish the work by the end of 2018, we decided to put the songs aside for much of the summer (my mother died just after Christmas) before doing one or two final sessions. The songs were then mixed and mastered by by Kimmo Vennonen of KV Productions. An album cover was designed by John Fry of Six Heads.

And now, here we are with THE FINAL HOURS available for listening and purchase through Bandcamp.

All proceeds of the songs will be donated to an Australian art-in-prison program.

Art work by John Fry, Six Heads, Melbourne

Four of the songs were directly inspired by particular paintings of Sukumaran’s. For example ‘If I Were You’ is a response to his portrait of his mother; and ‘Indonesian Flag’ is a response to the last painting he made, which is of the Indonesian flag – when exhibited it was shown away from the wall so viewers could see that on the back were the signatures of those to be executed, some of whom took the opportunity to leave messages about wishing Indonesia well. The last song, ‘He They I We’, Pete first recorded in the last half an hour of the original day in the Arts Centre – singing in Indonesian, a language he learned while living for a time in Sarawak, Borneo, he says in essence, we will not forget Myruran and his fellow executed prisoners.

Making THE FINAL HOURS has been an intense, exposing, and rewarding experience. Intense because of the subject matter (in more ways than one); exposing because for the first time I have directly helped make some music; and rewarding because it is always thrilling to make new work, no matter what the form, and because it seemed that one minute Pete and I were spindly 20-year-olds housemates and strumming guitars at midnight, the next – i.e. 30 years later – we had the opportunity to make something tangible, maybe even lasting.

As always, I’ve learned that taking risks can be a good thing, although I know I’m sufficiently privileged to not be in a position where I feel that I have no choice but to risk my life.

‘Self-Portrait’ by Myuran Sukumaran (2015, detail)

The closer it got, the more agitated I became.

Back in February this year the Tuggeranong Arts Centre in Canberra invited me to participate in The Final Hours, a day-long, vigil-like residency to be held in conjunction with Another Day in Paradise, the exhibition of paintings by Myuran Sukumaran, an Australian man convicted for drug-trafficking and sentenced by the Indonesian government to be killed by firing squad. (Another Day in Paradise was first presented, in 2017, at the Campbelltown Arts Centre.) I’ve been a long-time opponent of the death penalty and had followed the story of ‘The Bali Nine’, as did most Australians, so I said yes to the Tuggeranong Arts Centre’s invitation, but decided that I would collaborate with Pete Lyon, a singer-songwriter and good friend – no doubt I didn’t want to do this alone.

In the weeks before The Final Hours, Pete and I met twice. At our first meeting, we talked about our approach – we decided that it might be best to simply see what happened on the day and when surrounded by Myuran’s art work. At our second meeting, we sat down with Pete’s proposed equipment set-up to confirm what we’d take with us (it had to fit in the back of a small car); this discussion also included making notes on the preliminary themes or ideas we might explore, such as raw, authentic, reflective, compassionate, hope, and the possibility and redemption of change.

While our proposal was for Pete to write the music and I would write the lyrics, we had also indicated that I might try and write some of the music, which is a bit like asking a dog to be a cat. Not wanting to make a fool of myself – the gallery would be open to the public – I practiced a set of very basic guitar chords as well as some scales and notes on the piano in my house, the piano I used to play by ear as a teenager. While I adore music, my musicianship is extremely limited; Pete has spent the majority of his life writing, performing, and recording.

But when in doubt (which is almost always the case), just jump in, hey?

After all, that was my approach to THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, a song cycle I wrote with composer James Humberstone, which has gone on to become something much bigger than either of us and is still being performed.

In the gallery and to work. Image courtesy of the Tuggeranong Arts Centre

The day came for The Final Hours to commence and by 8am Pete and I had set up the gear in the gallery. It was time to get down to work. We chose the nearest series of paintings, titled ‘Prison Life’, plucked out some notes on guitar and keyboard (one of which was another instrument from my childhood but ended up in Pete’s hands); meanwhile I banged together some lyrics – we practiced the song once, then pressed the record button on the laptop. We chose another painting, selected some more notes and lyrics, and pressed record again.

Until, rather miraculously, we had five demos, or sketches.

Done, for now

It was intense, of course, and gut-wrenching – Myuran’s work is powerful, unapologetic, intellectually and emotionally open, and confronting for those of us lucky enough to have to do nothing more than engage, reflect, and respond. However, the experience was also surprisingly uplifting, even joyful: the human spirit, even when extinguished, is a mighty beast. But also because Pete and I have known each other for thirty years; back in the late 1980s we used to live in a Canberra share-house together and mucked around with guitars in the living-room, eventually recording some songs together but never releasing or performing them. I threw myself headlong into literature, and Pete found collaborators who could actually play their instruments and sing a note. But there we were, on 29 April 2018, sitting in a corner of a gallery, passing guitars between us, pressing keys and buttons, creating music.

What happens now? Both of us are committed to developing the songs as much as we can, eventually making them available by the end of the year on a platform yet to be decided. Right now we are not sure how the development process will unfold, or what the final outcome will be, but we very much would love to share the experience given to us by Myuran Sukumaran and the Tuggeranong Arts Centre.

Orang ini tak akan terlupakan.

Millie ‘Tubs Malone’ Featherstone: the best place in the house.

It was always going to be a challenging day, and by challenging I mean gutwrenching – after seventeen years of good living, Millie was to draw her final breath.

Being a black Labrador, she had been a most loyal and intelligent companion. At dawn every morning, I would hear the clip-cop of her paws on the floorboards as she came to say hello to me in bed. We walked together every day.

She loved going in the car, which was something I appreciated because living in regional New South Wales means I travel a lot; she would stand on the backseat and rest her head on my shoulder as I drove, as if she was pretending to be a pirate’s parrot. At the end of every day, she would sit beside me on the couch as I watched the news on TV or listened to music.

In her last two years, however, Millie had been suffering from arthritis, especially in her back legs. Despite excellent veterinary treatment, her daily walks had gone from ten-kilometre adventures up and down hills to a ten-minute stroll to the nearest street corner and back. A heat-wave had also knocked her around, to the point that she was panting all day.

One morning, on one of her strolls, she developed a bad limp; as I carried her home in my arms I knew the time had come.

*

Keep reading at the Sydney Morning Herald, where the story was published on 26 June 2017. It was commissioned by the Tuggeranong Arts Centre in relation to the 2017 Empire Global Art Award. Correction to the attribution: I am a resident of the Southern Tablelands in New South Wales (not ‘the southern highlands’).

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