James Humberstone is Senior Lecturer and Program Director of Music Education at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, the University of Sydney. Well known for his music education advocacy work, in 2016 Humberstone published the university’s first MOOC (Massively Open Online Course), The Place of Music in 21st Century Education, and his 2016 TEDxOxford talk The Science of Dubstep has been viewed over 200,000 times. Humberstone’s research output spans traditional written work (recently published by Oxford University Press and in Musicology Australia) and non-traditional works as a composer. Recent creative outputs include the Noise Husbandry installation in the Action Stations exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum, a cross-arts collaboration (orchestra-choir-hip-hop-cinematography) Odysseus : Live and The Weight of Light. http://www.composerhome.com/
The Street talked to James before the world premiere opening in March of The Weight of Light.
WHY COMPOSING? – AND WHAT OR WHO WERE YOUR EARLY PASSIONS AND INFLUENCES?
I grew up in rural northern England – the Lake District. When I was quite young, my mother thought that horse riding lessons would be useful as a country lad, and I enjoyed them, although I was awful at riding. One day on the way home one day with a friend’s mum, I was humming away, and she said “that’s a nice tune, what is it?”. I didn’t even realise that I had been humming, and when she asked the question I also realised that I’d been making it up. I had been having piano lessons for a few years, and I was about as good at that as horse riding, but at that moment, I think I got the seed of an idea that I could write music. Through my high school years I had very encouraging teachers, who performed by first piano piece (Fantasia) when I was 13, my first wind symphony work (So Eden Sank to Grief) when I was 14, and my first orchestral work (Nesnej) at 16. Even then, I didn’t necessarily think I was good enough to become a composer, but another teacher told my mother that I was, one parent-teacher night, and so it was settled. My teachers were my greatest influences, and after them, the music I was really into – Prokofiev, Ives, Skempton, Gorecki, Bartok, Anthony-Turnage, and others.
TALK US THROUGH THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE MUSICAL IDEAS FOR THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT.
Starting with text is usually a relatively easy way to get started, because you’ve got a clear mood, you’ve got a structure (e.g. stanzas of the text become musical passages, or ideas in the text become musical motifs or themes), and of course you’ve got rhythm, at least in one part, because language has natural rhythm and emphasis, and while you can play around that in a text-setting, if you make it really unnatural, your audience won’t understand the words.
So I began with days of analysis, making sure I understood the story, the structure, the mood of each piece. I mapped these out in tables, and looked for themes, motifs. I hoped that I was right that in some places Nigel was hinting at ideas that weren’t ever clear (and in our workshops I could check on that), because I took all of those hints on musically, too.
But while that was no different to the process of any other text that I’ve set, the text as a whole was much, much more difficult than anything I’ve experienced before. For a start, so much of it is dark, or mysterious, or downright sad. If I set each of the 14 pieces according to the way I perceived the mood, I’d end up with something that was just impossible to listen to – it would be too exhausting. So I had to find the light in the text (no pub intended), and as I worked on it we discovered it also needed space, and time, to let the words breathe and settle on the listener. Yes, all of the text setting stuff is in there, and I think there’s enough really interesting stuff going on between the text and the music to have listeners want to come back to discover more, but there was so much more that went into this piece – so many versions of songs that no-one will ever hear!
WHAT IS YOUR VIEW ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN WORDS AND MUSIC IN SONG CYCLES?
The music is definitely the most important element.
Just joking! Actually, I think because song cycles are usually studied by musicologists (rather than purely literary scholars), they are often seen as works for composers to show how clever they are as they set what would otherwise be a redundant text. And perhaps I’d feel differently if I’d worked with another librettist, but I’ve worked with three living librettists now, and I feel that everything in the music comes from the words, and from the aesthetic and humanity of that person because there are elements of narrative and traditions of word painting and so on. I guess that it’s the opposite of writing a pop song, where you can come up with a killer riff, or chord progression, or instrumental hook, and then write words to fit into that. I can’t imagine writing a piano piece and then thinking “I must find a poem to fit into this so I can turn it into a song for a song cycle”. It just wouldn’t work.
WHAT WERE THE CREATIVE CHALLENGES IN THE WORK THAT YOU AND LIBRETTIST NIGEL FEATHERSTONE HAD TO TACKLE?
Well, Nigel is on the record saying that he tried to turn commissioner Paul Scott Williams of the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium down, because he “wasn’t a librettist”. So I think that Nigel was always out of his comfort zone, doing something like this for the first time. While I struggled with the mood of the work, I didn’t find it at all hard working with Nigel, because as well as his words being beautiful; he’s just such a carefully considered and thoughtful artist. I think from day one we really just wanted to do the best for each other – and by the way, even though I’d done things like this before, it didn’t mean that I wasn’t nervous about our collaboration … Nigel has been published and won awards a lot more than me, so I felt huge pressure to write music that was as good as his words!
But apart from that, I think the creative challenges were all worked out through the several years of workshopping and meetings. We were also lucky enough to bring director Caroline Stacey into the workshopping process very early on, which meant that we couldn’t become complacent when we felt our individual components were working OK, because she would ask questions about how they were combining and what we were trying to say, and then we’d often discover we weren’t quite aligned, or that we were, but we hadn’t actually communicated it before.
HOW DID YOU WORK WITH THE CREATIVE TEAM DURING CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT?
A whole bunch of workshops, from me struggling to play the piano in the GRC (I’m still not very good) to give Nigel an idea of the very first sketches, through to a public workshop at The Street 9 months ago where audience feedback was facilitated by Caroline, and another one at the Sydney Conservatorium last December.
I don’t think there has been a moment where anyone stamped their foot and said anything I’d written was rubbish (I’d been doing that to myself at home, so maybe I’d filtered out enough!), but Nigel did completely scrap two songs and change a lot of words after the public workshop as a result of the feedback and our own discussions, and that was really difficult because even just removing or adding a few lines (let alone a stanza) to a “finished” song, can completely through the structure, the harmonic rhythm, and so on, out.
THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT HAS BEEN DESCRIBED AS A SUSPENSE PRODUCTION WHERE SONG CYCLE MEETS THEATRE AND ABSOLUTION IS SOUGHT BY ALL. WHAT CAN AUDIENCES EXPECT?
They’ll be challenged, but I think that they’ll also feel uplifted. Because we’ve been through so many iterations over the last 3 years, I think we’ve really managed to balance the tough truths, trauma, loss, and despair in the story with an undercurrent of hope, of human spirit, and of life. I think they’ll feel like they’ve seen the soul of a soldier who, under his uniform, is just a man struggling through, like any of us.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES FACED BY COMPOSERS TODAY?
Just the politics around the arts and education. In many ways this is a truly wonderful time to be a composer. Our lives have changed so much since 2005 when services like YouTube launched and suddenly we could reach into countless musical cultures all around the world, collaborate, learn, share, and even promote. Technology has also made it so much easier to mock up your compositions, share (quite) accurate versions of pieces you’ve made with samples of instruments. And composers aren’t as burdened with having to fit into one “box” (modernist, experimentalist, complexist, etc.) as we were when I started tertiary study in the early 90s. In fact, it’s truly the age where we can create our own box, or compositional voice, if you prefer.
But the politics are dreadful – we’ve created a society here and in many other first world countries where we don’t value participation in the arts. I don’t mean funding for artists, although of course that’s a huge issue, but I mean people-making-music (and participating in other arts) as part of their society, their culture. It needs to begin in school, with quality music education for all (which is demanded by every state syllabus but taught in only about 20% of our schools properly) so that children grow up loving making music; and then be supported in the community not just by the work of wonderful musicians who are working for a pittance (or nothing) running community groups, church groups, and so on. I don’t think those groups will exist anymore in a generation if something doesn’t happen soon – we’ll just be left with Netflix and Facebook for entertainment, and the arts will be something only for celebrities who “have talent”, rather than the soul-nourishing activity that participating in art-making is, and has been for centuries – for EVERYONE.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE STATE OF MUSIC COMPOSITION IN AUSTRALIA TODAY?
It’s wonderful. There are so many young brilliant composers, and they’re busy showing the older generations that we have to work harder to remain relevant. Us “oldies” sometimes don’t realise that definitions of success in composition have changed, now. There’s less fighting to join the “cream of the crop”, who get the very few Sydney Opera House and big festival commissions, because if you’re good, and you can make it and package it and persuade someone it’s brilliant, you’re probably going to find an audience. Nowadays a young composer can make an album or self-publish a book online with just a laptop computer – where before you needed huge recording studios with millions of dollars of equipment and producers and publishers, and so on. Even the education is more accessible, because there are so many amazing free music courses online. They won’t replace studying with the top educators, but not everyone has had access to those educators in the past anyway … and, as I said at first, the result is so many brilliant young Australian composers making incredible art.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO EMERGING COMPOSERS?
Learn to do it all. It isn’t enough that you can write the “best” score, or that you’ve found your voice and can argue your aesthetic. Know how to mock-up the score and get hits on SoundCloud. Make and edit a video for YouTube. Build your website. Create an education pack to get schools interested. Don’t be a snob about teaching – J S Bach was a teacher for most of his life, after all, and most composers are – offer to run workshops at schools or even go and add a teaching qualification to your CV. Say yes to every commission (Peter Sculthorpe once told me he didn’t ever turn commissions down, he just told them how long they’d have to wait until he go to it) and remember that you’re only as good as your last piece (well, until you are incredibly popular, anyway). Join the AMC. Give small pieces away. Be generous with your time. Participate in community music ensembles. Learn 5 new instruments, and understand the science of sound and synthesis. Do it all.
WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU IN MUSIC AT THE MOMENT?
Anything Ensemble Offspring do – they’ve been the most inspirational new music group to me since I arrived in Australia over 21 years ago. New York’s yMusic. What Max Richter is doing with electro-acoustic music. What my Masters student Kurt Mikolajczyk is doing with tempo and its possibilities for rethinking Bach’s canons. Jonny Greenwood’s string writing. Donna Chron. Kendrick Lamar. Sia. Björk. Emily Wurramara. Baker Boy. Dhapanbal Yunupingo. Madeon. ANOHNI. Noname. Improvising with Geoffrey Barnard.
Loads more. I have eclectic taste. And there’s more great music than I can listen to before I die.
WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?
My summer reading was Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust. Yes I know it’s teen writing, but that’s what you need on holiday, and I love those works. I’d dearly love to make an opera trilogy of the Dark Materials trilogy.
Now I’m back to grown up reading. Rick Cohn’s Audacious Euphony, David Huron’s Sweet Anticipation, and Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subverse Activity. And a gazillion papers on teaching critical thinking and online learning.
Watching? Gosh. Loving End of the Fucking World, and hanging out for the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale, though I’m unsure how they’ll manage to extend on Margaret Atwood’s vision. And I’ve just gorged on the Ashes and the one day series all summer, if that counts as watching. But to be honest I don’t really watch TV much (well, we don’t have a TV, who needs that nowadays anyway?!).