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14 February 2018

Making the Weight of Light

Nigel Featherstone Image: Nigel Featherstone  
© Andrew Sikorski

What happens when an Australian fiction writer collaborates on a new song cycle with a composer of new music? Nigel Featherstone, an Australian writer of contemporary fiction, shares his journey.

The new song cycle by Featherstone and James Humberstone, The Weight of Light, will have its world premiere on 3-4 March at The Street Theatre in Canberra. The work will also be performed at the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium on 10 March 2018.

What on earth had I got myself into?

That was what I thought as I sat down to write the first draft of the libretto for what would become The Weight of Light. Primarily I am a writer of literary fiction: short stories, novellas, novels. Although I adore the musicality of language, and have a lifelong love of music (everything from Nina Simone and the Cure to Max Richter and Arvo Pärt), I originally didn't believe that I had the skills to be a librettist for a new Australian song cycle. Indeed, I tried suggesting to Paul Scott-Williams, who, in late 2013, was commissioning the work for the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, that there were plenty of other writers - poets - who were more qualified than me. Paul would have none of my doubts and thought I would work well with the composer he had identified for the project, James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. So I said yes, and hit the writing desk.

Just before Paul approached me, I had spent three months as a writer in residence at UNSW Canberra, which provides the campus for the Australian Defence Force Academy. I had been researching different expressions of masculinity in the military context, so I suggested to Paul that I would like to explore that theme in the song cycle. Paul's conservatorium is based in the regional New South Wales town of Goulburn, where I live too, and we agreed that modern-day Australian masculinity would resonate with the area, which is a mix of semi-urban, rural, and isolated communities. We also agreed that it would help fulfil Paul's ambition for the work, which was to make art song relevant to contemporary audiences.

At my desk, I decided that all I could do was approach the task as if planning a piece of fiction. I wrote notes on the main character, sketched out the supporting characters, devised a plot and identified the key dramatic stepping stones. I wrote more notes, eventually settling on a core synopsis:

Having completed his latest tour of Afghanistan, an Australian soldier is on leave and taking the opportunity to return to his family's farm in regional New South Wales - he is looking forward to resting. However, as he makes his way home he is confronted by news that is both life-affirming and devastating, which pushes him to reveal a dark secret that clings like a ghost. Ultimately he must question everything he knows. What sort of man is he? What does it mean to be brave? And what sort of future might be waiting for his family and himself?

From that raw material I began creating the lyrics for fourteen songs, using a pen on a pad - needless to say, some words came quicker than others. Having not worked with a composer before, I could only hope that I would provide James with something of substance, though I had researched enough to know that the text was only the start of the creative process, that there had to be room for the music; more importantly, there had to be room for the words and the music to dance.

Recently I asked James about his experience of composing the score for The Weight of Light.

'At first, it was hugely difficult. The words were already so emotionally dense, and the story was so dark. These weren't words that needed "dressing up" - much of the music needed to stay out of the way of them, or to give them their space. Then there's the contrast the music can provide when there are two or three difficult sections in a row. Finally linkages: I spent so much time analysing the text, deciding what was concrete and what was metaphor and what were dangling questions we needed to leave open to the audience.'

Weight of Light - workshop extracts (YouTube)

After a year of composition, in 2016 and 2017 the project went through an extensive - and intensive - creative development phase, led by Caroline Stacey, the artistic director of the Street Theatre in Canberra. This included a test performance in front of a small audience, allowing the creative team to know which parts of the work were engaging and evocative and which parts required further development. For someone like me, who spends the majority of each week alone in my writing room, with responses to a piece of writing occurring only when (often if) it is published, usually some years afterwards, this was a most confronting experience. But it was also essential: the work has become more refined and emotionally compelling.

Throughout the 4-year development process, James and I met numerous times, in Canberra, Goulburn, and Sydney. We built a working relationship based on respect. Each time I prepared a new draft of the libretto, James would ask questions, seeking clarity about structure and story as well as character motivation and voice. After the creative development at the Street Theatre in 2017, I did a thorough re-examination of the story, which resulted in two songs being removed and two being added. Graciously, James reworked the score, writing two new songs, which had to be seamlessly incorporated into the entire piece. Always it has been about recognising each other's skills and experience, while making the work the priority. As James told me during one of our many conversations, 'A composer is only as good as his or her most recent work.' Ultimately, our collaboration has become one that has been both open-minded and warm-hearted, and that has got us to this point: a completed work that is ready to be performed.

From my perspective, I hope The Weight of Light provides a focus on how a country like Australia sends its young people to war, and the challenges those men and women have after they return home. And that audiences are moved.

What are James's hopes for the work?

'First, to have written some music that balances being beautiful and affecting with being new, original, of a singular voice. Second, to have collaborated with some brilliant people on a work that matters. Third, there's something about social justice and contemplation in the Trump era, but I haven't put that into words and it is something that has happened along the way rather than being part of the original intent. It's as if what we've done, what we've explored has become bigger through a context that we couldn't have predicted or imagined.'

In the end, it will be audiences and listeners of new music who will tell us whether or not we have succeeded in fulfilling the brief.

Further links

The Weight of Light, event details in the AMC Calendar: 3-4 March (Canberra) and 10 March (Goulburn)

James Humberstone - AMC profile; James Humberstone - homepage (www.composerhome.com)

Nigel Featherstone - blog

'Getting to know Nigel Featherstone' - an article on the Street Theatre website (29 January 2018)

'Getting to know James Humberstone'- an interview on the Street Theatre website (5 February 2018)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Nigel Featherstone is the author of 50 short stories that have been published in Australian literary journals such as Meanjin, Overland, and the Review of Australian Fiction. His critically acclaimed first novel, Remnants, was published in 2005 by Pandanus Books. His award-winning series of three novellas was published by Blemish Books between 2011 and 2014. His war novel, Bodies of Men, is forthcoming from Hachette Australia in 2019.

James Humberstone is Senior Lecturer and Program Director of Music Education at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, the University of Sydney. 


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