This month's installment of my "In Conversation With..." series engages one of Australia's noted and rising authors, Nigel Featherstone. Apart from being a Goulburn local, Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer of contemporary adult fiction, creative journalism, and, more recently, review. I was keen to explore Nigel's music educational background to try to discover what kind of influence music might have had on the development of his writing.
PSW: Nigel, thanks for agreeing to be the subject for my next interview! Let's start by exploring your music education.
NF: I attended a Sydney private school so, if my memory serves me correctly, we had music from Second Class and I think it might have kept going till Year Nine or Ten.
PSW: So, a weekly generalist class?
NF: Playing a recorder or banging a drum. Maybe a bit of singing. Which I was terrible at. I sounded like a dying whale. Still do.
PSW: Do you remember if it was delivered by a specialist or generalist teacher?
NF: I'm not sure I can recall with any accuracy. Perhaps it was a generalist teacher. We certainly had a music room during the middle years, so maybe there was a specialist teacher at that point. I certainly remember that we had a specialist drama teacher – he had a big bushy moustache like Freddy Mercury's! Anyway, my brothers and I had childhood asthma so my mother decided that we all had to swim and we all had to play a brass instrument, to help our lungs develop properly.
PSW: What was your instrument?
NF: It was the cornet and then trumpet. My middle brother played the euphonium and my oldest brother the trombone.
PSW: So you were the family marching band!
NF: (Laughs) I remember this one time. My brothers and I decided to put on a little concert for my father as he came home from work. We were all very excited as we gathered just inside from the front door and waited for him to come home. But when the door opened and he walked in, well, he just glared at us and went straight to his room. We were really disappointed. But the poor man, it must have been a challenging event to come home to – he worked very hard as a dentist in private practice so probably the last thing he wanted to do was find his sons making a dreadful racket! We weren't the best musicians in the world. None of us were under any illusions that we were going to be great musicians.
PSW: So no ambitions to take music further in any way?
NF: Well, yes actually, I did want to pursue music. Not playing brass instruments, but I certainly had dreams of one day being in a rock band. But it wasn't the done thing when I was growing up. I grew up in a traditional middle-class family in a well-to-do part of Sydney, so the standard career trajectory was to become a doctor or dentist or lawyer. I'm not sure my mother was keen for me or my brothers to get into music in any serious way.
PSW: Was music a part of her upbringing? Did she play an instrument?
NF: One year – perhaps I was twelve or thirteen – a piano suddenly appeared in the house. I don't recall there having been any discussion about it; it simply turned up. My mother could read music and play the piano, as could her mother, so they did play it every so often. For some reason I decided that I'd have a go. My mother taught me the basic notes on the keyboard. I clearly remember how we would go off to buy sheet music so I could learn to play TV theme tunes or movie soundtracks. Over time I began to really enjoy playing the piano and taught myself more and more by playing regularly. But I still don't know why that piano came home.
PSW: Well, I guess it is the kind of general musical instrument you put in a house even just to allow the kids to experiment on and sometimes the bashing leads to less bashing and more creative work over time. As her mother played, maybe that was part of the reason?
NF: Yes, maybe. My mother was certainly very close with her mother.
PSW: It's interesting that you suspect she felt the need to divide music in a way that it had a specific function, but not as a career.
NF: She's always been culturally and politically engaged. But for her three sons she had very specific plans about getting married and having a safe job and making sure we were well set up financially. Even though she would talk enthusiastically about writers like David Malouf and composers like Vaughan Williams and architects like Glenn Murcutt, she definitely wanted a more standard career path for her three sons.
PSW: So there was a sense of enriching your life, but with some limits on it.
NF: She believed people should engage with the arts as audience members, but if I had ever said I wanted go on to study at the Sydney Conservatorium a range of "better" options would have been put on the table.
PSW: What is interesting is that idea that there were a bunch of different boxes that had to be ticked in order for someone to become a "whole" person, and music was one of the boxes. It makes me think of issues I am grappling with now related to the question in Australian education today, not of HOW you incorporate music into a child's education, but WHETHER you incorporate it. I find it very disturbing and I don't know where the idea has come from but I would be interested in your thoughts on that.
NF: It's certainly a troubling part of the current school curriculum – the fact that the arts are pushed to the side, something that happens outside the standard school hours, something that often doesn't happen on the school campus at all. Perhaps it's just because of my upbringing, and/or my total and utter enchantment in and commitment to the arts, but I'm convinced that an arts education is essential, particularly during the first 18 years of our lives. And music has to be a significant part of that education. Music improves us not only intellectually and emotionally, but also physically – I think it reconfigures the physical composition of our brains so they work better.
PSW: I recently read a study done by Deidre Russell-Bowie, which tracked the implementation of music education into Australian schools since Federation. Today is by far the worst with the least amount of incorporated music education both in a practical sense and in terms of teacher training. So that sense of "holistic" education has become retracted.
NF: I understand that there are limited hours in the school day, but the arts have to be a part of that school day. Imagine if every Australian school student had to do a creative subject all the way to Year Twelve. We'd be a much better nation as a result.
PSW: Back to your school music education, can you recall any particular experiences that you had with music at school that had a lasting impact on you?
NF: I just remember learning to play those brass instruments and learning to perform as part of the school band, and also learning that piano at home, and then, later, learning to play the guitar. Both my brothers could play the guitar, and skill can. And all three of us adore music as listeners – I think it'll always be quite central to our lives. So I can't remember any particular incident, it was simply that music played a big part in our early education and it was also a regular feature at home. My father would often be caught conducting the radio or a LP – I seem to recall be particularly loved Vivaldi. I understand my mother was a longtime subscriber to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. These days I'm not a massive fan of standard classical music, but my mother tells a story that when I was young she took me to see the SSO perform at the Sydney Operate House and apparently I loved it – "entranced" is the word she has used. And my brothers and I were also going to rock concerts, either together or alone. One year my older brother took me to see Queen perform at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. What a show! So upon reflection, music was an everyday experience: we played sport, we watched TV, we read books, and we played music.
PSW: So, in terms of your work, do you find you can have music on in the background while you write?
NF: No, because I always get too distracted. Sometimes, if I'm looking for a particular mood, I might allow myself to be immersed in a certain piece of music. For my first novel, Remnants, published in 2005, I was very inspired by Arvo Pärt's "Alina", because I was looking for a very reflective, melancholic atmosphere. Sometimes, if I want some more aggressive, I might write to Sonic Youth or Godspeed You! Black Emperor, which is a Montreal-based post-rock collective. But generally I have total silence. Because I want to be taken away by the words on the page or on the screen.
PSW: That's really interesting. I think some people find it quite difficult to work in a multi-modal kind of way where there is one thing going on here and another over there. I think music helps you work on a number of different levels at the same time.
NF: I'm sure that's true. Most afternoons I take my dog for a walk and I almost always listen to music. I just allow it to enter my brain and do its thing. I'm not looking to be directly inspired, just to let musical signals and waves enter me and do whatever they want to do. I almost always sort things out while I'm walking and listening to music. I also love listening to music in the car, because I do an awful lot of driving. It's just bliss to be driving around the Southern Tablelands while listening to music. But sometimes, at the end of the day, I just sit by the fire and put on a CD and turn out the lights and, again, just let the music waft over and through me. I'm sure I sleep better after doing this. It's almost like a creative form of meditation, but I don't want the music to be simply in the background – I want it to be right in my face and bearing through to my core.
PSW: It's fascinating. It's a multi-modal existence. My experience is people find that harder to cope with today because they don't have that musical inheritance or experience which allows them or teaches them to be adaptable.
NF: Music certainly helps to work through problems or simply to think more deeply or more creatively. I'm sure music also helps to develop empathy.
PSW: I think that's something that belongs to music as part of its inherent experience, as well as the emotional and intellectual aspects.
PSW: Let's move on to your career in the context of your musical upbringing and education, which seems to have been fairly pragmatic and broad. You seem to be drawn to some really interesting music. I'm wondering where your writing emerged from and the possible musical links that have influenced it.
NF: Where did my writing emerge from? Oh my, that's an enormous question. I think it was always there – on the whole, my broader family network is one that has always engaged with the arts. I just know that I loved writing as a child, and I loved writing as a young man, and now that I'm charging headlong into middle age it's still something that I love. I'm best at communicating on the page. It's the way I work out what I think. And I think a lot. But even though I loved writing – and reading – when I was a child, it wasn't something that was actively encouraged as a profession. I'm not sure that in those very early days music directly inspired my writing, or my desire to be "a writer", but I'm sure music opened me up to the possibilities of creating.
PSW: It sounds like writing was shut down as a career option in the same way music was.
NF: Perhaps it's just that standard parental thing – look for a profession that will be safe and secure. A creative arts career, as you well know, isn't safe and secure. But I'm glad that I've pursed it regardless. Though I think there are members of my family who still wish I wrote under a pseudonym.
PSW: Is that something you've ever considered?
NF: Earlier in my career I did sometimes write under a pseudonym, but it was really just for fun. In fact there's a plaque in the middle of Garema Place in Canberra with a poem of mine on it and it's there under a pseudonym. I can't remember why I did that – perhaps it's because I've never seen myself as a poet, so this was just an experimental thing. Or I had a crisis of confidence. I'm not sure why I remember this now, but a few years ago I got this terrible review in a major metropolitan newspaper. I rang my father to talk about it. Half an hour later he called me back and suggested that maybe I could be more inspirational (my writing can be quite dense and dark). I asked him what he meant. He said that he'd been listening to Handel's "Messiah", which he found very inspirational, and perhaps I should aim to be as inspirational – or as beautiful – as that piece of art. A tough ask!
PSW: Do you think he was meaning beautiful work, or work that was on a larger scale, more for the masses with a broader appeal, a bit like the "Messiah"?
NF: Perhaps he was simply suggesting that I be less dark in my work, though perhaps he did mean that I should aim to move an audience on a broader scale or in a deeper way. Or maybe he was suggesting that I sing while I write! You've got me thinking about how as a school kid I'd have to attend those weekly chapel sessions and sings all these hymns. But then we'd go on to the next class. On a subconscious level, there must have been a connection between one minute singing and then the next minute writing a story, before going to the next class to learn something new about maths or Latin. As an education, it was a very potent mix.
PSW: There's an intrinsic connection between music lyrics and literature in observing the "kinetic" power of language for a particular, visceral meaning.
NF: Yes, there are many writers who, I think, write in a very musical way. James Joyce is an obvious example, as is the poet ee cummings.
PSW: Also Stephen Sondheim whose lyrical work is as strong as his musical work. I'd like to hear a little more about the kind of music that speaks to you.
NF: I like to think that I have a very broad musical taste, though people tell me it's not as broad as I'd like to think. I grew up on The Clash, The Cure, and The Smiths, before, in my early twenties, moving onto dance music and electronica. These days, despite my advancing years, I still like contemporary music, especially electronic – UK dub-step producer Burial is a current favourite, and I also love Jon Hopkins' work, and I've loved DJ Shadow for a very long time. But I've also been heading into minimalism, especially Max Richter and Johann Johannson. It all depends what mood I'm in and what I'm working on.
PSW: So you are making very specific choices.
PSW: Where do you find your inspiration?
NF: From everyday life – things that I've read in the newspaper or on-line, or things I've observed while walking through a city or a paddock. I do keep a journal and it's filled with ideas. Often those ideas stay in the journal for years before they become stories. My novella I'm Ready Now, which was published in 2012 and shortlisted for the 2013 ACT Book of the Year, was based on an idea I wrote in my journal back in 2003. I do like to leave ideas to ferment.
PSW: I guess I'd like to finish on some of your reflections on the state of the arts in Australia today. It seems to me that your life is rich and stimulated by a whole range of influences and the kind of music education you had was quite influential and rare.
NF: For me personally, writing and reading and music are some of the very best things about being alive. More and more, however, I'm also inspired by other art forms – the visual arts, especially photo-media, but also, quite amazingly, contemporary dance. I don't always understand dance, but I'm almost always invigorated about it. I just think it's important to allow the brain to be open to a wide range of influences. More broadly, the arts are as fundamental to civilization as hospitals and roads and schools. It can't be left to wither at the periphery of society, but it should be an everyday experience. And I don't necessarily mean that only the fine arts should be at the centre of our lives. Even if we're engaging with a commercial pop song, we're still engaging with a creative product. Do our political leaders understand this? Some do perhaps, but most don't. Or they don't want to talk about the arts for fear of appearing "aloof" or "disconnected from the person in the street".
PSW: All that you are talking about links to the ideas of creativity, intensity and being moved by something. Where does that sit today in education, do you think?
NF: I know there has been a lot of work done over the last few years by a lot of very smart and driven people about how best to incorporate the arts in the school curriculum, and perhaps it's true that there has been progress. But time and time again I hear of parents who, when things get tough, drop the arts from the lives of their children. I think this is wrong. When times get tough, it's the arts that should rise to the surface.
PSW: Nigel, you are a very inspiring person and have been extremely generous with your time and honest reflection on your life today. I'm sure the readers find this interview as interesting as I have. Thank you.
NF: My pleasure, Paul. Many thanks for inviting to be a part of this interview series.
Visit Nigel at www.opentopublic.com.au