Shining the light on Nigel Westlake

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Published: 1st February, 2012

Australian composer Westlake’s new work is a celebration that marks a turning point in his life. In a few weeks’ time the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus will perform a major new work by Nigel Westlake, with the composer himself conducting. Missa Solis – Requiem for Eli earned Westlake the award for Best New Composition in the Limelight Awards announced last month. No profile of the contemporary Australian composer would be complete without a close look at this latest work (which many are already calling Westlake’s greatest) inspired by an event so tragic that the composer doubted for a year that he would ever compose again. Westlake is best known for his film music, including the hugely popular scores for Babe, Babe – Pig in the City, Miss Potter, and the iMAX productions Antarctica and Solarmax. Westlake’s path to becoming a composer could well be the basis for its own film: now 53, he was immersed in music as a boy, studying the clarinet with his orchestral musician father, Donald Westlake. But Nigel didn’t follow a conventional academic path; instead performing for the ballet and circus, touring overseas with various groups, even forming a fusion band to play his work. His output has been steady and prolific since the early nineties – in more conventional fields of composition! Classical music aficionados point to Westlake’s The Glass Soldier (music from the MTC’s production of the Hannie Rayson play); guitar compositions recorded by Slava Grigoryan, and a considerable output of chamber music. In 2008 Missa Solis, a 25-minute secular Mass to the sun, was commissioned by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The secular mass for chorus & orchestra was based on Westlake’s music from Solarmax, and had not yet been delivered – although his ideas for the work were approved by his immediate family: partner Janice, and sons Joel and Eli. Then, in the early hours of June 7, 2008, tragedy struck as Eli, walking home with his older brother and some friends, was deliberately struck by a car and killed. The composer’s “lifelong ambitions simply dissolved … I didn’t see the point in composing or even listening to music for about 12 months”, he told me in an interview as he was emerging from that bleak time. Although grieving for his son, ironically it was Eli’s memory that prompted the composer to start working again. “Eli would be furious that I’d gone off the rails”, Westlake said, “It prompted me to take steps to get back into the studio”. A friend had written in the book at Eli’s funeral: “The gates of darkness will never be closed to the smugglers of light” – and the powerful idea gave rise to two major developments. One was to take on projects in indigenous communities to empower them through music and film, an idea dear to the heart of Eli, a hip hop fan and DJ. “It picked up elements of Eli’s life and was a way for him to live on”, said Westlake. The other was for the composer to start connecting with music again. Westlake credits partner Janice with suggesting a way through the family’s “dark time”. It would be better to assemble existing some work for a CD than getting straight back into composition. Furthermore, such a CD could generate revenue for the Smugglers of Light project, as it was now called. Keen to rediscover his past muse Westlake looked for music that would have a healing element for him, that expressed “tenderness and love”. And so the CD Shimmering Light emerged, a collection of Westlake’s film music. The composer expressed surprise when I asked him if it was a conscious choice that one-third of the tracks were connected with light in some way – he hadn’t noticed! But he agreed with the proposition that the track from Miss Potter, “I’m painting again” had a particular resonance for him. “She goes through grief, and emerges back into her work,” he said. “That track is exactly where in the film she does rediscover her muse”. Now that he was working again too, Westlake looked for something to honour Eli’s beautiful spirit – and found it on his desk: the manuscript for Missa Solis. Not just the music but also the words fitted the idea of a requiem for Eli. The words of a 16th century Italian ode, O Sol, Almo Immortale read: “My joy is born/ Every time I gaze at my beautiful sun; But my life dies/ When I cannot look at it, For the very sight is bliss to me.” Reading “sun” as “son” made the idea irresistible. ‘It was as if Eli was giving me permission to … focus on the music. As if he was on my shoulder, so to speak,’ Westlake said in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald. The world premiere of the completed 44-minute work Missa Solis – Requiem for Eli was performed by the MSO, conducted by Benjamin Northey, at the Myer Music Bowl almost exactly one year ago. Nigel, Janice and Joel Westlake were in the audience, holding hands. But soon, in Melbourne again – as in two recent performances in Sydney – Nigel Westlake will stand on the podium, conducting his greatest work yet and a powerful tribute to his son. And that is where he deserves to be. For information about the concert go to www.mso.com.au and for the Smugglers of Light project www.smugglersoflight.com