Current Issue #488

Lior & Westlake:
An enriching journey

Lior and Nigel Westlake
Ken Butti
Lior and Nigel Westlake

It took a chance event and a common cause to bring two of Australia’s most admired musicians together and bridge two highly disparate musical worlds.

The setting is one freezing winter’s night in 2009 in the tiny rural hamlet of St Albans, NSW, and on stage is Lior, the Israeli born singer-songwriter, farewelling his audience with a powerfully evocative rendition of the ancient Hebrew hymn of compassion, ‘Avinu Malkeinu’. Listening intently amongst the throng is Nigel Westlake, composer for the films Babe and Antarctica.

It was “one of those special nights that people talk about for years afterwards”, says Westlake. As the winter mist descended into the Forgotten Valley, where the outdoor concert took place, he recalls how the remarkably clear-voiced Lior “began to weave his magic upon the crowd”. It was “a tantalising and exotic sound-world. I was overcome by a strange yearning to be a part of it,” he adds.

The concert was a fundraiser for the Smugglers of Light, a foundation that the Westlake family established in memory of Eli, Nigel’s son, who was killed in a tragic road rage incident the year before. The foundation’s purpose is to assist Indigenous youth reclaim their ancestral heritage through music and film. “It was a poignant occasion that had been planned to coincide with the 12-month anniversary of Eli’s death,” explains Westlake – “the music held a very special meaning for our friends and family, many of whom were still grappling with the tragic loss that had befallen us.”

His eldest son, Joel, had introduced him to Lior’s music several years earlier, and it “had quickly become absorbed into the family playlist, underscoring many happy times,” says Westlake. Indeed, the last music he shared with Eli, just a week before the tragedy, happened to be Lior’s debut album Autumn Flow, which had propelled the singer to public attention and immediately placed him at the fore of this country’s indie artists.

This fact, he says, came to hold a profound importance, “forever imbuing these sweet songs with a unique and deeply personal significance for me”. Hearing Lior sing the mesmerising chant of ‘Avinu Malkeinu’ in this dusk concert proved a watershed moment. “As he was brought back on stage for the encore,” says the composer, “little did I realise that his final offering for the night would hold the germ of an idea that would become the catalyst for a life-changing and enriching journey.”

After the concert the two soon got talking, and Westlake suggested composing a symphonic arrangement around a recording of Lior’s performance. “Neither of us were sure where this might lead, but I had a hunch it was at least worth a shot.” The experience, Westlake describes, was “a little like writing a movie score” to weave in with Lior’s voice. So encouraged were they by how it worked out, that they “could both sense potential in the finished idea, and it seemed a natural progression to expand the material into a song cycle for voice and orchestra”.

The result was Compassion, a symphony of songs as it’s been described. The words, chosen by Lior, come from ancient Hebrew and Arabic writings that reflect his own Middle Eastern family history. Lior came up with melodic ideas as well, putting these to Westlake to serve as a starting point in composing the cycle. Both say their aim was to create a contemporary interpretation, without aping traditional Hebrew or Arabic musical styles. Neither did they set out in Compassion to create a religious work in any overt or institutional sense. Instead, they say wanted to chart a personal exploration of ideas surrounding this single universal theme.

Explains Lior: “It may seem strange in the context of this work, yet neither Nigel nor I consider ourselves religious people. We do, however, share a firm belief that much of the beauty and wisdom found within so many works of art and philosophy attributed to a certain religion need not lie exclusive to those who subscribe to its faith, or only to those who seek a connection with God through directional prayer. They have so much to offer to those who might accept them without bias or judgement.”

Both were pleasantly surprised at how the collaboration turned out. Says Westlake: “Given our dissimilar experiences in music, I couldn’t believe how we both seemed to be on the same wavelength, striving toward a common goal, critical of the same issues and agreeing on the ideas that seemed to work”. Lior agrees that it was one of those rare ventures where two artists’ ideas and souls genuinely merge: “What began with a feeling of trepidation as to whether Nigel and I could sincerely encapsulate the artistic concept and vision we shared for this undertaking, has ended with a full embrace and a somewhat unexpected sense of renewed optimism.”

Compassion was first performed by the Sydney Symphony at the Sydney Opera House in September 2013. Adelaide gets to hear the work in full, with Lior singing and Westlake conducting the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

Lior & Westlake Songs with Orchestra
Friday 7 February
Festival Theatre  

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