Rock singer lends voice to White­ley’s world

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - Ash­leigh Wilson

Brett White­ley hated work­ing in si­lence. He called it “crim­i­nal dark­ness”, and much pre­ferred to have mu­sic blar­ing in the back­ground, par­tic­u­larly Bob Dy­lan and Dire Straits. He also liked to have peo­ple read books to him. Of­ten that task fell to his wife, Wendy, but it was just as likely to be one of his poet friends such as Robert Adam­son or Michael Driscoll. White­ley was never a big stu­dent of words on the page — all that rest­less en­ergy made it hard to sit still for long — but he loved the con­test of lan­guage and ideas in lit­er­a­ture, so that’s where those readers came in.

What would he have made of my book, Brett White­ley: Art, Life and the Other Thing? Who knows, but he may well have ap­pre­ci­ated its ex­is­tence in au­dio form. And con­sid­er­ing the com­pany he kept, it seems fit­ting that the per­son re­cruited to record it for Au­di­ble just hap­pened to be a rock singer — Mark Sey­mour, best known as the front­man of Hun­ters and Col­lec­tors — even if the two of them had never met.

The record­ing be­gins, af­ter the de­tails of the book it­self, with Sey­mour read­ing the ded­i­ca­tion to my part­ner and son. Then, as he goes on, a strange com­bi­na­tion of fa­mil­iar­ity and dis­tance sets in. Maybe com­posers feel a sim­i­lar sen­sa­tion while lis­ten­ing to an or­ches­tra play­ing their work, when they no longer con­trol the pre­cise ar­tic­u­la­tion of the notes and the rests on the page. The ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ence, of course, is that their work is writ­ten to be per­formed while mine is set to the rhythm of some faint in­ner-voice that sounds a lit­tle like mine and yet al­ways re­mains obe­di­ent and silent. I imag­ine it’s even stranger for nov­el­ists and po­ets.

Au­di­ble con­sulted me dur­ing the se­lec­tion process, but be­yond that I had no in­volve­ment. I didn’t hear from Sey­mour and still haven’t. But he did a re­mark­able job, and that warm, deep voice con­veys just the right tone: au­thor­i­ta­tive, play­ful when needed, some­times solemn, scep­ti­cal, ironic, por­ten­tous, ex­citable, pen­sive and so on. In an ideal world, we would hear White­ley him­self, since he spoke with such “tremen­dous vigour [and] a rapid flow of quick in­ces­sant words packed with en­ergy and ideas”, as Don­ald Friend once put it.

But Sey­mour doesn’t go in for cheap im­per­son­ation, which is prob­a­bly for the best. He also nav­i­gates with ease the letters and di­aries in White­ley’s hand, where words are mis­spelled and thoughts of­ten run to­gether. Of course there are parts that sounded dif­fer­ent in my head, but it would prob­a­bly be strange if this wasn’t the case.

Most im­pres­sive must be Sey­mour’s en­durance dur­ing the record­ing process. The book spans 451 pages, and the au­dio ver­sion lasts for 13 hours and 29 min­utes. I’ve got it on my phone, and the pace seems about right for a long drive, maybe the train to work, maybe a back­ground sound­track dur­ing the paint­ing of a bird or a do­mes­tic in­te­rior or Sydney Har­bour in all its bril­liant ul­tra­ma­rine blue.

Mark Sey­mour in the stu­dio read­ing the Brett White­ley bi­og­ra­phy

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