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Leslie Keith Humble (1927–1995)

by John McCaughey

To stand close to a fine musician on a concert stage is to realise the force of projection that is at the heart of music-making. The softest phrase or expressive change, the most personal or abstract figure, all must sound not at the point of origin but in the corners of the resonating space and the ears of the listeners.

These qualities of projective energy and transfer between the private and public worlds of music are brought to mind in the career and personality of Keith Humble. Possessed of highly individual talents and a challenging temperament, he acted as a stimulus and an agent of change for a generation of contemporary music.

Humble's life was a counterpoint of activities as composer, performer and educator. If there were tensions and conflicting demands between these strands of activity, they were also inseparable in his vision of musical practice. His compositions were a performer's, written in an eruptive notation that demands a flow of spontaneous gestures. In performance he was a composer: his charged piano playing pointed to compositional processes; his fluid conducting injected a contemporary score with a sense of being an event. By extension, his projects in education, both inside and outside institutions, had the character of composition in action. He believed that musical learning thrived in the contradictions between new ideas: the Centre de Musique he established in Paris was described as a "crossroads in the full blast of the winds''.

Humble's own education began as a prodigy pianist under Roy Shepherd at the Conservatorium. His local Northcote community raised money towards studies in London in 1950, which continued for several years in Paris piano with Cortot, composition with the famous Schoenbergian Leibowitz. Two decades followed in which he built a musical life in three continents. In France his Centre de Musique became an important forum bringing together international composers with the best French musicians. In the US he toured widely in the universities, and became a professor at the University of California, San Diego.

From 1966, Humble combined these activities with an appointment at the University of Melbourne. Here he opened up the Grainger Museum for teaching and concerts and a new electronic studio. With his wife, Jill, and his French colleague Jean-Charles Francois he generated an atmosphere of excitement around the performance of new music from many sources, and encouraged younger Melbourne musicians.

Appointed foundation professor at La Trobe University in 1974, he created a music department in which contemporary music was the starting point of studies and activities. It became the largest department in the country, with a substantial base in music technology.

Humble's music revels in diversity of materials and characters: theatre, collage and electronic events coexist with concise expressionism. The voice of Liszt-like reflection is heard in his Symphony of Sorrows, premiered in Adelaide in early May. Equally typical is the exuberant Dadaism of the Choruses a Crier et a Danser.

The sorrows, and the shouting and dancing of his life's work, will continue to resonate in Australian music.

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Citation details

John McCaughey, 'Humble, Leslie Keith (1927–1995)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 May 2024.

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