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Leslie Keith Humble (1927–1995)

by Sophie Marcheff

This article was published:

Keith Humble, by Kate Hodge, 1985

Keith Humble, by Kate Hodge, 1985

National Library of Australia, 28539488

Leslie Keith Humble (1927–1995), pianist, composer, and professor of music, was born on 6 September 1927 at Geelong, Victoria, only surviving child of locally born parents Leslie James Humble, fitter and turner, and his wife Victoria, née Gowty. In 1932 the family relocated to Northcote, Melbourne, and Keith was educated at Westgarth Central School and University High School (1941–43). He learned piano from the age of five, began performing professionally as a jazz pianist while still at school, and subsequently started his own swing band. Having shifted his focus to classical piano, in 1947 he enrolled at the University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium of Music (DipMus, 1949), where he studied piano with Roy Shepherd.

In December 1949 Humble sailed for London with an Australian Music Examinations Board scholarship to study piano performance and composition at the Royal Academy of Music (LRAM, 1950). Following a shipboard romance, he married an Australian-born music student, Ivy Grace Dommett, on 14 February 1950 at the register office, Kensington, London. She returned to Australia in May, pregnant with their son, and they would divorce in 1955. In June 1951 Humble enrolled at the École Normale de Musique de Paris. He also began work with the composer René Leibowitz, first as a private student, then as a teacher’s assistant, and eventually as his musical assistant. His String Trio (1953) exemplifies his fluency in the serial compositional language that he studied with Leibowitz. He also toured Europe as a lieder accompanist and would continue to engage with the lieder tradition throughout his career, composing several song cycles.

On 2 August 1955 at the register office at Ealing, London, Humble married Jill Dobson, a secretary. Born in India to English parents, she had first met him while studying at the conservatorium in Melbourne. In 1956 he took up a position there as lecturer in piano, but he was disappointed with the lack of interest in contemporary music. He returned to Paris the next year and resumed his work with Leibowitz. In 1959, at the American Centre for Students and Artists, he established the ‘Centre de Musique,’ a ‘performance workshop’ dedicated to the presentation and discussion of new music. In the early 1960s he began to experiment with theatre, working on a series of collaborative works with the French writer Marc’O (Marc-Gilbert Guillaumin) and his theatre improvisation group.

Humble returned to the University of Melbourne in 1966 to take up a senior lectureship in composition (1966–74). Bringing firsthand knowledge of the European avant-garde, he worked to raise the profile of Australian contemporary music. At the university’s neglected Grainger Museum, he established the Society for the Private Performance of New Music, and the Electronic Music Studio. He ran weekend workshops for children, recordings of which he used in his Music for Monuments (1967), a work with flexible instrumentation and prepared tape.

Between 1968 and 1971 Humble presented a series of theatre works titled Nunique at Monash University. Inspired by the avant-garde poet and dramatist Pierre Albert-Birot’s focus on ‘nowism,’ the works presented contrasting events simultaneously and prompted audience participation, removing the boundary between audience and performer. He used another of Albert-Birot’s texts in his large-scale cantata La Légende (1971), which was scored for solo voice, chorus, orchestra, and electronic tape, and featured eight new paintings by Noel Counihan projected onto screens.

Humble was a frequent visitor to the United States of America and had a close association with the University of California, San Diego, a hub for electronic music and computer-based composition. He was also in contact with the leading serial and electronic music composer Milton Babbitt, whom he brought to Australia in 1971 for a seminar on electronic music. In 1974 he was appointed the foundation professor of music at La Trobe University, where his innovative new department focused on experimental and electronic music. His exploratory work helped to define what was considered avant-garde in Australian music. In addition to his work at La Trobe, he was co-founder and director (1975–78) of the Australian Contemporary Music Ensemble, and he performed in the international improvisation ensemble KIVA from 1982 to 1990.

A tireless advocate for new music, Humble was appointed AM in 1982, but ‘his distinctive ideas about music were more readily accepted overseas than in Australia’ (Whiteoak 2001, 822). He was a somewhat divisive figure, who met with hostility from some critics but was highly respected by colleagues, including Jean-Charles François, Felix Werder, and John McCaughey. Werder described him as ‘without question the finest all-round musician this country has produced since Percy Grainger’ (1973, 19). Retiring from La Trobe as emeritus professor in 1989, he continued to compose, his notable late works including Symphony of Sorrows (1993). Survived by his wife and the son of his first marriage, he died of heart disease on 23 May 1995 at Geelong and was buried in the Eastern cemetery. In an obituary, John Whiteoak remembered him as ‘a stirrer with a wicked sense of humour and a wicked grin to match’ (1995, 12). An auditorium (2000) at Scotch College, Hawthorn, and a performing arts centre (2006) at Geelong College were named in his honour. La Trobe University holds a portrait bust by Maria Kuhn (1981).

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • François, Jean-Charles. ‘In Memoriam Keith Humble.’ Perspectives of New Music 33 (1995): 208–15
  • Harris, Laughton. ‘Keith Humble.’ In Australian Composition in the Twentieth Century, edited by Frank Callaway and David Tunley, 117–25. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1978
  • Humble, Jill. Keith Humble, Music, and Me: Memories of a Shared Life. Healesville, Vic.: Fernmill Books, 2015
  • Humble, Keith. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 20 November 1969. Sound recording. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • McCaughey, John. ‘A Stimulus and Agent for Change.’ Age (Melbourne), 15 June 1995, 16
  • Murdoch, James. Australia’s Contemporary Composers. Melbourne: Sun Books, 1972
  • National Library of Australia. MS 9402, Music Scores and Papers of Keith Humble
  • Werder, Felix. 'We Give Our Artists Great Farewells.’ Age (Melbourne), 21 July 1973, 19
  • Whiteoak, John. ‘Humble, (Leslie) Keith.’ In New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie. 2nd ed. vol. 11, 821–22. London: Grove, 2001
  • Whiteoak, John. ‘Interview with Keith Humble.’ NMA (New Music Articles) 7 (1989): 21–26
  • Whiteoak, John. ‘Keith Humble, the Music-maker with a Message.’ Context: Journal of Music Research 10 (Summer 1995): 5–9
  • Whiteoak, John. ‘Vale Keith Humble.’ Bulletin (Sydney), 7 June 1995, 12.

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Citation details

Sophie Marcheff, 'Humble, Leslie Keith (1927–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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