|Picture via Flying Nun Records|
Erewhon Calling: Experimental Sound In New Zealand
Bruce Russell (editor)
Audio Foundation Pbk 191pp
Editor Bruce Russell says in his introduction that the project of Erewhon Calling is “an investigation, in some senses an 'ethnography'” of experimental sound culture in New Zealand: sound art, improv, noise, experimental composition, avant-garde song. It is interested in that culture's self-experience or self-knowledge: “who they are, what they think they are doing (and why they think they're doing it), as well as how they got to where they are now.” The result is a blur of ideas and perspectives that suggests many potential patterns, never cohering into them. But then in a music-writing market that too often demands cut-and-dry conclusions, this may be a virtuous intention, and one that suits its subject: the experience of investigating this and other music from NZ is a slow, delirious tumble through sound that alternately smears and crystallises patterns, slipping between constitutive categories: melody and noise, intimacy and distance, liveness and mediation, grotesquerie and pop nous.
In one sense this book is welcome. There's a distinct lack of writing on avant-garde music in New Zealand (even on the web information's hard to come by), and this anthology contains a lot of interesting primary materials, including memoirs and surveys by Peter Wright, Pin Group's Peter Stapleton, Dan Vallor (on lathe-cut records as a medium for experimental musicians in NZ), Alastair Galbraith and Su Ballard (on the minor but encouraging support for sound-art in public galleries), as well as some lovely visual work by the likes of Michael Morley. By contrast, what's become reified in retrospect as 'New Zealand indie', the mainstream (centred around Flying Nun Records) against which this book's subject is ostensibly set, is surrounded by gossipy memoir, hagiography and archival repackaging, instruments of that reification. Part of the problem is that Erewhon Calling threatens to do the same for its own subject.
For the music that developed in New Zealand after punk, mainstream and underground existed less as separate realms than as resources to be reimagined or eviscerated. Many of the first releases by Russell's label Xpressway were from musicians originally on Flying Nun, including The Dead C, Galbraith, Peter and Graeme Jefferies and The Terminals. Even many of those that Flying Nun continued to support, such as Chris Knox (on whom Byron Coley contributes an unusually good piece), produced extremely odd, noisy homemade pop records throughout the 80s and early 90s. Russell's recent and essential compilation of neo-psychedelic Flying Nun sides, Time To Go, in fact makes this very argument about the closeness of these strands of music. He doesn't help the book's case by stating that “[i]t doesn't try to describe the sounds these people make.” Divorced from aesthetics, subject to a narrow discursive focus on the 'experimental', its program comes across as crypto-sociological boundary-marking; what the best contributions here add to previous writing, against the book's will, is a sense both of the social dynamics of the scene and what escapes the social, into the enclosure and exposure of mediated sound – the often intense privacy and strangeness of the music.
The NZ underground, as channelled primarily through Xpressway (until its closure in 1993) and Forced Exposure, enjoyed a certain cachet in the 1980s, but even this was complicated by the cultural politics of centre-and-periphery. Part of the appeal for both the international mail-order crowd and native listeners, John Bywater recalls, was “its geographical isolation and cultural difference”, and “the pleasure... in liking things no one else knows”. Such an enjoyment of the esoteric was frowned on in the scene – Bywater cites a zine's “satirical portrait of Christchurch at some point in the 90s, including a character Paul, listening to 'mail order records from the USA'” – as, at the same time, those involved struggled to make space for themselves in a country known for its relative social conservatism, in which the idea of community is primarily a stick with which to beat cultural nonconformists. Jon Dale's marvellous piece on the still mostly unknown bands of Wellington, includes this “droll summation” from Douglas Bagnall of Fever Hospital: “we had a local context – three houses and a community hall – with national and international links, but no regional scene.” Auckland's 90s scene experienced the city as “just a city, a glorified parking lot made specifically for commerce, leaving no room for culture”, scored by the grey, anonymous noise of the records of RST, Thela, Rosy Parlane and others. The portrait of the same city's ongoing Improv collective, Vitamin S, suggests a climate in which creativity is unacknowledged, everyday, intensely ordinary.
Such an account is moving, not least because it mirrors the situation many of us in the arts who don't live in metropolitan centres confront day-to-day and almost never see portrayed in music writing. It also, in theory, makes a fitting conclusion for the chaotic mass of material gathered in this anthology: definition, solidity, product don’t need to emerge from the companionship and entertainment of creating music. But this is, it feels to me, insufficient. If the attempt here is to provide a social portrait of NZ music as a total aesthetic – and fans often agree that it does have a shared atmosphere or tone, as well as a visual identity – then it's worth noting that the best pieces in here aren't about social scenes, and aren't academic analyses, but passionate writing about records, experiences of sound that chafe vitally against expectation. They're about 7”s, tapes and lathe-cuts issuing from sources that just as quickly disappeared; about “broken, distressed, recalibrated and/or malfunctioning equipment”, grime and distortion on the tape; about troubled song, photocopied zines and fugitive performances. Such writings give a stronger sense of what it is to produce sound “at the end of the earth”, a place where ultimately, as Jon Dale puts it, quoting William Burroughs, there's “nothing here now but the recordings”.