Perfect Sound Forever

Erewhon Calling

Experimental Sound In New Zealand
(December 2012)

When we heard about this book, we knew that we not only needed a copy for ourselves but we had to tell the world about it, especially when we also found out that guitarist Bruce Russell, of the Dead C (interviewed by PSF in 2000) and A Handful of Dust, and founder of the Corpus Hermeticum and Xpressway labels, was the editor (which might not be a big surprise since he's also known as a writer). Erewhon Calling doesn't just document a scene or particular artists there but also the whole milieu around it which supported and nurtured it and grew up around it too. As such, the book is a fascinating document and a worthy piece of music history that's been waiting to be explored in detail for a while.

Perfect Sound Forever is honored to present Russell's introduction to the book, which not only lays out the trajectory of the book but also gives you a great overview of the scene and its components. In addition, we also present another chapter from EC courtesy of Peter Stapleton, writing about Dunedin noise in the late 1990s, which he should know about since he participated in it, also as a label founder (Metonymic) and musician (as an occasional member of A Handful of Dust).

Supreme thanks to the inimitable Zoe Drayton for helping to arrange all of this. Not only should you buy up Erewhon Calling but if you have any interest in the NZ experimental scene, you owe it to yourself to learn more about the organization that put out the book, the Audio Foundation, which features a separate page with music selected by the book's contributors.

Over the Range

photo by Palix

an introduction by Bruce Russell

For better or worse, the Clash's 1979 album, London Calling is now generally regarded as a high-water mark for rock'n roll. This album's title, which eponymously references the broadcasting of culture from one of the world's metropolitan centres to the peripheries of the globe, sits oddly askew from the perspective adopted by this book. So our title is both a tip of the hat and a kick in the pants to that view of 'culture' as a centrally-produced – and peripherally broadcast – phenomenon.

Just over a century earlier in 1872, Samuel Butler published the first substantial contribution to literature by a writer who had resided New Zealand, a place which then (as now) was the very definition of 'the ends of the earth,' Erewhon, or over the range was a satirical utopia about a foreign country with an outlandish culture which adjoined New Zealand. It made Butler's name as a writer, and in 2012, it is hard to resist the conclusion that this last stop to Antarctica is still, in many senses, 'next to nowhere.'

For all these reasons, the title of the present book seemed appropriate, as a survey of how a bunch of antipodean misfits and malcontents have forged new ways and new reasons to make noise, here at the end of the earth. As these pages will reveal, most of the sound practitioners contributing here have started from some relationship to both of the received traditions of rock music and contemporary art, though they may have strayed a fair distance from these. Erewhon, in Butler's book, was defended both in its distance from settled lands, and by stone sound sculptures which made such 'hideous noises' that his narrator concluded: 'however brave a man might be, he could never stand such a concert'. This is a reaction familiar to many of us today.

In addition, the title of this introduction – the subtitle to Butler's book – seems apt, because it encapsulates the aim of this volume in surveying the full 'range' of practices in NZ sound culture as the millennium enters its second decade. We set out quite intentionally to cast light on all of the audio practices outside the norm; outside of what Greg Malcolm pithily refers to as 'proper music.' Our interest here runs from the borders of composed art music, through improvised noise, to deconstructed 'rock'n pop filth'; and every genre, every scene, every permutation of unconventional audio practice in-between. Of course, we will not have succeeded in being comprehensive – most of you 'informed readers' will no doubt have spotted the omission of names you'd expect to see – but that's hardly the point. We've thrown a good handful of gravel into the pool, and while we won't have hit every eel, we will have rippled the surface from shore to shore, which is more than anyone else has even attempted before.

It must be stated at the outset that 'music' in New Zealand is very poorly served in terms of publications. These are not only few; but most of those that do exist have significant limitations: in scope, depth of expertise, or partiality of viewpoint. So, not only will this book be incomplete in itself, but it will probably not even completely fill the available undocumented space in the history of this country's music. However, despite these imperfections, I do hope that it will be marked by several compensatory virtues resulting from the decisions we made quite consciously at the outset.

For starters, we haven't limited ourselves to 'just' music, or any subset thereof. When you do that, you set yourself up for a fall, because boundaries are notoriously hard to define, and 'music' is in itself a fluid and contentious term. Our original publication proposal stated that our scope would include, but probably not be limited to: the noise underground, ecstatic jazz/free improvisation, electroacoustics/musique concrete, electronica and non-dancefloor turntablism, instrument builders/acousticians, sound art/installation art, field recording, inter-media art/video/experimental film, and Industrial music. And as a consequence we concluded that: 'the subject will be all aspects of sound experimentation in NZ.'

Specifically, this means that our attempted scope:

a. includes 'everything', which
b. relates to audible culture, which
c. embodies or manifests a pragmatic, exploratory or hypothesis-governed practice, and that
d. has been executed in this country.

As I said earlier, there's too much out there for it to be possible to include everything. This is true especially if you want to consider the development of such a field over the last (say) twenty years, as well as its current scope. That's why our stated aim was to undertake: 'an investigation, in some senses an 'ethnography,' of this diverse field of practices, seeking an understanding which is essentially a self-understanding.'

Typically, an ethnographic investigation (by definition) does not aspire to be comprehensive, because a 'one-to-one' map of a field of culture is simply itself: the actual 'field of culture.' It can't be a representation if it doesn't select, simplify, condense, and allude. And our project aimed very precisely at 're-presentation'; at reflecting a partial view of this 'field' back onto itself, using the words of the artists themselves, focusing on what they thought was important.

Our aim is thus to allow room for many voices, not to make a portrait of the scene from one 'God-like' authorial point of view, but to make a collage, from multiple and possibly conflicting voices and points of view. The single-author text-book approach could only ever be both inherently biased and too limited in perspective, and this has already been the problem with too many books about 'New Zealand music.' This book lets a range of artists and informed commentators tell their own stories, and leaves it to the reader make many of the connections.

It doesn't try to describe the sounds these people make. In today's world we have the internet at our disposal, which is why this book is accompanied by a page on the Audio Foundation's website:

Here there is a good selection of work by many of contributors to this book, and other people they've written about. Anyone who wants to know more about what the stuff sounds like can also do their own Googling. No doubt there's a wealth of material out there, both legal and otherwise. Good luck with it. In fact, this is a good point at which to pause and mention the role of the Audio Foundation in all this. Zoe Drayton and her board were quick to pick up on the value of such a book, and it was their established track record with Creative NZ that helped cement the funding to produce it. This is the real value of working arts infrastructures. They don't divert energy from art working; in fact they facilitate and help make manifest ideas that otherwise are all too often just unrealised musings.

The rationale behind our 'collage approach' ties in with the ethnographic impulse – this book is mainly about story-telling. The best way to understand the work these people are doing is to understand who they are, what they think that they're doing (and why they think they're doing it), as well as how they got to where they're working now. That is also why we tried to not impose any specific or artificially limiting timeframe on the writers. We rather wanted to find out what those involved thought of as the period which covered their efforts and the influences they saw as significant. The results are not too surprising, most of the personal stories start around 1990, although there are references to influences and important events from the 1970's onwards, especially in the areas of sound art/festivals, improvisation and DIY rock'n roll. The article on Chris Knox is unusual in mainly dealing with the period 1976-90. It was specifically commissioned to reflect his 'canonical role' in the indigenous musical sub-culture which most of these artists recognise to some degree as their personal 'originary tradition.'

So Erewhon Calling deliberately concentrates on stories about individuals, as well as stories about places and 'scenes.' It also allows a couple of 'informed observers' (Branden Joseph and Jon Bywater) to reflect on the processes of audience formation, how people came to follow this stuff as the 'field of practice' developed and expanded. These pieces will also have a resonance for the artists, as one of the distinguishing characteristics (I have argued elsewhere) of this stuff is that it is made for what Bourdieu called a 'field of restricted production,' where the audience in large part is 'other producers'; as well as critics, curators and those already imbued with the ethos of the field.1 It is precisely these people that Jon's and Branden's accounts describe. The point of this introduction is, however, to explain the rationale of this book, and not to attempt a theoretical explanation of its subject, so I'll leave off any further analysis of that kind.

We included a few journalistic 'case studies' about individuals because these people's approaches to practice are somehow either exemplary or typical with regard to the careers of many other artists, who are often referred to in more than one of the other pieces. And there are also pieces where individuals tell their own stories: such as Peter Wright's account of 'growing up Industrial' in 90s Christchurch; or Alastair Galbraith's ongoing acoustic research, building ever-crazier sound generators. We've also asked people involved in making stuff happen, such as Jo Burzynska and Peter Stapleton, to write about specific places and periods of time. The idea being to show how complex networks of 'nodes and connections' such as venues, concert series, radio stations, labels, friendships, practice rooms and magazines all contribute to the building of 'scenes,' We also hope to show how these infrastructural elements permit the collaborations and exchanges of ideas that breed precisely the kind of generalised creativity which so significantly marked this whole diffuse 'field' over the last couple of decades.

Having said that I'll leave off analysis, I have to comment on one elephant in the corner: the question of artistic motivation. 'Why do that?' or 'why listen to that?' are bound to be the first questions most people will raise when considering the work of the people covered herein. I'm not about to venture an answer, but obviously a key factor is the coincidence of the audience with the set of people who are 'producers' of this stuff. Bearing in mind that many of the readers for this book will also belong to both the audience and the set of producers, I suggest you read the rest of it with these important questions in mind. You'll find them a really helpful 'rule of thumb' in appreciating what these people say about their work. In many cases you'll find that these artists don't begin from a fully-formed idea about what they're doing, or why they're doing it. They haven't necessarily found that out yet, as their approach is in general pragmatic and exploratory: it's about 'finding out what happens when...'. Phil Dadson's finely-wrought reflections on the craft of listening are especially valuable in indicating 'which way to be facing' to appreciate much contained here.

So we have also asked some contributors to look at some closely related questions, for example: what is the role of the art gallery in presenting sound work (Su Ballard)? How does the tradition of academic composition relate to the pragmatic free-for-all of experimentation (Dugal McKinnon and Andrew Clifford)? Why so much emphasis on multi-media performance (Andrew Clifford and Mark Williams) and on site-specific presentation (Zita Joyce)? What has been the role of our own indigenous audio medium (Dan Vallor)? Not all of these questions are answered, but the contributions here do at least indicate the specific ways in which these questions have been framed through the work of New Zealand artists – and may at least indicate how others could seek to answer them.

And last but by no means least this book focuses on questions and answers implicit in the individual 'voices' of the artists themselves. Jeff Henderson, Nell Thomas and Daniel Beban's 'beatnik psycho-geography' of Wellington is a beautiful example of this. It effortlessly conveys the flavour of the place and its people through its very form (in other words, its language and structure), while simultaneously imparting a wealth of factual content as well. This trick has been also played rather successfully by a number of other contributors. And the same goes for the 'page works' which we commissioned. From Michael Morley's ghostly minimal Marshall monolith to Witcyst's unfiltered word soup, these combinations of image and word reflect the 'inter-mediate' skills which pervade this group of artists, and provide as clear an impression of the range and diversity of artistic style and intent as any mere book could hope to convey.

Although I am listed as the 'editor,' in reality the input of Richard Francis (designer) and Zoe Drayton (project manager on behalf of the Audio Foundation) has also been indispensable in shaping the book that you are holding in your hands. They initially proposed making the book that became Erewhon Calling, and thus must share equally in the responsibility. The credit for this book, on the other hand, belongs to the contributors. New Zealanders have a passive/aggressive relationship to fame. We regard boasting about (or even openly referring to) one's own achievements as the height of ill-breeding, yet we have an almost megalomaniac level of self-regard for any and all achievements by other New Zealanders. In the same way, we will 'bag' our own country mercilessly, while expecting all visitors to praise it without restraint. Despite this national background of 'cultural schizophrenia,' I would argue that in the case of the artistic field delineated here, a little megalomania is 100% justified. Our corner of New Zealand culture is, like Erewhon, full of much that is 'new and strange'; even if we (like Butler's narrator) have been 'unable to reap any pecuniary advantage from it.' For a country of four million inhabitants to have produced so much exemplary work in such a peripheral (or more politely, 'developing') cultural sphere, is worthy of both note and financial reward. But while we wait for the cheques to roll in, this book will suffice as a collective examination of precisely 'what happens when...'.

1. Russell, B. (2011), 'Lines of Flight: “the most perfectly autonomous sector of the field of cultural production"', in T. Mitchell and G. Keam (eds). Sun, Land and Sea: Situating Music in Aotearoa New Zealand. Auckland: Pearson, 265-279.

From Erewhom Calling, also see Peter Stapleton's look at Dunedin noise in the late 1990s

Bookmark and Share

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER