Perfect Sound Forever

Periphery to centre

Photo by Kim Pieters

Dunedin noise in the late 1990s
by Peter Stapleton

ED NOTE: This is an excerpt from the book Erewhon Calling, published by the Audio Foundation.

Over the 1990's, a small but self-contained scene emerged in the south, largely centred around labels such as Corpus Hermeticum (H/Corp) and Metonymic and magazines such as Opprobrium, comprised of musicians and writers who had begun to see themselves as part of a worldwide ‘free noise' community. From 1993, much of this music was documented by Bruce Russell's H/Corp label, which also played an important role as a distributor. Originally based in Port Chalmers and later in Lyttelton, this retained the outsider ethos of Russell's earlier Xpressway label, but ventured into far more abstract musical territory. Alongside releases from all over the world, its catalogue included CD's by Dunedin experimentalists such as A Handful of Dust, Alastair Galbraith, the Sandoz Lab Technicians, Pieters/Russell/Stapleton and Doramaar, all in distinctive non-jewel case card packaging, The H/Corp compilation Le Jazz Non (1996) makes a persuasive argument for the existence of a New Zealand-wide noise community, but one mainly located in the south, the music a combination of DIY recording techniques and a shared drift aesthetic that simply did not sound quite like anything else. By the mid- to late-1990's, musicians in other countries were often described as being influenced by that sound and for a short time, it seemed as if the periphery had become the centre.

H/Corp was followed by Metonymic, founded by Kim Pieters and Peter Stapleton and located in Purakaunui, just north of Port Chalmers. Where the former documented the wider free noise community, Metonymic focused more on the local. The label's signature sound was epitomised by the floating drones of Sediment (1996) by Rain, a trio of Pieters, Stapleton, and Australian exile Danny Butt, and the packaging adhered to a similarly minimalist visual aesthetic, courtesy of designer, visual artist, and filmmaker Pieters. Pieters was also part, along with Sara Stephenson, Adria Morgan, and Andre Richardson, of all-female improvising group Doramaar, notable for projecting Valerie Solanas' S.C.U.M. Manifesto during an early live performance. After Richardson left, the remaining trio recorded the expansive Terra Incognita (1996) for U.S. label Fusetron, before breaking up a year later.

Far more enduring were Flies Inside the Sun, with the Rain trio joined by guitarist Brian Crook. From their second (and best) album, they dispensed with any formal structures, fashioning an atmospheric, drone-based psychedelia. In 1997, Butt left for Auckland, leading to the demise of Rain, and from then on Flies continued mainly as a recording band, with only occasional live performances. In 1998, Pieters and Stapleton formed a new group called Sleep, with Nathan Thompson from the Sandoz Lab Technicians and Su Ballard from the Sferic Experiment, taking the drift music of Flies and Rain to yet another level of abstraction on Ghostwriting (2001), the second of their two Metonymic CD's.

At the same time, Thompson continued as a member of Sandoz, along with Tim Cornelius, Mark Curragh and James Kirk. They made their live debut in mid-1994, opening for ex-Sferics guitarist Sean O'Reilly and Flies Inside the Sun at a Super 8 show in the basement of Zenith Café. From then on they were one of the mainstays of the 1990's Dunedin experimental music scene. They began as exponents of a kind of half-song, but increasingly moved into instrumental jazz-tinged exotica. Live, they swapped instruments without missing a beat, as if on some sort of perpetual merry-go-round. Curragh contributed primitive electronics to their early releases, including their Siltbreeze LP, but when he left for Japan, the remaining three continued as a trio. Over the next few years, they were prolific, recording every week on a two-track reel-to-reel and releasing a string of lathe cut records that suggested an alternate universe. After that, they moved on to longer formats and releases on a string of NZ and overseas labels. By the late 1990's, the pieces had become longer, more seamless, and also more jazzy, perhaps reflecting members' interest in 1960's American free jazz, especially Sun Ra, yet that phase had its highlights too, notably their peerless live performance supporting Tony Conrad at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in 1997, as documented on their H/Corp CD Let me lose my mind gracefully (1998).

Even more prolific in terms of releases were A Handful of Dust. They began in 1984 as Bruce Russell's solo project, but from the early 1990's, they became a duo, with Russell joined by multi-instrumentalist Alastair Galbraith. Where The Dead C. still retained a sketchy song structure, A Handful of Dust's music was fearlessly free form. Perhaps, more than any other South Island experimental music group, they epitomised the term ‘free noise' and Russell further articulated the concept of noise as music in his Logopandocy journal, a mixture of sound theory and tongue in cheek humour that accompanied each of the group's releases. From the Empire Hotel performance documented on the debut H/Corp CD release, The Philosophick Mercury (1994), A Handful of Dust also periodically included Peter Stapleton on percussion. The group's sound was based around the almost telepathic interplay between Russell's insistently rhythmic guitar and keyboards and Galbraith's hypnotic violin tones, with Stapleton's drums adding extra intensities. Live, they could be unrelenting, but they could also be surprisingly reflective as in their performance at the first Lines of Flight festival (2000), later released in 2004 as Mares' milk mixed with blood on French label Non Mi Piace.

Alastair Galbraith was one of several musicians who continued to play both song-based and more experimental music over this whole period. Galbraith was a visual artist and filmmaker who had previously been a member of the rock group Plagal Grind. He was, however, best known as a singer/songwriter responsible for dozens of uniquely transcendent ‘folk' songs. Those songs were often short, even haiku-like, but on Galbraith's albums they might sit alongside evocative experimental drone-scapes, for example Koterana on Cry (2000), and over this time his guitar and violin (especially) provided welcome colour to A Handful of Dust's brutalism. At the same time, he was involved in more radical explorations in sound, such as his wire music project with American Matt De Gennaro, later released as Wire Music (H/Corp CD, 1998). These performances consisted of multiple piano wires stretched across gallery spaces and played in such a way that the room itself became a musical instrument. Their enthusiastic reception suggested that, while Galbraith only performed live very rarely over the second half of the 1990's, any such manifestations of either his more experimental or his song-based music remained keenly anticipated.

Far more prolific on both vinyl and CD during the 1990's was Gate, essentially Dead C. guitarist/vocalist and multi-media artist Michael Morley with the addition of an ever changing cast of collaborators. Morley's growing international reputation led to a stream of Gate releases on American labels such as Majora, Twisted Village and Table of Elements. At the same time, he also released a number of micro-edition lathe cut records on his own Precious Metal imprint. Throughout this period, Morley played more often overseas than he did at home, for example touring the US in 1994 as part of a Table of Elements showcase that also included Tony Conrad, Keiji Haino and Faust. The guitar/synth version of Gate featured on his rock trilogy The Dew Line (1993), The Monolake (1996), and The Wisher Table (1999), was notable for its fuzzy, overloaded ‘live' sound, although with half-melodies lurking beneath the multiple layers of noise. Towards the end of the decade, Morley got into sampling, transforming the source material into similarly narcotic, brooding sound constructions and that version of Gate is best encapsulated on the Lavender Head (1998) double LP, released on US label Hell's Half Halo.

In contrast to Gate's relatively high media profile, Donald McPherson was seldom heard on record and hardly ever seen on a stage. An associate of the Sandoz Lab Technicians, McPherson is a solo guitarist/vocalist who plays both strongly personal songs and melodic guitar improvisations in the manner of John Fahey. Over the late 1990's, he released a number of inventive lathe cut records, however any chance of reaching a (slightly) wider audience was hindered by his chronic lack of self-confidence. He suffered from acute stage fright, meaning he hardly ever played live, and not only were his records ‘released' in very small editions in the first place, but legend has it that after a short time he would frequently destroy all the remaining copies. However, at his best, McPherson was an extremely skilled improviser and his solo instrumental work is well documented on his under-rated Bramble (Metonymic CD, 2001), as well as on the later Vinegar and Rum (2006), a series of guitar duets with acclaimed Japanese guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama.

In sharp contrast, Crude, aka the hyperkinetic multi-instrumentalist Matt Middleton, tended to play anywhere, anytime, often in inner city pubs such as the Crown which remained as dilapidated time capsules of days gone by. Middleton went to become a central figure in the Dunedin noise scene over the subsequent decade.

But by the late 1990's, many of the better-known Dunedin experimentalists were playing live less and less. The main ‘alternative' venue was Arc Cafe, but the nature of live experimental music clashed with the café's new hippie ethos and the owner's expressed reluctance to book noise bands because they sounded ‘like they were just tuning up.' Largely as a result of such tensions, there was a trend towards art gallery shows at both the artist-run Blue Oyster Art Project Space and the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. The relative scarcity of live experimental music also led to the first Lines of Flight festival of experimental music and film in 2000. Repeated iterations of this festival have encouraged many out-of-town musicians to play in the city, and in return provided them with a much more engaged audience, the film component a continuation of the 1990's Dunedin mixed-media tradition.

Lines of Flight continued the earlier work of labels such as H/Corp and Metonymic, and fanzines such as Opprobrium in helping to consolidate an experimental music community, and it also contributed to the situation that exists in the city today where the barriers that once existed between experimental and song-based music have largely disappeared, with a very great degree of openness on the part of both younger musicians and audiences.

Also see Bruce Russell's introduction to Erewhon Calling

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