Erewhon Calling – Experimental Sound in New Zealand
Edited by Bruce Russell. In association with Richard Francis and the (CMR and Audio Foundation, 2012)
Reviewed by Sarah Jane Parton
In Erewhon Calling – Experimental Sound in New Zealand, editor Bruce Russell repeatedly states that the aim for this book was not to create a comprehensive survey of sound art and experimental music in New Zealand. I can’t help but wonder if he is being intentionally self-deprecating, as a reflection the national cultural tendency that he so accurately identifies: “we regard boasting about (or even referring to) one’s own achievements as the height of ill-breeding.” Is he scared of offending those he has neglected to mention? Is he fending off anticipated criticism? I can’t quite figure it out because, as far as I can tell, this is the most comprehensive survey anyone could hope to achieve. This is the Bible of sound art and experimental music in New Zealand. In this Bible, Russell has managed to describe a genre whilst leaving the definition of this genre ambiguous. He has intentionally blurred the edges around what it actually ‘is’ by including writing on the work and contexts of a vast array of completely different sound-makers – from Phil Dadson to Stink Magnetics to Michael Morley.
This is a not a book to pick up and read all at once. It is a book to cherish, to mull over, and to ponder. Each essay is an education. Each illustration, each photograph, is deserving of careful study. The cleverness of it as a whole – which is, simultaneously, both a guide and a piece of art – is not something the reader can grasp immediately. The book is an object in its own right, a beautifully constructed piece of graphic design that is both humble and confident in its execution. At times it acts predictably as the textbook the editor assures us it isn’t, yet at other times it subverts the conventions of this form, challenging the reader with unattributed contributions and wayward prose.
Staggeringly, there are fifty-one contributors to Erewhon Calling. The writing extends from essays and interviews and discussions all the way through to freeform prose poetry. The images are of paintings, photographs, comics, drawings, diagrams, posters, video stills, magazine covers, zine covers, and album covers. The content is all given the same egalitarian treatment: the same fonts are used; the same format is maintained; and images are given full plates (all in black and white), or sit tidily, captioned, next to the text. This rules applies throughout the book except for in the bits that aren’t like this at all, which – and this is genius – seem to have been chosen arbitrarily. Breaks in form and tone occur spontaneously. By my interpretation, the shape this book takes indicates just how it wears its politics on its sleeve. Hierarchies are established and then broken down – there is a predictable biographical essay on Chris Knox, tenderly penned by Byron Coley, and then, some chapters later, an essay of equal length on the little-known but massively prolific Matt Middleton, written by his long-time admirer Stephen Clover. Without the lexicon of recent New Zealand music history, a reader might assume the two men had equal weight in our story of sound. And why not?
As a reader I was drawn to the moments in the book I recognised and identified with. Is this a country so small we could all find people we know between the covers of Erewhon Calling? I kind of hope so. In saying that, in some of the essays I was lost amidst the lists of names and places. At times I must admit that I did feel like I was trying to follow some of the authors’ rambling recollections of the not-so-distant past, which read as desperate efforts not to forget anything or anyone. This seemed kind of inevitable, and it didn’t really matter. Not really. If the whole anthology had been like this it would have made for a dense and unexciting read, but as it was, the memoirs shifted between the general and the personal in a way that gave me a much deeper understanding of the world these artists are and/or were inhabiting. I was equally charmed by Alistair Galbraith’s frankness about his own financial situation – “Everybody knows you can’t earn a living as an ‘alternative’ musician in New Zealand” – as I was by Su Ballard’s thorough descriptions of the ways different public art galleries in New Zealand had attempted to present sound art – her praise of Tina Barton and Laura Preston’s work at the Adam Art Gallery was a significant highlight.
Daniel Beban, Nell Thomas, and Jeff Henderson manage to avoid accidental monotonous list creation by deliberately creating monotonous lists in their account of Wellington’s alternative alternative music scene. Their dedication to facilitating experimental sound in the windy city is communicated so clearly in the inventory of spaces they have run and the folks they have worked with. The vibrancy of the Wellington scene is then beautifully contrasted with the barren landscape of the nineties in Auckland. A piece by Andrew Scott subtitled “people arrived alone and left alone” beautifully captures the isolation that experimental music makers felt at that time in the big smoke. I remember that vibe so well… from behind the counter at Beautiful Music, where I briefly worked, I would visualise the city and only be able to identify a few spaces I wanted to be in – Artspace, Beautiful Music, Crawlspace – with nowhere else in between. Scott nails this, using a layered prose form that references The Flaming Lips multi track masterpiece, Zaireeka.
There are also essays on the scenes in Christchurch (both pre and post-quake) and in Dunedin – rich portrayals of specific projects (including the Christchurch tram-based sound experience Trambience) and spaces (such as None Gallery, where artists are forging a new Dunedin scene). As I said, ignore Russell – this thing is comprehensive. I did find myself wondering about the audience for this book. I’m guessing it would be pretty niche. I’m an artist, my partner is a musician. I get it – we’re the niche. In saying that, there is a human-ness to the writing that means you don’t have to be a train spotter to get into it. There are moments like the one in the lovely candid conversation Campbell Kneale has about ‘sound art’ with Antony Milton, where Kneale says: “I make all sorts of things… music and paintings, but also dinner, wonky furniture, a home for my partner and kids. I’m a high school art teacher… None of these things are of greater or lesser importance in the grand scheme of things.” This is wonderful. It keeps it real. It’s this sentiment that makes me yearn for this to be the book that high school art teachers, like Campbell Kneale, start using as a reference in both art and music classes. Wouldn’t that be a coup?