Talking Music, Sue Court

Talking Music: conversations with New Zealand musicians
Sarah Shieff
Auckland University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 1869402286

Sometimes, out of sheer perversity, I read an entire book ithout having read the preface or introduction to see whether my perception of a book is matched by the intention of the author. Similar pleasure can be gained from listening to a piece of music without knowing the name of the composer, nor the circumstances of the piece’s creation. Sarah Shieff’s Talking Music: conversations with New Zealand musicians is a collection of interviews with 14 New Zealand musicians, the subtitle raising the expectation of a transcript of interviews. In fact, each “conversation” is a biographical piece which centres around the creative activities of the particular composer, performer, teacher, or music writer. So, although based on interviews, the “conversations” are interwoven with other material to provide engaging stories.

I did at least read the back cover beforehand and discovered that Sarah Shieff is a lecturer in English and New Zealand Studies at the University of Waikato, with a background in music. Which prompted my first question: why is an English scholar writing a book on music? Closely followed in succession by: why these particular 14 musicians? Why are they all “classical” musicians? Why interviews? Anyone who has ever considered writing in the interview format will appreciate that the genre has special difficulties of form and style. How to achieve coherence without repetition? How to give it shape?


Two things, in particular, save this book. First, each chapter reads like a short story, written in beautifully concise language, each coherently shaped story offering a unique solution to the problems of forging professional musical careers in a country with unevenly spread resources for the arts. Secondly, the stories have an extraordinary accumulative effect. Each can be appreciated as a complete story, but I recommend reading them in one hit for a “Gestalt” experience. Talking Music gives life to the kiwi ingenuity ethos as expressed in the arts. No single story follows a predictable career path, and every musician has in their own way pushed the barriers. While Helen Medlyn’s richly varied musical career seems to have been haphazardly formed by serendipity and a willingness to be involved in performance of all kinds, Gareth Farr admits to having been a “careeraholic”, with mixed results personally. Then there is Jenny McLeod’s journey from early academic heights to the discovery of the immediacy of popular music and the nurturing spirituality of the Maungarongo.

These “conversations” are more than biographies. They are character studies in which each musician’s individual voice is allowed to speak. The author must have taken considerable care to achieve rapport with her subjects; each musician reveals personal aspects of their lives, illuminating facets of their devotion to music as a profession. Many stories make a strong impression: Edwin Carr’s determination to avoid what he sees as the “narrow nationalism of his nearest contemporaries”; Wilma Smith’s determination to maintain a happy balance between personal, family and professional life; William Dart’s enthusiastic eclectic embrace of styles and types of music, expressed as an “obsession with communication” and an exploration of as many ways as possible of touching people with music.

At the same time this is not a book of music history or a musicological study. What it does most successfully is enliven the space between creator and audience. To assist that “conversation”, the book is accompanied by a compact disk with 14 musical examples. This is an asset, although the book is strong enough without it. The musical extracts are well chosen, but of course a few minutes cannot represent the creative output of a musician. Such compilations, too, are easily marred by differences in recording quality from one track to another. Fortunately, Wayne Laird’s expert digital audio mastering has circumnavigated such problems.


Is each chapter a “conversation” as the book’s title suggests? A conversation requires two or more people, but here the interviewer’s questions have been omitted. That does not, however, mean that the author has no voice. The process of selection and narration inevitably carries with it the subjectivity of the author, although Shieff does stop short of offering critical intervention. In a sense, that is one of the features of the book, allowing contradiction and dissonance to speak for themselves by mere juxtaposition. As an example, here are some differing attitudes to avant garde music:

Dorothea Franchi: All right, I may not be able to take it all in at once, but I’ll give it a go, and if I can see some form or rhythm or colour in it, then I’m willing to listen again. But I’m afraid too much new music lacks all three, and it’s like a block of concrete. It leaves me unmoved.


Edwin Carr: I wanted to know how German music had come to such a decadent end with the likes of Strauss, Berg and Webern, and after such a magnificent background.

Jenny McLeod: I was obsessed by symmetries — Webern had enhanced that for me …

Gareth Farr: [Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring] had a real primal feel to it. Something to do with that music just instantly switched on the light.


Experiences with funding bodies provide similar examples:

Jack Body: Alley had been commissioned by the Festival of the Arts and was to be its biggest production of 1998, but a funding débâcle saw a substantial grant from Creative New Zealand reallocated to other projects.

Peter Scholes: I’ve sat on the Creative New Zealand music funding panel, and the processes are fine. The problem is the gap between the amount of money they’ve got to give out, and the amount of money the arts require to really flower in this country …. You think you’ve been appointed to make decisions about the lifeblood of the artistic health of this country, but it’s nothing like that. It’s like walking into a nuclear bomb zone with a suitcase full of medicine.


The production values of Talking Music are excellent, apart perhaps from the rather unimaginative front cover design. This is a pity, because Robert Cross, who contributes 14 very fine photographic portraits could have been involved here. It may be a small matter of personal taste, but I fear the white treble clef on a mustard background will do nothing to enhance sales. Another small matter is the only spelling error which drew itself to my attention — “crochet” for “crotchet” — providing unintentional humour.

What did the introduction tell me in the end? Shieff “makes no apologies” for the narrow scope of the book, nor for the omission of many important contributors to the lifeblood of New Zealand music. She is not attempting to represent a totality of New Zealand Music; rather, her intention is to “present a musician’s sense of the range of participants in the larger conversation that is classical music in New Zealand.” Shieff succeeds admirably in this aim.


Sue Court teaches in the Department of Music at the University of Otago.


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