Dunedin Soundings: Place and Performance
Dan Bendrups and Graeme Downes (eds)
Otago University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 978 877578229
With the possible exception of Chris Knox, the “Dunedin Sound” was never driven by charismatic personalities. Instead, it consisted of a generational wave, a cluster of the like-minded, affected by similar influences, whose self-constructed mythology had something of the sectarian instincts of a cult. The town itself was the locus for, the conducive atmosphere for, almost the instigator of, the “Dunedin Sound”. In any case this is ancient history now, packaged as part of the heritage industry and tourist trail.
Dan Bendrups, a Queensland-based ethno-musicologist, summarises the “Sound” as belonging to the period 1979-1989, “starting with the emergence of iconic band the Clean, and ending more or less with the move of the Flying Nun label from Christchurch to Auckland”. His co-editor, Graeme Downes, characterises the “Sound” as consisting of “trebly, highly reverberant guitars and partial barre chords with jangling or open strings”, and stressing “irregular phrase structures”, “polymodality” and “large instrumental sections (to) convey or amplify poetic ideas”. It was, he asserts in his essay, a form of “cultural nationalism”, in which “Afro-American influences, such as blues, soul or funk were largely avoided”.
But Dunedin Soundings: Place and Performance is a title that promises more than the book delivers. This is not a survey that chronologically examines the aftermath of the “Dunedin Sound”, so much as a book in 12 parts that, as Bendrups tells us, reads the city in terms of its “numerous alternate Sounds” in the present day. The problem is with that “numerous”. In fact the focus here is very narrow and specific. This is a book which grew out of seminars held as part of the programme of contemporary music in the Music Department at Otago University. It’s a constrained text, one that situates rock music as a discourse to be theorised over within the hierarchical framework of the academy. It offers short essays by a variety of music practitioners with ties to the university, eager to promote their “practice” within the terms of the university’s current mandate. As we know, universities are subject to the ideology of “competition” – a perverse formula according to which New Zealand university departments, in order to demonstrate “relevance”, must compete for funding against other departments within their own university, and against similar departments to themselves in other universities. Success is measured by “research outcomes”, but “research” is a term that conceals a multitude of omissions, as well as possibly containing a sense of permission to fulfil “potential”.
A lot of Dunedin’s present musical scene is missing from what’s examined here. You will look in vain for discussion of the work of Robert Scott, David Kilgour, Martin Phillipps and Peter Gutteridge – all currently active as local, mid-career artists who were formerly in Flying Nun’s core bands. Nor is there discussion, say, of electropop – be it Cloudboy, Mestar or more recent manifestations – or of bogan rock as symbolised by the well-attended Feastock concerts. There is no mention of the Polynesian reggae-inflected harmonies of the significant collective Koile or indeed of any Polynesian or Maori contemporary music. There is no discussion of New Zealand’s leading woman composer Gillian Whitehead, who lives on Otago Peninsula.
It might be argued that these essays are mostly by creative musicians who also work as teachers, which in turn brings up consideration of their skills as explicators. There is little here of the articulate enthusiasm of a Garth Cartwright or a Nick Bollinger, nor any evidence of interviewing skills as proficient as those of Chris Bourke.
Instead, after Bendrups’s emollient introduction, reminiscent of nothing so much as the drone of an electric bass guitar transmuted into the drone of the lecture room – consistent, earnest, dutiful – we are immediately confronted by Suzanne Little’s academic boilerplate, driven forward with the roar of an armoured tank, and heavy with blather and guff about “significant pre-compositional research” fit to be “assessed” and “ranked” by keyboard-tapping bureaucrats able to distinguish between “performance as research” and “practice as research”.
It is left to John Drummond to enliven proceedings. He verbally twists and turns to demonstrate how the concept of “research” might be made to equal “creativity” through a kind of legerdemain by talking about the role of creativity as a form of research for Johann Sebastian Bach and Richard Wagner, among others. Drummond’s ebullience here, though (where research seems more like clever everyday perceptions), reads like the adroit rationalisations of the humanist old guard, or perhaps the civilised murmuring protests of an endangered species being fast-tracked to extinction.
Elsewhere, Drummond offers a measured description of the genesis of his opera Lanarch, which is based on the 19th-century life of the eponymous New Zealand Member of Parliament and castle-owner who committed suicide in mysterious circumstances. Thus he picks up on a consistent thread of Gothic gloom, which fellow composer Anthony Ritchie is also alluding to when he states “death has been a common theme in New Zealand poetry”. Ritchie, who writes about his construction of musical settings for poems, points to other “common themes” of the New Zealand condition, ranging from tongue-tied inarticulacy – “men stand when lost for words/ There was nothing to say” (Sam Hunt) – to the stark fundamentalism of the Otago coast, with its “bare harmonies of sand and wave” (Alistair Te Ariki Campbell).
Peter Adams writes of his experiences as conductor of the St Kilda brass band during its two-year climb (1990-1992) to winning the National Brass band Championship. Judy Bellingham discusses the creation of a “niche market” DVD in 2007, which featured parlour songs written between 1870 and 1944, including “Sons of the Southern Cross” and “The Tramp of the Fire Brigade” (words by Thomas Bracken). Local musical entrepreneur Scott Muir communicates his enthusiasm as an impressionable adolescent for the “Dunedin Sound” circa 1981, and then outlines his later success in running musical venues, before setting up Dunedinmusic.com, on which Graeme Downes’s Verlaines, among other musical acts, release their recordings.
So the book is at heart anecdotes and reminiscences, shored up by end notes and jargon-speak to provide institutional gravitas. Downes himself takes us, in the manner of guiding workshop students, doggedly through aspects of the songwriting craft – draft 17 anyone? – though something of his essay does also transmit a visionary sense of good vibrations and belief in a sonic utopia, plangent notes forming amidst the crackle of static and out of dead air.
Another true believer in the power of sonic transformation, though actually a member of a different congregation, is Trevor Coleman, an Emmy-nominated composer for Natural History New Zealand, scoring soundtracks for internationally syndicated documentaries. Coleman, a Dunedin-born music prodigy who was principal trumpet for the New Zealand Youth Orchestra at a tender age, before discovering jazz, and charging off overseas to base himself in Europe for 15 years, is now the inspiration behind the ever-active, jazz-improv ensemble Subject 2 Change, as well as a number of experimental music groups. Significantly, he disagrees with Downes’s elimination of Afro-American music as an important formative influence for Dunedin musicians of the 1970s and 1980s, claiming “one style that was popular in the late 1970s was funk”.
Dunedin’s musical history remains then a work in progress, open to revision. This Bendrups-and-Downes-edited miscellany is best considered in the context of the large number of other books very recently published on New Zealand music, ranging from Festschrifts such as John Ritchie at Ninety (compiled by Philip Norman) and World Music is Where We Found it (essays by and for the late Wellington musicologist Allan Thomas) to the textbooks Home, Land and Sea: Situating Music in Aotearoa New Zealand, and Just Like Us: Aspects of New Zealand Music. En masse, these register polyphonically, many voices contributing to the monolith we call cultural nationalism.
David Eggleton is a Dunedin poet and editor of Landfall.