A survey of experimental music-making in New Zealand is long overdue and Erewhon Calling achieves its purpose simply by being. Our sonic adventurers have made lasting impressions in foreign territories but have remained steadfastly invisible at home, and this slim (191-page) volume of essays addresses that problem, adding considerably to the documentation of experimental scenes throughout the country. So why does the above read like faint praise?
Purporting to be about “the full range of ‘non-standard’ audio practices in contemporary NZ culture … from the borders of composed art music, through improvised noise … every genre, every scene, every permutation of unconventional audio practice in-between”, the book, in fact, largely comprises essays by a small connected contingent of noisemakers revolving around, or in awe of, editor Bruce Russell.
Refreshing and notable exceptions to this rule are veteran sound art innovator Phil Dadson, whose diary excerpts give a genuine if fleeting insight into his mindset and musical modus operandi; a chapter tracing the arc of jazz-based improvisation in Wellington; and an illuminating explanation of the self-generating Auckland improvising collective Vitamin S.
The big failing of Erewhon Calling is its inability to see the big picture and to engage critically with the culture. Notated experimental music is barely mentioned, viewed as merely a nasty aftertaste of the power and privilege of the empire; musicians who have bothered to acquire instrumental skills, the better with which to articulate their ideas, are seen as power-mongers.
Russell, through his work with the Dead C and his labels Xpressway and Corpus Hermeticum, is a demigod to many in the contemporary New Zealand noise scene, and it would be churlish to deny his influence, both locally and internationally. But that influence pertains to a particular school of lo-fi , untutored sonic warriors, a generation schooled on rock but who have escaped the confines of song and structure.
As a marketing tool for that aesthetic, Erewhon Calling works a treat, but when Dunedin musician Peter Stapleton is reduced to writing about himself in the third person (“with Stapleton’s drums adding extra intensities”), one longs for journalism.
At its best, Erewhon Calling does what music writing should: fires you up to discover new music. It’s an important assertion of activity that deserves recognition, but it’s only the start of the conversation.
EREWHON CALLING: EXPERIMENTAL SOUND IN NEW ZEALAND, edited by Bruce Russell in association with Richard Francis and the Audio Foundation (Audio Foundation/CMR, $45).
Gary Steel is a music writer and journalist.