AWF18: The Rest is Noise – Alex Ross

AWF18: The Rest is Noise – Alex Ross

We find out in the first few minutes of this session, knowingly chaired by Fergus Barrowman, that Flying Nun was the first foray for Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, into popular music. This writer, who so wonderfully filters twentieth-century history – wars, technology, social changes – through classical compositions in his widely accessible The Rest is Noise, has just risen in esteem – at least among those members of the audience who are familiar with Flying Nun. You get the feeling that this crowd is more in touch with Sibelius than Chris Knox.

Barrowman.Ross_Still_01.pngUp until this point in college only dissonance had been admissible to Alex, but ‘the lyrical and melodic’ elements of bands like The Bats and The Clean, with their ‘sweetness and straightforward nature’, encouraged him to discover popular music. Working at a student radio station, he also began listening to punk and jazz – the beginnings, perhaps, of his book Listen to This, which reveals the boundaries between pop, jazz and classical to be porous. Does he wish to remove borders between musical genres altogether? Alex believes that borders exist for a reason; that every music has its centre, but sometimes elements that lay on the outskirts may easily cross over into another.

We might think of classical music as static and unchanging, but it too alters as it moves through time. But then how do you bring, for example, improvisational openness to academic music? Some of the more interesting musicians, the ones to watch in Alex’s opinion, are the ones who easily move between genres – jazz and classical for example – as if they had grown up in both worlds or occupy the middle ground. But improvisation is something classical musicians need to get a handle on, as the newer compositions require more input and invention on the part of the performer.

And what of the condition of classical music in the public sphere? Audiences are often blamed for not attending classical concerts with new programming, but, as Fergus points out, this is essentially inviting them along to listen to new music. Alex concedes it is hard to find the balance between old and new. It was also a balance he was seeking in writing The Rest is Noise, where he tried to appeal both to the obsessive specialist and the lay reader, and where he consciously attempted not to take sides with either the avant-garde, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and atonality on the one hand, and then Sibelius and co on the other. He ‘wanted all these composers to be taken seriously as heroes of the modern’.

Alex uses episodes in The Rest is Noise with great skill to draw attention to wider movements or tendencies. One such event opens the book – the world premiere of Strauss’s Salome. Everyone gathers, expectant, wishing to be part of the sensation. Could this happen again, Fergus asks? No, for as Alex explains, these composers where huge cultural figures of their times – he tells us that The New York Times ran ‘Puccini’s boat stuck in fog’ as a front-page headline.

The issue of classical music’s reach flows through to questions from the audience. How do you attract younger and more diverse audiences to it, when it is perceived as elite? Alex takes issue with the elite angle – as classical is often compared to pop, which is elite in the systems surrounding it: it makes use of massive apparatus (from multinationals to stadiums). Classical audiences are more diverse, but not in terms of income levels. He believes a lot more work needs to be done concerning who gets to play and be played. But, like everything else in the arts, it is not for everyone.

Alex has a reworking of Schoenberg’s quote ‘If it is art, it is not for all and if it is for all, it is not art’. His approach is more pragmatic: ‘If it is art, it’s not for all and if it is for all, it does not exist’.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Alex Ross will appear with STROMA
Sun, 20 May 2018, 4:00pm – 6:15pm
Great Hall, Auckland Town Hall

NZF Writers & Readers: Cut it Out, with Jane Parkin, Ashleigh Young, Fergus Barrowman

Tara Black reviews Cut it Out, a discussion about editing between Jane Parkin, Ashleigh Young and Fergus Barrowman. Images copyright Tara Black.

Jane Parkin has edited hundreds of books, and she joins Ashleigh Young – to talk editing, with Fergus Barrowman.’

NWF18 Cut it Out - on editing

Book Review: Sport 45, edited by Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_sport_45Sport 45 is packed with an array of new and brilliant pieces from New Zealand writers. There’s poetry, there’s essays, there’s even a novella. It’s a collection that’s not afraid to widen its scope, and this is how it provides a wonderful snapshot of new writing.

While reading through each piece of short fiction, I couldn’t help but recognise common themes. I discovered many characters who were estranged, isolated, alone. I saw the loneliness of waiting, as reflected in Tracey Slaughter’s story ‘Cicada Motel’. I stumbled through the bush with Kerwin in John Summers’ short story ‘Own Shadow’, as he tried to understand what was haunting him.

But the dynamic between characters also spoke volumes. Displaced in new and unfamiliar places, characters were left to try and make sense of each other. In Melissa Day Reid’s short story ‘I Will Come and Find You’, a husband and wife have travelled to Barcelona on a whim. They have also decided to abandon planning for spontaneity instead. Reid portrays Barcelona in a wonderful dream-like way; she describes a snapshot image of ‘arm, neck, lips, ear, tears, drums, and firecrackers’. But shifts in dialogue reveal a growing rift between this husband and wife. In fact, the two seem to be talking on top of each other. The wife points out a candlelit room in a building; her husband sees an alleyway below it and starts making his way there instead. As the story progresses, this rift widens. The piece seems to capture the natural but inevitable drift that sometimes takes place in friendships and relationships. It’s a palpable and bittersweet emptiness. And in this story, Reid explores whether this rift can be stitched up again.

Nicole Phillipson’s novella, ‘Moulin d’Ornes’ touches upon these estranged themes as well. Paul travels to a commune in France, intending to get away from the world so he can write. It’s a quiet setting where ‘the old, grand beauty of Europe… made his memories of New Zealand seem slightly cheap.’ In her novella, Phillipson highlights an interesting advantage to moving away: the delight of cutting away old connections.

A few essays also slipped in next to these pieces of fiction, taking their place comfortably amongst other genres. Giovanni Tiso’s essay ‘Before the Earthquake’ is one of these essays. Tiso describes the possible calamities that could occur if a serious earthquake were to hit Wellington. But he also describes the emotional state that Wellington is already living in because of this possible earthquake. Wellington’s next serious earthquake is not an if, but a when. As Tiso states, ‘we live before the earthquake. Everything around us is foreshadowing’.

There is also an array of beautiful poems in Sport 45. Helen Heath’s poem ‘A Rise of Starlings’ is delightful; she beautifully weaves the image of ‘wild celestial fields’ and messages traced ‘in particles of dust and light’. Natalie Morrison’s poem ‘Three edible grandmothers’ is a peculiar and whimsical little piece that sounds like it came from a fairy tale.

Overall, Sport 45 is a delightful instalment of this annual magazine, and there are a variety of pieces that provoke wonder and rumination.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Sport 45
edited by Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561995


Book Review: Sport 44: New Zealand New Writing 2016, edited by Fergus Barrowman

cv_sport_44Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

is an annual publication that anthologises fiction, essays and poetry in one volume. The criteria for selection, with this volume as evidence, is a certain high standard of technical ability allied with a capacity for formal experimentation that doesn’t draw attention away from the progression of ideas and images.

Sport 44 is populated with the work of writers ranging from high-profile (Manhire, Knox and Stead) to well-known in the field of literature (Wallace, Dukes and Tiso) to well-regarded in a variety of cultural contexts (Bollinger, Wilkins and O’Brien). Regardless of the names of the writers, the writing has one key element in common: quality. And the book itself has an aesthetic appeal, with its textured paper and austere cover design. It may not stretch things too far to suggest that just as Sport the publication provides a space for new writing, the physical object provides a series of spacious pages in which words, sentences and stanzas can float or declare themselves without fear of overcrowding. Has it always been thus, or has the digital era, with its emphasis on filling spaces with data or colour, highlighted through counterpoint this wondrous effect of black ink on white paper?

Regardless of the answer to that question, the focus here is quite clearly the words and their cargo of ideas and symbol, emerging from the empty space. In Sport 44, there is valuable freight on every page, but there are several pieces that may especially catch the eye of the reader.

Tusiata Avia’s poem I cannot write a poem about Gaza, in which the poet tells herself why she can’t write such a poem, is in her words ‘like a missile plotted on a computer screen’… that will… ‘enter the top of my head and implode me.’ By the time she comes to the end of her list of reasons (she will be called anti-Semitic, it’s too complicated for a non-PhD to talk about, she will upset her Israeli friends in Tel Aviv, her fury and grief will explode but this pales beside the fury and grief of her Palestinian friends), the hopelessness and seeming insolubility has entered the top of the reader’s head also.

Breton Dukes, who has seen the light and moved to Dunedin, contributes an excerpt from a novel he is working on — Long White Cloud. This short piece, with its customary Dukes wit, astute characterisation, and analysis of the uneasy relationships that sometimes define New Zealand society, is a prompt to hunt down the novel once it is published. Dukes is a real talent, as is Craig Gamble, who also has a novel in progress; this excerpt, taken from The Society of the Air, is a shimmering molecule of fluid language.

The essay section provides many excellent examples of how nonfiction writing can make effective use of the devices and principles often associated with fiction writing, such as disrupted chronology, reincorporation, metaphor and subjective revelation. The truth of the subject matter is made doubly resonant, and at the very, very least we learn something we might not have otherwise known. Nick Bollinger’s piece The Union Hall casts light on the genesis of his career-forming obsession with music and musicians; in the piece While you’re about it contemplate werewolves, the speculative and inclusive genius of Sara and Elizabeth Knox is revealed in a transcribed Skype conversation; and Emma Gilkison, in An Uncovered Heart, charts the repercussions of a diagnosis of ectopia cordis, a condition whereby the foetal heart grows outside the body. In her tender and painful essay, the writer probes the literal and figurative enigma of the human heart.

In unison, the writers of Sport 44 aim at the head and heart. It is the best kind of writing, it is the best kind of book.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Sport 44: New Zealand New Writing 2016
Edited by Fergus Barrowman with Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young
Published by Fergus Barrowman
ISBN 9770133789004-44

Book Review: Sport 43, edited by Fergus Barrowman

cv_sport_43Available in bookstores nationwide.

Sport is something of an institution in the New Zealand literary-scape, having weathered funding storms and wrestled off naysayers. It has been a hothouse for emerging writers. Founded in 1988, more than 200 new writers have found a place in Sport, neighboured by heavyweights such as Bill Manhire, Vincent O’Sullivan, Emily Perkins and Eleanor Catton.

Apollo and Daphne, characters in a Greek tale of unrequited love, adorn the cover of Sport 43. Apollo obsesses over a nymph who, in an effort to evade him, transmogrifies into a tree. This is a story of changed form and immutable longing, foreshadowing Damien Wilkins’ essay that questions the necessity of personal change in storytelling.

Sport 43 kicks off with an essay by John Summers, on the tribulations of student flatting. John plays at ‘real life’, and his efforts to shirk the ‘student ghetto’ lead him to meet some curious characters – including a landlady who may have sprung from a Dickens novel, a neighbour with ‘the strangest tattoo’ and a flatmate who accrues dogs. This is a delightful tale, which perhaps fits Wilkins’ brief of ‘no hugging, some learning’.

Tracey Slaughter’s fiction, ’50 ways to meet your lover’, stitches together a vivid, if unsettling, quilt of monographs. Initially we are steered through the streets by the voice of a GPS who commands us to a dead-end. Then we are inserted into various scenes – a school picnic, a funeral, a seaside jetty. We are sat in front of reality telly or we are drinking by the swing-set. Slaughter takes us on a goose chase, but there is handsomely wrought imagery at every turn:

‘Out through the courts, through the posts, to where the field turns to tussock and storm bank and shoelessness and gulf’.

Sport 43 includes works by over thirty poets including James Brown, Vincent O’Sullivan, Johanna Emeney, Anna Jackson, and Chris Price.

Rata Gordon’s poem, ‘Being Born’ is one of my favourites in this journal, with rousing metaphors:

‘There was black moss
and a black doris
plum (my head)’

James Purtill’s ‘Seminar, late harvest’ also has vivid lines:

‘A jungle wrangles entire sections.
By freak, multi-coloured nasturtiums
burgeon fetid dumps’

Then there is Tim Upperton who pokes fun at a wide range of folks from Descartes to Eliot, to Miley Cyrus, in his playful poem ‘When lovers leave’; and Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s ‘Anne Boleyn’, with its startling opening:

‘Anne Boleyn had reptilian creatures
dwelling in her ovaries eating
all her eggs’

This elegant collection, with sedulously chosen essays, fiction and poetry, demonstrates the strength of New Zealand’s current literary scene. Despite an absence of Creative New Zealand funding, the force is still strong.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Sport 43
edited by Fergus Barrowman, with Ashleigh Young and Kirsten McDougall
Published by VUP
ISBN  9770113789000

Book Review: Sport 42, edited by Fergus Barrowman

cv_sport_42Available in selected bookstores now.

Reviewing an issue of a literary journal is a rather curious thing. You’re given the issue—in this case, Sport 42, the latest issue of that well loved landmark of Kiwi lit—and you look inside and see not only a clutch of short stories, but also a hefty double handful of poetry, and a couple of essays, and despite the disparate genres and the disparate levels of experience of the disparate writers (some fresh out of IIML, some already well established), you are told “Go! Go forth and review!” And you look down at this overflowing buffet of words in your right hand and you say, “Um. Ok. Sure. How are you supposed to eat an elephant again?”

Despite my trepidation (Sport 42 boasts a lot of poetry, and I am not a poet), I remembered that I can in fact recognize fine writing when I read it, and Sport 42 has a great deal of fine writing on display in this issue. In particular, the pieces of writing I responded to with the greatest enthusiasm were always the pieces where the style matched, supported and enhanced the content. Hence why Pip Adam’s story “Tragedy of the Commons” continues to ring in my mind; the story is disorienting to read, and there is a stone of despair in its belly, but this is the experience and point of view of Adam’s protagonist too, who looks out at a drenched Christchurch through dead, disoriented eyes.

Lawrence Patchett’s taut writing was wonderful to read too—no fat, all muscle. I also greatly enjoyed the economy on display in both Breton Dukes’ and Uther Dean’s work. Dukes’ very short short stories were each only an A5 page long but nevertheless scooped together sharp characterisation, metaphor, dialogue, depth, plot and a character called Raimundo (and how can you go wrong with a character called that?) Uther Dean’s collection of haiku also managed to say a lot with a little, using the haiku form to perfectly (and often weirdly) present some of the grains of absurdity or sadness scattered through our lives: (“All the sad robots/Pretend to robot smile/At their robot friends.”) I also gravitated towards those pieces that seemed to open a door for us to drift out of real life and into dream or memory, as in Frances Samuel’s “Vending Machine”, and I also enjoyed Bill Manhire’s “Bridle Song”, which was zany as heck right up until it became very troubling (“pyong-yang-a-lang, pyong-yang-a-loo/dear leader says he’s coming soon for you”).

Stephanie de Montalk’s ‘fact-ional’ interview with Alphonse Daudet (who died in 1897) was a highly absorbing piece of writing that also merged reality or fact with pure fiction, but which always felt truthful. de Montalk imagines going back in time to meet Daudet who suffered from the neurodegeneration typical of advanced venereal disease. She gives Daudet a voice, imagines his character based on his writing, imagines how he might sit, speak and act, while still incorporating facts and analysis and moving the interview through meditations on chronic pain and suffering. This was a truly masterful piece of writing, and it exemplifies why literary journals like Sport must continue to exist. I admit to some exasperation at the several pieces of writing made of well turned out words but little real feeling (as far as I could tell), but there was more than enough in this issue to show the importance of having this kind of outlet for creative writing. Long live Sport, and here’s to issue number 43!

Review by Febriani Idrus

Sport 42
Edited by Fergus Barrowman
Victoria University Press

The Luminaries illuminates the Bestsellers Chart for 2013

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton, has sold more copies in New Zealand than any other book to date* this year.

According to publisher, Fergus Barrowman, pp_fergus_barrowman_smlthe actual sales figures are currently sitting at around 64,000 copies. Victoria University Press have around 11,000 copies available in their warehouse, and hope that this will see them through the Christmas period. Fergus adds, ‘and don’t forget over 7000 copies of the ebook have sold in NZ alone.’

The Luminaries was released in New Zealand on 2 August 2013, a week after it was announced as one of 13 titles on the Booker longlist. (Granta published the title in the UK shortly before). Sales to date average out at a massive 546 copies a day. Fergus puts the success of The Luminaries down to the fact that, ‘…it makes NZ history extremely interesting and exciting’. Readers have found the book enormously rewarding.

Did Fergus have an inkling that this book was a potential Booker-prize winner? ‘Yes. I knew how good it was perhaps two years ago when I first read part one, and I knew that Max Porter at Granta felt the same. Of course, as well as exceptional quality a book needs a bit of good luck.’

While it isn’t unusual for a Booker-prize winning boocv_the_luminaries_HBk to rocket to the top of bestsellers charts internationally, it is unusual here in New Zealand for the prize to have such a huge effect (though admittedly a NZ-set book by a NZ author doesn’t usually win!) It is also unusual to see a literary work top the charts for both the general chart (which takes in all bookstores in New Zealand, excepting Whitcoulls), and the Indie Top 20 (taking in only independent bookstores). It is difficult for local publications to beat out the big internationals with their marketing juggernauts – Lee Child’s Never Go Back and Dan Brown’s Inferno take second and third spots in the general chart.

We asked Fergus whether these levels of sales had ever happened before to him in his career as a publisher. ‘The Vintner’s Luck took off at the end of 1998 and sold 40,000 in 12 months.’ After mentioning that VUP didn’t begin to catch up with demand for The Luminaries until the sixth reprint (of 30,000 copies), he reflected that what had happened with The Vintner’s Luck ‘should have given us the courage to respond more boldly when The Luminaries began to go.’

The hardback of The Luminaries also reached number five on the NZ Fiction bestsellers to date, and is the only hardback on that chart.

Victoria University Press publishes both fiction and non-fiction,cv_the_vintners_luck_silver focusing on good quality literary fiction. Have they published anything else that they thought may have taken off in this way? Fergus says ‘I knew The Vintner’s Luck’s potential, but we pulled back our initial print-run because the trade was cautious…we are very happy to publish books that we know are unlikely to reach a big readership: short stories, first books, experimental fiction. We have published eight fiction titles this year, and all have met expectations.’

Eleanor Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal, has also experienced an upsurge in sales, and has been prominent in the NZ Fiction charts for the past few weeks. This has led to VUP reprinting twice in 2013.

The only other New Zealand book on the Overall Bestsellers Chart was Annabel Langbein the Free Range Cook: Simple Pleasures, which came in at number eight.

by Sarah Forster

* The overall chart is for sales until 30 November 2013.