Book Review: Searches For Tradition: Essays on New Zealand Music Past and Present, edited by Michael Brown and Samantha Owens

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_searches_for_tradition2015 marked the centenary celebrations of the birth of iconic Kiwi composer Douglas Lilburn. Lilburn’s influence on musical composition extends way beyond the notes on a page or the resonances of a concert chamber. Those lucky enough to gain a residency in his Kelburn house will have felt his presence when composing their own works. Amongst the many centenary events. a conference of noted scholars and musicologists was held by the New Zealand Musicological Society. The theme, also the title of this collection, was a poignant reminder of how far we’ve come. Once we believed, like Mulgan, that we were ‘men alone’, against the elements, against the drift from motherland England. The essays in this collection are base on the conference’s delivered papers but they reveal more than simple historical notations.

The title actually picks up the conversation from Lilburn’s own work ‘A search for tradition’, a talk given at the first Cambridge Summer School of Music in January 1946 in which he spelled out his hopes that a distinctive art music might yet emerge here.. The lecture is a plea for ‘the necessity of having a music of our own … A music that will satisfy those parts of our being that cannot be satisfied by the music of other nations.’

Sixty years on, we have this rather scholarly compilation of essays, divided in to categories of interest. The collection opens, appropriately on the topic of Colonial Traditions, featuring a piece from Elizabeth Nichol investigating our own rich tradition of composition. Back then, most writers were music teachers and men and women with day jobs (not much has changed, there) but the creative pool was deep and vast.

Musically, the music was not just whalers songs and sea shanties. This was a country settled by a swath of educated middle classes, she says, and they all brought with them pianos and brass. As early as 1857, composers were bringing European influences and mixing them with local aspects. Harriet Barlow for instance, created a New Zealand Polka whilst John Beale was smitten with particular ravines further south and wrote ‘angiruru Galop. And so it went, Nichol notes – this transplant of European dance traditions into local settings. The amount of publishing that occurred, especially from London and Sydney presses impressed me greatly. Remember, Aotearoa was in reputation only 10 years old on the world stage. Who even knew we were here?

With A.E Wilson’s New Zealand Waltz we start to really see a proper search for identity and nationhood in music. Remember, music was an expression of national identity. Thomas Bracken knew this when he wrote our own National Anthem, albeit as poetry.
The search for our own voice continues with editor Samantha Owens, who looks, at some depth, into the establishment of a New Zealand Conservatorium Of Music. The notion being that music was part of established and respectable culture. I was surprised how early this came about – 1906. Interestingly, the rationale to create such a school came from musicians who’d been taught in Dresden, the heart of culture at the time. The desire for elitism in the arts began early.

Melissa Cross looks at the practice of cultural appropriation in her piece about Alfred Hill. She asks – Maori Songs: Whose Tradition? In the early part of the century Hill joined the craze to collect and ‘Europeanise’ indigenous music and traditions. It happened all over the world as Westerners became smitten by ‘native’ relics and traditions, even music. And so he’d appropriate the Waiata of ‘Maoriland’ for commercial gain, to publish in script for piano and orchestra. This was a time when sheet music sold as well as records would eventually 20 years later.

There’s a section about the Lilburn legacy itself, where we learn in depth about the man himself. Composer, educator, innovationist Douglas Lilburn, originally from Wanganui, was one of our most revered experimental composers.. His career, as one of the essays in this book informs us had three distinct periods, beginning with his time at the Royal College of Music, London, where he was tutored in composition by revered composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

After returning to New Zealand he eventually took up residence as an academic at Victoria University in Wellington and in 1970 was appointed Professor with a personal chair in Music in 1970.

In the 1960’s, along with Jack Body, he started to experiment with electronic music, eventually founding the Electronic Music Studio at Wellington’s Victoria University in 1966 and becoming its Director until 1979. Fiona McAlpine gives us a short but heartfelt and irreverent account of those times in and around his and Jack’s experiments using rudimentary electronic equipment.

On another plane, Michael Brown considers Lilburn’s own search for identity, coming as he was from a Gaelic and British point of reference. This particular piece is a musicologist’s dream, as he dissects a number of Lilburn’s compositions looking for clues. Lilburn was highly praised. He won many prizes and scholarships including the Percy Grainger Competition, 1936, which he won for his tone poem ‘Forest’. McAlpine looks at how Lilburn worked and reworked his electronica into his poems for broadcast on the NZBC. I found it fascinating that such a staunch institution would embrace experimentation like this. Such was the progressive art world of the day. Sadly, there’s no chance you’d hear something like that, outside a youtube clip. Have we really progressed?

This book also looks at the influences on Māori Music in Valance Smith’s piece. There the influences are examined in an almost anthropological way. We are asked if there really can be a ‘tradition’ for Māori music, given it is always been a genre that’s borrowed – first from Pasifica, then the birds, the Missionaries, and later from Europeans.

Interesting was jazz academic Norman Meehan’s piece on the burgeoning Jazz scene in New Zealand, influenced by American and European players but also borrowing from artists like Len Lye, who mixed the arts with music as a sort of rebellious conversation. Aleisha Ward adds to Chris Bourke’s popular study of the development of a Jazz Community in the 1940’s, recognising the professional and artistic mix of players in an era when musicians could really earn a buck playing in nightclubs and dance halls. RNZ’s Nick Tipping has a few words on the traditions searched for in jazz compositions over the years.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. This book is a veritable treasure trove, bringing together an increasingly varied collection of perspectives on what `tradition’ means in the context of the music in this part of the world from colonial music to the contemporary revitalization of taonga puoro. Along the way it raises a few critical issues about the shifting sands of biculturalism and national pride, uncovers forgotten aspects of local history, performance practice and even composition itself.

Yes, it’s an academic book. A little dense at times, but if you like to dip in and out, as I have over the last month, you’ll be rewarded with some stimulating reading. This one should appeal to a wide range of enthusiasts of New Zealand music’s past and into future.

Michael Brown is Curator Music at the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington. Samantha Owens is Associate Professor of Musicology at Victoria University.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Searches For Tradition: Essays on New Zealand Music Past and Present
Edited by Michael Brown and Samantha Owens
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561773

Book Review: The New Ships, by Kate Duignan

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_new_shipsThis book is just superb. Kate Duignan’s The New Ships is a novel set mostly in Wellington about Peter Collie, whose wife Moira has just died, and his relationship with their son Aaron. Aaron is biologically Moira’s but not Peter’s, although the two of them have raised him since birth. A lot of the book is told in flashback, and we learn that Peter’s daughter from a previous relationship may or may not have died as a toddler. Part of the reason we don’t know is because Peter has chosen not to investigate. It’s a pretty huge thing to be uncertain about.

There are a lot of huge uncertainties in this novel, and I suspect it’s not a coincidence that the ‘present’ of the book is set in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Peter and Moira are white but Aaron’s unknown birth father was a man of colour, and Aaron’s ethnic identity is another source of uncertainty that troubles Peter. Moira says he was conceived in Australia – might he be Aboriginal? As a child Aaron befriends some Māori and Pasifika kids and declares his ‘real’ dad is Rarotongan. When Aaron boards a plane for London after Moira’s funeral but doesn’t arrive there, Peter starts to panic. Airport security and Islamophobia are peaking, and Aaron is ethnically ambiguous enough to be mistaken for an Arab and labelled a terrorist.

One of the things I really like about The New Ships is that it’s easy to read and also full: of ideas, of story layers, of exceptional writing. Here are a few sentences that I particularly loved: when describing a sailor Peter admires: ‘I’d trust this man to put down a dog I was fond of.’ At the tail end of a family holiday when Peter just wants to go home: ‘I was sick of … sitting like a damp, agitated ghoul at my wife’s side.’ When Peter is facing his first Christmas after Moira’s death: ‘It’s intolerable, summer ahead, all the days fat with beauty, useless.’

Peter is a flawed protagonist. We are in his head the whole way through the book so our sympathies naturally flow towards him, but there’s no denying he’s done some pretty dodgy stuff. Why doesn’t he lift a finger to find out for sure whether his daughter is alive or dead? There’s also a very uncomfortable narrative thread wherein Peter, who is middle-aged and a partner at his law firm, sifts onto a young, attractive female intern while trying to convince himself that he’s “helping” her. I found his behaviour distressing, especially in light of the real-life stories about the way female law interns are treated here.

Duignan resolves some of the uncertainties in The New Ships but not all of them, giving the reader a pleasing sense of narrative satisfaction without anything feeling pat or contrived. I highly recommend The New Ships to lovers of NZ fiction and of good books in general.

Review by Elizabeth Heritage

The New Ships
by Kate Duignan
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561889

Book Review: Poūkahangatus, by Tayi Tibble

Available in good bookshops nationwide. 

poukuhangatusTayi has done some stunning work (in what is her first collection of poetry) that is at once personal and bodily at the same time as being an astute observation of gender and race politics in New Zealand. She grapples with the colonised body while paying tribute to her whānau and seeking to make contact with her tūpuna through the fog that colonising forces have placed on our vision.

This book speaks to me in an intensely personal way, as a Māori person trying to navigate both my own femininity and identity as a colonised subject. The collection starts with a lyric essay the titular ‘Poūkahangatus’ (a transliteration of Pocahontas); a bold move which showcases the multiplicities on offer here. Tayi blends Greek mythology with pop culture and Māori activism as well as a love letter to her sister. In this essay Tayi rewrites the damaging orientalist narrative of Pocahontas. One of the ways she does this is by utilizing the figure of Medusa; instead of being a threatening monster Medusa is a ‘master carver, engraving her existence in bone forever. Anything else said about her is a rumour and a violent appropriation,’ Medusa is an indigenous woman in this poem, often misunderstood, often responded to with violence but possessing her own skills and power.

My favourite moment in this book is a moment that highlights the contradictions that we as Māori exist in, which is done in such a succinct way within the poem Shame;

the winz lady who smiles
has a sign in her office that says
he aha te mea nui o te ao
he tangata, he tangata, he tangata

but she says the most important thing
in the world
is getting back into the workforce

Throughout this poem no name is given a capital letter from helen clark to papatūānuku, there is a flattening at work here that draws everything together under its title. These are the shames big and small that bind us.

There is a commitment to show the dark corners of this country: the poem Long White Clouds’ is another example of this. It is a prose poem of sorts where thoughts are cut short by slashes; ‘all anyone ever does around here / is grow weed and stare / into burnt out houses / into the rabbit hole / into the cards’. The start of the poem seems humourous before it twists on the slash. The poem keeps up this momentum until it ends with a “dive”. The singular section plummets the whole mass into the poem that waits for it on the next page which mirrors it in terms of formatting.

LBD is another dark poem which approaches sexuality and race. As with Long White Clouds there is an undeniable rhythm to the piece; ‘I want to dissolve / into the night /it fits / tight and acidic / like a womb / the Parisian catacombs / tombs / of bland white skulls’. Tayi’s sense of rhythm, informed by spoken word and modern hip hop, sets fire to the page.

The poem Identity Politics a piece you can find in the New Zealand edition of POETRY Magazine works so well at the tail end of this collection. I highly recommend just going and reading the piece because its brilliance speaks for itself, but here is a snippet from the start of the poem;

I buy a Mana Party T-shirt from AliExpress.
$9.99 free shipping via standard post.
Estimated arrival 14–31 working days.
Tracking unavailable via DSL. Asian size XXL.
I wear it as a dress with thigh-high vinyl boots
and fishnets. I post a picture to Instagram.
Am I navigating correctly? Tell me,
which stars were my ancestors looking at?

‘Am I navigating correctly?’ this is a question that follows me daily, one I am yet to have an answer to, but this book gives me comfort in uncertainty as it exists so bravely in a liminal space. It is okay not to have the answers sometimes.

The collection ends with a birth, a birth of a baby named ‘Hawaiki / like the paradise’. Tayi returns us to a precolonial garden or a decolonized space where we can imagine who are to be as who we once were;

where we were 
before we came here
by waka, or whale, or perhaps

that was where we were
before there was anything at all 

where we meant something

Reviewed by Essa Ranapiri

Poūkahangatus
by Tayi Tibble
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561926

 

Book Review: Rotoroa, by Amy Head

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_rotoroa.jpgChristchurch author Amy Head’s first novel Rotoroa is a masterclass in the minutely beautiful.

Following characters seeking ‘fresh starts’, Rotoroa weaves together three disparate narratives: naïve young Lorna, who, at 15, finds herself pregnant and turning to religion for comfort; Jim, an alcoholic husband and father who is sent to Rotoroa after failing to keep his drinking in check; and Katherine Morton, known more famously as the novelist and journalist Elsie K. Morton, who is contracted to write about the work of the Salvation Army on Rotoroa Island, the rehabilitation island for alcoholic men. Ensnared within the societal and religious binds that guide 1950s society, Lorna, Jim and Katherine each embark on an emotional (and sometimes physical) journey to define new lives for themselves while struggling within their typecast roles as daughter, alcoholic and ‘Lady Writer’.

Although it is explicitly a story about men, Rotoroa is implicitly a story about the steadfast women working behind the scenes – women who, were it not for pioneering journalists like Katherine Morton – may have been lost to the depths of history.

Spanning the years 1955–1959, the ease with which the social and historical realism bleed into the fictional narrative is a testament to the wealth of research that Head undertook in its writing. The non-fiction details are imparted through the narrative with a subtle and striking intelligence that is compelling in its pervasive emotional power.

The micro-level beauty of the prose is in its discreet attention to detail. In a Mansfield-esque manner, Head is master of the understated emotional epiphany. Interlacing not only three distinct narratives but also a non-linear time structure, each individual chapter reads like a self-contained short story. With sharp and often poignant beginning and end sentences, each chapter builds to the point of a subtle emotional revelation – so subtle, that every sentence demands to be read. Jim’s short, staccato-like chapters (which reach a pinnacle in a beautiful chapter where he goes fishing ‘at the sharp edge of the reef’) are balanced by Katherine’s longer mellow interludes as we journey with her on her final travel lecture throughout the USA and back home again – viewing 1950s New Zealand society from both the outside and in. Lorna’s story flows between and connects the two, at once enthralling and devastating in its unflinching emotional honesty.

Not to be confused with the geothermal city or lake of a similar name, Rotoroa Island lies to the east of Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Opening with the statement ‘[w]here you lived was important’, the people and place of Rotoroa are intrinsically linked. ‘Both idyll and institution, from its clay-baked cliffs to the whitewashed stones’, the island of Rotoroa develops into a tempestuous yet striking character in its own right. Its isolation is reflected by the internal isolation of Lorna, Jim and Katherine, and we view the island variously with each switch of viewpoint – it is both ‘a nobody-cares island’ and a ‘sanctuary from earthly troubles’.

With a pressure that builds not to startle but to illuminate, Rotoroa crescendos to a depth of emotion rather than to a climactic height. It conceals more than it reveals, leaving the reader to unravel the unsaid, but the rewards are huge – the raw emotional power of Rotoroa lingers long after the novel is over. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

Rotoroa
by Amy Head
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561919

Book Review: Are Friends Electric? by Helen Heath

Available in bookshops nationwide. Are Friends Electric is launched at Te Auaha on Thursday 14th June from 5.30 – 7.30pm, with Helen in conversation with Maria McMillan. 

are_friends_electric.jpgI know, I know: don’t judge a book by its cover. But when they’re as hauntingly beautiful as this one, it’d be remiss of me not to acknowledge it. It is tonally perfect for the poems that follow.

Reading this, Helen Heath’s second collection, was easy. And I don’t mean to intimate that it’s simple, it is not. It’s more a sense that Heath has done the work so you don’t have to. She’s already cut the flesh from the bone. It’s up to you how you eat it.

She has the sort of surefooted style that makes it seem effortless – which is of course a clear indication that it has not been.

For something that marries science with love and grief, the work is never too cold, too clever, too clichéd, or too dark. Instead it weaves a story of questions. What does motherhood mean? Fatherhood? Personhood? What does it mean to create (a) life, and to lose it? Can we ever hope to recall what mortality claims from us?

The title of Part One, ‘Are friends electric?’ references the Gary Numan lyric – ‘You know I hate to ask… Only mine’s broke down / and now I’ve no one to love.’

That sets a pretty strong scene.

One of the things I found refreshing about the first half of the book was Heath’s use of footnotes, many describing a poem as found or remixed. She willingly ‘shows her workings’ – instead of jealously guarding her process, she proactively answers that ridiculous question; ‘Where do you get your ideas?’

The very first poem – Reproach – was my favourite of this section. Its footnote explains that it includes text from Plato’s Phaedrus, a dialogue between Phaedrus and Socrates on the invention of writing.

You. Poet. You’re hungry to be read
but your words just create forgetfulness.
This trust in the written strips memory
and selves. You aid only reminiscence
and a false truth…

The second half of the book, Reprogramming the heart, begins with another scene-setting epigraph, this one from Arthur C. Clarke.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is
indistinguishable from magic.

Reading this half of the book I couldn’t help but to think to myself, ‘Do androids dream of electric sheep?’ not so much a conjuring of the novel as a kneejerk neural leap to those particular words and that particular question.

Heath is asking her own questions. Can and should androids be created to love humans? Do we love or despise them? Is it ever possible for them to fully replace us?

This sense of both philosophical and scientific enquiry is mixed with social commentary and creates a backdrop for the real impact of the poems; in the exploration of parenthood, grief and loss.

The poem In this machine is a good example of these things pooling together:

This small object, held in his hand daily, has taken him
inside it. A dead man’s phone still receives text messages, still
has his favourite playlist to listen to. Don’t reply to messages,
don’t accidentally like a Facebook post using his phone. His
spirit is in this machine. His emails, his apps, his photos.
These are his mouth, his mind, his eyes. The screen he ran
his fingers over.

Just as I was finishing the book, Heath made a public post on Facebook. ‘I created a playlist for my book,’ she said. ‘It will be interesting to see if people make connections between the songs and poems. Some are more obvious than others! Some are just more of a mood.’ The eclectic list included Aqua’s Barbie Girl, Daft Punk, Gary Numan (of course), and Flight of The Conchords’ Robots.

I was happy to be transported by Heath, even into places that made me uncomfortable (see: Uncanny Valley), or sad. And the book’s final poem, while undoubtedly sad, ends on a note of hope.

Something inside me that
was once irretrievably small
is expanding.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Are Friends Electric?
by Helen Heath
Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561902

Book Review: Failed Love Poems, by Joan Fleming

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_failed_love_poemsI remember wanting a copy of this book when it came out in 2015 and, being impoverished, I made a hopeful instruction to my future self. To Buy, it said. I Need This.
I discovered that note a couple of weeks ago and wondered why on earth I hadn’t done it before.

The book is split in thirds. After the poem Past Me’s emphatic instruction, I was surprised to find I didn’t really engage with the first section. It didn’t match the recollection I had of Fleming’s work, but I found what I was looking for in the second section; each poem as one paragraph with no line breaks and sometimes little punctuation. It was this semi-breathless narrative that hooked me then, and I found the same now. It is interesting to see how it sits as part of the collection, from the poems in the first section, which play quite extensively with space and breaks, to these in the middle which condense and run-together and tumble but should be read at no faster pace, and then to a mixture of the two in the final third.

Fleming has a distinct talent not only at capturing character, but in unearthing and giving face to the feelings that occur at different and difficult stages of love and heartbreak, often through attention to the finest or commonest of details – a sagging couch where lovers meet in the middle, reheated meals, a small flat, ‘almost-folded’ clothes. For example, in 3. LEAVING.

….He always brought home soup.
…They had really tried. Let’s really try, she said.
…People here are the worst kind of hungry, he said
…Soup again, cold and welcome.
…And they loved each other and they loved each other and they loved each other, and they microwaved each other’s meal.

With many of these poems it is near impossible to pick out one or two lines – as with the final one in part two, 6. TRANSLATIONS, which is painfully beautiful. A relayed conversation between the narrator and an other – perhaps the therapist named in the first line, perhaps only themselves – it describes, to me, the vulnerability of falling in love, of having fallen, of what is left afterwards.

….(how intolerable is your solitude) I’ve talked it through so many times it’s like it doesn’t belong to me anymore and still it’s not gone (without his eyes on you are you still real is the question)

We break there to move to part 3, which is an interesting choice, as the first poem in this next section, First Loss, also feels like heartbreak.

… Sometimes,
you keep on losing someone even after they’ve left.

And this standout image:

your face in tender disintegration

I think it takes particular skill to create poetry in blocks of text. It can be easy to write something with arbitrary line breaks and call it a poem, but to write a full page of text – as Fleming has done with the poem Postcard with the dark in it – and have every line be just as important and beautiful as the last, takes a different level of craftsmanship. The scene of a midnight swim, the feeling of sadness –

…hurrying the careful stumble, faster to the shock. …
And the sea so cold, fuck, nothing you could help, though I loved you for something like helping, or I thought I did, as we staggered out while the phosphorescence curled its light back into itself like it didn’t exist without some bodies there to break it…

There are particular images that caught me all through the final poems, but none so much as in the second part of the poem The life of the body, which is a very good example and summation of the tender expression of everyday grief that is present throughout the book. This is one I will revisit for many years to come.

Goodbye is odd-sized and no
one came and let their fingers get caught
in my borrowed zip

(Note: I have done my best to indicate spacing and where I have selected lines from different parts of poems with ellipses. This unfortunately doesn’t convey the presentation or feeling of the full poem. Please use this as you own excuse to buy the book! I hope the author will excuse me).

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Failed Love Poems

by Joan Fleming
Published by VUP
ISBN 9780864739896