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2015 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