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Erewhon Calling: Experimental Sound in New Zealand

Bruce Russell (editor)

(CMR/Audio Foundation; US: Aug 2012)

New Zealand’s geographic isolation has caused a great deal of its music to develop a distinctive ‘edge of the world’ piquancy, a flavor that is especially ripe in its experimental music scene. Erewhon Calling: Experimental Sound in New Zealand is the very first compendium to shine a light on the “antipodean misfits and malcontents” of NZ’s outsider music scenes (many of whom are celebrated internationally, while being underappreciated at home). The book is edited by Bruce Russell (Dead C), and published by label CMR and NZ’s avant-garde sound archive, the Audio Foundation. Designed by Richard Francis, it’s wonderfully presented, highlighting a diverse range of artists and unorthodox auditory escapades.

With the aim of surveying an extensive collection of non-standard audio adventures, Erewhon Calling covers a wide assortment of nonconformist musical fields. Its 40-plus contributors come from various music scenes: noise, electronica, free jazz, electro-acoustic, musique concrete, sound/art installation, field recording, and industrial (as well as plenty of mish-mash, “hypothesis-governed”, unclassifiable genres). The book is filled with an extensive array of personal anecdotes, artwork, photography, conversational tales, and a few high-minded commentaries, all bound by the simple premise of exploring architectures of nontraditional sound. 


Articles from artists such as Kraus (“I want my music to be useful… for people like me and my friends: freaks, outsiders, weirdos, losers”) or Mr Sterile Assembly (“I make music because I don’t spin pottery”) reveal the pleasure of experimenting with strange sounds, negating conformity, and reconnoitering alternative pathways. Essays on Chris Knox, and on Peter King’s renowned lathe record operation, explore the crucial importance of these characters in the development of underground NZ music. Artworks, photography and diagrammatic instructions from the likes of None Gallery, Omit, Zoe Drayton, Beth Dawson, and Michael Morley, among others, illustrate the intersection of sound and art. They offer succinct, albeit multiplex glimpses of the varying modi operandi of musical/visual artists.


Erewhon Calling‘s scope highlights the “nodes and connections” between NZ’s offbeat sonic alchemists. The sharing of ideas and pragmatic techniques between allies built the infrastructure for non-standard music in NZ (as it has throughout the world). Articles illuminating historic aspects of the Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland underground scenes highlight the collective strength of their communities, which enabled the influence of NZ experimental music to push well beyond the nation’s borders.


Experimental music is, of course, haunted by the ghosts of academia and pretension, and Erewhon Calling doesn’t hide from that fact. A brutally frank discussion between Antony Milton and Campbell Kneale (“sound art… (yawn)”) kicks pomposity and high-minded ideals in the guts, and the surreal poetic ramblings of Witcyst and White Saucer offer irreverent viewpoints. More cerebral pieces amplify intellectual pursuits. Alastair Galbraith explores the technical aspects of his musical sculpturing, and Andrew Clifford examines interdisciplinary and inter-medial works. Each article in the book takes a different slant, and differing opinions are rife. But the diversity of outlooks reflects experimental music’s perceived virtues and imperfections with candor—dispelling stereotypical misconceptions, and reaffirming a few assumptions along the way.


Russell points out that Erewhon Calling doesn’t aim to be an all-encompassing snapshot of NZ’s experimental scene. The hope is to “throw a good handful of gravel into the pool… which is more than anyone else has even attempted before.” Given that the majority of books written about the NZ music scene have been single-authored volumes filled with seemingly endless odes to Split Enz, the fact that Russell and the publishers have taken such a broad approach is to be applauded. There are some omissions, and voices you might have hoped to hear are absent, such as that of Wellington’s multi-genre noise-maker Rory Storm. Some howls from the caverns of frenzied, putrefied underground metal also wouldn’t have gone amiss. Still, as Russell notes, with a scene as dynamic as NZ’s experimental realm, it would be impossible to gather all the threads in this first tapestry.


Allowing the artists to explain, in their own voices, what they’re doing and what it all means to them is the book’s very best feature. The collage of tales and images depicts a field of expression that is understandably ill-defined, and while the multi-voiced interpretations clear some of the smoke, many artists’ works still lack clear codification. The diversity of artists’ histories, conflicting truths and multiple perspectives encourage you to identify connections, find your own meaning, and draw your own conclusions. It’s a fantastic feature of the book, mirroring what attracts fans to experimental music in the first place. 


Erewhon Calling is a source book of ingredients both complex and simple, and a hugely important first step in honoring the innovation to be found in NZ’s experimental music scene. Fans of avant-garde music will be well aware that NZ’s underground scene has influenced endless spectra of noise, and has inspired independent artists and record labels worldwide. The hardheaded DIY culture that imbues so many of NZ’s artistic endeavors is exemplified in every article, demonstrating that geographical distance has not hindered creativity one iota. Erewhon Calling is the sound of “the edge of the world broadcasting back.” In its enigmatic and divergent content, the variances and disorder express the unconventionality of NZ’s most radical music perfectly.

Rating:

Craig Hayes is based in Aotearoa New Zealand, and he is a contributing editor and columnist at PopMatters. Alongside his reviews and feature articles, Craig's monthly column, Ragnarök, traverses the metal spectrum. He is the co-author of PopMatters' regular metal round-up, Mixtarum Metallum, contributes to radio shows and numerous other sites, and he favours music that clangs, bangs, crashes, or drones. Craig can be found losing followers daily on twitter @sixnoises.


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