A celebration of curiosity

May 1st, 2018 By Roger Smith

On April 20th 2018, Searches for Tradition: Essays on New Zealand Music, Past & Present (Victoria University Press) was launched at Victoria University of Wellington. Co-edited by Dr Michael Brown (Curator, Music at the Alexander Turnbull Library) and Associate Professor Samantha Owens (Victoria University), this collection of new music research includes contributions from fifteen authors, including Lilburn Research Fellow 2017, Dr Aleisha Ward. Here we reproduce the launch address by writer and broadcaster Roger Smith, with his kind permission, accompanied by photographs of the event.

Cover of 'Searches for Tradition'.

Kia ora tātou, good afternoon everyone.

It is my great honour to be here this afternoon to launch the book Searches for Tradition: Essays on New Zealand Music, Past & Present.

A couple of years ago I was giving a pre-concert talk, and I wanted to explore the idea of extra-musical association, and how powerful this can be. I said to the audience that I wanted to conduct a little experiment. I would play them some music, without telling them what it was, and they would consider what image came to mind as the music played. I then proceeded to play them a brief excerpt from the Karelia Suite, by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

Having played the music, I then asked the members of the audience to put up their hands if they had formed an image in their minds of “this” – and at that point I put up an image of Aoraki Mt Cook. Sure enough, many in the audience were thinking of beautiful aerial images of this country’s tallest mountain.

But why? Well – it’s thanks to the film This is New Zealand – a documentary showcasing New Zealand for Expo ’70, the world’s fair held in Osaka in 1970. Directed by Hugh Macdonald for the National Film Unit, This is New Zealand is currently screening in an exhibition at the City Gallery Wellington, also titled This is New Zealand, while an excerpt can be seen on the NZOnScreen website.

Gorgeous shots of New Zealand scenery captured from the air are projected across three synchronised screens, accompanied by the Intermezzo from Sibelius’s Karelia Suite – culminating in a thrilling fly-over of Aoraki Mount Cook at the music’s climax. The effect is really quite stunning.

Still image of Mt. Sefton from This is New Zealand, 1970.
Still image of Mt. Sefton from This is New Zealand (1970), directed by Hugh Macdonald. Image credit: Archives NZ and Hugh Macdonald.

Such was the staggering popularity of this film in the early 1970s, in New Zealand at least, that seared into the minds of many New Zealanders is the association between this particular piece of music by a Finnish composer and the landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand. Even fifty years later.

Now, this raises some issues and I encourage you to read Peter Wall’s essay in Searches for Tradition for details of the implications of using the music of Finland as a soundtrack for a film supposedly showcasing New Zealand to the world. “This is New Zealand” – really?

But there’s a less well-known postscript to this story, in Merata Mita’s brilliant documentary Patu!, looking at the 1981 Springbok tour. The film follows the growing civil disobedience by anti-tour protesters during the eight weeks of the tour. When the tour gets to Auckland for the third rugby test at Eden Park, protesters are fighting with police in the streets outside the ground. The game, however, keeps going despite flour and smoke bombs being dropped over the ground from a small Cessna plane buzzing overhead. As the camera lingers on the plane circling the ground, Mita overlays the soundtrack with audio of explosions and machine-gun fire, and the same excerpt of Sibelius’s Karelia Suite that was used in This is New Zealand. This is New Zealand, indeed! In such grim circumstances, the musical irony here is all the more startling.

Embedded content: https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/patu-1983

Patu! (1983). Directed by Merata Mita. For section referred to above, scroll forward to 12m:55s.

“This is New Zealand!” (exclamation mark), but also “This is New Zealand?” (question mark). The exclamation and the question are valid in both cases. But what distinguishes these two statements, apart from choice of punctuation marks and the emphasis I place on the different words?

The difference is curiosity – and curiosity underpins the musicology in this book, Searches for Tradition. The scholars here are not content to accept the bland assertion “This is New Zealand”. On the contrary, they want to question this assertion, interrogate it, test it against findings from research. In this regard, Searches for Tradition is a celebration of curiosity.

And with this book there’s an acknowledgement, too, that there exists a plurality of musical traditions in New Zealand and many ways in which these traditions can be investigated. Indeed this book is, I think, a testament to the maturation of New Zealand musicology over the last few decades. New Zealand music no longer starts with a received European art music tradition via Douglas Lilburn in the late 1930s, but in fact extends back hundreds of years before European settlement.

Roger Smith launching Searches for Tradition at Victoria University.
Roger Smith launching Searches for Tradition at Victoria University. Photograph by Sarah Knox.

And the scope of the musicology is far broader than European art music too, encompassing now the development of jazz, folk and popular music in New Zealand, local community and amateur music making, and the renaissance of taonga puoro through the ground-breaking work of Hirini Melbourne, Richard Nunns and Brian Flintoff. Indeed, to invoke Isaac Newton: “If New Zealand musicologists are now seeing further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Such giants must also include the likes of John Mansfield Thomson and Allan Thomas, and many others whose influence can be felt throughout this book, even if we can no longer hear their voices.

I commend Michael Brown and Sam Owens for their foresight in collating and presenting before the public these important essays from the 2015 New Zealand Musicological Society conference. This publication ensures a far greater reach and longevity for the scholarship contained within it, than would normally be the case for conference papers. The extensive bibliography, alone, is worth the price of purchase.

I also commend Victoria University Press for their sound judgement and leadership in publishing this book.

Finally, I salute all those whose work is featured in Searches for Tradition. This is the fruit of much labour, great passion and a fundamental curiosity about the musical world in which we live. Thank you for sharing your research with us.

May your curiosity never be completely satisfied! Keep searching! Kia ora mai!

Fergus Barrowman (Victoria University Press), with book co-editors Samantha Owens, and Michael Brown.
Fergus Barrowman (Victoria University Press), with book co-editors Samantha Owens, and Michael Brown. Photograph by Sarah Knox.

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