The Quadriga Diaries

Among the treasures of the Turnbull Library’s Archive of New Zealand Music there is an ever-growing number of unpublished recordings – live concerts, rehearsal tapes, unreleased sessions or mixes, and test pressings – numbering around 10,000 at last count.

From Māori waiata to classical concerts, rock to folk music, these recordings document the range of music performed in New Zealand from the 1920s onwards. Many are on analogue media, however, and require digitisation to ensure their long-term survival, especially recordings made on magnetic tape. As discussed in a previous blog, tape can be tricky to digitise. But the payoff is invaluable for researchers and, as we shall see, can lead to important new discoveries.

So take a tour now through some of our tape digitisation projects from the past six months, undertaken by AV Technician Zach Webber. All have utilised the Library’s Cube-Tec Quadriga AV preservation system, which became fully operational in 2015. As well as improving workflow management, this system has enabled a substantially increased rate of digitisation: with certain formats such as cassettes tapes, we can now digitise up to four times as many items than previously. The transfers can all be heard as audio streams from workstations in the National Library’s Katherine Mansfield Reading Room.

Vu meters

April 2016 – The Braille Collective: Sound recordings (MS-Group-2157)

The Braille Collective were a renowned group of Wellington experimental musicians, encompassing many smaller splinter groups and spontaneous live inceptions. Formed in 1981, the Collective’s DIY free improvisatory fusion was unique in New Zealand at this time. They also formed an independent label, Braille Records, to release their music. Dan Beban (of the band Orchestra of Spheres) has researched their history and in 2012 he donated 30 open reel tapes of live performances from the Collective’s heyday in the mid-1980s.

Quarter-inch open reel tape “shedding” on playback. Photo: Zach Webber.Quarter-inch open reel tape “shedding” on playback. Photo: Zach Webber.

Unfortunately, the Braille Collective tapes were showing symptoms of degradation when played: tiny pieces of the tape became dislodged and broke away, or “shed”. Such shedding can create various problems including loss of sound frequencies. To see if this was occurring we utilised a spectrum view of the digitised audio, allowing a visual inspection of frequency bands to reveal drop-offs. Thankfully, in this case we were satisfied that the Braille Collective’s tapes could be digitised to a professional preservation standard with no further physical treatment.

The tapes contain a rich array of live performances by Family Mallet, Jungle Suite, The Black Sheep, Four Volts (precursor to Six Volts) and other Braille ensembles. Throughout, the Collective style comes across like jazz, curiously deconstructed, freewheeling lines contrasting with sections, cues and motifs that often sound tightly scripted. Of special note are three tapes by Our Name is Our Motto, who never got to commercially record their music at the time, but can now be heard again, 30 years later.

May 2016 – Peter Cooke: Sound recordings (MS-Group-0921)

During the early 1980s, Peter Cooke worked at Radio Massey and edited Chaff, the Massey University student newspaper. The Palmerston North alternative rock scene was thriving at the time, with a plethora of punk and post-punk inspired groups being formed, most notably the Skeptics. Peter made recordings of many concerts and subsequently released a limited-edition compilation, Music to do the dishes by (1983). Many years later, Peter donated 17 unpublished recordings and a dossier of recording notes to the Turnbull Library.

Music to do the dishes to (1983). Phono Cass 0136Music to do the dishes to (1983). Phono Cass 0136

Included are gigs by groups with intriguing names such as Idiot Strength, The Parasitic Host and Neoteric Tribesmen. There are also two live recordings of the Skeptics, including a 27 July 1983 gig at the Rumba Bar featuring songs from their debut EP Chowder over Wisconsin and more obscure numbers. Also notable is a rip-roaring 25 June 1983 gig by the Dunedin band The Stones and Marching Girls (an Australian incarnation of Auckland’s The Scavengers). All of Peter’s cassettes were relatively straightforward to digitise, except for one which stubbornly jammed on playback and still requires some careful repair work.

Footnote: by coincidence we recently received a donation of two very rare cassettes from the same Palmerston North scene, Drive in Vegetables and The Dog Face , by Skeptics-related outfit, Boiled Owls.

June 2016 – Richard Nunns: Sound recordings (Series-4921)

Richard Nunns scarcely needs an introduction. Dedicated to the revival of taonga pūoro (traditional Māori instruments) for many decades, Richard has been progressively depositing his collection of papers, recordings, ephemera and photographs with the Turnbull Library for the last ten years. Among the recordings are 55 cassette tapes, a collection extremely varied in content: live performances, demos, interviews, off-air recordings, and more. The New Zealand Music Hall of Fame’s most recent inductee, Moana Maniapoto, features on several tapes, including a rehearsal tape of Moana and the Moahunters, with whom Richard played, and a rough mix of their 1998 album Rua . Another gem is a joint oral history recorded for Richard by tenor saxophonist Brian Smith and bass player Billy Kristian.

July 2016 – Mike Nock sound recordings (Series-4931)

Richard Nunns’ collection also contains a further 33 tapes given to him some years previously by expatriate jazz legend, the pianist Mike Nock. These mainly consist of live concerts by Nock and his collaborators and groups, together with interviews.

Nullabor Plains / Mike Nock and Open Path [1981]. MSC-022505Nullabor Plains / Mike Nock and Open Path [1981]. MSC-022505

After we brought these tapes to the attention of composer and musicologist Norman Meehan, he immediately alerted us to one very special tape: ‘Nullabor Plains’. As Norman explains in his biography of Mike Nock, Serious Fun , this was a 1981 album recorded for the Wayless label in the USA shortly before it folded. Despite hopes another label might release it, the album never came out and has long been believed “lost in the mists of time”.

Thirty-five years on, ‘Nullabor Plains’ turns out to be a notable addition to Nock’s oeuvre. Nock and American guitarist Vic Juris supply some supple melodic playing, while Puerto Rican bassist Eddie Gomez lends muscular authority to the ensemble sound. The album features several previously-unreleased Nock compositions, the title track and the ballad ‘Gentle Goodbye’ being particular highlights. Whether or not the original album master survives is unknown. This cassette – seemingly a pre-release mix – could possibly be the only extant copy. As an added bonus, it also features a short recording of the otherwise-unrecorded early 1980s trio Open Path (Mike Nock, Vic Juris, and violinist John Blake).

August-September 2016 – Jenny McLeod: Sound recordings including works by Jenny McLeod (Series-3439)

When the Archive of New Zealand Music was established in 1974, many composers began to deposit their unpublished scores and papers for the benefit of future generations. One of the first was Jenny McLeod, whose eventful career encompasses study with European masters such as Messiaen, Boulez and Stockhausen, renowned music-theatre pieces such as Earth and Sky (1968), through to composing film soundtracks, hymns for Māori congregations and bicultural works such as He Iwi Kotahi Tatou (1993).

Cassette tapes from the Jenny McLeod Collection. MS-Group-0144.Cassette tapes from the Jenny McLeod Collection. MS-Group-0144

Among Jenny’s collection at the Turnbull Library are 55 cassette tapes. These have been divided into two series, the first relating to Jenny’s own work, the second to that of other composers. Thus far, the 41 cassettes in first series have been digitised, including:

With many more live recordings, interviews, home recordings, and radio broadcasts in this collection, there is plenty to keep researchers busy for some time.

September 2016 – Demo cassettes by Martin Phillipps (MSC-008781), and Straitjacket Fits (MSC-008782)

In 2005, the Library acquired several demo (short for “demonstration”) tapes recorded by Dunedin alternative bands. Demos are a kind of reference recording, often made prior to a studio session for the benefit of a record label or producer. As the musical equivalent of a novelist’s initial drafts, they hold considerable research value, preserving creative decisions, rough ideas, and sometimes songs left off subsequent releases.

Martin Phillipps Sunburnt home demos, vol 1 [nd]. MSC-008781Martin Phillipps Sunburnt home demos, vol 1 [nd]. MSC-008781

One of the cassettes was a home demo of songs by Martin Phillipps, mainstay of the band The Chills, that was recorded prior to their 1996 album Sunburnt . Phillipp’s liner notes suggest there were several Sunburnt demos, this tape containing “mainly pop songs”. The notes apologise for technical shortcomings (“the ever-present hiss comes from the Porta-Studio even with all the faders down”), but the tape still provides a valuable glimpse of the songwriter at work in his home studio, drum-machine programming and layering vocals. Four songs would appear on the final Sunburnt album, others on B-sides and later compilations. However, two songs appear to be unreleased thus far: the jaunty I Don’t Want to Live Forever, which was only performed live by the band; and Out Here, with its catchy guitar line and luscious chord-change into the bridge.

Promotional shot of Straitjacket Fits by Tony Mott. EP-Arts-Music-Rock & Pop-S-Straitjacket Fits-2.Promotional shot of Straitjacket Fits by Tony Mott. EP-Arts-Music-Rock & Pop-S-Straitjacket Fits-2.

A demo by band Straitjacket Fits also held a few surprises. Because we cannot always audition tapes until they are digitised, due to time constraints, it is not always certain that they contain exactly what is written on the cassette case. The original cover for the Straitjacket Fits tape described it as a demo for their album Melt (1990). But playback revealed that it actually contained songs relating to their later release, Blow (1993). This album is renowned for its dry almost claustrophobic guitarscapes, but the demos have a hazier blend of vocal and instrumental parts, capturing a moment of transition in the band's sound. Moreover, several songs – ‘Scatterhead’ and another piece perhaps entitled ‘Maintenance’ – did not end up on Blow and remain unreleased.

Look out for future installments of ‘The Quadriga Diaries’, where we’ll keep you updated about what other music recordings have been digitally preserved of late – and any other new discoveries.

For information and help with this blog, thanks to Zach Webber, Dan Beban, Martin Phillipps, Amanda Mills (Hocken Library), Norman Meehan and Keith McEwing.

By Michael Brown

Michael Brown is Music Curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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Michael Brown June 1st at 8:54AM

A footnote to this blog.

Regarding the Braille Collective tapes. In May 2018, the Library was kindly granted permission to allow online listening to some of these tapes. They are gathered together for convenience here:

The members of the Boiled Owls also gave us their kind permission to stream the two cassettes online:

The Dog Face:
Drive In Vegetables: