Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Music That Comes From an Island

Diana Wichtel is easily one of New Zealand's better journalists. Yes I know I bagged her in relation to the fawning interview with Mike Hosking in the Listener's Woman's Weekly special two weeks ago. But that seems to have an aberration. Her TV column in the Listener is usually smart and punchy. This week she has a nice gag about Judy Bailey saying "And coming up after the break, I'm sacked!".

It's her interview with Bic Runga in this week's Listener, though, which really impressed me. This is the kind of gently probing treatment of an interviewee which you expect to find in the Guardian (NB, in my view that's a compliment). She brings her own perspective, without being overbearing, and throws in a few witticisms. She lets Bic Runga speak, but doesn't merely parrot what she says. Sympathetic without being sycophantic (a balance not struck with Hosking). This is actually the kind of thing I'd like to learn to do.

Actually, the real reason I'm mentioning this comes at the end of the article where Bic Runga is asked if she feels she's "still making New Zealand music" and says yes:

"I was playing a gig in LA. A friend who's a musician came and said 'Oh, your music really sounds like it's from an island' ", says Runga happily. She's American and that's what she thought".

Excuse me taking the liberty of quoting myself here, because I did get a little shiver down my spine when I read that. In my post a while back on my No. 4 song, Crowded House's "Distant Sun", I wrote:

"One night in New Plymouth a couple of years ago during a road trip I saw Wellington band Hobnail Boots at the local pub. In the same set they played "Distant Sun", Dave Dobbyn's "Whaling" and Bic Runga's "Sway", all embellished with their trademark harmonies and Jo Moir's gently persuasive violin. Hearing all these songs together played by the same band made me realise there was something shared by their yearning melodies which made me feel a particularly strong connection with them.

The next morning as I walked along the New Plymouth waterfront and looked out at the Pacific Ocean, I wondered if I hadn't stumbled across an emerging cultural identity...something to do with living in what poet Allen Curnow called "a small room with large windows"...If the New Zealand psyche has inevitably been shaped by the claustrophobia of being stuck in the small room of a frontier society, it is also affected by staring out through the large windows of the sky and sea..."

So, you see, I'm not just making it up. Other people out there are on the same wave length.

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Anonymous said...

The mystery of New Zealand and her people. I was reading your post and it brought back memories of contrasting things. I remember years ago, early in my prior career, I was working for Bechtel in Houston and San Francisco on the NZ Gas to Gasoline Project. This project in the early 80s was built at New Plymouth or about 14 klicks outside of the town as I recall. It was my first contact with people of NZ. I will always remember some of the experience. Normally on a project like this, the project engineers in the early planning stage would travel to the job site to scope out miscellaneous features and make contacts with people at the site so that information could be exchanged and so that the personal contact would facilitate commitment to timely and diligent efforts. I was young and had limited experience with project dynamics at the time but I was particularly amused at a couple of things. First, the NZ team members were very frugile with money. So travel for Americans to NZ was very limited instead we used communications: TELEX, phones, and letters,drawings, and extensive photography. And this photography was laced with irrelevant shots of landscapes and even personal things like the family home complete with dog. With notes explaining the significance. I saw this in several people, the drive of people to show us what NZ was, a sharing and saying please understand us. A way to express and mentally project-out of the country. Of course I didn't see all of that at the time, I was just busy with the project work. I was just trying to figure out what size and weight of plant modules could be brought into the port at New Plymouth and transported to the plant site and what modifications to the town, roads and bridges would be economical to facilitate the largest and heaviest modules. Detailed ariel photography of the complete route from port to site was provided and from this I communicated daily for weeks with dozens of people there. All were helpful and cooperative but always so money-conscious. I made lots of recommendations, including e.g. relocation of lamp posts and demolition of one building at a tight corner in the town. Oh, the thought of tearing down this one story building seemed to tear at the people's heart there. To scrap something of "historical" value. I was told the whole history of this building but it never made much sense to me because really it was just a local shop and it didn't seem significant and as I think back it still doesn't make sense to me now at a time in my life where I place greater value on historical preservation. The building was eventually torn down. Secondly, I remember all these NZ team members would somehow find funding to come to Houston. I think it was the drive of NZ just to get out of NZ, escape for a while. A part of the psychi. The visits weren't that productive technically, but it was productive in getting to know each other. And the NZers had a great time exploring America on the side. I will always remember the friendliness but reserved nature. I was fed all this great information about NZ but I never got to go there. But I poured over all that photography and to this day I can still picture the streets of New Plymouth in my mind and even some of the bridge structures on the way to the plant site and I can hear the voice of a man from the Dept. of (I have forgotten precisely- possibly Roads, Highways, or Transportation)telling me about a way he thought we could provide temporary support to a certain bridge that was "near his home". (You see, everything was personal). Well, I didn't get to go there but I feel I have been there. There is a uniqueness of the people of NZ that you speak of in the music-making that is real in every aspect of activity undertaken. Over the years I have worked with NZers in SE Asia and Arabia and the common attribute possibly rooted in the "small room with large windows" is always present. There is a door to that room that is used at every opportunity, but usually they go back to the small room for if there is anything I ever learned it is that NZers believe NZ is the most beautiful place on earth to live.

Jack Yan said...

Simon, your ability to stay objective regarding Ms Wichtel is to be applauded: it is more than some journalists will afford others. Secondly, I have always thought the New Zealander-penned The Truman Show was a story about a kid longing to go on his OE. He’s stuck on an island, he has certain fears about leaving it, but know there is more to life than his own immediate community. When you consider that, the story could only have come from a Kiwi.

Simon Bidwell said...

Very interesting - I didn't know that The Truman Show was written by a NZer, but it does make perfect sense as a metaphor for the NZ condition.

Jack Yan said...

It was written by Andrew Niccol, probably one of the best and most imaginative screenwriter–directors around. I would argue much of that imagination comes from being a New Zealander. He wrote and directed Gattaca, which has an element of ‘I can do anything despite what convention dictates’, and Simone, a film which only got one cinema showing it on one day—during a time when the media were going on and on about The Lord of the Rings and Die Another Day being New Zealander-directed. (It shows that the film establishment in New Zealand is less about patriotism and more about what Hollywood dictates is good for the moviegoer. I hope that changed with Whale Rider.)