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27 March 2015

Experimental sounds from across the Tasman

Peter Porteous – co-curator of Lines of Flight Image: Peter Porteous – co-curator of Lines of Flight  
© Motoko Kikkawa

Jonathan W. Marshall profiles New Zealand experimental music festival Lines of Flight, which was recently held for the 9th time since its foundation in 2000. Formerly a resident of Melbourne and Perth, Marshall has been based in Dunedin since 2009.

Whilst Australia has a host of independent and experimental music/sound festivals and institutions (Now Now, MOFO, Liquid Architecture, Tura, Electrofringe), New Zealand has a smaller and arguably more grass-roots scene. The Audio Foundation in Auckland acts as a key centre for experimental musics in the North Island as well as promoting national tours, whilst some educational support is provided by Victoria University of Wellington (where Douglas Lilburn established a computer laboratory) and various digital media courses around the country.

Dunedin, however, is a cold university town with a major South Island port. Not unlike Newcastle, the city itself has seen better days, but remains a busy economic and cultural centre. Dunedin's initial claim to musical fame was the 1980s flourishing of post-punk and independent bands. Known as the 'Dunedin Sound', many of these groups went on to release with Christchurch label Flying Nun (The Clean, The Chills, The Verlaines, The Bats, Straitjacket Fits, Snapper, Jean-Paul Sartre Experience). This was a varied phenomenon though, and most bands experimented with unusual musical structures or performance practices at one time or another.1 Dunedin's own experimental music festival is perhaps then closest to Australia's What Is Music? in that fairly close relations to non-mainstream rock are maintained, even as both festivals promote work different from airwave norms.

By the 1990s the garage-pop image of Dunedin was being eclipsed by an increasingly visible noise/improvisation scene. Dunedin punches above its weight in the arts, partly due to the presence of a university and an arts academy (Otago University and the Polytechnic's School of Art). National figures such as writer James K. Baxter, painter Colin McCahon, and painter-sculptor Ralph Hotere sojourned here, Hotere residing in the satellite town Port Chalmers. This heritage is echoed in the blend of DIY music with DIY visuals which is a feature of South Island zines, cover art and performances.

Whilst Australia's oldest alternative music festival, What Is Music, was founded principally to provide an avenue for the founders and their peers to present work2, LOF's origins lie more in the particular DIY strategies of post-punk subcultures. LOF was founded in 2000 by drummer/musician Peter Stapleton and painter/film-maker Kim Pieters in large part to celebrate and promote musicians on their label, Metonymic, established six years earlier. As Stapleton notes:

'Over the 1990s, a small but self-contained scene emerged in the south, largely centred around labels such as … H/Corp [run by Port Chalmers resident Bruce Russell, of band the Dead C] and Metonymic, and magazines such as Opprobrium, comprised of musicians and writers who had begun to see themselves as part of a worldwide 'free noise' community.3

Pieters's involvement ensured that projection was a key feature of LOF, sometimes including her own slowly morphing, distorted footage of relatively banal objects and fields of view across which the camera pans in gentle, irregular passes. Recent years have often involved artist-curator Campbell Walker, founder of the so-called Aro Valley movement in digital lo-fi cinema, based in Dunedin since 2011.

So what can one say about LOF now it is into its ninth staging over fifteen years? Although LOF is not annual - last year featured a more modest Metonymic event (for more information about Metonymic, see this article) - it remains a key event for the New Zealand independent music community. The festival has even moved out of Dunedin, being held at the Physics Room gallery, Christchurch, in 2012.

Like Metonymic itself, LOF continues to have a South Island emphasis, although international headliners such as L.A. free guitar virtuoso Peter Kolovos feature in each LOF. A comparison of line-ups over recent years demonstrates that veterans such as Stapleton (performing as Eye with Jon Chapman and current LOF co-curator Peter Porteous) have featured on multiple bills. Indeed, the 2015 line-up had something of a revival-esque feel, with rare performances by the likes of gentle improvisational trio Sandoz Lab Technicians (Tim Cornelius, James Kirk, Nathan Thompson) and Handful of Dust (local legend Alastair Galbraith with Russell and Stapleton).

LOF does however present artists from across the generations. 2015 featured Radio Cegeste (Sally Anne McIntyre), who, as her name suggests, generates a localised radio broadcast, using multiple units to move and distort sourced material about the space. Stanier Black Five (Jo Burzynska) has become a significant figure as a founder of Christchurch's Auricle Sonic Arts Gallery, moving from earlier works based on the turntable and train samples from which she took her pseudonym (the Stanier is a classic steam train), to the matching of wine with equally finely crafted, exquisitely shaped digital samples of winemaking sounds (bubbles, echoing metallic vessels, and the clatter of bottling). Another LOF regular is Our Love Will Destroy the World (Campbell Kneale), offering thunderously roiling sheets of distorted noise. 2015 was also notable for the inclusion of solo guitarist Birdation (Hope Robertson) offering her take on the fuzz heavy, looped approach of My Bloody Valentine or Jesus and Mary Chain.

Despite including artists whose work crosses over into relatively well-accepted forms- Omit (Clinton Williams) presented soothing digi-dub this year which had me thinking of art-dub master Pole or New Zealand digital-dub legends Pitch Black, whilst the crazed funk-punk-rock mash-up that is Dunedin's the Futurians have appeared twice - the line-up for 2015 overall had a drone emphasis. The drone is of course notoriously difficult to define, and it is not altogether fair to associate these sonic textures. Nevertheless the slow ascent to climaxing guitar, drums and percussion characteristic of Eye, and the rising, ringing looped feedback of Noel Meek, do share structural similarities. Possibly this is why the projection seems rather inessential: there is a tendency to visually manifest the aural wallpaper Brian Eno extolled. It is nevertheless pleasurable to meditate on fluidly playing visual colour, whilst bathing in feedback and noise.

Although the Dead C have a strong international following, experimental sound from across the Tasman is not as well known as it should be. 2015 was the second year I have seen prepared piano player Hermione Johnson with saxophonist Jeff Henderson. The precision, virtuosity, and close interplay of the pair deserves a global audience, although their home base of Auckland gives them a step up in securing this. They also serve as a reminder of the open-ended, catholic approach in which contemporary noise and post-serialist music thrives. There are few better signs of an exciting scene than the cohabitation of free jazz improvisation with both DIY drone and contemporary digital processing. Long may LOF fly.


1 I have drawn here on an unpublished article kindly circulated to me by Darren Jorgenson.
2 See: Knowles (2009) in Priest ed., Experimental Music: Audio Explorations in Australia, University of NSW Press.
3 Stapleton's own account features on http://www.furious.com/perfect/erewhoncalling2.html

Further links

Nigel Benson: 'Sounds like Art', Otago Daily Times (31 July 2008)
Peter Stapleton on Metonymic (NZ Electronic Poetry Centre)
Kim Pieters (artist info at www.circuit.org.nz)
What is life? - and exhibition by Kim Pieters (www.adamartgallery.org.nz)
Philip Matthews: 'Fast, Cheap and Out of Control: Three Films from New Zealand's Digital Video Revolution' Senses of Cinema (April 2004)
The Auricle Sonic Arts Gallery (auricle.org.nz)
Stanier Black-Five - homepage
Audio Foundation (www.audiofoundation.org.nz/)

Dr Jonathan W. Marshall is an academic and freelance critic. Formerly residing in Melbourne (1970-2003) and then Perth (2004-08), Marshall has been at the University of Otago, Dunedin, since 2009. His research and criticism covers aspects of theatre and performance, the visual arts, music and sound. Marshall was a contributing editor for “RealTime Australia,” 2000-08.


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