RD: Yeah, I can hear you well. I'm actually in the sleep-out of my parent's place because it is a nice little workspace where I can just leave some of my stuff set up away from the kids.
SL: Nice one.
What have you been working on?
RD: Well, I just try to maintain a bit of a practice on the saxophone, and ahh, just sort of general life admin stuff, you know? And actually, you know during lockdown, there were those Vitamin S things, and some other Zoom sessions I did with people. It was really great being able to come here for stuff like that, which is kind of impossible at home, especially in the evenings.
And what about you? What have you been doing with your time?
SL: Well, for the last month I have been back at work. And aside from that, I am planning to run the Taupo marathon in August, so I’ve been doing a lot of running these days! *laughs*
RD: Wow! That's incredible.
But yeah, as you might imagine, the amount of running I have been doing to prepare for the marathon chews up a lot of time! I have been starting to feel some pressure from this BLINDSIDE project, so, yeah, aside from the running that's been my main preoccupation!
I think I’ll need at least six weeks with as much of the material from you and Clinton and Rachel and Eddie, in order to building the website. Which means from now there is about six weeks for you to generate that material. Does that sound like a workable timeframe for you?
RD: Yeah, for sure. I actually called Geoff Low yesterday.
I finally got some feedback about the Wild Creations grant application Geoff and I submitted. And it was surprisingly overwhelmingly positive, 'cause I was thinking, you know, surely there will be some compelling feedback… or some clear things to take away, that could have been stronger. But it was kinda overwhelmingly positive. So, I'm guessing that means we must have come somewhat close to being successful, and it also means that probably they would encourage us to apply again for a similar project in the future.
But anyway I talked to Geoff, and what we're going to try and do in the next few weeks, we are going to try to do some work together for this project. So that's sort of what has been ticking over in my head – doing something collaboratively with Geoff and his instruments. We were going to try to get over to the West Coast, which is a great place in the winter time because it is quite mild. The climate is often quite mild in the winter time on the West Coast and settled. And you know, he's very flexible with time being retired now.
SL: Remind me, he is an instrument builder, right?
RD: No, no, he's not. Geoff used to play saxophones a lot. And I think, you know, ah, he's played jazz and he's played improvisationally, more improvisationally focused music. And he's been practicing taonga pūoro – traditional Māori instruments – I'd imagine, for some decades now. He and Richard Nunns were friends going way back, probably to the 60s and 70s, I suppose. And he played in the group with Lonnie Holley last year.I really appreciate what he does as an improviser, and his sensibilities around his practice: rather than just making sounds that he's figured out, or playing traditional waiata or whatever, he's quite a lot more sophisticated than that.
And ah, just in the last few days I've been thinking about that email you sent and about the website format and how to work with that.
So you guys are going over to the West Coast, and I guess the idea is that you come back with some recordings? That’s great.
RD: Yes. Well, I mean we will do things locally as well, because it will be quite straightforward to spontaneously get on the phone and say, Let's go to the beach, or whatever.
And yeah, I've been thinking – you never know what you're going to come up with – but I've been thinking about maybe trying to develop quite short, almost little bursts of sound that could possibly be woven into a context of a website in an interesting way, rather than durational works.
SL: Bursts of sound in conjunction with the sounds of the environment that you're working in?
RD: Possibly in conjunction with the soundscape, but also short recordings made from it. I've been thinking about wind actually. I've made some quite noisy wind recordings. They aren't necessarily that dynamic, but quite visceral.
SL: Wind is an interesting one in how it might function as a piece of recording, eh? In that it is almost more of an overload than it is an actual signal. Sound recordists talk of wind distortion and things.
Signal as noise!
RD: Well it can be. It can be. And I'm really interested in that of course.
But I’m also just interested in the way wind acts on your ears. It is actually a similar kind of sound that you get in a recording, but because you can actually feel it acting on your ears, it is perceived in a very physical way. But when you hear a recording of that same sound there is the absence of whatever is physically happening to your body and ears, and it sounds quite strange.
And it is the kind of sound that I suppose, you know, professional sound recordists avoid at all costs. So, yeah, I am quite interested in, you know, actually exploring that, and especially if there is some other human generated sound that is a part of it, that is maybe being overwhelmed by this effect of the wind. And I am also interested in finding locations where the wind itself voices, as well.
SL: It calls to mind that question of, Is it the sound of the wind? Or is it the sound of the trees being activated by the wind…
RD: Yeah or the rocks, or whatever! Yeah that kind of thing. Especially at this time of year as we come into winter – but it will be different on the West Coast, of course – but what is nice on the West Coast is that the bush goes right to sea.
It is somewhere I've never explored really, so…
SL: Yeah, I've only been there once myself, when I was much younger.
I'm just looking at a document which I have open in front of me which has those questions I sent you a few months ago. And we were talking about nature-human tension at one point. Do you remember what you were talking about there?
RD: I've actually got it here as well…
Which question was that in response to?
SL: It was in response to the question about terms, and whether you have a preference in that regard. I mean we might call what you do “Environmental sound recording”, or “Field recording” or something else…
RD: Aaah, yes… Yep.
Ahhh, what did I say? I just can't see it here…?
SL: Ahhh, maybe it is a note I've added?
You said, I would consider ‘Field/location recording’ as a general term to describe recording anywhere except in a studio. 'Environmental recording’ suggests a focus on place, but can perhaps be associated with an idealistic fetishisation of the natural world. I like to use ‘Soundscape composition’ as a broad term.
RD: Yeah, okay. Yeah.
A lot of these terms and genre labels can often be quite loaded, can't they?
SL: Yeah… How do you think about your own work in relation to these terms…?
For example, your doctoral research, which, if I understand it, really was positioning field recording as a compositional activity done in collaboration with the environment, instead of being this uniquely and solely human activity…?
RD: Well, I suppose I like for the human elements, the actions of the recordist or the performer, to come through – I mean those are compositional elements – but at the same time for something about the place to be coming through as well, as happens in many art-forms, I suppose.
So, yeah, rather than it being a documentation of a performance in a specific place, I think that the actual process of documentation, or the process of recording, is performative, or a part of the performance itself.
SL: And how did you explain or utilise this idea of creative collaboration, and also recording as compositional?
RD: I consider a particular way of listening to be the most fundamental compositional practice, from which all music emerges. Environmental elements acoustic, temporal and spatial can be perceived as being musical, whether they signify communication or are incidental. Such elements may or may not also fulfil some extra-musical purpose, such as narrative or documentation. Field recording becomes compositional when something spontaneous and visceral of the composer’s encounter with the place can be sustained, mutated, distorted and shared in a way that is understood as a musical collaboration. The listener becomes temporarily intertwined with the place.
[Field] recording is a way of amplifying experience, a way of helping people question – and it certainly has helped me question – what it means to be a listening agent and what it means to be a listening subject […] Recording wasn’t just about gathering things but it was the invitation to a conversation about what was going on in the world as recorded, about what we were listening to, how we knew and questioned the world by listening to it, how we edited and arranged its meanings like a composition.
SL: I love that book. The interviews Cathy Lane and Angus Carlyle conduct in it were a large influence on my approach for this project!
To go back to the work you’re talking about doing with Geoff Low, that will have you and Geoff working in an environment together, right? How does a work like that relate to a style soundscape recording that isn't so, ahhh, overtly collaborative or compositional? Work where the recording is done in a documentary style and with less creative or musical motivation?
RD: I guess the focus of this project is really on what Geoff does. It is mostly about Geoff and his sensibilities. As a taonga pūoro practitioner, Geoff is coming from a place and a tradition in which place and environment are very important, and this allows him and his presence to function more as a part of the environment which is not necessarily any more important than other acoustic agents, whether they're coming from natural elements, or animals, or wherever else, rather than being necessarily in the foreground while the rest of the environment is relegated to being a sort of canvas.
So, like I was suggesting before, I am interested in exploring the very overwhelming effect of the wind on the microphones, and possibly positioning something human more in the background so that is present but allowing it to be overwhelmed by the elements sometimes…
SL: It's quite poetic, isn't it?
RD: Perhaps? We'll see! *laughs*
SL: Well, I mean, there's something poetic in there, isn't there? As an idea? Allowing the natural features or environmental sounds to take precedence in a collaborative setting where you might have, on one hand, the natural soundscape and sonic features of whatever location – the wind or birdlife and so on – and then, on the other hand, yours and Geoff’s presence.
RD: I think especially for such instruments, which we hear so often in a ways which are dramatically technologically enhanced, which is wonderful in the sense that you can hear everything and every detail, but at the same time, is not the same as hearing somebody playing live in a room or outdoors without technological enhancement. In those instances we hear that they're also very fragile, and there is something special about their voices which is only discernible when one is very proximate to the sound source in a live context…
SL: I mean it is different by a number of degrees isn't it?
Being at a live concert as opposed to hearing a recording, or being in an environment and hearing it live as opposed to hearing a recording of an environment, which is only ever one version of it… The question of a definitive reproduction of a place recalls that idea of a map so detailed that it covers the entirety of the territory that it depicts.
You also said in our email exchange, Context is as crucial as the performers and the instruments being used. Are there any environments that you have a particular love or appreciation for, or do they all have their own innate qualities that are in some way or otherwise pleasing or enjoyable?
RD: Well I think certain environments are just a joy to be a part of, where one can spend long durations and work in a leisurely way. But I think at the same time, sometimes quite harsh environments can be quite exhilarating, but you have to work in a way that is dictated more by the conditions… You have to work much faster.
SL: What are some environments which fit that description that you've been in?
RD: That fits the latter description?
RD: Well I think somewhere that is very cold, or very wet…
SL: So the West Coast?! *laughs*
RD: *laughs* Well, I suppose it is often very wet! Unless you've got somewhere to retreat to and you're able make spontaneous excursions…
But I think the opposite would be…
I mean years ago I did this session and spent several hours in a National Park in Sydney Harbor, which was just the most relaxed space. I ended up making these quite long-form recordings, really focusing on the environment changing very slowly over time. But I think if you're crouched on a windy, rocky escarpment somewhere, chances are you're not going to spend a great deal of time there! *laughs*
I don't know if that answers your question or not. Sometimes it is a real effort and you just have to put up with discomfort for a while, and it can be rewarding.
SL: How did you come to be recording in Sydney? What was that experience like? What were you expecting to find there?
RD: I lived in Sydney for four years until 2004. This was musically a very formative time. So now I have many friends and colleagues there, and have had occasion to visit for musical engagements. At the time I made several recordings – around 2012 I think – I was interested in encountering soundscapes very different from those where I live in Ōtautahi. So this presented a very convenient opportunity to do so.
SL: In relation to your work, where the human component of making a recording, to the extent that it is a composition, is so important, how do you feel about the way of working where one just sets a microphone, hits record, and leaves the scene?
Where does that sit along a spectrum of field recording or environmental recording as compositional activity?
RD: One of the things I find very fascinating about that is what happens when you set it up and then go away for a while and come back and listen to the recording – however long that might be, hours – and it is possible that something astonishing may have taken place that could not have been witnessed had the recordist stayed there. And then to that point, I guess the musical involvement you might have, the compositional part, I suppose it has already started because you have decided to go there in the first place, but there is the whole editing process, temporal framing, if you like. Or maybe other things as well. Other post-production processes that might be compelling.
SL: What are some common post-production processes for you and your work?
RD: Well, for example, I once took such a recording, and what happened during that time was that a cicada came, and it must have been very close indeed to one of the microphones because I got this very crisp cicada recording. I was recording at a very high sample rate because I had wondered if this might happen, and it did because there were many cicadas about, and then I slowed it down to about a quarter of the original speed. So what I ended up with was still clearly a cicada, but slowing it down slightly sort of made it, ahhh, it made it a slightly more abstracted piece… Quite hypnotic in a way – there was a sort of repetition, but not quite a perfect repetition. And sometimes it would stop for a moment and then start up again.
So I suppose that is an example of post-production as a compositional action, but it is prefigured in the recording by the high sample rate.
SL: It is interesting because what we are talking about this leads me to consider a quality of field recording, as an artistic practice, that I am very interested in, and that is the tension that a recordist/composer is always negotiating between a referential representation and abstracted representation of a space, right?
This really is an abiding interest of mine, and it seems to me to always be at play when one is making these sorts of recordings, whether it is a function of the type of equipment you're using or the ideas one wishes to explore with the work. When I talk about the type of equipment here, I only mean to say that if you have very decent equipment you have a better chance of making something referential – that has reasonable fidelity in relation to the original environment and accurately reproduces certain sounds – as compared to a shitty dictaphone which might introduce loads of hiss or noise and that sort of thing, at which point you begin with less of a chance to make a highly referential recording and what your likely ending up with is more abstracted (though, of course, a dictaphone has its own particular charm!).
But all of this is a creative choice, right? And it goes to artistic intent because there are many qualities about each “type” or recording that one might wish to employ. Are these the sort of things you consider? Is equipment important to you?
RD: I think that equipment can give you particular choices sometimes, or make particular choices available. Because, for example, when bringing very very low level, ambient or fragile sounds into the foreground of a recording, for example, having a very clear dynamic recording equipment is very important for such a thing.
SL: Do you have a favourite piece of equipment? Or something that has been particularly important to your work?
RD: Not really, no. *laughs*
I mean, yeah, I have a couple of little omni-direction lapel microphones which are great to just plug in. You can walk around with them, and they're very versatile. And I've got a mid-side set-up as well, which is a bit more cumbersome but I think it allows you to certainly get a real sense of space…
Representing space is something which I have thought about a lot, too… Which is actually using recording as a means of engaging the space of recording itself. That is what I called my doctoral dissertation,Acoustic Illuminations, which refers to when a space becomes illuminated acoustically. It is like with landscapes, I suppose; their character can change so much at different times of day or different times of year. And then when you're listening in that way, you really notice how a place sounds when it is really humid, or when it rains, or in the evening, etcetera…
SL: Have you ever done studies of a place in this way, like an impressionist painter, where you've gone back repeatedly to listen again at different times? Or is that sort of knowledge of a place something that you build up and eventually know from experience? Like, This is this sort of space, and there are these climatic conditions because it is this or that time of year, so it is likely going to sound like this or that…
RD: One place I did visit quite a number of times was a section of nature reserve on Banks Peninsula, Hinewai Reserve. A lot of the reserve is in the process of regeneration, but there is a small area of quite old growth beech forest, and I visited this place many times. Sometimes I'd stay over there (the reserve has a sort of cabin). So I'd say over there, sometimes for a night or two, and visit this place. And I went at different times of the year, from the very dry, late-summer, and then also in the spring-time when it was very unsettled and damp. So, yeah, re-visiting this place and noticing how the soundscape changed just as much as everything else. Changing with the other elements.
SL: To go back to the line of thinking around composition and these sorts of things, I wonder what comes first for you? Is there an impulse from the environment that you then recognize as having compositional potential?
Or is it that all recordings made with a certain intent are, as a result of that musical, compositional intention and way of thinking about the process of recording, inherently plausible as compositions?
Or, when you're thinking compositionally in relation to these sorts of recording-projects, do you go seeking out a certain series of sonic qualities in the environment?
RD: I have done both.
Occasionally you go somewhere with an idea in mind, and things may more or less go as anticipated. But more often than not, recording in the environment is a very serendipitous experience. You may go somewhere and it doesn't work at all how you expected. Or you may go there with no particular expectations and just come across something. Or you end up somewhere else that you never thought of going to. *laughs* You might be on your way somewhere else and end up finding something!
So it is both really.
I think you have to be very open, and that it's impossible to plan too much in advance. There is a lot of spontaneity involved. So yeah, it is quite improvisational, I guess. How long you decide to stay there, what you decide to listen to all takes place quite spontaneously.
SL: I was waiting for this word, improvisational!
How often is it that you're taking your instruments with you and engaging actively with the environment in ways which go beyond being a recordist?
RD: Well these days I haven't been doing a whole lot, really, these past few years…
SL: Is that because of pragmatic considerations? Circumstances? Kids and so on?
RD: Just life!
I mean for me and the instruments I play, they are indoor instruments, really. So I think going somewhere where it is reasonably practical to take and play an instrument is great, but certain other places are ummm… I mean I have played in the rain, which probably isn't ideal…
SL: *laughs* There will be some square saxophone person out there who will read this and just shudder!
RD: I think that, for example, Kura Tawhiti – Castle Hill, where there are a lot of rock formations and not a lot of wildlife, a place like that, if it was windy, I suppose, it could be quite an acoustically rich environment, but if there often isn't any wind and it is almost silent, which would give me a reason to create my own resonant presence.
SL: What are some of the significant or important things that you consider when you're in the environment and making work?
RD: Regarding? The place? Or…?
SL: Regarding your involvement and interaction with the place. And your being there with the intent of making a recording. What's important to you in that situation?
RD: I suppose it is important that it is a real engagement and not an exploitative process. I am looking for a way of engaging with the place rather than making some kind of facsimile…
It’s important that what I do is not extractive.
SL: Low impact?
SL: And artistically? I'd guess this feeds back into that was well?
RD: Yeah. So the context of the place is important, but I am not just trying to document a place and time, I'm trying to creatively build on the experience of being present there.
SL: Yeah, right.
There is quite a profound level of engagement to be had with a place, especially, at least personally speaking, when you're listening intently, paying close attention and really attending. That level of attention can bring about a profound sense of presence. And when I think about it now, it is like, somehow, the distance created between you and the world by the mediating presence of a microphone and set of headphones, allows this extra focusing of attention, and increased sense of situation and presence. I suppose there is no good reason why that degree of focused attention can't be achieved just with your ears, but for me I find it a little easier to achieve with the distancing effect of the recording technology.
RD: Well, I think that, when I am recording and then subsequently editing and presenting the work (however that may take place), I try to carry through the whole original, physiological and emotional experience of being at the place I was recording at, you know? I don't just come back and merely have raw materials to work with. There is the whole adventure that took place, and it is something about that which I want to convey.
SL: In what ways can that extra-sonic content – that stuff that comprises the context that the recording is part of – be carried into the presentation of the recording?
RD: Well I think varies, depending on what happened and what kind of form the composition ends up taking, and then also depending on the context of the presentation. And I think sometimes words are great, whether it is an informal conversation or a little bit of text accompanying the work. I think those things can help, but they're kind of outside the composition, mainly. But maybe not…? Perhaps when you present something, a text or conversation can be a part of what you're presenting.
SL: But you are always going to have a different relationship to what you're presenting compared to that which the person who is seeing or hearing it for the first time is going to have…
RD: I suppose sharing and enthusiasm about it. And I think it is wonderful when people have questions about things, whether they're musical questions or questions about the place where the recording was done. Ultimately, I get a lot of value out of this happening, when the work can open a conversation.
SL: To what extent do you research places that you visit and record at prior to going to them?
RD: Well, I mean it depends. If it is somewhere I have been to before but have never done any recording at, then I probably don't need to do too much.
SL: Or is that also more spontaneous, where you end up building a relationship with a place through the recording process?
RD: Yes it is that, and then often there'll be certain things that I notice that I want to learn more about subsequently. So, again, it's a bit of both really.
I certainly don't have a methodical way of “scoping a location” and then researching it in a particular way. Of course, if I know of somebody who knows a place well and I am able to talk to them, that of course can be very valuable.
SL: I'm sorry, some of the questions are possibly difficult. I understand that there mightn’t be many hard and fast rules about how you approach these sorts of things…
RD: No, not for me, no…
SL: This is the first in a series of interviews for this project, and this week I was wondering what to do with these conversations. I think it is going to be really important to have a conversation like this with each of the artists contributing work, especially now that the presentation will take place online, but possibly it will also be beneficial to follow up these conversations with an email exchange or something like that, in part because I think it gives more time to reflect on things, but also because having some communication by text will save me time transcribing. *laughs*
RD: I'd be really happy with that, because I think some of the things we've talked about you might want to ask me about in an email where I might be able to articulate them more clearly when I can think about it for a while. But at the same time it is great. It is good for me talking to you in a spontaneous way…
SL: …you go to different places.
RD: Yeah. And dig a little deeper.
SL: Great! So, yes, like I say, I will have a conversation with each of you, and will transcribe that, and then the transcription can form the basis of a series of a less live exchange as well.
RD: I'm very happy to chat at any time, or to receive any email questions. *laughs*
SL: And it goes without saying that before any of it goes online you will have the opportunity to to read and edit, and approve it, as it were…It has already been really interesting, at least for me, talking to all of the people involved in this project, because while you're all working in a similar field, making recordings in the world, you do so to explore different interests and with different motivations for doing so. It has been interesting, so I hope it will also be interesting for you as well.
And we will see what happens in 2021. In some ways it is a shame that this has ended up being an online project, but as far as online projects go, maybe this is a nice one to present online. A website might serve it quite well.
RD: I mean I haven't really done either – I’ve not been part of a web-based exhibition or a gallery-based exhibition – but I am actually quite liking this idea of something that is web-based, that I imagine people will be able to really explore.
And it sounds like you're trying to think of creative ways to build it.
SL: Are there any directions that you'd like this conversation to go in that hasn’t yet?
RD: No, not specifically! It is really nice to be asked about my work.
SL: You’d mentioned that you and Geoff will be able to work somewhat spontaneously together for this project, but I’m aware that some of your past recording projects have involved quite a bit of organisation, traveling to Sri Lanka, for example.
Perhaps you could talk a little about those experiences?
RD: I had visited Sri Lanka in 2009 when I first started working with Sumuditha Suraweera’s Baliphonics project.
While working towards my DMA, I was fortunate to receive a scholarship which allowed me to visit Sri Lanka again in order to undertake field recording work there. This was so compelling because I had several personal contacts who were interested in helping me. I really had no idea what I was looking for, and as usual, the best soundscapes were those I came across spontaneously. I visited a nature reserve which was full of elephants – which was an amazing experience – but no interesting recordings came of it. The best thing was when we spent several days in a relatively isolated village in the mountains, where many ancient methods of cultivation are still practised, exploring the countryside by foot. Some of these recordings can be heard on my soundcloud page.
SL: And aside from the recordings you’ve been doing with Geoff for this project, how have you been working recently?
RD: I feel that it is something that has been quite off the boil for me now, for quite a long time, you know? Five or six years, actually. So recently I've been doing very little recording. I do have a nice little Olympus recorder and occasionally I have been somewhere and had it with me and made little recordings of things, but in terms of going on a day trip or going away for a number of days specifically to do this, I haven’t been working on much…
It's good, having a deadline, you know! *laughs*
SL: And before being a dad, how frequently was it that you would make trips away for recording projects?
RD: Well, when I was a Doctor or Music candidate, I suppose I was sometimes doing something every couple of weeks, but I also had some trips away, sometimes for a few days at a time. Or I'd be getting up at four in the morning, or…
SL: It was your whole life, or a big part of your life, at that point!
RD: Yes, but less so for the past six years…
Just before the end of that DMA research, Iris came along, and for a while after that the whole family life took over. But now that she's six I think the space in which I can start doing this again is opening up.
I just think the dynamics of family life were a big part of it, and playing my instruments, and playing music with other people, that was manageable, but yeah, I think going away for several days at a time, that hasn't been a high priority recently.
SL: Can you envisage it as something you and Iris would ever do together?
RD: Well, possibly.
But on the other hand it is quite a solitary thing… I've made recordings of Iris playing in the garden and things like that *laughs*, which are nice, but I think larger projects are nice as a solitary practice, or as a very tight collaborative practice. Because I think, you know, it is very difficult to think, Okay, I can go and do something between three and five on Wednesday, or, you know…
It just doesn't really work like that. You don’t think, Oh yes, the weather is going to do this tonight, I'm going to do this, or whatever… *laughs*
SL: Come on Iris, it's 4am! Lets go! *laughs* Well, maybe, you never know!
GEOFF LOW & REUBEN DERRICK & SAM LONGMORE
26 July 2020
RD: Hello Sam
SL: Hello again Reuben, and hello Geoff!
RD: This is Geoff.
SL: How are you doing?
GL: Good. Cold, but good.
SL: Cold but good? Nice!
RS: Geoff, Sam is recording these interviews to transcribe, and he will be preparing a text to accompany this presentation.
SL: Yes, I will transcribe our conversation today and it will be sent back to Reuben as a fairly verbatim transcription which will then be edited.
GL: That's fine.
So I listened to a couple of the recordings Reuben had sent me, that you and he had made at… Lyttelton and… Waikuku…?
GL: Yes, Waikuku Lagoon.
SL: They're wonderful. And he’d mentioned that you were planning to go… was it back to Lyttelton?
GL: Yes, we thought we would do some more work there.
RD: And also, yeah, Waikuku as well. Definitely, I would like to explore there more, quite a lot more. And we’d also discussed a trip to Birdlings Flat – Te Mata Hapuk, which I don't know if you know, but, nearly ten years ago now, I did a big project there. It is a very exposed, South-facing piece of beach.
GL: Yes. It is a very steep, shingle beach. And big waves come in there after a southerly wind. Huge waves.
SL: I see.
And Reuben, you had been talking about some ideas about wind. And in the recording that you've sent through, it seems like the idea of wind has become a bit broader. Where you had been talking about wind somewhat interrupting, or positing wind in this compositional context as a kind of interrupter, it seems now that there is a tension between the environment and what Geoff is doing on his instruments which require the breath of the player.
Is that right?
GL: A lot of these traditional taonga pūoro, they don't have the singular sound quality that a lot of the Western instruments have. The emphasis is much more on the emotional side of the sound, rather than the purity of the sonic quality. And on a lot of these instruments… I can get some very odd wind-edged tones, harmonics and breathy sounds which I think compliment this concept of the wind well.
SL: That was where I was headed. I had the same thought, that okay, the instruments you're playing are all breath-based, aren't they? Which is to say, wind instruments…
GL: Mostly, but not all.
SL: And, Geoff, Reuben has told me a little about your musical background, as an improviser and in Jazz-Contexts, but then obviously you have been playing and performing with taonga pūoro for a while! When and how did you first become interested in taonga pūoro?
GL: Well, my wife Hikatea had a job, some twenty-odd years ago, which involved a lot of travel around the country – she was with the Human Rights Commission – and visiting marae. And women don't speak on most marae (although some iwi allow it), but she thought that if could learn to play the kōauau – a small, open ended flute, usually of wood or bone – I could accompany her, and instead of being her Kaikōrero, her speaker, we could do a waiata and I could play something on the kōauau. But my deep interest didn't really happen until I met up with Richard Nunns again.
I'd first met Richard at the Jazz Club at university. He'd been my flatmate for a year and then we'd gone our separate ways, but Hikatea and I attended the opening of the Takahanga marae, and the new wharenui up there at Kaikōura, and there was Richard. He was doing a presentation and demonstration of the instruments. In the intervening years, he'd become very involved in the Māori music community. We kept quite regular contact after that chance meeting, and he’d come and stay with us when he was in Christchurch. During one visit he gave me a bone to play, just a lamb shank off a roast – and he said, Here, play this! *laughs*, but getting a sound out of it took me a month! *laughs* A whole month to get a single sound out of it!
But once I had the knack of it, my background in improvisation was a huge help. I've tried to teach a number of people, but there is no written music for taonga pūoro as nothing was ever written down – techniques and songs were passed down orally and through custom. There are one or two musicologists, McLean, I think, who tried to notate what was being played, but it is really a far too academic approach to it. A lot of what Richard was playing was based on the waiata, the old pre-European chants and that kind of thing, and once I'd got the hang of playing the instruments, I just loved it and found I could do it quite easily and I'm sure the jazz-background helped with that.
There are three or four other very good players around the country and they have jazz-backgrounds as well. There is Alastair Fraser in Wellington, and Jeremy Hantler in Auckland, and there'd be a few others.
SL: I'm not super well versed in the community of taonga pūoro players – Richard Nunns is one of the only players I know of, and there is another fellow named Rob Thorne – but of the three that I know of, it seems so curious that two of them are pākehā, right?
SL: How did you find that experience, being this pākehā guy learning this traditional and culturally significant form of sound making?
GL: Well, I'm sure Richard had… I know he had some problems early on. People would look at him askance, this very tall , ginger-haired, pink faced pākehā coming to tell them how their instruments were played, but really, once people hear what you can do, they are very accepting. My wife is Ngāi Tahu and every time, at any event when I am playing with the Māori community here, there is total acceptance. There is absolutely no suggestion that I shouldn't be doing this. I think most people are quite pleased that it is being revived.
We are fortunate to have a small group here in Christchurch, three or four of us, and the others are Ngāi Tahu. And they're very involved. Our plan is to eventually get around all the marae, all eighteen marae in Ngāi Tahu territory, and do some teaching.
SL: And how did you come to be working with Reuben now? I know that both you and Reuben have a background in improvisation and you're both involved in the jazz community in Christchurch.
I wonder, were you, prior to meeting Reuben, also interested in field recording or playing in the environment? How did that come about?
GL: No, I hadn't. I hadn't been aware of this sphere of music. I know, from reading about the Māori traditions, that a lot of the sounds of taonga pūoro were inspired by the sounds of the environment, in the bush and the forests, and that some of the sounds were used as bird lures to attract birds to be hunted and caught. And there was a tradition of listening to the birds and listening for omens about what is going to happen in the future. The birds were supposed to bring messages from the spirit world.
SL: I know of one story – I'm not sure how accurate the version I've heard is – about Pīwakawaka being a portent. The story goes that Pīwakawaka are a portent, sometimes I've been told that they're a portent of something positive, and other times they're a portent of something negative.
GL: I've only heard the negative one: if a Pīwakawaka flies into your house, that is a sign of impending death. And actually I had a bit of experience with this. Quite soon after I moved into this property which has a lot of big, old trees around, I was walking back to the house after a long drive and seven or eight Pīwakawaka followed me from the gate back up to the house. And about three days later my father died. So I thought, Oh, yes, maybe it was that. But they weren't in the house.
In relation to playing taonga pūoro in the environment, I do remember seeing a film about Richard Nunns and he and his protege, Horomona Horo, were playing their instruments in different settings, at different places. They went to a beach, and a river, and to a cave. And they were playing to the environment, rather than playing with it, if you understand?
SL: Yes, there is a shift – a difference of perspective.
GL: Yes, it is a different concept.
SL: So there is a kind of dovetailing happening with your work now with Reuben, right? These instruments, historically, have a tradition of being performed outside, and now we have this slightly different set of motivations but you are doing something similar.
GL: Yes, it is a new concept for me to be, rather than playing in the environment, to play with the environment. I find myself listening intently now, to everything that is going on around me.
I've always been very interested in the birds, and we do have quite a lot of birdlife around here, so I am always listening and trying to identify. I've got a couple of bird calls and I try to mimic the sound of the birds on the instruments.
It is a fascinating concept, though I'm still fairly new to it. And I can see how, as Reuben said, you might record all day and get a quarter of an hour of good stuff! *laughs*
It's so unpredictable and this is one of the fascinating elements about it.
SL: When Reuben and I last talked, we talked a fair bit about the shared space between improvisational playing and the openness and listening that is required of you in order to have an enjoyable time improvising in a group, and how that is akin to the listening you might find yourself doing while working in the environment and making recordings of the world.
Do you think you will continue in this mode of playing outdoors? I know you and Reuben were hoping to get over the West Coast at some point?
GL: Oh yes. I am still very interested in doing more. I am actually really pleased that Reuben and I are doing something together. I remember after the tribute concert that Reuben and I played at Te Papa for Richard, which would be seven or eight years now…
RD: We're going back now!
GL: …I remember Richard saying afterwards, he said he hoped that we'd keep doing things, doing something together. He liked what we were doing at the Te Papa performance, which was very free compared to what the other performers were doing – they were doing their waiata, and playing in a more traditional vein. I think we surprised them a little bit. *laughs*
SL: Is there anything else about the context of performing outside that has been particularly interesting for you?
GL: Just the way that the particular environment that we're in can influence your mood, and how, because it is totally instinctive, this comes out in the playing. When I play, I don't plan it. I don't think it. It just comes. And a lot of what I do will depend on the impact that the surroundings have on my mood and on my feelings.
RD: That's why I think that the idea of playing to the place is still really important. The difference between playing to and playing with is key…
I think that when you have made the effort to travel somewhere and all that that entails, and you're physiologically necessarily very present, I think… In the past I haven't articulated it to myself so much like this, but playing to the place, I think, is a really nice way to think about it.
Being somewhere and playing is a completely different thing than playing to an environmental recording afterward. So, you know, if you're playing with – this latter idea has got more to do with playing with – but when you're there, I do think you have to play to the place…
GL: Yes, it has got to be an exchange between the two. Backwards and forwards, and you respond but the idea is not totally being in a responsive mode…
RD: And we're not responding just acoustically, either. I think we're responding to, you know, other environmental factors, whether it's changing conditions or how the place affects us physiologically – if it's very cold, or very hot, or very damp, or very windy – and I think they're all very important factors.
SL: This sort of playing and recording sort of shifts your position as a component of the environment and soundscape at that time. When you say, I'm going to play with the world as opposed to having it accompany me, it shifts your position within the context, somewhat, and changes the way you're thinking about your relationship with it to a more egalitarian relationship.
When you go to one of these places, for example, Lyttelton, how does the time you spend there unfold? You arrive, you park the car presumably, and then you… take a walk, I'd assume?
RD: Well what you've said makes sense to me. Arriving somewhere and exploring. The whole experience is exploratory… I mean that's also sort of what improvised music is, I guess – you're exploring.
GL: You stop and listen for a while, and get some feedback from what's going on around you…
RD: Whether it's exploring a
musical relationship with others, or exploring some kind of abstract musical structure…
SL: And I wonder… It would take a very special group of people to be able to do this sort of playing in the environment as a group, adding more people while still leaving sufficient space for listening.
At this point, and am I right in thinking that, Reuben, you've been recording and, Geoff, you've been playing? Is it likely that you will arrive at a point where you will both be playing? Or are you quite content at this stage with the different roles that you have?
RD: I think they're fairly flexible. I guess, for Geoff, that there is also an awareness of playing for the microphone, as well as to the place… So recording is also creative, collaborative and performative in this real sense, you know?
It's not just a two way thing… It's umm… So there's that, but also there are occasions…
SL: I didn't mean to relegate the recording to be secondary… Of course it's creative, for example you're setting the frame and determining how the relationship between Geoff and the place you’re in is represented in the recording…
RD: Oh yeah. I consider the recording itself as being quite performative. I mean you can move around. And just getting back to wind, one of the things that I'm interested in is the way that the wind can give voice to the microphone itself, and the whole kind of spatial quality of a composition.
SL: I suppose that's the next consideration… How you might arrange an array of speakers in a space to present a work like this would be a very curious proposition, I'd think?
RD: It would indeed! Mmmmm…
GL: Yes, you've talked about bringing your clarinet along, or playing something on one of these trips that we do.
RD: Sometimes I do take an instrument, but often I may not use it… It's nice just to have it available as an option.
SL: I feel like we have discussed so much about this project, Reuben, that I feel Geoff is perhaps a little left out of the contexts that we've discussed, but, of course, I am also left out of the context that you've been doing it in. So I wonder if there is anything from that perspective that you'd like to cover?
GL: Yeah, well it is certainly a new experience for me. And a learning process as well. I certainly want to explore it more, and I have got a link to Reuben's thesis and I'll have a read of that – I've read the introduction so far, *laughs*, but that will maybe give me some idea of the concepts that are behind the idea.
SL: I know of Jim Denley, in Australia, and the Splinter Orchestra, who do a lot of playing outside. And I suppose there is that slightly different phenomenon of people, particularly those who play loud instruments or who are just beginning, practicing outdoors, perhaps so as to avoid annoying their housemates or neighbours.
Are there many other people that you're aware of that are doing that sort of work, Reuben?
RD: There's not a huge number. I mean I do know people who will, you know, go to a place and play to it, and they may record it, or may not record it, ummm. So, yeah, I guess there are so many different ways… I imagine there would be people who have a particular place that they like to continually revisit, and it becomes like a little ritual they do. Ummmmm, so I guess that, yeah, this sort of combines quite a few different ideas.
SL: She notes that she's Kāi Tahu on her profile for SOUNZ…
That's another sort of thing, though… It’s a bit different, again, isn't it? That's the performer as a kind of translation of experience, or translation of the experience of being in different parts of Pōneke.
GL: Yes, and I am not sure whether she actually recorded in those places, or whether it was done in the studio – I don't know.
I will certainly have another listen to that.
RD: I guess what I feel attached to is the very visceral experience of a place and trying to, in a recording, trying to convey something about that, rather than particular sounds that have some sort of, you know, aesthetic appeal by themselves. It's more about the place.
SL: You aspire to a more total impression of a place? This sounds like a fool's errand, Reuben! *laughs*
GL & RD: *laugh*
SL: When's your next recording session?
RD: We have to keep our eyes on the weather… Today would have been great, actually. It's sunny and very still now. I think with these frosty mornings and fine days, it's lovely in the winter.
GL: There's no Southerly wind on the horizon, but next time there is a Southerly, as soon as it clears we might head off down to Birdlings Flat and get some very big waves and the effect there. And there's quite a Māori history in that area. There's a Pā on the hillside near by, and the guy that founded the taonga pūoro group in Christchurch, he's from the marae there, and they do a lot of eeling in the lake.
SL: Well, I hope there is a beautiful, stormy morning soon so you go there!
GL: It's perfect today, there’s not a breath of wind.
SL: This afternoon, then!?
RD: Waikuku could be nice this afternoon, depending on the tide.
GL & RD: *look up tides in newspaper*
SL: Geoff, I would love to hear more about the history of taonga pūoro being sounded outside and how that fits with the slightly different motivation that we're working with here…
GL: Well one thing that comes to mind in that respect is that…
I think what Richard Nunns and many of the other players have been doing is trying to play in a traditional way, in the sense that the only traditions they've got are based on the old waiata, and in terms of phrasing and feels I like to explore the other kinds of sound that you can find in an instrument. One of these instruments in a shell with the head cut off to make a mouthpiece for kōauau. But the multitudes of different sounds and wind noises and effects and harmonics that you can get from it are fascinating.
What one little shell can do!
SL: It is possible that you've heard it already, but Rob Throne, who I mentioned earlier, has a collaboration with an electronic musician, Fis, who comes from a Drum n Bass background, though the collaboration is much more abstract with big bass that is only possible with electronics. I will send the link to Reuben and he can pass it on if you're interested. In terms of a non-traditional context to have taonga pūoro occurring in, I was very taken by it when I first heard it a couple of years ago. In the release you hear very clearly the timbre of taonga pūoro, which is also electronically manipulated and mixed in with big, bass-heavy soundscapes.
GL: Mmmmm. Yes, I think Richard Nunns was performing with Moana Maniapoto in her group for many years, and I think at that stage she didn't have Paddy Free, who I know she works with now, and who adds a lot of electronic content to the sound. Oh, and his partner or wife, Lousie Potiki Bryant, she's Ngāi Tahu, and we got to know her during one of the workshops we had down here, and she was working in contemporary choreography.
SL: Last month I saw an incredible, adapted performance of Lemi Ponifasio's MAU company, which had been reworked as an installation at Te Papa. And that installation had a lot of… I don't know if it was strictly taonga pūoro, but the sonic content was very evocative of those sounds.
It may well have been taonga pūoro – regardless, it was quite an intense installation.
GL: Richard and Louise had a dance piece where all he played was tumutumu, which is stones, percussion from the South. It is a tradition from the far South, apparently, and the different effects you can achieve just by tapping two stones together is fascinating.
SL: Stones and water? Or just the stones?
GL Just stones, I believe. We saw the performance, and I don't think Richard played any other instruments.
GL: Yeah, that's amazing work. I was very impressed with that. Phil performed at a little concert on the bank of the Avon River, when Yo-yo Ma was touring the country, here in Christchurch.
SL: Quite recently, right?
GL: Yes, it was maybe a year ago. Yeah.
SL: I saw some footage of that. Sadly not Phil's performance. But it seemed like a wonderful occasion.
GL: It was. Just remarkable. A great occasion.
SL: Yet another different example of performing in the environment than what we are thinking about. *laughs*
GL: *laughs* Yes! A Bach suite by the river!
SL: Look, thank you both for making the time to talk with me, I really appreciate it. I am going to say goodbye for now. Geoff, it was a real pleasure to meet you, even in this strange sort of way, and I look forward to hearing more of the work that you're doing together.