March 16, 2004

The Space

This is a big entry. It's the first draft of a chapter I've been writing about The Space for a book on jazz in NZ - anyone interested in the cultural history of Wellington (besides LOTR) in the last few years should hopefully find it interesting?. Any comments/criticisms most welcome...

The Space
by David Edwards
(8322 words)

“Well, I don't know what jazz is. And what most people think of as jazz I don't think that's what it is at all. As a matter of fact I don't think the word has any meaning…”
- Cecil Taylor

“Happiness is a journey not a destination”
- Jeff Henderson

In March 2000 the American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, described in the NZ Festival programme as “the most acclaimed jazz musician of his generation” played a concert of Duke Ellington tunes in Wellington. The same night the Ecstasy Trio, a local band of Jeff Henderson on reeds, Tom Callwood on double bass, and Chris O’Connor on drums were performing at the small Cuba St art gallery the New Works Studio. “Wynton Marsalis” declared Henderson introducing the band’s set, “this is not for you”.

The Ecstasy Trio were one manifestation of Wellington’s turn-of-the-millennium improvised music scene, which largely revolved around the Newtown venue The Space during its existence from September 1999 to April 2003. Bringing together three of the scene’s stalwart players, the trio often played there every week, or every night for a week. Ecstasy Trio performances were notable for their kinetic energy, the complex intuitive interaction taking place at high speed, volume and intensity. Passages of quiet and gentleness would suddenly appear or be replaced by roaring squealing climaxes in which fragments of tunes could just be discerned. Circular breathing, drones, multiphonics, vocalizations, cymbal-scrapings and other ‘extended techniques’ were regular parts of the armoury.

Chris O’Connor left Wellington for Dublin in 2003 and having been an energetic collaborator in a varied multitude of bands and projects his departure marked the end of an era as strongly as the closure of The Space and its metamorphosis into the new venue Happy. The Space era 1999-2003 has a specific time, place, and community of people involved so it should definitely be counted as a period and scene in New Zealand music history, which produced a wealth of ideas, performances and talent - even if it went largely unnoticed by the general public. The Space was conceived as a workshop environment, a place for experimentation and for players to develop their confidence and skills. It was run primarily by and for the artists, and was a place where challenging or avant-garde work would not have to be marginalised. With irregular gigs in galleries and pubs no longer enough to properly nurture all the creative energies flowing, the venue was started to give the players somewhere regular to play.

Jeff Henderson: “To be happy with my music I need to play it a lot and have periods of really good development and that can only happen in front of other people. Also I wanted the music to be accessible… nothing about the content being accessible but it has to be able to be accessed, which means it has to be there and happening, so it can’t be hidden away in a shed” .

The name The Space suggests an empty canvas, and indeed the opening night was a gig by a band called Blank Slate Technology. According to Henderson the name was “not very interesting at all actually. We didn’t have a name for it, it was just the space we’d rented. That was it, nothing very spiritual or anything”. Still, the neutrality of the name fits in well with the scene’s at least theoretical openness to all contributors and possibilities. By contrast Happy, the name of the current venue which succeeded The Space, suggests a more fixed agenda. Most of the regular performers at Happy are the generation who played at The Space but there is an increased commercial pressure owing to the higher overhead costs and a sense that the music has moved beyond its developmental stage. “Happy is a venue where you have to be good already to play” says Henderson. In a sense things have come full circle with less established players again having to find small alternative venues, such as the Newtown Community Centre or Photospace Gallery on Courtney Place.

Happy is located in downtown Wellington and functions as a bar and nightclub, whereas The Space was located in the suburb of Newtown and served as an art gallery, bookshop and venue for yoga classes as well as a performance space. Coffee and food were served after a while but alcohol only when a temporary license was obtained for festivals. The distance from downtown, lack of alcohol and the lack of mass appeal for much of the music meant that audience sizes were often small. In one case the bands Birchville Cat Motel and Negative Eh gave a gig that no-one at all turned up to! This brings to mind the riddle of the tree falling in a forest – is a gig with no audience still a gig? Nonetheless The Space had a large influence on the people involved.

Kieran Monaghan: “Prior to The Space noise/free gigs were sparse (that could be read a few ways). But the Space did become a good focus (and was just down the road from where I lived). I loved the fact that it was in Newtown, it use to piss me off that everything was in the city centre, it really appealed to my sense of community. And a community evolved around it, it had a great impact on the wider communities as well. I also enjoyed that The Space used to be visited by Kieran, the Downs-syndrome boy, and a bunch of other people from Newtown with psychiatric conditions. Interesting music in Wellington seems to be cyclic - dry times and thrive times. The Space managed to extend one of those thrive times for 3½ years with terrific results (and a few real bombs).”

Identifying a ‘Space sound’ may be pointless since the scene included a range of different people and approaches. Improvisation was emphasized but not exclusively. The Space sound if any is the sum total of all the music that was played there, which included pop, punk, electronica, singer-songwriters and so on. One of the more popular fixtures in the calendar was the monthly Girls in Space night, featuring all female performers of whatever style. However a number of women musicians including saxophonist Bridgett Kelly, vibraphonist Nicky Lillicrap, and bassist/cellist/accordionist Maree Thom identified more with the improvisation scene than Girls in Space, indicating that instrumental skill and the ability to interact musically is the issue in improvisation and not gender politics.
[insert Maree quote?]

Despite its variety some people played at The Space more often than others however and there were recurring elements, such as Henderson who is described in one of his posters as an “improvising saxophonist, loud, prone to outbursts of wild screaming, has been described as a ‘multi-millennial roaring rhino’, also capable of sweetness and subtlety”. Also, with Henderson as manager/curator of The Space the music overall was to an extent a reflection of his tastes. As a jazz school graduate who had preferred the ‘out’ jazz of Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman to the traditionalism of for example Wynton Marsalis, there was an emphasis on experimentation, collaboration, openness to dissonance, and using improvisation as the chief working method.
Jazz is an artform that emphasizes improvisation, and is a major background influence for many but by no means all of the players. The jazz conservatory at Massey University has been one source of people and a reason for the scene taking place in Wellington. For all The Space’s claims to represent an underground alternative, it was also a part of ‘the cultural capital’. Others have studied composition at Victoria University, with its electro-acoustic composition facilities proving popular, while others again have no formal training at all. Part of what makes the millennial Wellington scene distinctive is this melting pot aspect, and the fact that many of the musicians cite other locals as major influences. The scene thus has a strong sense of community and local identity, and enough critical mass to be self-sustaining.

Kieran Monaghan: “I became interested in interesting music by a combination of some great friends in the Dunedin punk community in the late 80’s and an inquisitive taste and short attention span… Myself and a couple of others formed probably the only Industrial band ever in Invercargill in the late 80’s called Cubicle, using washing machines, and old steel, and home made instruments, a precursor to the noise movement but with rhythm. I specifically came from the punk end of things, the philosophy that technique was not the be-all and end-all - desire and enthusiasm were the reasons you wanted to play [italics added]. I admired the collective working of organising gigs early on, but drugs often fuck up something unique. It was perhaps this style of working which really interested me with The Space - the music was not was I was used to but the style of just doing it was.”

What free improvisers, post-punk noise artists, underground theatre performers and avant-garde composers have in common is the element of individualists standing against the mainstream of their respective traditions. Guitarist Chris Palmer - who cites BB King, Bartok, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Derek Bailey, Captain Beefheart, Sonic Youth, Stravinsky and Birchville Cat Motel as influences - says “it’s more of an ideological influence than a direct sound influence”. In this sense there are parallels between all forms of avant-garde art.

It is also something of a cliché that radical music creates opposition, the infamous Rite of Spring premiere and so on. A.B Spellman’s book Four Lives in the Bebop Business, which Henderson cites as influential describes Ornette Coleman getting beaten up and having his saxophone smashed after a performance. There is a certain romanticism in the idea of the radical artist struggling against ignorance and opposition which some may take as inspiration. In practice however the major problem is finding venues willing to host challenging performances, so The Space was started to provide a welcoming environment - or as Campbell Kneale put it “you’ll always get a receptive crowd even if it’s just the door person”.

Jeff Henderson: “The music gets negative reactions all the time, but that’s probably a good thing – it shows that it still has power to challenge people. One time in Palmerston North we got a loud audience, I finished thinking ‘that’s a good response’ – it turned out that half of them were booing. It hasn’t come to physical violence though”.

One way in which players from different backgrounds can meet up is through free improvisation, which is by its nature leaderless and non-hierarchical (at least in theory). Free music as a genre has its roots in the free jazz revolution of the 1960s, since which time jazz players and listeners have been divided into pro- and anti-free camps. In rock music, punk caused a similar shakeup in the 1970s. While punk’s stripping down of rock to its bare essentials – ‘here are three chords, now go form a band’ – often leads to creative stagnation and sonic conservatism its democratic accessibility is a great strength which jazz, requiring years of learning to play, arguably lacks, and many players used punk as a starting point from which to develop more idiosyncratic styles. To post-punks raised on dissonant bands such as Sonic Youth, the idea of free improvisation, with its encouragement of stylistic individuality, can come as natural.

Campbell Kneale: “Although I do not possess any academic qualification in music I consider myself to be very well trained. I've been performing original music, and generally trying pretty hard to develop my unique little area in music (which has had many forms) for the last 18 years. I don't feel in the slightest bit disadvantaged by lack of formal training, in fact I feel very liberated, and have every confidence that I could play ANY given instrument with ‘musicality'”.

Free jazz was originated in the 1960s mainly by black American musicians such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler. The European brand of free improvisation came slightly later as a reaction to free jazz, influenced by it but consciously avoiding jazz sounds and rhythms in favour of players experimenting to develop highly individual ‘non-idiomatic’ styles. Derek Bailey, Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker, Tony Oxley and bands such as AMM and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble are some of the pioneers of this. In both cases free improvisation came about as the result of a logical progression. To extend the harmonic possibilities opened by bebop further, into atonality, jazz players stopped using chord changes, which then allowed the steady beat to be removed as there was no need for bar lines. This in turn removed the hierarchy between soloist and rhythm section, so bass and drums can be lead instruments .

Simon O’Rorke: “With free improv, drums are optional. Where there is a drummer or percussionist in a freely improvising ensemble, their role is really much the same as that of any other musician: to listen to the other players and respond to them with lines that differ from but fit in with what they are playing. Free improvisers play with an implied "pulse" rather than with a laid-down beat, so the drummer's time-keeping function is not only not required but in general is to be avoided. ”

In New Zealand another style of free music evolved out of the 1980s post-punk scene - South Island bands such as The Dead C, Surface of the Earth, A Handful of Dust and Sandoz Lab Technicians recorded for the Xpressway and Corpus Hermeticum labels run by Bruce Russell. As its origins are closer to punk than jazz it gets labeled ‘noise’. As with free jazz it developed via a logical progression – the record label Flying Nun was started to document NZ’s independent rock scene, Xpressway came about to give exposure to the more uncompromising artists who were getting ignored by Flying Nun, and Corpus Hermeticum came about once the music had evolved to the point where it was no longer recognizable as rock.

Bruce Russell: “For myself Sonic Youth in the period 1986-88 were a big inspiration in terms of taking rock forms and pushing them further. I listened to a lot of American rock of that era but most of the 'grunge' stuff was pretty lame. I think there was a lot of interest in the Dead C. in the early 90s, and less since, other than that it’s hard to judge… Certainly my background is not really musical in a real sense, I can't play the sort of chops those [jazz] guys can. In practice this means little, to me at least. I play with people who can really play, and they seem to accept me OK. I don't object to technique, it’s what you do with it that counts, ditto lack of technique.”

Thanks to Russell’s distribution efforts this music is relatively well known overseas whereas the Wellington scene remains obscure - to the point where the liner notes of the first album by Wellington improvising trio The Slab stated “New Zealand has a well-deserved reputation for producing free noise music, but that is rather different from what you will hear on this CD.” The Corpus Hermeticum scene has had a wide influence but not on all the Wellington musicians, and Bruce Russell is one significant figure who never played at The Space. Interestingly Cloudboy, probably the Wellington band with the closest connection to ‘the Dunedin sound’, became very popular, and were one of the few acts who could draw a standing-room-only crowd at The Space. Dunedin may no longer be the thriving music centre of legend but the music from there carries historical weight in New Zealand and overseas.

Chris O’Connor: “I didn’t come from Dunedin, I grew up in Wellington. It wasn’t a big influence on me at all. It was interesting after getting into improvised music to realise that there are guys in the South Island who have been doing it down there for a wee while now, like the Dead C and those chaps. But I didn’t realise that those guys were doing stuff until after I’d gotten into it already. And it’s good to see that.”

A bigger local influence on Henderson and O’Connor were the musicians who played in Wellington bands the Primitive Art Group and the Six Volts in the early 80s. These bands had broken up due to tension between the members who wanted to play song-based music and the more hardcore avant-gardists, but they continued on in various subgroupings – “they were playing grooves and things, jazzy stuff, it wasn’t free improvisation but it was inspiring – they had great passion and knowledge for the music” says Henderson. Drummer Anthony Donaldson remains an active member of the scene.

Anthony Donaldson: “In the ‘90s there was the Braille Collective, which had thirteen subgroups, and before that the Primitive Art Group. The ones who are still around are in the Labcoats, along with guys from the Muttonbirds and Trinity Roots who see it as a side-project. It’s not really part of the Happy scene… When The Space started I’d been away on a two-year horse trip in the South Island. I wasn’t thinking about music at all, I needed a break from it. The Space started everything up again – I had to sit down and practice for six months. Now it gets busier every year.”

Another important precedent was the theatre company Red Mole. This was started by New Zealanders Alan Brunton and Sally Rodwell in the 1970s and was based in America from 1978-88. Their work emphasised dreams, irrationality, and lifelong commitment to one’s art. “Red Mole places priority on feelings and emotions in a theatre for intuitions and sights into the human condition. To present is to be present…Red Mole asks questions but doesn’t indulge the vanity of answers”. Brunton & Rodwell acted as godparents to The Space scene, collaborating with musicians and encouraging younger performers through their Roadworks shows which had a no-auditions policy so that anyone who wanted to take part could do. What turned out to be Red Mole’s final show, Grooves of Glory, premiered at The Space. When Brunton died of a heart attack while touring the play in Europe in 2002, the news came as a death in the Space family.

Kieran Monaghan: “I did four shows at the Space with Alan & Sally, Radio Radio was the first and was quite early on in the life of the Space, [then] Compestella, Epiphany Locks, and Alias Monk. There was pretty much free rein on what you could attempt, Brunton was very blunt as to whether he liked what you were doing, and one week you'd do one thing and he'd like it, the next week he'd think it was crap - so kind of frustrating. There was this amazing dynamic between Sally and Alan, they could argue like nothing else - it became quite funny after a while, best not to get involved in it, but the result was always a testament to the effort and passion that they would spend on it. I would hope (and it think it was Alan’s and is Sally's) that people who have had the experience will go on to create those sort of environments for others as well, I think that is really an important aspect of their work… There is a big hole where Alan should be, his death shook me in ways I had never expected, and it has taken me quite a while to come to terms with it. I don’t think I realised how important his friendship was - who does when someone is still alive? The History Wringing [album] was me going through my own process of grief, and also a refusal: that even though he is gone I am not dependant on his creativity to produce performance.”

Through the ‘90s pieces of a puzzle started coming together as various people in Wellington worked on different projects. Brunton & Rodwell returned to Wellington; Jeff Henderson formed the band Syzygy, billed as a ‘creative music ensemble’ to distance themselves from jazz, and toured the country with their album Tongue Grooves; percussionist Simon O’Rorke, an English immigrant who had discovered free improvisation in London in the 70s, formed the improvisational trio The Slab; Campbell Kneale started putting out recordings as Birchville Cat Motel; the band cl bob were active, who “could go from a Dixieland feel with banjos to a heavy Neil Young/ Hendrix guitar freak out, on to a completely free non-metered improvisation followed by a Bossa Nova with vocals - we do country as well” ; and many more. cl bob guitarist Simon Bowden became director of the Wellington Jazz Festival which provides an important annual musicians’ showcase.

There was also a magazine called Opprobrium that came out of Christchurch, which featured a mixture of in-depth interviews and reviews of various noise and improvised music. While not directly related to – in fact largely unaware of - the goings on in Wellington (apart from a rave review of the first Birchville Cat Motel album), Opprobrium set an interesting precedent. In 1998 Opprobrium put American bassist William Parker on the cover, and later that year Parker was in Wellington for the Jazz Festival, where he conducted a big band of local musicians. The 1998 Jazz Festival showed that a strong community existed and The Space became its logical culmination.

Simon Bowden: “This [William Parker] concert had a big effect on the audience - most of the older jazz club types who came hated it, "this is not big band jazz!" It had the effect of polarising the audience and forcing us to look to new audiences for our music… some used to think that there was a natural progression for an audience: start them on Dixie, move onto Swing, then Bebop, Fusion and then Free Jazz. This is completely incorrect; our audience has come from a variety of places including noise music, indie pop (Tortoise gig in the 2001 Festival), guitar bands like HDU etc, even dub. The old jazz audience will never be into our music, they are in it for different reasons.”

One of the major events in the history of The Space, shortly after it opened, was the visit of English saxophonist Evan Parker, one of the key figures in the European Improv movement (and who had also been on the cover of Opprobrium). He spent an evening jamming with local players (which was advertised only in a low-key way as a ‘mystery evening’ but brought a packed house) and also gave a talk about his own music and various approaches to improvisation - “in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble we had rules, such as if you can’t hear the bass player it means you’re playing too loud - whereas with the Peter Brötzmann Octet if you can’t hear the bass player that’s his problem!” He also made the comment that a lot of the Wellington players’ styles sounded midway between the American and European modes of free playing. This is fitting as New Zealand culture in general is heavily influenced by European heritage and American media saturation, and both continents are equally far away. It should be noted however that the players who jammed with Parker were generally those with ‘jazz’ rather than ‘noise’ backgrounds, and that this was early in The Space’s history so a more distinctly local style may have developed over time.

Jeff Henderson: The music’s evolved out of our influences, which are American and European improvised musics, and also Pacific music – we can’t help being influenced by what’s around us. It would be silly really for me to sound like an American jazz saxophone player because I’m not. Maybe he [Parker] was meaning that the music was still in a developmental stage; maybe he recognised that it wasn’t trying to be just one thing”.

Chris Palmer: “We are different from Europe or America – people say that rural music is more laidback. When I listen to stuff recorded here I would say it’s more laidback and less intense. People could take that as a criticism that we don’t play like New Yorkers, big deal but I don’t see that as a problem at all. That’s probably our sound. Its maybe not laidback, it’s definitely quite intense and fast, but it’s less kinetic and less frenetic than the [Cecil Taylor] Feel Trio or the Slippenbach Trio or a lot of Japanese stuff. If you sound like what you’re going for is real intensity but you’re not getting it, then that can be a problem. So what we have to do is find ways to make the more contemplative or ruminative sides to our music an assett. It’s not a question of marketing, it’s a question of finding what works in what we’re doing and refining it”.

Evan Parker’s visit also gave an opportunity to make a conscious attempt to give a local identity to NZ free improvisation. Evan Parker’s concert at the Paramount Theatre as one of the headline acts in the 1999 Wellington Jazz Festival was in two parts, a solo set and a series of duets with Richard Nunns on Taonga Puoro, or traditional Maori instruments. In this case the challenge was to unite Parker’s highly evolved and expansive style with Nunns’ eerily evocative but dynamically and tonally limited woodwinds, gourds, shells, and greenstone percussion. According to Nunns, when Parker began his set a few people walked out early on, but the majority of the audience knew who Parker was and what to expect - so by 1999 a lot of groundwork had been laid for players and public. The concert recording was released as the album Rangirua on the American label Leo, the first significant international release from the scene.

Jeff Henderson: “Evan Parker's music would appear to come from vastly different sources [from Richard Nunns’], however at the heart of all ancient music is one binding element: improvisation. There is no conceivable way to notate Evan Parker's music, and the same goes for Richard Nunns'. Their music is created spontaneously, it involves working with the miniscule nuances at the outer regions of the fundamental sound. Evan Parker taps into ancient traditions -most importantly the ancient tradition of improvising! Circular breathing, trance states, drones, harmonics can all be found in the music of ancient cultures throughout the world (the Australian Aboriginal didgeridoo for example). While Evan Parker makes strikingly modern music, he has deep roots” .

One of the strengths of Wellington improvised music has been the emphasis on playing with people, including overseas visitors. Performances such as the Parker/Nunns concert, the William Parker big band, or the Urban Taniwha 2000 big band which brought together around 15 local instrumentalists along with Richard Nunns and American pianist Marilyn Crispell, function as hallmarks. Successful collaborations with international ‘name’ players indicate that a certain level of quality has been reached. They are a way of getting recognition, a good thing for musicians to put on their CVs, and reflect the development opportunities afforded by frequent live performances at The Space. As Henderson put it, “the music’s got better and better – there’s nowhere else that would let me play solo for two hours and turn off the coffee machine”. Crispell enjoyed her experience enough to return for another tour with a six-piece version of Urban Taniwha in 2002.

Jeff Henderson: “If we’re going to bring people from the States or from Europe all the way out to NZ, we didn’t really want them to just do a gig and then bugger off like it was any old date anywhere in the world. It didn’t seem worth their while or our while. We always wanted to initiate some kind of collaboration that would challenge them or interest them the artist and maybe recognise that there are some important things going on here… Marilyn Crispell loved it. A lot of people from Europe and the States have never been this far over to the South Pacific. She was taking a big chance, trusting that there were some decent musicians over here. I sent her a book called Wahine Toa, which has paintings and writings about women in Maori legend, saying this is some of the stuff that’s inspired the music. She had to trust that because we were asking her to come over we knew her music and that it would work. She was taking a leap into the unknown really.”

The Urban Taniwha project brought a strong Maori influence to big band jazz, suggesting a self-conscious desire to deliberately create a Pacific music. In Wellington, jazz has often been one ingredient in a mix. Jeff Henderson has collaborated with musicians from other traditions including Richard Nunns, Indonesian percussionist Agus Supriawan, and local ‘noise’ artist Campbell Kneale who records as Birchville Cat Motel. The album of the latter collaboration, Swarming Tamagotchi Plague was described (approvingly) by American magazine Bananafish as “no dumb quotes to imply that these guys really know how to play, just sweet fingernail/chalkboard reunion” . Possibly traditional forms of music are concerned with refining and perfecting themselves as traditions (classicism), whereas the fringes encourage individuality and are more open to other influences (ie freer). Free music can be seen as an area where different styles of music overlap and blur into each other.

Jeff Henderson: “The whole thing with Agus was as an improvisor to play with a diverse range of people from different cultures. You want to find ways of playing together. I haven’t studied Gamelan music, so you try and find ways to interact and make some good music coming from where you’re coming from... You have to discard a lot of things that maybe you can rely on with other people. Like playing with Richard, to expect him to play in tonal centres and things like that, it’s not going to happen. Life would be kind of boring if you always played with people you had a similar approach to. I’m into playing with someone like Campbell Kneale and doing lots of noisy stuff or whatever – that’s what I love about being an improvisor. You’re able play with anybody really as long as they’ve got a kind of open aesthetic”.

Chris Palmer: “the greater the population the more you can specialise as a rule – and we can’t really specialise at this point. But it can be itself a kind of uniqueness when you put together musics with different philosophical motivations that would normally never get played together… I think that’s a strength”.

dodgy free diagram.jpg

The diagram suggests some possible links or lines of influence between different areas of music, with ‘free’ in the centre, not so much as another genre of music as an abstract ideal – the point where everything else can meet.

Campbell Kneale: “I guess free music is a very fundamental kind of music making. It’s at the root of just about any kind of music you care to mention, after all how else do people come up with new musical sounds and ideas other than just jammin' around?”

In practice however free music’s unrestricted openness to any sounds the players wish to use means that listeners unaccustomed to free may find it difficult or unpleasant to listen to. There are no keys, chords, melodies or steady beat, or if there are they can be discarded suddenly. Free music is mercurial, constantly in flux. The only rules are to listen and respond to the other players. American guitarist Alan Licht says that ‘songs are bottled water, improv is running water’. The emphasis is on process rather than product. Asked to explain the name Happy for the new venue Jeff Henderson said ‘happiness is a journey not a destination’ - flippant but maybe revealing. The analogy between collective improvisation and conversation or communication in general is sometimes used. Each individual brings their own stylistic contributions, and the whole is hopefully greater than the sum of the parts. People rather than instruments are the main resources, ‘the composition begins when the players are chosen’ as Cecil Taylor put it . The logical conclusion of this would be to see The Space as a single piece of music lasting 3½ years.

Jonny Marks: “Cross-pollination has a lot to do with social rapport – people have to enjoy being together to play together. It should get to the point where playing a musical joke for example comes as naturally as a verbal one. And maybe someone into free jazz is attracted to the same kind of rawness that the rock player who’s into free noise rather than Genesis hears”

The idea of process is important, with a continual evolution in players’ styles. Most of the regular players continually tried new sounds, instruments and approaches in performance. At times the notion of playing, in the sense of childish experimentation was invoked, such as in the Huttstock performances which featured an evening of various ‘noise’ artists making sounds from amplified wine glasses, pitch forks, and homemade electronics; the Fringe Festival 2001 show Meatworks: The Guts & the Glory, a multimedia event exploring the idea of meat in many forms, which featured among other things a puppet made of sausages dancing into a heated frying pan and the sizzling being mixed into the music; and Mod-Con De-Con, a week-long festival of music made with toys and household objects. The latter event was given a strong publicity campaign including a full-page newspaper feature and a spot on the tv news, but attracted a poor turnout, suggesting that even the regular Space crowd were uninterested in going this far from the ‘mainstream’ or considered the idea self-indulgent.

Since free music is usually ignored by the media in New Zealand people are not likely to hear any of it unless they look for it. Saxophonist Bridgett Kelly says “listening a lot leads to a natural development of your listening ability, which in turn leads to the search for more interesting sounds/energy”. This suggests that listening to music is as much of a skill as playing it, and that people who listen to music actively rather than passively are the most likely to enjoy free music.

There can be a progression in tastes towards free – people need a starting point from which to discover it. Tom Callwood for example draws a clear line in his listening development from conventional jazz to John Coltrane to John Zorn to free, while guitarist Craig Taylor simply says ‘I’ve always been interested in dissonance, which led to the avant-garde’. On the other hand Simon Bowden says “it is a common misconception that people start by liking one form of jazz (say bebop) and then ‘progress to improvised music’. We live in a time with no categories - most people think this way now...” It may not be a coincidence that free music evolved in western society’s ‘postmodern’ era, and like all art it offers a reflection of its time and of parallel developments in the other arts.

Campbell Kneale: “I can only speak for myself, but I am attracted to 'noise' (or a sound-world that doesn't necessarily involve rhythm, melody, harmony, notions of 'groove', 'accessibility' etc) in the same way people are attracted to abstraction in the visual arts. It’s non-literal, not self-consciously 'meaningful', its surface texture is its content, and lets not overlook the fact that loud noise is incredibly sensual - a blind-man’s Rothko. Although I suppose you could trace my musical lineage back through outfits like Thela to the Dead C, I certainly don't fit that easily alongside these artists. They were like mutant rock bands really. I'm like a mutant orchestra.”

The expectation that there won’t be a tune or steady beat leads to accusations that free music is in fact a generic form with its own conventions, much like any other kind of music. For this reason I placed ‘free jazz’ and ‘European improv’ as separate categories from ‘free’ in the diagram. A lot of the music at The Space did have a beat, at least some of the time. The word free can be taken in positive and negative senses – does it mean ‘freedom to’ or ‘freedom from’? There are no absolute answers but a range of different approaches which have ensured variety in the music. A flyer for a gig by Simon O’Rorke’s trio The Slab advertised them as “improv in the European style”, indicating that there are subgenres within the area of free improvisation.

Chris Palmer: “I don’t think it’s subject to fashion down here, because we’re so isolated and a lot of people here are very anti-fashion. When we listen to the music we’re listening to stuff from the late 60s adjacent with stuff from the 90s or 80s or whatever. We’re less aware of when stuff was released, we just listen to the music. Whereas reports from overseas, particularly Europe, are of a kind of oscillatory fashion movement. Apparently the full-on free-improv is out of fashion in Europe and they’re into hyper-noise and electronic glitches these days.”

Free improvisation is a method of working in which everyone is equal. When European improv evolved in the 1960s there was talk among bands such as AMM and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble of improvisation being used to overthrow ‘the tyranny of the composer’, and they drew parallels between collective improvisation and socialism . Likewise American free jazz had links to the black civil rights movement. In NZ 30-40 years on these issues have become background, as Palmer implies, which players may or may not take into consideration for their own music. There is also a certain wariness of free improvisation becoming a dogma in itself. In any case the mr sterile assembly (deliberate lower case), perhaps the mostly overtly politicized group in the Wellington scene, tend to work with a rehearsed repertoire of songs. They blend punk with cabaret through the use of costumes and stage moves but improvisation is not a large part of it.

Kieran Monaghan: “As a music player, I often think this is true, ‘free music’ does not necessarily equate to inspired music. I love passionate music but I also love storytelling and collective and considered working. And not only can free be perceived as more fun to play than listen to, it can also develop itself into an insular, elite group which is difficult to access from the outside, and this may not be perceived by the group themselves. Why is it not more popular? What story does it tell? Who is it talking to?”

Improvisation is not always a purist end, and another of the more ‘popular’ artists from The Space and Happy is pianist and singer Leila Adu, whose arrival on the scene Jeff Henderson describes as ‘a shot in the arm, someone bringing a strong personality and her own ideas about composition’. Free music does tend to arouse suspicion from a lot of listeners and it remains a marginalized form of music. The issue is probably largely to do with listeners’ tastes and lack of exposure to or understanding of it, and it is generally clear to experienced listeners that there are good and bad examples of improvisation just like any other kind of music. There are differing opinions on how best to reach an audience.

Simon Bowden: “My personal opinion is that things are changing. Improvised music has only been performed regularly in Wellington over the last four to five years. It was and is still developing. During the stages of development musicians needed to spend a lot of time looking inward (listening to each other and trying things out on the gig) - the result was that they did not always connect with the audience. This is still the case for some musicians that have not developed a mature sense of connecting with the audience or of playing with self confidence. I now think that there are numerous examples of improvised music where musicians connect with the audience - sometimes there is a deliberate device used, such as theatrical elements or multi media. Anthony Donaldson has had a huge influence on the scene with his focus on connecting with the audience. One other point - as there used to be no audience for improvised music, musicians felt "no one cares anyway - I will do what I want", or "I will make weird sounds so that I don't sound mainstream" - with the growing recognition for the music this attitude is now a thing of the past (mostly). So - less and less people will say it is more fun to play than to listen to as they feel included... things are changing and will continue to get better.”

Simon O’Rorke: “improvised music is uncompromising in refusing to be influenced by preconceived notions of what audiences like - but the self-expression aspect of improvised should not be exaggerated. Another avowed aim of improvised music is to fit in with the other musicians. In that sense, the music can be particularly selfless rather than selfish from the perspective of an individual performer. The contradiction between the twin aims of self-expression and co-operation give the genre vitality. And self-expressive music can be more moving to a receptive listener than music where self-expression has been sacrificed to the aim of pleasing the audience.”

Groups who do make improvisation a large part of their method may use it as a specific element of the music, or approach it in a particular way. Many of the groups at The Space were comprised of people from the same pool of local players but in different combinations or using a different ‘concept’ - hence the bewildering array of band-names that one is confronted with when looking through the Space archives.

Campbell Kneale: “Within this very wide area of music, the use of improvisation as a compositional tool varies from person to person. Some improvise exclusively, others compose rigorously. I suppose I do both. I try and get a feel for the performance venue, and the number of people potentially turning up, the size of the PA etc, and try to form a one-off show specific to that kind of space. I assemble a collection of equipment that will produce a certain range of sounds that sit comfortably within that initial vision and improvise within those relatively tight parameters on the night. I compose the equipment, and improvise the music. How successful that improvisation is, that’s a pretty personal judgement call I mean, how do you judge a good rock song? You just know, right? It goes down easy and it moves you somehow.”

Chris O’Connor: “The Rubbernecks came about because Dan [Beban] had been collaborating a lot with Anthony [Donaldson], and Dan had been doing a lot of field recordings from around the country for his studies - urban and rural NZ sounds - and he started incorporating those field recordings into our improvising. I’d gotten into sampling not long before that too, and Anthony has always enjoyed using electronic drums and sampling as part of his setup. So we all had a crossover between acoustic and electronic sound-worlds. In the Rubbernecks we might start with the name of a piece, like ‘Got the Cunt in a Headlock’ or ‘Round the Back Straight’. Anthony’s great for coming up with intriguing little names and sentences for titles, so we’d use those and combine them with particular field recordings and an improvisation would emerge. And quite short pieces too. With the Ecstasy Trio it was more mining a particular region and playing for longer – it’s free improvised within a certain style. Sometimes bits of melodies or beats are planned beforehand, but recently not so much. I’ve stopped using the sampler in the Ecstasy Trio too because I didn’t particularly enjoy that, it was a bit distracting. I need very fast reflexes, and just wanted to concentrate on playing drums”.

Anthony Donaldson: “With this band [the Melancholy Babes] I’ve been working on jazz ideas and different approaches to rhythms. I practice during the week. It’s not discussed much with the other guys, it comes out on stage. I’ve got a bunch of different bands – the Teen Idols, the Rubbernecks, the Labcoats, the Razorblades, Po Face… some are jazz, some are groove-based, some are folk, some more heavy metal, some psychedelic, some use electronics. I’ve done about twenty albums. The Village Idiots [Donaldson’s big band] has everything, it’s for special occasions. We’ve just started a new band called the Flower Orphans which is working out some of the ideas for the Village Idiots show in the Jazz Festival – starting on it ten months in advance.”

Arguably the Space music lapsed into self-parody towards the end - some would say this is a natural progression for any artistic era. The frequency of musical jokes and ironic references increased, and an attempted punk anthem ‘this is not your city, this is our city’ featured in several shows. Later performances featured an increasingly tight-knit ‘core group’ of players, while others such as self-taught saxophonist Rick Jensen drifted away from the Space in favour of pub and gallery gigs. The Space closed not long after the 2003 Fringe Festival, having financially broken even in the long run and with the intention to move the scene on to a bigger and more central venue. The last nights captured the duality of the scene at this time, the penultimate night featuring mostly free improvisations in front of a small audience and the final night showcasing the more ‘groove-based’ acts, with a full house including many new faces. Happy has continued this balancing act between ‘art’ and ‘entertainment’ music.

Rick Jensen: “The Space was a great place to develop my own music with Nova Scotia and the Rick Jensen Ensemble, and to watch and learn from an energetic group of like-minded musicians. [But] when I left Wellington and then New Zealand I lost touch with the whole scene, and on returning it was a very different place where I only played a few more times before it closed.”

The main legacy of The Space is in the number of musicians currently active who benefited from it, the ‘Happy’ players being only a subset. The strength of The Space was in live performances, with recordings less of a priority. A number of albums exist, on Space CDs and other small local labels such as Pseudoarcana, Open Music Envelope, Braille Records, Fiff Dimension, Postmoderncore, and Elephant Records. The problem so far has not been one of music quality or quantity but of distribution, with most of the music yet to reach far afield. Clearly there is a need for an enthusiastic distributor, and for a more effective internet presence. The notable exception is Campbell Kneale’s Celebrate Psi Phenomenon label which has seen Birchville Cat Motel’s extensive discography recognized around the world.

Jeff Henderson: “Over here you have to do everything yourself. There are no record labels, there is nobody presenting this music anywhere else in Wgtn, no festivals that put it on, no presenters or promoters. If you want to do an album, you pay for it yourself, make the artwork yourself, and after you’ve done that you’ve got to try and sell it yourself. That’s not complaining about the situation but that’s just what you have to deal with. And then you read about the tradition of that – Sun Ra and all these guys started their own labels and that kind of thing. But it is a little island, you can’t go elsewhere and play very easily…the live thing’s been more of a priority and we’re just starting to get into releasing stuff. I think you’ve got to be happy with the stuff you’re releasing. I don’t want to release stuff just because it happens – in that sense they just become documents. Until there’s a big interest in NZ improvised music there doesn’t seem to be much point in releasing a lot of stuff that I don’t like.”

Campbell Kneale: “Naturally, the more you document your work, the more opportunity people have of hearing it. Unless you have the money and reputation to escape New Zealand and expose audiences directly to your music, recordings are the way people come in contact with what you are doing. For me 'improvisation' is directly linked with 'documentation'... I deal with fleeting moments in my music and it seems important to me to record as many of these moments as possible, because when they are gone, there is no recreating them. I don't know why New Zealand 'free jazz' does not appear to demonstrate the same ethos. Perhaps they have decided to have a more rigorous control on what is actually heard by the public of their work, releasing less, but ensuring what they perceive to be the highest quality in their recordings. I actually prefer my own documentation to be rather more open, allowing people to see into the entire (or as much as acceptable) process of performing and recording, to truly document what I am producing.”

If the future for Wellington players holds further evolution and hopefully an increasing audience both locally and overseas, The Space may also have set an example for other centres. Venues such as the Arc Café in Dunedin and the Stomach in Palmerston North have a strong community focus with a minimum of commercial pressure. Auckland is more sprawling than Wellington but the larger population supports a number of players who find the pub scenes unsuited to their music, including former Wellington vibraphonist John Bell and regular Space visitors such as Phil Dadson, the Audible Three, and Drew McMillan. A scene is snowballing into existence there, with weekly ‘Vitamin S’ free-improvised music nights at the Odeon Café and the 10 Acre Block Big Band.

Paul Winstanley: “If the Space 'is' the Wellington scene then Auckland's is incomparable. Auckland simply doesn't have a regularly operating venue that caters to and encourages exploratory music. A stronger network of players has been developed around the Vitamin S evenings, which suggests a growing mass and there's certainly organisation and progress afoot but we're still a little way off the pace of the Welly-scene.”

The past few years have seen an enormous growth in creative musical activity in New Zealand and clearly the story will continue from here…

Posted by fiffdimension at March 16, 2004 02:06 PM | TrackBack

Good article. Fantastic that someone's documenting this stuff. A couple of points: Isn't Surface of the Earth from Wellington? And didn't Bruce Russell play at the Space once in 2002? No mention of the astounding show Han Bennink put on at Happy with the cream of Dutch and Wellington free jazzers?

Posted by: matariki at March 19, 2004 03:57 PM

I think this is definitely a great piece of documentation. It's also good to see an evolutionary chart that privileges free music in this way, though some might take exception to so broad a label as "world music" (especially where such sub-strata as "European improv" and "Western classical music" are given their own categories).

As for Hamish's comments, I know that Bruce played at Adam Art Gallery (VUW) with Campbell in 2002, but I don't recall him playing the Space, though certainly a bunch of Hermes Corp artists did play there that year (for example, Tetuzi Akiyama and Greg Malcolm).

Posted by: Ewan at March 21, 2004 11:38 AM

Sorry about that I thought BR did the whole tour with Akiyama. Is this an American book? Maybe we have all got passed cringing at American spellings in NZ books now.

Posted by: matariki at March 22, 2004 08:34 PM

Couple of good suggestions, thanks. This is just the first draft. Other corrections include capitalising CL BOB and apparently Leo is a British label not American.

What American spellings?

Posted by: Dave at March 23, 2004 11:51 AM

emphasized, politicized, marginalized, recognized. There's probably more.

Posted by: hamish at March 23, 2004 08:04 PM

If you want pedantic comments, I can also offer the spelling of "Courtenay Place", "Alexander Schlippenbach", and the reference to italics added in the first Kieran comment when the whole quote is in italics. Minor; didn't want to mire my general praise in such details.

Posted by: Ewan at March 23, 2004 09:25 PM

That's good stuff to point out & also won't take long to correct. Noone's suggested any substantial rewriting yet. Must have had the Word dictionary on American. Quotes were originally indented & in slightly smaller type rather than italics but the formatting wouldn't come across here.

Posted by: Dave at March 23, 2004 09:35 PM

thanks for putting this up Dave, it's an interesting history, and some cool perspectives to hear. are you able to tell us about the book you've written this for?

Posted by: the unknown rockstar at April 18, 2004 12:35 PM

Hi Sam,

The book's a history & analysis of jazz in NZ, so it goes back to the early 20th century. I'm not sure how many chapters, I guess this one will come late in the book since it's about recent music. Jeff can be at pains to distance himself from jazz but that's the focus of the book so I had to try and relate the Space to jazz somehow.

Richard Hardie's editing the book. Victoria University Press should publish it in the second half of this year sometime.

Posted by: Dave at April 21, 2004 08:33 PM

Generally good if not somewhat Welly-centric. If this were a stand-alone article on Free Music and not a chapter about Wellington in a book about jazz then I would have a number of issues with this but will just say:
- where on the chart are the sonic experimenters whose background is in art more than music, be that gallery-based installation or more performance oriented?
- Phil Dadson deserves much more than just a footnote at the end, especially considering his background was in jazz. Also, he played with key Euro figures like Cornelius Cardew and brought a lot of free music ideas back to NZ in the early '70s. Phil's Intermedia Dept at Elam School of Fine Arts has also been a significant breeding ground.
- In Auckland, emerging from more of a post-punk/noise background and developing towards electronica, there is Thela/Dean Roberts/Rosy Parlane, who have brought much international recognition to NZ 'free/noise/eclectronica' and have been closely involved with the improv scene in Europe and US. Also in Auckland: Richard Francis/Eso Steel, Empirical, James Gardner, Paul Buckton, Nigel Gavin, Tom Ludvigson, John Kennedy and many more.
- Running just as long as Bomb The Space is Auckland's Alt.Music festival, which has been a vital conduit for bringing international acts into the country as well as bringing acts from around the country together.

Posted by: Sonny at October 14, 2004 03:37 PM

If you have time could you please email me contact ph no. for happy.. been having difficulty with email
and are Australiiannn.

Posted by: Brendan at January 7, 2005 05:58 PM
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