Unknown Superiors: Erewhon Calling – Experimental Sound in New Zealand

Even to lifelong natives of one race or another, New Zealand is often summed up in one word: boring. The long white cloud of our original name seems in the 21st century to consist of ennui, repression, angst and mundane order coupled with rigid expectations and an ingrained fear of singularity.

Aside from technological advances, some loosening of morals and the allowance of more wiggle room in sexual politics, there is little difference between modern New Zealand and the country Bill Pearson was writing about sixty years ago when he argued that being different = trying to be superior.

So may the heavens smile upon the random eccentrics who buck the trend and spend their time fashioning flame-powered pipe organs, or learning how to press records with Frankenstein-ed washing machine parts, or utilising the power of the sun to make a robot play guitar. In Erewhon Calling – Experimental Sound in New Zealand, Bruce Russell has compiled a vibrant celebration of the “antipodean misfits and malcontents” who devote their hands, hearts and ears to staying as far away from the oeuvre of The Exponents as is humanly conceivable.

In an expected esoteric fashion, this collection derives its title from Samuel Butler’s satirical novel Erewhon, in which the eponymous fantasy land is, as Russell retells it, “defended…by stone sound sculptures which make such ‘hideous noises’ that…’however brave a man might be, he could never stand such a concert.’ ” An almost-reversal of “nowhere,” Butler’s novel allegedly satirises blandly-Victorian principles (I barely made it fifty pages in so I’m inclined to take the internet’s word for it), and by merging Butler’s title with that of The Clash’s classic album London Calling, Russell nails the spirit of these brilliant weirdoes.

Although perhaps brilliance is too light a term for these unknown superiors, such as Alastair Galbraith and his eight note fire organ that harnesses the power of bunsen burners to produce distinct notes. Also to be found within these pages is the ingenuity of Geraldine’s Peter King and his lathe cut approach to record pressing, for which he uses a home-made machine cobbled together from washing machine parts in a process so unique, it has attracted the attention of such far-flung artists as Beastie Boys and Pavement.

Even Christchurch City Libraries’ own Adam Willetts earns a spot for his experiments with solar-powered robots (or ‘solarbots’), which were given the ability to make music on an electric guitar in order to transform the live performer into the furniture itself.

So for those of you feel like celebrating New Zealand Music Month by leaning on the more intriguing side of things, Erewhon Calling should provide you with a great starting point (I’d also recommend Russell’s Left-handed Blows – Writing on Sound 1993-2009), plus be sure to join us at New Brighton Library on Saturday 25 May as Adam performs with his home-made modular synthesisers and takes us on a musical journey which promises to be anything but boring.