Dunedin Soundings: Place and Performance, edited by Dan Bendrups and Graeme Downes, Otago University Press, 2011, 176 pp., $40.00.
‘The Dunedin Sound, mmmm, me and my big mouth!’ — David Kilgour (The Clean) 2005.
The cultish mythology of the so-called ‘Dunedin Sound’ has endured for over 30 years, but what is it? And did it ever really exist? Some of the best groups from the Flying Nun era such as The Terminals were actually from Christchurch.
It probably materialised with the Flying Nun curated 1982 Dunedin Double — two 12” 45rpm records where four Dunedin groups had a side each. Featured bands the Chills, the Stones, Sneaky Feelings and the Verlaines had different line-ups, and each group possessed a singular style: The Chills evincing a lush, kaleidoscopic psychedelia, the Stones insouciant with their bratty pop, while Sneaky Feelings owed less to in-vogue-at-the-time UK post-punk and Velvet Underground musical influences than they did to ’60s American West Coast groups. As for the Verlaines — well, under the leadership of Graeme Downes (now Senior Lecturer in the University of Otago Department of Music, supervising the ‘rock degree’), they favoured a fiercely calculated type of literate baroque pop. The reverb-drenched, ringing guitars, or as Downes puts it in his bone-dry way ‘trebly, highly reverberant guitars and partial barre chords with jangling or open strings,’ is what supposedly lumped all these groups together.
With Queensland-based ethnomusicologist and trombone player Dan Bendrups, Downes has co-edited Dunedin Soundings: Place and Performance. Like The Verlaines’ carefully measured type of rock, the book is mostly dry in tone. Musicians, composers, scholars and practitioners (who are all somehow connected to the University of Otago) discuss music-making practices in a post-‘Dunedin Sound’ context, and how composition and performance inform the process of research.
There’s no denying that the musical heritage of the city is rich. As Bendrups points out in his introduction, Dunedin is a unique place in that it is one of only a handful of cities in the world to be identified as having its own particular ‘sound’: ‘like the Mersey Sound of Liverpool, the Nashville Sound of the American music industry, Detroit’s Motown, or the Seattle Sound of 1990s grunge.’
Set out like 12 lectures in chapter form (maddeningly, there is no index), and broken down into three parts: Performance as Research; Music, Communication and Community; and Music History and Music Identity, the book does surprisingly manage to encompass a wide range of musical genres. Shelley D. Brunt and Henry Johnson discuss the ‘bright percussive sounds’ of the Central Javanese Gamelan: the metallophone gong and chime ensembles from Indonesia. John Egenes explores remix culture and the new folk process, particularly in terms of the digital age. A spirited John Drummond sets out to explain how ‘research scientists’ can also be ‘creative artists’. Elsewhere, Suzanne Little notes a shift in the nature of research in the performing, creative and fine arts — that practice and performance are ‘representations of and vehicles for research’. Peter Adams recounts his time as conductor of the St Kilda brass band; Bendrups and Robert G. H. Burns analyse processes of composition and performance using jazz-fusion group Subject2Change (of which Bendrups is a member) as a case study. All of these chapters give a personalised insight.
But if there is anything duller than listening to the Verlaines, it has to be reading about how their songs are crafted. In Downes’ laborious chapter, it is good that he acknowledges how problematic the concept of the ‘Dunedin Sound’ is. However his piece mainly focuses on outlining the songwriting process of two songs from the Verlaines’ 2009 album Corporate Moronic. It’s all very technically precise and adept, but it only leaves me thinking that he could write truly amazing music if he turned down the volume of his brain and relied more on his gut and heart instead. His ability to do this was hinted at with the bombastic but rather glorious ‘Slow Sad Love Song’ from 1987’s Bird Dog.
In his chapter, Downes bizarrely says that ‘Afro-American influences, such as blues, soul or funk were largely avoided.’ What about the Sneaky Feelings pop-soul undertones (is Downes trying to write Sneaky Feelings out of the Flying Nun history, as so many commentators seem to do?), or The Puddle (more fans of Orange Juice than the Fall), Netherworld Dancing Toys (who were on the fringes of that scene) or even Shayne P. Carter? His tune ‘Needles and Plastic’ with the Doublehappys sounds a bit bluesy to me, albeit in a mangled way.
In his chapter ‘Reflections from a reformed exile’, Trevor Coleman states that funk was a style of music that was popular in the late ’70s. He also describes how he left Dunedin to study jazz at the Berklee College of Music in Boston because he felt it had ‘hundredfold’ all the things Dunedin was lacking: intensity, drive, methodology, ‘the cutting edge of our times’. Though when Coleman had gathered all the knowledge he required, he returned to Dunedin for the unique sense of space it allows to digest and tinker with this knowledge.
Founder of Dunedinmusic.com Scott Muir’s ‘Music, community, and the creation of Dunedinmusic.com’ fizzes with enthusiasm and affection for Dunedin music and the community that nourishes it. With a ‘warped mother-hen pride’ he ends the book on a soaring note, saying that Dunedin is a terrific place to seriously make music and that ‘You can do it here.’
Just as I am deeply sceptical of the concept of a ‘rock degree’, I also find it unnecessary to shine a bright and forensic light on songwriting and performance processes. To do so reduces music to a clinical methodology and rinses out the fun and emotional engagement in music, something that is not explored properly or often enough in music writing in this country. However, the variety of voices here is very welcome, as are the singular personal insights into personal experiences each writer offers.
KIRAN DASS is an Auckland-based writer and reviewer who has written about music, film and books for the NZ Listener, NZ Herald, Sunday Star-Times, Metro, Real Groove, Rip it Up, NZ Musician, Dominion Post, No, Pavement and Staple.