by David A. Edwards

from The Wire, July 2002

Commentators have often perceived the isolation of New Zealand as one of its strengths for local musicians – local artforms appear, and occasionally flourish, independently of overseas fashion trends and the multinational music conglomerates.  The flipside however, is that the primary difficulty for New Zealand artists becomes that of finding an audience.  While there are and always have been individuals doing their own thing, it is only when enough groups emerge to form a movement that enough critical mass is achieved for it to become known.  Hence such loose and misleading international shorthands as “The Dunedin Sound”. 

In Wellington NZ, another distinctive movement has been coalescing together over the past five years or so.  A number of musicians from jazz, free improvisation, modern composition, noise, punk, and theatre backgrounds have been busily cross-pollinating.   The result is what might be called “The Space Sound”, after the independent artist-run venue which has been running for just over two and a half years now, and offers a haven for players and fans of anything “different”. 

Jeff Henderson, the manager/curator of The Space, and a saxophonist/pianist/composer of growing stature began his career in the early 90s studying jazz.  As a non-native artform, the main function of jazz in NZ seems to be as a kind of glorified dinner music.  Henderson’s tastes ran more towards Ayler, Coleman, and Braxton.  His major local precedent and influence were the leftover musicians from early 80s jazz modernists the Six Volts and the Primitive Art Group, who played in various permutations maybe once a month.

Henderson formed and toured with the group Syzygy, whose 1997 album Tongue Grooves was compared generally favourably by critics to Zappa and Zorn.  After a year or two of putting on free improvisation gigs with various lineups in bars and art galleries, and inspired by New York loft venues, The Space opened in September 1999 as a combination performance venue, art gallery, and health massage business.  It has since diversified further into a bookshop, coffee bar and website.

The opening of The Space coincided with the Wellington Jazz Festival.  Evan Parker, one of the international headliners, came by and spent an evening jamming with local players in front of a packed house.  He also performed his concert with Richard Nunns, musicologist, player of traditional NZ Maori instruments, and longtime Parker fan.  The concert recording has since been released as Rangirua, on Leo.  The theory according to Henderson was “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”.  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 jade percussion.

The same philosophy was partly behind bringing American pianist Marilyn Crispell to be part of Henderson’s Urban Taniwha 2000 big band, along with Nunns and around 15 other local instrumentalists.  The Taniwha is a Maori mythical beast, and Maori mythology and atmospheres were the canvas for a driving big band concert.  The group tour of the North Island was an artistic and popular success, for which Crispell is scheduled to return this year.

International collaborations such as these serve to illustrate the quality of talent here but may also be necessary in helping the music, which has remained largely invisible overseas, find its niche among the international music scene.  London recordings of Henderson and bassist Tom Callwood with English drummer Mark Sanders are due out later this year, with Marilyn Crispell, Richard Nunns, and William Parker collaborations to follow, while The Space’s own label Space CDs is putting out CDR releases.  “The fact that we’re so far away and not performing regularly in Europe is a bit of a hurdle [to international releases], and the time and energy and the financial hurdle – the musicians are still paying for everything.  There is no industry here for modern music”.

The recordings are only coming out now after a period of frequent live performance at The Space, which is sustained by the presence of a big enough of pool of players in Wellington.  Henderson says that one of the best things about The Space has been watching the standard (and number) of performers steadily increase, “The music’s definitely got better and better.  We’re not unique in the world but we certainly are here – there’s nowhere [else] that would let me play solo for two hours and turn off the coffee machine”.  The infrequent releases to date are partly from a conscious decision to wait until the music reached a high enough standard and found its own voice, and a prioritisation of live performance.

If there is a common theme running through the Space releases, it would seem to be the crossing of stylistic and cultural boundaries through improvisation.  Releases to date have included collaborations with Dutch electronics duo Sync, Indonesian percussionist Agus Supriawan, and with local Campbell Kneale, whose Birchville Cat Motel noise project attempts to create “a new soul music… representative of the inherent spirituality of suburbia” through the use of household objects and found sound sources.  This is not any kind of postmodern eclecticism but rather a part of the improvisation ethic, and a reflection of what happens here.  Guitarist Chris Palmer explains that “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 by people who are more ideologically motivated – I think that’s a strength”. 

The Space itself is a part of this process, as musicians who a few years ago could only perform irregularly in public, and sometimes struggled to find others to jam with, now have a base which contrasts from the beer-before-band priorities of most venues in town.  There has been a gradual snowballing effect as the scene has come together.  “It doesn’t mean that there’s a huge audience for improvised music five or six nights a week in a small town” says Henderson, “but definitely it’s got a presence that it never had, and that’s hopefully going to continue to grow”.

Check out The Space website