Saturday, 4 July 2009

Preaching to the Converted

Earth Whisperers/Papatuanuku is a documentary film featuring interviews with ten people who have some connection to the earth and then environment. They range from Māori wanting to set up a commune, ‘wise women’ who make nettle soup and potions and poultices out of herbs and grasses, a bird caller seeking to repopulate the forests with feathered wildlife, to GM crusaders creating seed depositories.

By far and away the best interviewee was Craig Potton. He spoke of his environmental activism to protect forests and other iconic landscapes. His intelligence, patience and commitment were striking.

I was also impressed by Jim O’ Gorman, the organic farmer who talked about tilling and turning the soil until even stuff that had previously been considered practically toxic, could repair itself and produce a fertile base in which to grown fruit and vegetables.

Kay Baxter, a seed saver, might have been inspirational as she fought to know the origins of her food and protect the seeds from artificial hormones. But, at the end when someone asked what the seed hikoi had achieved, as a group of people marched on Parliament, the very bleak and simple answer was returned, ‘nothing’. And there-in lies the problem.

The tag-line to this film is, ‘This is a unique, number-eight wire Kiwi-style approach to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.’ That is just typical Kiwi hyperbole. This film will not rival An Inconvenient Truth because it is already preaching to the converted. There are no urbanites or people who might people who might represent role models to anyone not interested in growing a bushy beard and knitting their own jumpers.

I may well be accused of being shallow but I began to long for an interviewee in a suit; someone who looked like they might actually have a real job and live in a real house in the real world, a little bit more like the majority of us.

It’s all very well for Hugh Wilson, tree farmer, to say we should all abandon our cars and cycle for 5½ hours from Banks Peninsula into Christchurch, but it’s simply not practical and so it began to lose me. If people are meant to be moved enough by this to change their lifestyle, then shouldn’t it be just a little bit more appealing?

Many people who might have been targeted were put off by the excessive spiritualism – I know because they told me. It was book-ended by a Tuhoe healer and a Waitaha kuia. The latter is apparently a tribal woman elder with a ‘vision of healing through community within the ways of Waitaha’, whatever that means – there was a lot of mystic expansion and not a lot of material explanation. As for the healer, I am unlikely to take health advice from someone who is clearly so overweight and unfit that they can’t even open a gate without gasping for breath.

I wasn’t even really taken with the much vaunted photography. The shots of the landscape were nice but the subjects were often out of focus. Perhaps this was deliberate – the main attention should be fixed on the land – but it made it hard to watch. And I would question the soundscape too; running water and birdsong is the sonic backdrop to the bush, not irritating music that makes you feel as though you are trapped in a lift in one of those tacky tourist souvenir shops.

The passion of the director is to be commended. This film project is wholesome and it’s worthy. But it’s not for me. I would rather watch a documentary about the incredible and inspiring Craig Potton. If Kathleen Gallagher makes one of those, I will definitely be watching.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Creative craftsman

Chris Cree Brown has forgotten I am coming to interview him. He emerges from the side of his house, wiping his hands on his cords. He has been building a chicken coop, but he is quick to stop and invite me in. His wife makes us a pot of coffee and home-made biscuits miraculously appear on a plate. This is Canterbury hospitality after all.

Soon we are sitting in Chris’ studio as he plays fragments of his electro-acoustic music through the massive speakers attached to his computer. He talks me through Icescape and Under Erebus, fascinating compositions that emerged from a two-week stint in Antarctica as a result of the Artists in Antarctica programme in 1999.

Despite the bright sunshine and the tui in the trees outside, the drums, cymbals and bells transport me to the coldest continent. Chris has mixed ‘real’ sounds of footsteps crunching through the snow and the raucous aggression of skuas with the almost unbearable pitch of strings conjuring daggers of ice plunging into the frigid sea.

He takes pity on me desperately clutching my coffee cup for warmth and we turn our attention instead to Pilgrimage to Gallipoli. He worked on this during a sabbatical in 2008, but the original sounds were collected on his trips to Turkey in 1994 and 2001. It is a highly-charged piece in which the sound of a camera shutter clicks between interviews, battle sounds and speeches from a tour guide showing them around the former battlefields.

Flies buzz, soldiers cough, shots fire and Abide with Me blends seamlessly into a muezzin’s prayer. It’s all incredibly evocative and was premiered a month before our interview at a cinema in Christchurch. Chris explains that he thinks of himself as a New Zealand composer and as such, he makes work about New Zealand themes. “I guess it’s an interest of mine to find out who I am and where I belong and that is in New Zealand so that’s where I work.”

Chris lectures in music and composition at the University of Canterbury School of Music, and he was able to work on this piece due to a research grant. Having spent his formative years living on porridge, he is extremely grateful to be the recipient of a steady income and these grants, but he is slightly wary of the way they are awarded. You get ‘brownie points’ if your work is played overseas, but as a distinctive Kiwi composer, Chris isn’t sure how much foreign interest his compositions will garner.

As we ascend to the kitchen and a blazing log-burner, Chris explains his theory on composition. “Composing is about finding out more and developing; getting an idiosyncratic voice. You create a personality in sound, but it needs developing.” His eyes light up as he explains his latest project – a piece for clarinet and tape.

“I’m getting the clarinettist to take the bell off the instrument which slightly alters the pitches, so it’s not a true scale. And then in another part she’s taking the clarinet apart and putting it together again without one piece so there is a whole series of different notes. The challenge is to try and get to know those notes and try and find out what works and what doesn’t, but that’s very interesting – that’s developing and learning.”

Electro-acoustic music has come a long way since Chris started out 30 years ago. Back then he says there were probably fewer than 20 people doing it. “I started out with tape recorders before there were computers, and you had to use a razor blade to cut these things and press them together, so technology has altered particularly electro-acoustic or sonic art immensely.”

I am a bit baffled by the whole concept, but he patiently explains it to me in simpleton’s terms. “Electro-acoustic music means you use any sound source at all – usually one from the real world rather than an electronic synthesised one – and you use the computer to manipulate that, so you can get down to a pure level of sound – a bit like a biologist getting down to the cellular DNA in a molecule and seeing why someone might have red hair rather than brown.”

Just as I think I’m beginning to understand how all this works, Chris introduces another string to his bow, if you’ll pardon the naff musical metaphor. He also likes to design and construct sonic sculptures, such as sea tubas, which produce sounds in reaction to the waves. His brother, a civil engineer, helps him with the drawings, and then he likes to build the prototypes.

There is interest from the Dunedin City Council in his sea tubas, but they have not been built as yet. He worries that part of the problem might be the current economic downturn. “Even if they had the money to build it, or to raise the money for it, they might not like to be seen at a time where people are losing their jobs, to be building expensive artworks.”

Chris is most proud of his Aeolian harp (which makes music when the wind passes over the strings). He drew the line at the plastering, but he enjoyed learning to weld and is happy to do these things himself. “I like to think that I’m hands-on. If I’m going to do something I’ll do it if I can. Not only do you save money, but by doing it you get better insights into what you’re trying to do, and you’re more likely to come up with something that will work.”

I ask him if he likes the contrast of the very practical side with the more creative aspects of his job and he smiles ruefully, “I think I would have to say yes. I mean if you asked me halfway through building a chicken coop, using wood that had built a cubby house that was hardly ever used and trying to get nails out, you might not get a positive answer”.

He is practically bounding with eagerness to show me the prototype of the harp so we head out to the paddock where it sits curved and beautiful and, unfortunately, silent. There is no wind today. Perhaps Wellington City Council should install one.
In 2002 one was displayed in the Christchurch Botanical Gardens as part of the Urban Arts Biennial. “I was scared it might not work. But when I put it in there and heard the sounds they were just beautiful. I knew that the whole thing, sonically at least, was going to be a wonderful success, and I was just over the moon.”

On his
website, Chris explains the physics that make this instrument sing, which is probably just as well. In the Middle Ages several people were burnt at the stake for witchcraft as a result of making these magical instruments that played by themselves. I think we’re all grateful that those times are behind us – none more so that Chris Cree Brown.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Shakespeare's Greatest Hits

All the World's a Stage
Circa Two, 29 May - 27 June

Ray Henwood’s presentation of Shakespeare’s greatest hits is a comfort for a cold evening. That there is nothing out of the ordinary is not a criticism – rather it is because, as he explains in one of his many addresses to the audience, that the bard’s conceptions have passed into common parlance.

Dressed in a morning suit against a simple curtain for a backdrop, Henwood illuminates the stage with a range of speeches, soliloquies and sonnets inspired by Sir John Gielgud’s Ages of Man. He begins with the prologue from Henry V in which the chorus begs to ‘on your imaginary forces work’. For the next 90 minutes, Henwood takes us on a veritable round-the-bard-trip as promised.

He recites some beautiful poetry with evident passion in a voice you could listen to all day. Explaining that even the non-beautiful creations get the poetry, he portrays characters as diverse as Caliban (The Tempest), Angelo (Measure for Measure), and Lorenzo (The Merchant of Venice). The Queen Mab speech from Romeo and Juliet is spirited and full of fun.

Each section is introduced with a few words or a brief discourse. In a segment on the nature of sleep, Henwood ranges from Macbeth’s – ‘that knits up the ravel’d sleeve of care’ – to Prospero’s – ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.’ The simple but effective lighting (Jennifer Lal) generally remains true to the ethics of the limited technical intervention, as actor and director (Peter Hambleton) alike choose to paint pictures with words.

As you would expect, Henwood is particularly captivating as Lear and Henry V. He includes lots of Henry V including the infamous ‘Once more into the breach’ speech and the ‘little touch of Harry in the night’. The best of these snippets is when he plays both Falstaff and Prince Hal imitating Henry IV (Henry IV: Part One).

Attempting to persuade us that there are as many strong female as male characters (which is patently untrue) Henwood gives us Lady Macbeth on receipt of the letter from her husband narrating what greatness he has been promised. He is not entirely convincing in this role, not just for the obvious reasons, nor does he seduce us as Iago (just as an aside – Peter Hambleton’s Iago is actually the best I’ve seen in New Zealand), although he draws attention to his complexity.

Shakespeare was a master at creating complexity of character – ‘what a piece of work is a man’. This always reminds me of the Blackadder episode in the second series in which Edmund has his Aunt and Uncle Whiteadder over for dinner, at the same time as hosting a drinking party. When his aunt takes him to task after someone stumbles in wearing comedy breasts, ‘Edmund! Explain yourself!’ he replies, ‘I can’t. Not just like that. I’m a complicated person, you see, Auntie.’

Shakespeare’s characters are not representative of a certain singular trait and Ray Henwood is excellent at embodying diversity. Nowhere is this more pertinent than in his Shylock, who is more than ‘just a Jew’. He gives an interesting insight into the character – there are other Jews and other money-lenders who weren’t hated as Shylock was. It was more his disposition than his religion that was despised, yet, with our (entirely understandable) fear of Nazism, we worry that this loathing is anti-Semitism.

No one else in the Shakespeare canon is a stereotype, so why do we assume he is? As Henwood points out in one of the more intriguing passages of the evening, surely this says more about the audience, with our modern sensibilities, than it does about the bard.

Other interludes are the sonnets which provide a quality counterpoint to the plays, and the morsels from other works. Having directed the opening scene of Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters, myself, I found this as recognisable as Shakespeare’s works. Less familiar, although equally enjoyable, to me was the short excerpt from Rinse the Blood off My Toga.

Mainly All the World’s a Stage was like ‘An Evening with William’, channelled towards the fans with little from the more obscure works or the comedies. Like a concert where you only really want to hear the hits and not the worthy stuff from the experimental album, this was clearly a success with the mainly elderly audience. Having said that, this would work really well in schools as an introduction to Big Bill.