VOLUME, MAKING MUSIC IN AOTEAROA at the Auckland War Memorial Museum

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VOLUME, MAKING MUSIC IN AOTEAROA at the Auckland War Memorial Museum

This is the article I wrote for Metro magazine about the Volume exhibition which is currently running at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

People say it a lot: As you get older you can't remember last week, but your childhood comes rolling in with great clarity. As someone in peril of being described as “elderly” by a fresh young journalist, I can tell you in my case this isn't true.

I have decent recall of a week ago but my distant past remains out of focus, fuzzy and sometimes the screen is blank.

Oddly enough, the soundtrack resonates through clearly.

I know exactly when I first heard Auckland's all-girl band Fair Sect Plus One (the “one” being the male drummer) coming out of my Sanyo transistor. Their version of I Love How You Love Me was arresting.

It was probably the bagpipes. Not a lot of pop songs in the 60s — or indeed any era before or since — deployed bagpipes.

I remember the Keil Isles, the Chicks open for Australian pop star Normie Rowe at the Crystal Palace, Ray Columbus and the Invaders on tour with the Stones, Mr. Lee Grant on television . . .

My first New Zealand music experience was my older sister's Johnny Devlin EP Hit Tunes from the late 50s. The song which grabbed me was Matador Baby, one he'd written about the fashion of high-waisted matador pants for women.

Even today the record's cover – Johnny holding a Coke bottle, the sponsor's product — brings back memories: The family radiogram, the print of the raging sea above the fireplace . . .

I suspect many people are like me: A few bars of a song almost forgotten or a battered record in a secondhand store can be a Proustian prompt to memory.

Music is like that, it sneaks into the subconscious or — because a song was something we fell in, or out, of love to — we impose personal meaning on it. Songs are the soundtrack of our autobiographies and musicians often articulate intimate, social, political or cultural concerns in a way others can't.

Which is why I'd guess when people visit the exhibition of New Zealand popular music at the Auckland War Memorial Museum many faded memories will come back into focus.

The exhibition Volume: Making Music in Aotearoa will doubtless occasion many “Oh, I had one of those” moments — especially in the reconstruction of an 80s record store with almost 200 album covers complete with band credits and recording details. But there are objects about which no one could make that claim.

Gold discs, artists' private notebooks and hand-written lyrics, stage attire (including some of Noel Crombie's handmade Split Enz costumes), musicians' memorabilia, rare instruments and art work (among them Chris Knox's massive dot-painting cover for his Croaker album), archival video clips . . .

Lorde has been very generous and, yes, there are 10 guitars. But not just any 10.

Through over 200 objects from more than 60 lenders and over 450 images and photos, Volume embraces New Zealand popular music from Johnny Cooper's enjoyably inept version of Rock Around the Clock in 1955 (this country's first rock'n'roll recording) to beautifully shot films of newer artists such as Louis Baker, Georgia Campbell and Raiza Biza performing in museum locations.

The exhibition presents what might be the shock of the new alongside the frisson of the familiar.

And because Volume – a neatly ambiguous title — covers such a long timeline, in reverse chronology from the present back to our rock'n'roll rebels of the 50s, it has been years in the making.

For Mark Roach of Recorded Music NZ – an umbrella organisation which, among other things, collates the weekly sales charts, organises the annual music awards and launched the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame award in 2007 – the path to Volume began in November 2012 when he started researching and conceptualising the idea for a physical Hall of Fame. Because no actual “hall” currently exists.

A year later Roach – who heads Marketing and Special Projects for Recorded Music and is a spokesperson on behalf NZ Music Hall of Fame Trust – pitched the idea of an exhibition of New Zealand popular music to the museum.

“In that interim period it became apparent that to do a music museum you needed to start smaller and test the waters, so an exhibition was an obvious choice. Basically I just cold-called the museum in September 2013, met with them in November and they agreed to it in principle almost straight away.”

There followed a year of administrative matters, getting sign-off from the museum's board, establishing a timeline, considering advisors . . .

Esther Tobin, the museum's Content and Interpretation Developer, was aware “it was going to be huge and the scope would be incredibly wide. It was suitably overwhelming, but I knew how big the story needed to be”.

And it was also a journey of discovery for her and others involved: “There were pockets of things that, through your age and when you grew up, I felt comfortable with . . . like the hip-hop story which felt very familiar. But then there were other areas which were completely new.”

She admits to now being a massive Sharon O'Neill fan whose music she discovered during the project. And those young artists in the films produced by the museum's Digital Marketing Manager Alex Rudzinski and shot by Max Mamaev from Get Communications.

At the invitation of the museum and Roach, I came on board in early 2015 as their Content Advisor.

In May last year what that content might be was thrashed out in a brainstorming session by a dozen or so people intimately connected with New Zealand music. Right from the start it was important Volume not just be objects in cases but have components which offered hands-on engagements and allowed visitors to get some sense of what it was like to be “there”.

Wherever that “there” was.

So yes, there are display cases of memorabilia, video montages encapsulating decades compiled by Paul Casserly and his team, and plenty of memory-jolting eye candy. But visitors can also get behind the mixing desk of mocked-up recording studio, play the DJ, learn an iconic Kiwi song in a 1970s pub venue, or dance on a replica set of the 60s C’mon television show.

And with so few actual record shops around these days, browsing in the store might elicit that Proustian response: “Oh, I had one of those”.

In the countdown to opening night, Tobin says if she had to choose one area to take guests to get the feel of the show it would be the pub.

“Obviously there are the four major interactive elements but for me the most important is in the 1970s and the live band set-up. Because visitors have a chance to get their hands on a bass guitar, electric guitar, drums or synth — sometimes for the first time.

“It's not an easy choice for the museum to set up a live band situation but it's where people can have a go.”

And her selfie spot?

“The C'mon studio because it has a projection of actual dancers in full colour, bright orange, bobbing away. That's a striking part of the show.”

Volume also has an agenda beyond the pleasure principle. It is designed to acknowledge and honour the breadth and depth of New Zealand music, especially inductees into the New Zealand Hall of Fame and those whose songs and stories have spoken to and from us in Aotearoa New Zealand.

That is a huge constituency over 60 years and although we adopted a policy of inclusion — the second of my guiding documents was a whopping 30,000 words detailing artists, the social and political context of the decades, timelines and themes – Volume is also constrained by the exhibition space, albeit cleverly designed by Lesley Fowler with visual allusions to records, CDs and speakers.

The potential volume of Volume meant considerable distilling and culling. Much as I might have liked, perversely, to include Southland's Pretty Wicked Head and the Desperate Men – or even my own sons' bands — that was never going to happen.

Our popular music is a tall tree so inevitably we looked to the top and worked as far down as possible, reaching into branches and roots where we could. In some instances artists have been singled out for attention, in other places broad genres and themes are explored.

And what the museum' key players who guided me – Project Manager Tanya Wilkinson, Senior Exhibition Developer Victoria Travers and Tobin – found when approaching people for material assistance was how enthusiastic they were.

“The willingness of people in the industry to share their objects and images with such grace and wholeheartedness was amazing,” says Tobin.

Some musicians were surprised and flattered to be included, she says, for others it acknowledged they are still out there working, some saw it as exposure and for a few there was “a deep seated frustration with how they hadn't been accepted over the years, this was a chance to get it right”.

For the museum Volume brought unique challenges: There have been CD compilations to oversee; outreach programmes developed; images appropriately framed and described; copyright issues negotiated with artists, managers and record companies; material to be documented and catalogued . . .

When the exhibition opens it will be the end of a long road for dozens of people — advisory groups, music industry professionals, musicians, museum staff and many others — whose enthusiasm has propelled it for the past 18 months.

However the long game, after Volume closes, is a permanent exhibition space worthy of these creative artists, just as we have galleries for our visual and plastic arts. Volume isn't an end, but rather a possible beginning.

Roach – who, like me, has been through many international museums of music — says he's already thinking “how to maximise the momentum Volume will bring, so there isn't a lag between this finishing but the impetus and goodwill generated will allow us to move ahead”.

Roach envisions an inclusive museum charting the history of popular music including space for a dedicated Hall of Fame, with something akin to Volume as its bedrock.

“It could be a whole new institution where you could run an exhibition about purely Maori Showbands for instance, and have space dedicated to a specific story in more depth than we currently have in this exhibition.”

Such an institution could also bring in touring exhibitions like the recent Bowie Is which made it to Melbourne but not here.

The biggest challenge in Auckland of course is real estate, he laughs.

“It's an idea people have talked about for a long time, but of all the projects I've been involved in it's been relatively easy to get across the line, because everyone understands it.

“No one has said, 'That's a really dozy idea' and when I talk big picture stuff I envision it with a recording studio, rehearsal space, a business incubator, a performance space . . . a general HQ of New Zealand music.”

That's a lofty but not unrealistic vision, and one worthy of the hundreds of artists whose work has helped define us as a people, given us pleasure and memories, and created a nation with a unique musical identity and history.

Like a song released into the world, Volume is the culmination of ideas and effort . . . but the audience will make of it what it will.

For many — young and “elderly” alike — maybe the soundtrack of their lives will resonate with great clarity.

Volume: Making Music in Aotearoa is at the Auckland War Memorial Museum until May 2017. It is free.


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