Dudley Benson: Zealandia (Golden Retriever)

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Cook Beleaguered
Dudley Benson: Zealandia (Golden Retriever)

It has been more than a dozen years since Dudley Benson announced himself with alarmingly good but small scale solo concerts, one of which I caught at the time where he opened for the American artist Casiotone for the Painfully Alone.

At the time it seemed an appropriate pairing – both used loops and sang strangle little songs full of emotional weight – but very quickly Benson, trained as a chorister, embarked on a much more ambitious direction.

His performances and albums became increasingly complex musically and emotionally, and as he dug deeper into a specific art music of Aotearoa it was hardly a surprise that he would be awarded commissions and won an Arts Foundation of New Zealand New Generation Award in 2014.

Elsewhere has long championed Benson's unique music and each of his recordings (just a few albums, a remix album and some EPs, all beautifully presented) has a persona of its own, yet all coalesce to form a consistent artistic vision.

He surrounds himself with visual artists (discussions with Jacqueline Fahey about her friendship with Rita Angus prompted We Could've Been Gods here) and those who share his vision (be they classical players, the composer Andrew Baldwin on Zealandia or in the past those like Richard Nunns playing taonga puoro, but here Rob Thorne).

And this new album brings together beats, orchestration from the Dunedin Symphony, numerous classical singers (the New Zealand Youth Choir), percussion player Alistair Fraser using stone and wood, slide guitar, bagpipes, beatbox, Japanese koto . . .

It is a big project but in its subtlety and often understatement it feels more intimate than overwhelming, which is remarkable given its scope: It is nothing less than an idiosyncratic and personal survey of Aotearoa, its history, myths and creation stories, the speculation of what we might have become and . . .

Much more.

Consider just some titles: Papa, Birth of a Nation, Cook Beleaguered, Matariki, Rutu . . .

It is a spititual-cum-secular song cycle from Hawaiki through colonisation with reflections on the beauty of the landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand and . . .

Much more.

The nine minute title track is a love letter to this country which is not just elegant and moving but the perfect, gently anthemic and romantic ending to a collection of songs which provoke and seduce in ways which are rare.

And amidst all this -- with influences which range from Romantic European classical music to thumping references to haka -- there is a pop music sensibility, as on the delightful Solo under-pinned by electro-beats which addresses, albeit sometimes obliquely, cultural domination.

As did Don McGlashan with Miracle Sun in 2006, Benson finds in the story of Opo “the friendly dolphin” in the Hokianga Harbour in the mid-Fifties a metaphor for the loss of innocence.

There are personal statements here (It's Otepoti's Fault) but the overall account is a kind of non-biased mythopoetic and personal conceptualism about this land and its people, its histories, fauna and flora, and a sense often of what might have been: We Could've Been Gods, “but we fucked it up”.

Writing about the piece Birth of a Nation, Benson has argued for a broader process of decolonisation – which Maori are already going through – for the descendants of the colonisers in order to acknowledge shared histories and accept the mistakes of the past.

“It's time to start again”, he sings. “If we forget what we learnt and we know what we lost, can we decolonize ourselves? This is the birth of a nation . . . I'm gonna give you a chance if you just gimme your trust . . .”

That idea – and this ambitious album in all its prismatic ideas, diverse musical settings and synaesthetic relationships to other arts -- is a very big project.

But not impossible, and all journeys have to start somewhere.

Many many decades ago the poet Allen Curnow wrote Landfall in Unknown Seas, it started, “Simply by sailing in a new direction/you could enlarge the world . . .”

Dudley Benson is sailing in his own direction and our world is the larger for it.

The title track comes with five remixes (Samuel Holloway, Stef Animal, Cicada Ceramony, Iso12 and Satin Sheets) and they are available at the usual digital outlets.

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