AROUND THE CORNER, OUT TO THE EDGE, a memoir by JONATHAN BESSER

 |   |  4 min read

Wellington Harbour, by Besser and Prosser
AROUND THE CORNER, OUT TO THE EDGE, a memoir by JONATHAN BESSER

This is a very sad book.

Not because of its melancholy contents. Far from it, there is fun and laughter throughout.

But because Jewish New York-born composer Jonathan Besser – who moved to New Zealand in 1972 when he was in his early Twenties – died in February 2022.

He never lived to see his interesting memoir published.

It is sad too because the Auckland he explored on arrival – student flats in Grafton, the cultural milieu where painters, curators, poets and musicians mingled freely – has long gone also.

Besser writes with a keen eye and honesty about his upbringing in New York and New Jersey and his discovery of music, his professors and teachers, and the wonderful musicians he saw: street performer Moondog (“the Viking of 6th Avenue”), New Zealand composer Annea Lockwood then in New York, Sun Ra with his Arkestra, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Firebird performed by the New York Ballet with set and costume designs by Marc Chagall and with its composer Stravinsky and choreographer George Balanchine in the audience.

He and Benny Goodman exchanged smiles at Mannes College of Music when the King of Swing was teaching clarinet there.

And the backdrop of his Jewish faith and life is everywhere, even though he struggled with Hebrew during study for his bar mitzvah at 13 and had bouts of therapy.

JBBWBorn in 1949, Besser was also a child of his era: he writes enthusiastically of subscribing to Sing Out! (the radical folk music magazine), seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, at home hearing Jewish music and comedians, albums of musicals and Latin dance party songs by Tito Puente and Xavier Cugat, Lesley Gore and the Four Seasons on the radio, learning double bass, smoking pot and listening to the Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request, two months travel in Europe, forming a folk trio, listening to the Incredible String Band, rock festivals on the West Coast, playing Renaissance music (in period costume) in Central Park, hippies and Yippies, failing the draft (the psych reports helped) . . .

Besser tells all this with candour, enthusiasm and insight.

Then a chance encounter at the Australian consulate when he was considering immigrating south lead him just down the corridor to the New Zealand consulate where he was made to feel welcome.

For local readers his experiences on arrival – first in Auckland, later Wellington and Dunedin – remind us of how small the artistic community was, which meant it was easy for Besser (quite exotic for local artists) to make contacts, offer his services, get gigs and start to fulfill his dream of being a composer.

He worked as an arranger for Bernie Allen on the Happen Inn pop show on television, directed some television shows, found his way to the University of Auckland's School of Music, hitchhiked around the country (left for a while to return to the States) and was befriended and encouraged by the likes of Jack Body.

And when his new partner Janice got a job in remote Northland he found himself – a New York Jewish composer – living in a school house in Waima where the community “predominately spoke in te reo and largely distrusted Pakeha”.

He loved it, they had a son Cy, his parents visited them from Manhattan (the power went off, dinner made on the coal range by candlelight), he taught at local schools and directed the opening show at Forum North in Whangarei which involved a large installation and music with Ross Harris recorded in Douglas Lilburn's Wellington electronic studio.

jonathan_besserThe book then follows Besser's creative life – Mozart Fellow, the Besser and Prosser duo with violinist Chris Prosser, numerous collaborations, the experimental Free Radicals with Harris, his own groups and recordings, arts festival shows . . .

Quite a career.

But as with many books about or by musicians, after the insights into early lives and influences, the final third can devolve into accounts of albums recorded and concerts played.

So it is here, and some important things go unsaid.

In 2010 he flatted with photographer Gil Hanly (wife of the late artist Pat) and “built up my strength” and “healed myself”.

This is given no greater context but seems to suggest that as work dried up or was intermittent he had some kind of breakdown. He went on the dole and continued to work on his music.

22726_batemanbooksThe book is also sad at this point because after all he had achieved Besser – then in his Sixties – was still relying on the generosity of arts grants (he had been a recipient of many) and being declined. Four times in two years.

He feels those hurts acutely and with some bitterness, albeit politely expressed: “Still, you soldier on”.

Jonathan Besser was a unique figure in the landscape of New Zealand music whose enthusiasm and energy in many idioms – from string quartets and ballet music to Jewish klezmer, gamelan and electronica – is unmatched for his versatility, other than perhaps by Don McGlashan (with whom he collaborated).

As he acknowledges, if he'd stayed in New York he would have had to specialise, but here “in this small land, I work with dancers, make film music, write for symphony orchestras and top chamber groups, perform on piano, act a theatrical character in an ad-lib show, make conceptual artwork, ad-lib [on] piano with laureate poets and work in poor schools”.

It wasn't always easy but in the best of times it was immensely rewarding.

At other times . . . very sad.

.

Elsewhere has frequently written about Jonathan Besser's many albums and projects, see here.

AROUND THE CORNER, OUT TO THE EDGE, a memoir by JONATHAN BESSER. Bateman Books $50


Share It

Your Comments

David Trubridge - Jan 9, 2023

I love this piece of music, where can i listen to the whole album (Kiwi Pacific music is offline)? We used to have a wonderful album on cassette by B&P a long time ago.

post a comment

More from this section   Writing at Elsewhere articles index

TICKET TO RIDE by LARRY KANE: Along for the ride

TICKET TO RIDE by LARRY KANE: Along for the ride

In 1980 presidential candidate Jimmy Carter leaned over to journalist Larry Kane and said, "So I heard you toured with the Beatles. What were they like?" Even the 39th President of the... > Read more

INNOCENT WHEN YOU DREAM; TOM WAITS THE COLLECTED INTERVIEWS (2006) edited by Mac Montandon

INNOCENT WHEN YOU DREAM; TOM WAITS THE COLLECTED INTERVIEWS (2006) edited by Mac Montandon

The musical journey of Tom Waits -- from bohemian barfly poet with an affection for the Beat Generation and Raymond Chandler to the clank’n’grind noir-noise of his more recent albums --... > Read more

Elsewhere at Elsewhere

Tamikrest: Adagh (Glitterhouse/Yellow Eye)

Tamikrest: Adagh (Glitterhouse/Yellow Eye)

As we know, for every breakthrough band there are a dozen or more who can successfully coattail. Tamikrest come from the same area -- geographical and musical -- as the great Tinariwan and Etra... > Read more

MIKE SKINNER/THE STREETS INTERVIEWED (2004): The sound of the tenements

MIKE SKINNER/THE STREETS INTERVIEWED (2004): The sound of the tenements

This is called an irony: on The Streets' new album A Grand Don't Come For Free the mouth behind the street-smart monologues, Mike Skinner, bangs on about how his cellphone keeps cutting out.... > Read more