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SOUNZ: Kiwi music takes off

SOUNZ: Kiwi music takes off

Think 'Composers' and an image of an other-worldly, wild-haired bohemian might well spring to mind. Composing music as a career may seem to be something that belongs to a European past, but in fact, despite uncertain financial returns and often trying conditions, a surprisingly large and diverse number of New Zealanders have dedicated themselves to the musical muse.

In fact, almost 300 New Zealand composers have registered works with SOUNZ, the Centre for New Zealand Music. This organisation has, over the last 14 years, fostered, promoted and provided the music of New Zealand composers in this country and around the world. They have the most comprehensive and accessible collection of New Zealand music in the world – information on almost 7000 scores, lending services for 4000 of them and 500 recordings, and a retail section that allows people to find and purchase scores, albums, resources, CDs and books. Considering around 90% of music composed by New Zealanders is otherwise unpublished, the role that SOUNZ has played in encouraging performers to play this music cannot be overstated.

For a country so young, the extent of our musical activity in the genre of what is still ambiguously called 'contemporary classical' music is astonishing.

SOUNZ: The Centre for New Zealand Music: Toi Te Pouru has as its vision statement - Created in New Zealand: Heard Around the World. That vision, now more than ever before, is taking on a very real relevance and resonance. Through films, radio, television, CDs.... overseas listeners are hearing more New Zealand music, more often than ever before. Physically, the SOUNZ office is tucked away in central Wellington, but through their website – – their projects and their outstanding service they are truly fulfilling their vision to ensure that what has been created here is being heard around the world.

Scilla Askew, current executive director of SOUNZ outlined their work.

“Two decades ago, a reasonably well-educated Kiwi might possibly have been able to name Douglas Lilburn as a New Zealand composer. Now, more and more, composers are finding wider public recognition: from our Arts Laureate composers like Gillian Whitehead, Jack Body and Phil Dadson, the flamboyant performer / composers such as Gareth Farr to the high achievers such as John Psathas, also an Arts Foundation Laureate. John, whose Athens Olympic fanfares reached an audience of billions, even got his own billboard - many times actual size - on one of the busiest streets in Wellington’s CBD!
“The burgeoning film-industry is throwing up an exciting ‘crop’ of new composers for the genre - from Wellington collective Plan 9’s evocative music in the Lord of the Rings Phenomenon to the subtle poignancy of Victoria Kelly’s score for Fracture. A recent promotional DVD and CD of music for screen featured more than 40 New Zealand composers. ”

It is likely that most New Zelanders would be unaware of the work that SOUNZ has undertaken over the last 14 years. How did it all begin?

“Following almost 20 years of suggestion and planning the QEII Arts Council commissioned a feasibility study in 1989,” Scilla Askew, explains. “Composer Dorothy Freed and the Composers Foundation were particularly strong advocates. Wiggs and Associates carried out the study with the consequent recommendation that a Centre be set up with the primary aim of promoting New Zealand composed music both here and internationally.”

At one part of the study, Wiggs and Assoc. state:
There is a general consensus that for serious music a bottleneck exists between the input [composers] and output markets [performing groups and educators here and overseas] both in terms of knowledge and distribution channels. It would be the task of the Centre to open the bottleneck.

“QEII had allocated $20,000 and set up a Trust Board to oversee the new Centre with an initial staff of two - an executive director and an administration assistant.”

The plan showed commendable vision. Rather than relying on hindsight and archives, SOUNZ is collecting, fostering and promoting the music of New Zealander composers as it is being created. Music is very much a temporal and living art and it is in its performance, its re-creation, that it really lives. The role SOUNZ plays then, is crucial. Increased numbers of performances validates the art form and encourages more composers to take the undeniable risk of expressing themselves through music.

Scilla has been involved in the rapid development of SOUNZ from the outset. A singer and teacher she had spent 10 years performing and working in the UK before “realising I was a Kiwi and deciding it was time to come home.” She applied for a job with the brand new SOUNZ Centre before she’d even left the UK and was first “employed as the office bimbo in 1992” [her words!] She took over as executive director in 1998 and now leads a team of three full time staff and one part timer.

It is no accident that SOUNZ incorporates the silver fern frond in its logo. Increasingly recognised as a symbol for Kiwis and their creativity the fern frond carries layers of potent meaning for an organisation so closely allied with the New Zealand music, especially at a time when interest in that music is developing and expanding rapidly.
In much the same way as its fern logo implies, the Centre itself, has ‘unfurled’ in its influence, range and resources over the last 14 year.
“Initially composers were still something of an oddity - even as recently as 1990. The New Zealand public were largely unaware of the music that had been and was being created by Kiwis, with one or two exceptions: Douglas Lilburn and Jack Body for example. Even among Kiwi musicians and music teachers, there was a lack of information and resources.
“Today that situation has completely changed thanks to a combination of radical changes in music curricula, interest and support from our performing groups such as the NZSO, NZSQ, Royal NZ Ballet and other regional professional performing orchestras and groups, major events such as the opening of Te Papa, Music Industry Awards etc... as well as the services that SOUNZ has provided. Concerts incorporating a New Zealand work have become the norm rather than the exception. Contemporary classical music sales on CDs have been increasing over a time when most of the recording industry has been concerned about a downturn in sales. Edinburgh has hosted several festivals of Kiwi music and similar interest has been expressed in Germany, Canada and the United States. SOUNZ fields more than 2000 specific enquiries about New Zealand Music each year - a good proportion of those are from overseas performing groups looking to include our music in their repertoire.”

That bottleneck mentioned by Wiggs and Associates has been well and truly opened.

Scilla has also become an ambassador for New Zealand music with her international colleagues. IAMIC - the International Association of Music Information Centres meets annually in various member countries. A successful bid recently means that the 2007 Annual IAMIC conference will be held in New Zealand with delegates from 40 countries coming to experience this country and its music. “There is a huge amount of interest building in our composers. People overseas hear a particularly fresh and exciting quality in our music that they really like - qualities that are probably a result of our isolation, our connection with the Pacific and our historical youthfulness as well as the unique creative talent of our musicians.”

SOUNZ is setting itself the task of meeting that interest fully-resourced and ready to fulfil its mission: to successfully promote Kiwi composers and their music. It is interesting to make a comparison between New Zealand and other culturally comparable countries like Australia, Canada and Sweden. The Australian Music Information Centre works on an annual budget of $1.5million with seven fulltime and six part time staff. The equivalent numbers in Canada are $6million and 35 staff, and in Sweden: $7.5million and 14 staff.
SOUNZ, with its 3.5 staff members, currently works on an annual budget of about $400,000.

“We have come a long way since we opened in 1991,” Scilla declares, “but there is so much more that we could be doing. To keep up with international trends we need to digitise our database of compositions, improve our marketing and further encourage performance and recording of works by Kiwi composers.
“A whole new generation of musically creative New Zealanders is coming through with an expectation that what they are doing is relevant, meaningful and appropriate. Performers are far more in touch with contemporary music now than they were even ten years ago. Contemporary compositions have really made their way out of the ivory towers of academia into concert halls, films, radio,.... There are large areas of cross-over between different genres and styles of music. It is a very much a process of a cultural ‘coming of age’ for New Zealand and our composers are at the forefront of that, and SOUNZ will be standing right there alongside, supporting and encouraging.”

SOUNZ: Toi Te Puoru : The Centre for New Zealand Music is at 39 Cambridge Terrace, Wellington and has a website at


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