Monday, July 23, 2018

Something New


We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE WORLD’S DIN” by Peter Hoar (Otago University Press, $NZ45); “NIUE AND THE GREAT WAR” by Margaret Pointer (Otago University Press, $NZ39:95)

I’ll reverse my usual procedure. Most often, I take a long time to reach the point, but this time I’ll begin with a verdict. I found Peter Hoar’s The World’s Din to be an absorbing, entertaining and refreshingly informative book. I have a few very minor qubbles with it, but not so many as to compromise this verdict.

Subtitled “Listening to Records, Radio and Films in New Zealand 1880-1940”, The World’s Din focuses on how New Zealanders reacted to the first sixty years of recorded sound. As Hoar remarks robustly in his Preface: “The real shock of the sonic new happened between 1877 and the late 1930s” (p.8) Furthermore: “The iPod is not a revolution in itself; it is a refinement of the technology that captured, stored and replayed sounds which was developed… during the late decades of the nneteenth century.” (pp.8-9) What this suggests, correctly, is that for all the improvements and refinements of recording technology in the last half-century or so, nothing has equalled in its effect the impact of the earliest sound recording. Between c.1880 and c.1940, the recording of sound changed New Zealanders’ lives in far more fundamental ways than any subsequent advances in sonic technology have done.

Introducing a second theme, Hoar agrees with Peter Gibbons that to really understand New Zealand culture, we have to consider “the World’s place in New Zealand” rather than just “New Zealand’s place in the World”. Histories have been written of the development of a recording industry and a film industry in New Zealand, usually with the assumption that these things were of great cultural significance to New Zealanders. But the reality is that, from the 1880s onward, most recorded music and recorded voices heard by New Zealanders came from elsewhere, and had a hugely greater impact than the local product. Like it or not, an American (and to a much lesser extent, British) soundscape became part of what New Zealanders were and still are.

In what he calls his “Overture”, Hoar shows how resistant intellectuals in Europe and elsewhere (Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno etc.) have been to the concept of recorded sound, which they saw as demeaning or diminishing the “aura” of live performance. This introduces the book’s third theme – the way intellectuals and opinion-makers in New Zealand, too, were often at odds with the general public in matters of taste when it came to recorded sound. The reality, as Hoar sees it, was that recorded sound made it possible to “domesticate” performances (i.e. bring them into the home). Gramophones and radio displaced the piano as the centre of a family’s musical entrtainment. Recordings also meant that musical performances became portable and could be heard in many different venues so that, even by the 1930s and long before transistor radios were invented, portable record players could be taken on outings and picnics, while the same music could be heard at home on the radio and in picture theatres when musical films were being shown.

The World’s Din is divided into three parts

Part One – “Records” - deals in five chapters with the way recordings became an accepted part of life in New Zealand. First there were the fragile cylinders of the 1880s and 1890s, then the switch to shellac discs in the 1900s. By the 1920s, mechanical recording was displaced by electric recording with resultant greater fidelity to the sounds that were being recorded. The domestic equipment for listening to records changed from very fragile mechanisms; to phonographs with their bulky boxes and unsightly, protruding, over-large horns; and finally to cabinets, fitting in more discreetly with traditional living-room furniture. And all the while the methods used to sell recorded sound changed. The earliest phonographs were sold as a marvel of science and later as a tool for education. Hoar sees a dichotomy between what the mass audience wanted to listen to (ragtime, jazz, popular songs) and what educational authorities thought they should be listening to, with educationists concerned that people be encouraged to listen to the “right” music.

Among other things, Hoar lays stress on how recordings meant that people tended to be less passive and still as they listened to recorded music – in other words, they ceased to behave as they had done in live concerts and recitals. They became more active, repeatedly listening to recordings of popular music at home so that they could rehearse the steps and thus seem less inept when they first attempted to dance to the same tunes in a dance-hall. Of course, once electric recording became the norm, there was the new sort of intimate, close-to-the-microphone singing known as crooning, which completely changed the way popular singers delivered live performances.

Part Two comprises four chapters on radio. In New Zealand, it was “wireless telegraphy” until the 1920s. It was mainly in morse code and it was heard via headphones. “Wireless telegraphy” was seen as a government monopoly for official and military communications and for shipping news. Hence there was strict control of who could own or make transmitters or receivers. All civilian transmitting and listening was forbidden during the First World War when military signalling became the sole use of radio. There was a network of (code-sending) government radio transmitters from Kaitaia to Invercargill. It was of military significance that when New Zealand troops took over Samoa in late 1914, they captured the big German transmitter in Apia. During the war, there was much training of radio operators by the armed forces. Many of those so trained later became involved in public radio broadcasting. By 1922, with the war safely over, regulations were relaxed and many amateurs were transmitting on crystal or valve sets. By that date, there were radio stations in all of what were then the four main centres (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin), doing regular broadcasts of music and spoken word, but only for a very limited number of hours each day.

This book does not dwell on the organizational side of radio, and how the tax-subsidised YA stations co-existed with the private “B” stations, which were not allowed to carry advertising until a major reorganization in mid-1930s allowed for fully commercial stations. Instead, Hoar is concerned with the way radio changed patterns of domestic life. The most obvious fact is that, unlike the recordings which preceded them, radio created a mass audience listening simultaneously to the same sounds. Hence radio created a sort of imaginary, or “mythic”, community. With New Zealand’s total population a mere one-and-a-half million c.1930, radio licences grew from c.30,000 in late 1920s to over 200,000 by the mid-1930s. In other words, nearly every home had a radio. Inevitably, there was an ongoing debate in the press about whether the chief purpose of radio should be entertainment, or Reithian cultural uplift on the BBC model. Hoar gives an account of the first attempt by the broadcasting authority to survey tastes in the early 1930s. The survey showed that more people wanted entertainment (recorded American and British music) rather than cultural uplift. Hoar also gives an account of some of the radio personalities who became as familiar as household words (such as Maud Basham, known as “Aunt Daisy”), of the anxiety over sports broadcasts undercutting actual attendance at sports events, and of the great influence of children’s programmes.

And so finally to the three chapters which make up the final part, concerning film. Wittily but truly, Hoar remarks that “It is a cliché to write that it is a cliché that silent film was never silent.” (p.156) He devotes a chapter to the early, not often successful, attempts to synchronise sound with silent moving images, usually by playing phonograph recordings as films were screened. In the 1890s and early 1900s, when films were most often part of a vaudeville show, this was also the era of the live performer singing or reciting to the moving images. Then in the 1910s, after movies ceased be part of a vaudeville show, and especially once dedicated cinemas were built, live sound-effects and reciters were displaced by cinema orchestras or cinema pianists. By this stage, most films told stories rather than simply showing the marvel of moving pictures; so appropriate moods had to be encouraged by the accompanying live music. Of course there are anecdotes here about the travails of cinema pianists trying to keep up with the changing moods suggested by rapidly changing sequences in films.

When the talkies reached New Zealand after 1929, different technologies presented themselves, but the cumbersome system of film-synchronised-with-disc rapidly disappeared in favour of sound-on-film – the soundtrack – which could always be relied on to synchronise image and sound. It was immediately clear that in New Zealand, American films were far more popular with the mass audience than films from any other source. Of course this raised fears about the “purity” of spoken English as New Zealand moviegoers picked up American idioms and some pronunciations from the Hollywood films they preferred. At first the New Zealand government imposed a quota on exhibitors, whereby 20% of the films they showed had to be British. But this met with resistance from the mass audience and the quota system was dropped. At this point I have to note that Hoar fails to mention the quota system at that time in Britain itself, which also forced British exhibitors to show a high percentage of British-made films. The notorious result was the “quota quickies”, cheaply-made British films of inferior quality, churned out solely to meet the government’s quota. It was probably these sorts of films that New Zealanders were rejecting.

I said at the beginning of this review that I had a few minor quibbles about this book. Here they are.

Sometimes I think Hoar is a little too hard on those educationists who organised music appreciation programmes for schools, consisting mainly of classical music (Beethoven et al.) and hearty patriotic songs. Hoar tends to see this as little more than an elitist attempt to belittle popular taste. Personally, I see something heroic in dedicated groups gathering around a gramophone in some small culturally-starved New Zealand town in the 1920s, to discuss the music of Elgar or Schumann as conveyed, 4-minute side by 4-minute side, on breakable old 78rpms.

Again, Hoar is very judgmental of international recording companies in the 1920s who recorded and marketed music by Maori performers as a way of currying favour with New Zealanders. Hoar comments:  “This was not philanthropy or ethnomusicology, it was a quite ruthless commercial strategy designed to maximise market reach and corporate profits.” (p.83) In other words, as chronicled by Hoar, such recordings were a commercialisation and bastardisation of real Maori music. But isn’t this criticism like the elitism which Hoar elsewhere condemns? After all, weren’t popular and non-traditional songs, sung by Maori performers, the equivalent of popular and non-classical music of the sort Hoar elsewhere champions? On top of which, when have recording companies not indulged in “ruthless commercial strategies designed to maximise market reach and corporate profits”?  I won’t labour the point further, except to note that the Maori performers who are most esteemed now, and most listened-to, do not work in traditional styles, but in genres borrowed from elsewhere (pop, rock, hip-hop, rap etc. etc. etc.). Maybe in 2118, somebody will comment on the cultural inappropriateness of this.

To conclude with a more trivial quibble – I’m surprised that Hoar doesn’t say more about the strange popularity of wrestling in New Zealand in the 1930s, as conveyed by radio.

That is enough of my quibbles, however. This is a delightful, well-written and enlightening book – a pleasure to read.

Nostalgic and discursive footnote, which is only marginally related to the book under review: I have for a long time been interested in the impact of recorded sound upon the way we think (see my posting from about four years ago Vita Longa Technologia Brevis) and have often enjoyed listening to recordings from the earlier part of the twentieth century. My late mother was born in 1912, and therefore was a teenager in Auckland in the later 1920s. [For the record, I am the youngest in a large family and was born when my mother was nearly 40 years old – so I’m not as old as her birth-date might make me sound.] She had a very good recall of the things she enjoyed when she was young. Among much else, she remembered the time in the late 1920s when guitar-strumming Italian-American Nick Lucas was the idol of her set. So of course I got a big burst of second-hand nostalgia when Peter Hoar began his “Overture” by showing how he enjoyed hearing Nick Lucas’s 1929 hit “Tiptoe Thru’ the Tulips” on various formats. Might I add that one can find easily on Youtube a clip of Lucas performing this in the early talkie Gold Diggers of Broadway. Indeed, one can easily find many things on Youtube. When Peter Hoar mentioned how the Croatian-Maori jazzman Epi Shalfoon made a promotional short talkie for his band in Rotorua in 1930, I immediately rushed to my computer and watched that very short on Youtube.

My mother also recalled – as Hoar does – how often the musical selections played by pianists for silent films were inappropriate to what was being shown on screen. She recalled watching the original King of Kings, a silent movie about the life of Christ, and at the crucifixion scene the pit pianist was playing “Fur Elise”, which was presumably the only “serious” classical music he knew. Further to silent-cinema pianists, the talented Birkenhead pianist Ted Lanigan (“Teddy” to his family) mentioned by Hoar on Page 179, was my wife’s grandfather. My wife tells me that even in later years, Teddy refused to have a radio in his house as he believed it killed conversation and destroyed live home performance.

A final memory of my own. When I was a young film-reviewer, a much older film-reviewer told me that, back in the 1930s, his New Zealand-born father gave up watching talking films because he simply could not understand American accents. Of course we are now more fully-attuned to English-language accents other than our own. But perhaps it was not only cultural snobbery that made some New Zealanders wary of American talkies in the period Peter Hoar covers.

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Two-and-a-half years ago, I reviewed on this blog historian Margaret Pointer’s Niue 1774-1974 subtitled “200 Years of Contact and Change” (in doing so, I inadvertently used as an illustration a photo of Rarotonga, which caused comment from some readers). Pointer lived on Niue for much of the 1990s, when her husband was New Zealand high Commissioner there, and she has maintained strong contacts with the island ever since. In 2000 she wrote Tagi Tote e Loto Haaku: My Heart is Crying a Little, an account of Niue’s unhappy involvement in the First World War. Niue and the Great War is an expansion of that earlier book, drawing on much added new research and illustrated with many more archival photographs and reproductions.

As Niue and the Great War explains, missionaries who came to Niue in the nineteenth century were all from the London Missionary Society, so there was an homogeneity of protestant religion on the island and as much loyalty to the Briish Empire as was possible for a Polynesian people.

In 1914, the total population of the island was 4000. Recruiting for the war was encouraged by the Niuean parson Uea, who was happy to serve as chaplain. Recruiting on Niue was also encouraged by the prominent New Zealand Maori leader Maui Pomare. As a member of the New Zealand government, Maui Pomare was humiliated that so few of the Waikato Maori wanted to enlist when war broke out, as Waikato people still had fresh memories of war in New Zealand and the confiscation of their land. Pomare therefore saw Niueans as potential members of a combined Maori regiment.

In the event, about 150 Niueans were recruited, and they were brought to Narrow Neck on Auckland’s North Shore for basic training. Almost at once there were problems. Very few of the recruited Niueans spoke English, none had military experience and few had even worn shoes. Nevertheless, they became part  of the 3rd. Maori reinforcements and sailed off for Egypt in February 1916. Then the biggest problem hit. Coming from an isolated Pacific island, quarantined by nature from the wider world, Niueans has little resistance to common ailments to which Euopeans (and, by this stage, New Zealand Maori) were immune. In Egypt, a disproportionately large number of them fell ill with measles, pulmonary conditions and especially dysentery, which they feared. Trained strictly as a non-combatant, trench-digging pioneer force, 60 Niueans were sent to the Western Front in France, but they were very susceptible to pneumonia. They were withdrawn after only a couple of months and were sent back to New Zealand, after first being transferred to Hornchurch in England.

Many of them still spoke very little English, and they took comfort only from an elderly missionary’s wife who spoke their language. In military circles there was some controversy over why they were not stationed in Egypt, where the climate was more congenial to them; but on the whole it was seen as a humane move to return them to New Zealand, and thence to Niue. As Margaret Pointer notes, a few other Niueans enlisted separately from those in the pioneer corps. A couple even saw combat. One served at Gallipoli and one died of wounds after Passchendaele. By the end of the war, 24 of the total of 160 who had served were dead. Unlike Samoa, Niue [partly because of its isolation and the difficulty ships had anchoring there] was spared the influenza epidemic that swept the world. But the diseases contracted by the Niuean recruits were long remembered with horror on the island.

Essentially Niue and the Great War is a sad little footnote to the huge world conflict, and a reminder of the ways old empires regarded their subject peoples.

Margaret Pointer’s purpose has much to do with factual accounting. After her main text, she includes lists naming every single Niuean who served in the First World War, giving rank, serial number and village of origin. Obviously part of the book’s aim is to be a memorial. It is also generously illustrated with archival photographs, which tell at least half the story.

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