“There are those who maintain that the world is getting more and more
united, more and more bound together in brotherly community as it overcomes
distances and sets thoughts flying through the air. Alas, put no faith in
such a bond of union.” So said Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov.
So said also the Canadian philosopher-musician Glenn Gould in his essay
“The Prospects of Recordings”–citing Dostoevsky in order to rebut optimists
who had prophesied that electronic broadcasting would close all gaps in the
human world. “With simultaneous transmission,” Gould went on, “we set
aside our touristlike fascination with distant and exotic places and give
vent to impatience at the chronological tardiness the natives display.”
The thought is more darkly pertinent today than it was in 1966. In our
home-entertainment watchtowers, the thrill of being virtually there is also
the thrill of being actually elsewhere. All gaps grow narrow and deep.

The visionary Gould, however, was no pessimist. He questioned the utopian
fantasies of electronic culture, but he looked favorably on the prospects
of musical recording, the medium in which he based his whole mature career
as a pianist. What he imagined, as a respite from disorienting onslaughts
of simultaneity, was a paradise of intelligent reproduction: a world of
shipwrecked creators, throwing bottles into the ocean for imaginative
seekers to find. In a faraway place, someone puts music on a tape–a
product of solitude, intricate and artificial, like Gould’s own infamously
eccentric recordings; elsewhere, a listener assembling his private aural
world picks it up and assimilates it. Recordings would restore the best
sort of touristic impulse, the simple urge to know the best of the rest of
the world. They would become, in Gould’s words, “the indispensable
replenishment of that deteriorating tolerance occasioned by simultaneous
transmission.” The final and total electrification of reality would have
its good side.

If you take a look at your local record store, you might think for a second
that this prophecy has actually come true. Granted, the recording industry
has contributed as much to the standardization of musical taste as to its
diversification. But it now seems that recordings, as discretely packaged
products, are becoming obsolete; digitized music will soon be
instantaneously available in encyclopedic quantities through computer
relay, at which point all bets are off. The increasing fragmentation of
the recording industry has helped to shore up a sense of locality and
particularity in music rather than obliterate it. I’m thinking not only of
the numbing diversity of a store like Tower Records, with its peacefully
coexisting categories for the Balinese gamelan, Gilbert & Sullivan
operetta, and progressive funk, but also of smaller subcultural outlets,
the stores with independent labels, home-produced fanzines, relations with
local bands, and mail-order connections. No one wants to read any more
hype about musical “scenes” like Seattle, but the resurgence of a sense of
place in rock music has in fact been an autonomous development, rather than
a commercial ploy.

All this may seem a roundabout beginning to an article chronicling recent
developments in New Zealand rock music, but it is a necessary prologue for
the curious position from which I write. Everything that follows is pulled
out of thin air; I’ve never been to New Zealand, or anywhere near it, and
until last summer I had never met any of its natives. Instead, all I have
is stuff: magazines, a couple of books, some tapes of interviews conducted
here and there, and above all a big stack of compact discs. The premise
I’ve optimistically drawn from Gould is not only that recordings can
accurately store the musical impulses of people in distant places, but that
some of the best impulses of our overstuffed era might necessarily
originate in distant places, cross great distances, and eventually reach us
as so many scraps of musical stuff. It was in this spirit, I think, that
Gould imagined a new Mozart coming out of McMurdo Sound.

Of New Zealand rock, you may know nothing at all, or you may have heard a
few songs by the few New Zealand bands that have gained an international
following, like the Chills, the Bats, and the Verlaines. (The ephemeral
80’s phenomenon Crowded House, which everyone has heard of, can’t
technically be considered rock music.) Or you might have seen mention of
the “New Zealand sound” in one of those sullen, pedantic articles in the
alternative-music press. Such surface blips in the international musical
marketplace give only a hint of an amazingly rich musical culture, the sum
total of a few dozen distinct creative personalities. They maintain
individuality not by barring all influences from the outside, but by freely
devouring whatever comes their way. They haven’t moved toward the center;
the center has shifted toward them.