Not long ago, we ran a piece by Ruby Solly about the battle to save RNZ Concert and the exhaustion of being Māori in the classical music world. Here Sophie Yana Wilson (a Māori-Pākehā-Sāmoan-German hybrid) adds her voice to that kōrero in a piece first published in Medium.
Among many developments in the news this year, something happened that I was absolutely not ready for. I wasn’t going to say anything about it at first. Many commentators have written on the subject so quickly. But after a few sleepless nights and realising I could add another dimension to the piece, I decided to put my 200 cents in.
For those who didn’t know, in an effort to future-proof their audience, in mid-January this year, Radio New Zealand’s board decided they should reallocate their precious slice of FM bandwidth, usually reserved for old white people’s music (RNZ Concert), to the broadcasting of young brown people’s music (Mai FM with more think-pieces?).
In short, they wanted to take the station from Beethoven to Zaytoven and long-standing jobs were to be cut in the process. At the moment, I’m unsure of the job status, but it looks as though the government has stepped in to fork out a separate FM band for the youth station, thusly saving RNZ Concert in its FM form.
Even so, for me and many others in New Zealand’s creative communities, there were a few emotional bombs that detonated with this news. I’m still reeling.
My first thoughts went to my ex-colleagues who I consider dear friends. They are collectively so knowledgeable and compassionate and I just know they genuinely wish to serve the public in the best way possible. The thought of the public losing access to these walking libraries actually hurt!
My job at RNZ was made redundant in 2015 and I hoped they wouldn’t experience the same tailspin I had with the huge loss of identity and community. On top of that, I know how the culture of austerity slowly erodes your sense of self-worth. It’s not pleasant, and it’s been a cycle on repeat with RNZ since the ‘90s.
Another bomb was being reminded of the sorry state of the media in New Zealand, and the deep divide between the hand-wringing liberal left versus the comically heartless far right that’s developed in an arms race for clicks, views, and relevance in a very tight media market — and how RNZ plays into this divide. And also how this state of media ecology is not helping any members of New Zealand society during this New Dark Age when cool-headed editorial and visionary writing are needed the most.
But the biggest bomb from all this has been the issue of race and class bundled up with classical music in New Zealand, so painfully and beautifully written about by Ruby Solly in E-Tangata.
Before I unpack this, I need to lay out my relationship with classical music, RNZ, and being a Māori-Pākehā-Sāmoan-German hybrid in Aotearoa.
A unique set of circumstances landed me at RNZ Concert in 2009 as a junior producer. It felt like the culmination of about nine years of trying to escape the hood.
The hood was Raumanga, Whangārei, where I lived with my hermit parents — an unemployed Sāmoan outsider artist and a Māori woman who had been on the disability benefit since her only child was born.
The rest of my nucleus family included my grandad and his father, who both migrated from Essex, England to Portland, New Zealand in the ’60s. Great-grandad was a retired foreman who had worked at the cement factory in Portland. Grandad was a truck driver who had retired early in the ‘90s because of a back injury and had been living on ACC ever since.
Most of the adults in my core-identity-forming-formative life were unemployed, sick, elderly (not meant to be construed as negative here lol), depressed, angry (deffo negative) and had little interaction with the outside world other than the likes of the supermarket checkout operator and government agencies like Housing NZ and WINZ.
When I’d occasionally get to visit friends or family members outside of the hood — in bigger cities or even in more rural areas — I’d marvel at how much bigger their lives were, regardless of their household incomes. They seemed to be happy, connected to communities and had clear roles in society. They seemed to travel about the real world with ease — understanding codes about this “real world” that I certainly did not.
Each year in the hood became progressively worse, severely punctuated by a year in hospital recovering from rheumatic fever (a straight, no chaser, statistical marker of poverty) where I wasn’t allowed to walk for fear of raising my white blood cell count.
I was stuck in a pressure cooker of poverty and isolation. Every week in the hood was pure hell. My family tried their damned best. But what propelled me forward during this time was my only reliable connection to the outside world — broadcast television and radio.
If you think of broadcast media available between 1994 and 2004 as a supermarket of options, I’d be there reading every word on the labels on every product in-store. I wasn’t the kind of audience “segment” marketers would categorise as the type to listen to The Edge or Mai FM (although Whangārei didn’t even have Mai FM in my day).
Like one of those creepy underground moles who somehow don’t get cancer, I earnestly scanned every freely available channel on any audio/visual medium I could get my hands on — regardless of genre.
Sometimes we didn’t have money for dinner, and sometimes we’d eat only oysters that we’d collected from the wharf that day. Sometimes I’d get money from my dad if he sold weed or tourist trinkets he made with his friend (until he went to jail). I found money to be such a novelty that I’d spend it all on CDs from The Warehouse or SOUNZ. If there was no money, I was out “digging” on the airwaves with my cassette and videotape recorders.
The outside world, the real world, presented to me through broadcast media, was truly exciting for this pre-teen. The brightly compressed commercial stations, the deep and grainy mono bass of iwi radio and Sāmoan talkshows on AM, the glitched happy mistake of picking up Discovery Channel if you move the aerial in the right place — hell, I’d even scroll teletext to see what kinda weird-as shit I could glean from there.
But the station that really gave me a call-to-action (more marketing speak) was Concert FM. I happened to come across a documentary on the history of music narrated by Leonard Bernstein, another history of female jazz vocalists, an incredible classical guitar recital with works by a contemporary Greek composer, and one of my favourites, the music of John Dowland, an English renaissance lutenist.
Shortly after, I happened to come across a book of facsimiles of Dowland’s lute music at Whangārei’s Public Library. With no formal training yet, I taught myself the notation and transcribed the whole book for guitar (in a funny tuning).
A couple of years later, it’s my first day of high school and I’m signing up to all of the FREE weekly instrument lessons. Saxophone, voice, guitar, bass, drums, violin, cello.
The head of music (who was very Pākehā and very bossy) stormed into my maths class and pulled me aside: “You can only do one instrument otherwise you won’t have time for the rest of your schooling. So which one will it be?”
“Oh . . . I can’t remember what I signed up for . . .”
“Okay, you’re playing the cello. See you at orchestra.”
I didn’t know what a cello was. When I first started, it was like I had to straddle something that was beamed down by a benevolent spaceship. It was so foreign and intoxicating — so I kept going despite the awkward lessons and feeling like a conspicuously fat, hori bunga in orchestra rehearsals.
My cello teacher was a retired high school music teacher with a white, reliably soft and powdered face and a mousey brown, curly, regal perm a la Queen Elizabeth on the back of fiat money.
Over five years, she would accompany me on piano or in cello duets as I scratched my bow all the way up to Grade 7. I will never forget her face so alive and vibrant with the life-force of making music. This expression of joy I’d never seen before. I came to adore her as I would my own grandmother (both of whom had already passed at the time). This expression of joy was my gateway drug into classical music.
Having put all my energy into this cello, I decided to try and go pro at university. Yep, first to go to uni in my family blahblah. But they didn’t care and actively discouraged it. Just as Ruby Solly had experienced, as described in her excellent article for E-Tangata, I wish I had listened, but for different reasons.
My audition for performance cello at the University of Auckland was like another spaceship moment. I’d never seen such a magnificent theatre. For me, it was like being at Carnegie Hall. I was accepted into the programme with a strange letter which read like “although your technique is lacking, we believe you have talent”. This back-handed sentiment set the tone for the next three years.
I was certainly not ready for the level of playing at uni, not just technically, but socially. I’d gone from thinking my lower-middle-class high school friends were like Bill Gates, in their completely average suburban houses with full cupboards, to experiencing the dizzying heights of big city affluence at classical music school.
At high school, my home situation made it difficult to concentrate on academic subjects, so I poured myself into classical music. At university, I found the culture shock of classical music school even more difficult to navigate. So I started skipping classes to go and jam with jazz and pop musicians and dancers at their departments. Anyone who seemed relatively normal compared to the aliens of the classical world, some of whom are actually really nice people, by the way. I just had culture shock.
On top of that, over the next three years, I had to deal with my father’s increasing addiction to ice and the suicide of my boyfriend.
I was in crisis and needed help, and when I turned to my uni teachers (who happened to be all white, middle-aged, male), the response was usually “well there are children dying in Africa”, in the tone of someone who wishes to change the channel as they’re simply dying of boredom from this conversation.
At this point, my honeymoon with classical music was over and I began a slow retreat into my heritage as well as black and brown sub-cultures from the global “south” as opposed to the northern, imperial west.
When the debris had cleared, I decided to just go and take an office job and regain some sense of normality. I worked in about 10 different temporary assignments over six months, including MTV before they folded. Which makes sense because I was ordering the fanciest cheese and wine at their behest every Friday.
Then a friend from music school connected me to a receptionist role at the smaller Auckland office of RNZ. Luckily, I got the job — completely unaware of how quickly I’d move into radio production and back into the clutches of my arch nemesis, classical music at RNZ Concert!
There are countless stories from my seven years at Concert, across the full spectrum of emotion. I am so grateful for my time there and for the opportunities I was afforded. But, at the same time, like Ruby, I witnessed direct and casual racism towards me and others from members of the classical music community.
This I sadly accepted as part of life.
But the most horrifying parts of the classical world in New Zealand was the structural blindness in the programming on RNZ National and Concert — and Pākehā’s political pawning of Māori and Pasifika to leverage relevance and thus attract funding for their (actually irrelevant) projects.
I know a lot of this lack of initiative in RNZ programming stemmed from the funding freeze. It’s almost like the austerity was freezing our balls. Although we were desperate to break moulds, it was impossible to think ourselves out of the status quo.
At the same time, there’s no excuse. It’s beyond shameful that many fine Māori and Pasifika musicians have been overlooked from being included on the station. I wish I had the tenacity to make this happen, but remember, I’m more the creepy mole type that belongs in the basement sifting through archives rather than being the only person of colour calling for revolution in a 90 percent white organisation.
Back then, I simply didn’t have the words or momentum of support readily available. I kept these feelings close to my chest and I became bitter and sad. It remained truly exhausting and alienating to be brown in the classical world.
And yet I was getting paid to amplify them.
Amplifying works that were nominally borrowing ideas from te ao Māori, when I know for sure that the composer hadn’t taken the time to understand those ideas.
Amplifying organisations who were conducting programmes in brown, poor regions to bolster their relevance with a view to securing funding — a future-proofing we’re seeing from RNZ but with a little imperial twist.
Amplifying the annual performance of Handel’s Messiah at Christmas, a tradition which, to me, was an insidious hangover from New Zealand’s colonial past.
Amplifying art that resonates with one percent of people (I am one of them sometimes) and would require a full degree in composition to understand (applies to all art forms), instead of amplifying the “fine arts” of tangata whenua and our huge array of culturally diverse communities who also champion excellence in art and traditional music. Or even Pākehā composers who create works that are relevant and actually pleasant to listen to.
Despite having a lot of love for people in New Zealand’s artistic and media communities, I can’t help but remain wary of the classical music world, RNZ as an institution, and the state of media in New Zealand.
I’ve seen bandied around recently the statement that “Music is for everyone”. This is the equivalent of saying: “I don’t see colour”, and it demonstrates the kind of wilful Pākehā blindness I’ve seen so many times.
Music is for everyone, until you’re challenged on the legitimacy of your blood quantum and whether your ethnic mouth can enunciate European languages well enough. (This was a comment I heard first-hand from a Dame at a chamber music competition we were recording for RNZ Concert.)
I will try to end on a happy note. After my redundancy, I was connected by another benevolent friend (who I’d met through music school) to do comms at the Manukau Institute of Technology in Ōtara.
It was like fate. And reconnecting to brown, poor spaces again felt like a homecoming. But this time, it was like a utopian version of the hood, with beautiful brown people fully expressing themselves on their own terms at the faculty of creative arts (RIP), and even in the automotive school’s paint shop where students had made stunning portraits on car hoods.
Despite cultural suppression of Māori and Pasifika in very recent 19th and 20th century history (happening while some of our favourite classical works were being written), seeing my people breathe cultural life into spaces not designed for us has given me so much strength.
We’ve taken it upon ourselves to produce art and media that reflects our lives and place in society regardless of a colonial government’s feverishly wrought-over broadcasting charter. Outlets like The Coconet and E-Tangata produce high-quality content that is sometimes better than the output I see at RNZ.
Did you know that MIT have both a Māori and Pasifika advisor sitting under the CEO to directly advise on cultural matters relating to the majority of their students? If the future of New Zealand is brown, and RNZ wish to reflect this, perhaps this style of corporate governance could be a good starting point. But this intention must trickle down to the grassroots where the good stuff is.
RNZ’s biggest wero right now is not keeping Concert afloat, but to do a better job of reflecting the community it serves.
Concert’s biggest wero is becoming a holistic mirror of New Zealand’s artistic communities, to face and accept diversity and decolonise its programming for the greater good of all New Zealanders.
Oh, and to somehow make this fun for everyone to listen to. Light work, right?
One of my favourite contributors to work with at RNZ Concert was Robin Maconie. I believe he was one of the few New Zealand composers who had studied with Olivier Messiaen and Karlheinz Stockhausen. He was retired at the time we worked together, but he did teach aesthetics at a university in the US for some time. I felt most comfortable with him for some reason — probably because of his association with Stockhausen which meant I could be my weird self and he wouldn’t flinch.
I understood Maconie’s ideas to be laughed at by most people within the classical world and just anyone who’d consider them. He’d do things like directly compare the fortissimo of a Beethoven work to a Māori haka on National Radio with Kim Hill — and go so far as to say that a haka can be considered classical music because of this.
I actually loved this perspective, for two reasons. Firstly, he took the time to engage with te ao Māori without some wack political agenda (so rare). Secondly, he attempted to bridge an earnest connection between two worlds.
If we forget about the literal mashup of a Beethoven haka (which would sound awful), this thinking around a fundamental connection between cultures could seed the framework for a public broadcaster serving a bicultural country, within an ever-changing world that needs bridges. Fast.
It’s also one of the few efforts I’ve seen from Pākehā to bridge the cultural divide. We’re always the one to do the cultural labour — karakia, translations, staying up to 4am to write this essay . . .
This piece was first published in Medium and is reprinted here with permission
Sophie Yana Wilson (Ngā Puhi, Kāi Tahu, Sāmoa) is a musician, artist and writer living in Naarm, in Melbourne, Australia. She was a music producer at Radio New Zealand Concert from 2011-2015, where she produced hundreds of live concert broadcasts. Her pièce de résistance at RNZ was a documentary on Aotearoa Futurism (2015).
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