The Birds Began to Sing: A memoir of a New Zealand composer by Dorothy Buchanan (Cuba Press, 2021), 240pp, $40; Unposted, Autumn Leaves: A memoir in essays by Stephen Oliver (Greywacke Press, 2021), 340pp, $30
Reflections on our own past are unavoidably narcissistic, and the motivations and justifications for writing a memoir are always complicated. As Jesse Mulligan pointed out on Radio NZ earlier this year, when discussing Charlotte Grimshaw’s explosive memoir, The Mirror Book, we don’t want to read about just anyone’s life. To make your life story worth paying for and perusing by strangers, it needs to be remarkable.
Christchurch-born Dorothy Buchanan’s life certainly qualifies. Her long career as a musician and composer has been exceptionally productive and has left an indelible mark on New Zealand’s musical development and canon. Her compositions and their recordings are numerous and celebrated (though Peace Song perhaps remains most widely loved and known), and a string of awards is testimony to the professional regard in which she is held. In 2001, she was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for a lifetime’s involvement in music.
Despite her prestigious career, however, Buchanan’s voice in this memoir has a curiously pragmatic tone, the enduring legacy perhaps of her down-to-earth upbringing in the small West Coast town of Greymouth, ‘where it rains on average every second day’. The reminiscences of her Catholic childhood are a glorious mixture of musicality and minutiae. Intertwined with recollections of such characters as her grandad—the youthful orchard robber and waiata singer whose wife ‘was extremely pissed off when his home brew exploded in the outhouse one day’—is the documentation of an exceptional family. Her talented father who ‘could read music but preferred not to’ and ‘just played all those wonderful Gershwin songs by ear’; the gifted mother who ‘was the first in the country to play Ravel’s Sonatine … a piece of music to die for’; and the six daughters who all learnt to sing and play and write music as a natural and joyful consequence of their home environment. By the time the family moved to Christchurch, ‘flat and full of cyclists’, when Dorothy was seven, there was a full-scale battle for keyboards on which to practise before breakfast. Buchanan recalls her ‘scramble out of bed in the morning to get on to the Rippen … the best piano in the house. Margy would get on the front room piano, a German Lipp. The third was the Gulbransen, the pianola. We simply had to shut out the sounds each other made.’ One wonders whether the neighbours developed a similar facility.
Buchanan’s religious upbringing infused her musical output, and her prodigious talent was ably fostered by some perceptive Sisters of the Mission—though one’s suggestion that Dorothy herself might have a religious vocation was firmly rejected by Dorothy. When conductor and composer John Ritchie heard the fifteen-year-old Buchanan conducting a choir of her peers at St Mary’s College, he enquired about her ambitions. When she told him she intended to become a nurse, he suggested she become a composer instead. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Buchanan’s account of her youthful experiences as a music student at the University of Canterbury and a violinist with the Christchurch Civic Orchestra is a revealing mixture of awe and awkwardness. She identifies that ‘the other music students were from the more moneyed parts of Christchurch’ and that within the orchestra, she ‘quickly identified a particular quartet as “the four bitches” and avoided them’. On tour in Europe and America with the Harmonic Society Choir, she recalls singing at Windsor Castle, at Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral—for the widows of Vaughan Williams and Bernard Freyberg—and at the famed Juilliard School of Music in New York. She also recalls a curry in Glasgow that burnt her mouth, along with the sherry they drank with it—‘Sherry! Good Lord. We were so green’ —and a large reception held at the Boston Symphony Hall, where she ‘ate [her] first ever olive—a green one’ and ‘did not like it’.
Barely twenty, Buchanan experienced acute homesickness during the choir’s tour. In London, she remembers calling out ‘Mum!’ to a woman in the street who looked like her mother. But even more painful to her was the absence of a piano. On two occasions, when she was granted access to an instrument, she experienced ‘a huge catharsis’; the ‘music’, she recalls, ‘was tumbling out of my head’. This early experience of a life far from home may have had an unintended effect; for the rest of her long career, Buchanan remained firmly fixed in New Zealand and was proud to accept the title of ‘composer-at-home’ bestowed on her by one newspaper.
In 1967, aged just twenty-two, Buchanan married for the first time, and ‘for about five minutes’ was Dorothy Buchanan-Scott. She called herself Dorothy Scott for a year and thereafter reverted to Dorothy Buchanan, not least because ‘compositions under that name were beginning to pay’. She ‘never entertained the idea of changing’ her name again, which was probably wise; I confess to losing track of the number and order of her subsequent marriages, as documented in the memoir.
Despite the sadness and upheaval that must be attached to such partings, Buchanan is matter-of-fact and largely magnanimous about her various marriage breakdowns. Her burgeoning career, her teaching debut, her role as New Zealand’s first Composer in Schools, her mothering of a child, her creative collaboration with students and poets and performers, and her prolific and relentless musical output all demonstrate the formidable drive and creative absorption that are the hallmarks of a rare gift. She must have been a tough act for any mortal man to keep pace with.
Reading this memoir is like traversing one of the vast braided river beds of the Canterbury plains. One skips and jumps between the shingle banks and stones that form the rich ecosystem of Buchanan’s life, the personal anecdotes and encounters, the humorous and poignant particulars of cherished clothing and houses and how people died. But what shapes and binds it all—and makes a glorious journey for the reader—is the ceaseless weave and flow of music and its composition, Buchanan’s dedication to the reform of its teaching and its positioning at the heart of the New Zealand arts, ‘a reflection of our country, the light, the landscape, and our evolving culture’.
In contrast with Buchanan’s status as ‘composer-at-home’, Stephen Oliver, author of Unposted, Autumn Leaves, identifies as a ‘transtasman poet’, which—we are informed during the twelve-page introduction by Nicholas Birns—means ‘he is a poet of both Australia and New Zealand’, but with ‘Australasian ambitions’. However, in this ‘Memoir in Essays’ (a subtitle that is rather subverted by the significant amount of his own poetry with which the author punctuates the prose), Oliver extends his record of flight far beyond either nation while still somehow remaining deeply entrenched in his geographical, cultural and ancestral origins.
A sizable chunk of the volume is devoted to Oliver’s memories of boyhood and early adult life in Wellington, delivered with a sharp edge of irony and exhaustive attention to detail. In their meticulous evocation of a place, the memories record a particular slice of New Zealand sociological history, while Oliver’s numerous descriptions of the cruel corporal discipline inflicted on children by the (in this case, Catholic) educators of the era contribute to a growing archive of accounts of this nationwide trauma.
Where Buchanan, born five years before Oliver, found companionship and support despite the failings in her Catholic schooling, Oliver’s experience is characterised by disappointment and disconnection. Early humiliations—such as a teacher’s demonstration before an entire class of Oliver’s flat-footedness—pale beside his lasting chagrin at his removal from an upper academic stream at high school, in which he ‘felt totally out of [his] depth’, to a lower stream. This lower class was populated by ‘the lower working-class kids from the poorer families of Newtown and Island Bay suburbs, a varied ethnic mix’, in which Oliver evidently felt equally misplaced, though for different reasons. ‘Cleverness’, Oliver decided then, ‘belonged to formulaic talents’, or so he ‘would come to believe regarding many of the contemporary literary lights feted by publishers and popular literary cliques of the 70s’.
Oliver’s disillusionment, thus established, permeates subsequent reminiscences, but is perhaps best summarised by this single passage: ‘Youth ends soon enough, and all you’ve got to show for it is the memory of a few wild interludes, a bunch of interesting individuals who might be friends but who proved to be neither, a handful of (if you’re lucky) sexually memorable relationships, a flagging idealism best left buried and of no use to man or beast.’ He offers cold comfort with the opinion that ‘all this doesn’t appear too bad and is a state by far preferable to the life of any successful academic’. Nonetheless, it is an apparently successful academic, whose professional collaboration with Oliver is of long standing, who has written the memoir’s consciously erudite introduction.
Though Oliver evinces all the melancholic cynicism for which Beat poets are remembered, there are times when the reader gets glimpses of pleasure, even if it is the very mixed variety induced by his encounters with such volatile, fragile souls as Vicki Viidikas in Newtown’s rowdy pubs, or Richard Ramos in San Francisco’s. Or by brief, ultimately unsatisfactory affairs. Or the consumption of recreational substances.
Where some sense of joy does surface in this collection is in those essays, less personal in tone and topic, that trace the origins, culture and poetics of Oliver’s Irish ancestors. In these meandering and wide-reaching musings, Oliver’s bitterness dissolves, and his enthusiasm and intellect emerge. Despite some woefully entangled syntax, these sections effectively communicate Oliver’s passion for the rich legacy of his Celtic past, and his pride in the ancestors with whom he argues a coexistent connection in the reflective tunnel of ancient memory. Looking back, then, is not always in anger.
RACHEL O’CONNOR teaches English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Auckland. Her novel, Whispering City, was published by Kedros in 2020, and her short fiction and nonfiction have been published in Ireland and New Zealand, and broadcast on Radio NZ.