Friday, November 16, 2012

Piano Forte: Stories and Soundscapes from Colonial New Zealand - By Kristine Moffat - Otago University Press $45

Kirstine Moffat is convenes English and is the senior lecturer at the University of Waikato, with reasearch on nineteenth and early twentieth-century feminist writings.  In particular she's interested in the motif of music and what it conveys about feminity, which led to this book.

Piano Forte looks at the time when the piano was at the centre of private, social and cultural life for many New Zealanders. Comprised of many voices, being based on memoirs, diaries, letters, concert programmes, company records and other accounts, her stories begin in 1827, with the arrival the first piano, through to the 1930's - when the increasing popularity of the phonograph, the radio and the talkies diverted us away.

I love these alternative little histories, viewing things from another perspective.  If you'veseen Jane Campion's The Piano then you can imagine how strange this instrument must have felt arrivinging as it did in it's crate onto the sands and being dragged off into the damp, overgrown bush to a shanty hut, where it was expected to warm the rooms with the sense and sensibilities of 'home'. 

For Maori it was not only an new sound but a crazy new look.  Instruments with mechanisms and machinery.  You can also imagine their surprise to find that pulleys, levers and such could make sound that to the Maori ears was very radical.  For a culture that was raised on nose flutes and taiha this is a massive departure and perhaps their first brush with the automaton and the impending industrial revolution of England.

The Piano was also the istrument of the church, and the pub and the town hall and the home. The protocols, the music the time and the place.  This is what I really love above this book, the research that finds the connections and shows us, once again that technology and our response to it shapes up, as we shape it. 

My only niggle really is about the amauerish design of the book jacket, which seems to be an issue for nearly all university Press productions.  I can not believe that budget determines style and presentation.  So if a second edition ever emerges, lets work on that.  But as an alt history this selection of historical sketches, paintings and photographs of the piano in many contexts provide a great visual essay, a great read over the coming summer months.  Not too academic but not to ght as to disregard respect of the reader.  Well done.

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