19 Aug 2018

Dudley Benson's Zealandia

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 19 August 2018

It's been an eight-year wait for Dudley Benson's new album Zealandia. William Dart shares its very special revelations.

Dudley Benson

Dudley Benson Photo: RNZ/Tim Dodd

Dudley Benson is a caster of spells and a weaver of dreams. One of the best and most persuasive that we have.

Which was just what he was up to here, eight years ago, in the Oratia Settlers Hall, in Waitakere bush country. This re-creation of his Forest album was just over an hour of a unique a cappella paradise. Dudley sang songs by Hirini Melbourne in te reo, backed up by the barbershopping of a four-man Dawn Chorus, with Hopey One adding a gentle beat box rev-up. It was mesmerising.

Until this week, Dudley Benson’s exquisite Forest CD was the most recent studio album but now, eight years on, there’s more magic afoot, as he moves from sylvan glades to the wider land that we inhabit, in the dozen tracks of his Zealandia.

Initially one stands back in some sort of awe at the immensity and utter detailing. On my first listen-through, I was imagining a musical equivalent to those extravagant Bavarian castles of King Ludwig, temples of and to the most delicious excess conceivable. Dudley Benson, drawing on everything from the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra and the NZ Youth Choir to a host of musicians playing harpsichord, harp, celeste, koto, slide guitar and bagpipes, creates the equivalent of a musical Neuschwandstein Castle, with just the right balance of rococo finery and sonic tukutuku.

It’s taken Benson eight years to weave together the 68 minutes of Zealandia, its earliest seeds being planted when he took up an artists residency in the small Central Otago town of Naseby. He remembers early writing sessions at the bottom of the South Island looking over the water at Rakiura, working with Andrew Baldwin, who was one of the voices on that 2010 Dawn Chorus featured in Forest, and whose name is attached to Zealandia’s orchestral and choral arrangements.

The theme of the album is an ambitious one, Zealandia being the great sunken continent on which we’re poised. The title song is kept until last, a great nine-minute outpouring that sums up the historical and environmental concerns of the preceding eleven tracks.

The subject in Zealandia is often the land itself, and all that lives on it. And, in some cases, that once lived on it. The song, "Séance", was the last to be written and, at just over two minutes, it’s the shortest by far of the twelve. Benson wanted something punchy and different and creates a musical séance in which he calls on the 150 odd native birds that have become extinct, recording his whispered voice in the Maori Affairs Council Room at Parliament. A plea that ends as choral anger blends with the immutable beauties of Alistair Fraser's taonga puoro and Eric Renick’s celeste.

The boldest song on Dudley Benson’s new set, discounting the nine-minute title track, is "It’s Otepoti’s Fault" – a number that picks up, in a sense, from where his earlier song, "It’s Akaroa’s Fault" left off ten years ago. Between the two pieces of music, Benson moved south to Dunedin, and reflects again on his late mother and his relationship with her — hence the dual gendering of the lyrics.

Musically, it was a chance for the singer to remember a favourite piano piece by Douglas Lilburn, the melancholic and reflective tone of which suits the mood and spirit of the words. It’s also worth noting that it balances the reference to one of the singer’s favourite Rita Angus portraits in his song "Rutu".

This early Lilburn Prelude becomes a combination of poetic image, structural scaffolding and, in the best sense of the word, ear-worm. Listening to it as it gets caught up in the song’s sonic embroidery is spellbinding. And perhaps the crafting is at its most daring when Lilburn shares the space with women’s voices or Paddy Burgin’s slide guitar, both against Benson’s flickering beats, bringing about a new, vibrant musica tangata.

Hear these and more songs from Zealandia by clicking on the 'Listen' button above.

Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title
(Label)

'Tirairaka' (Benson) – Dudley Benson
Live Series: Volume One
(Golden Retriever)

'Zealandia' (Benson) – Dudley Benson
Zealandia
(Golden Retriever)

'Papa' (Benson) – Dudley Benson
Zealandia
(Golden Retriever)

'Matariki' (Benson) – Dudley Benson
Zealandia
(Golden Retriever)

'Birth of a Nation' (Benson) – Dudley Benson
Zealandia
(Golden Retriever)

'Cook Beleaguered' (Benson) – Dudley Benson
Zealandia
(Golden Retriever)

'Opo the Crazy Dolphin' (Murdoch) – Pat McMinn, Bill Langford, Crombie Murdoch Trio
The Tanza Years Volume 2
(Manuka Sounds)

'Opo' (Benson) – Dudley Benson
Zealandia
(Golden Retriever)

'Séance' (Benson) – Dudley Benson
Zealandia
(Golden Retriever)

'It’s Ōtepoti’s Fault' (Benson) – Dudley Benson
Zealandia
(Golden Retriever)

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