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BooksApril 19, 2022

The human scale of it: Peter Simpson remembers the composer Jonathan Besser


Peter Simpson reads Around the Corners, Out to the Edges, a memoir released two months after the untimely death of his friend, Jonathan Besser.

The title of Jonathan’s memoir comes from the opening lines of a long poem by the American poet Robert Creeley, written during his second visit to Auckland, in 1995. 

Curious coming again here
where I hadn’t known where I was ever,

following lead of provident strangers,
around the corners, out to the edges…

– The Dogs of Auckland

There is a multiple appropriateness to this choice of title and epigraph. Jonathan, like Creeley, was an American who came to New Zealand as a stranger and approached the country with openness and curiosity. But Creeley visited only twice for a few months in total, whereas Jonathan came in 1972 and (with a couple of breaks) stayed for 50 years, becoming a New Zealand citizen and establishing his rich career as a composer and musician largely in this country. 

There is a further connection between Creeley and Jonathan. The Dogs of Auckland was published in 1998 by The Holloway Press, a letter-press operation at the University of Auckland. I was co-director with Alan Loney; we printed the poem along with seven highly expressive ink brush drawings of dogs by the New York-based New Zealand artist Max Gimblett. In 2009 Jonathan turned the poem and Gimblett’s dog drawings into a multimedia Auckland Festival event with live music composed and performed by Jonathan (and others). There was a reading of the eight-part poem, accompanied by projected visuals featuring Gimblett’s drawings – not just those published in the book but more than 40 others. (You can watch a performance of the poem with Jonathan’s music and Gimblett’s visuals here.)

Besser, photographed by Marti Friedlander. (Photo: Marti Friedlander)

It was during preparations for this event that I first met Jonathan; he needed copyright permission to use the poem and drawings. Over the next decade and more we became firm friends, often meeting to share a bottle of red wine at the late-lamented Golden Dawn or at our respective homes in Ponsonby and Mount Eden. Our friendship led to a further collaboration in 2011 between Jonathan, Gimblett and Holloway Press: The Green Bicycle, involving facsimiles and recorded performances of Jonathan’s gamelan-inflected music, and several unique coloured-ink drawings (different in each copy) by Max plus a wonderful Indonesian-inspired poem by Chris Price which gave the book its title. 

As these events suggest, Jonathan had a penchant for collaboration, often sweeping up other musicians and artists working in different media (poetry, theatre, ballet, orchestra, visual arts, film) into his projects or, alternatively, they involving him in theirs. The pages of his memoir are strewn with the names of many of the best and brightest of his generation in the arts: Ross Harris, Don McGlashan, Eve de Castro Robinson, Billy Apple, John Reynolds, Alan Brunton, Bill Direen, Ian Wedde, Mere Boynton, Warwick Broadbent, Miranda Adams, Mahinārangi Tocker, Mary Jane O’Reilly, Chris Prosser, Gary Brain, Shirley Horrocks, Roger McDonald, Wayne Laird, Steve Garden… the list goes on and on. 

The band Bravura at Cooks Beach recording the album Turn for Rattle Records. (Front to back) Nigel Gavin, Miranda Adams, Peter Scott, me, producer Steve Garden, Tatiana Lanchkchova. (Photo: Supplied)

These people are mentioned in Jonathan’s memoir not in any “name-dropping” spirit (he was modesty personified) but because creative engagement with others was central to his modus operandi. Even the music he composed in isolation (to within weeks of his death) was often written with specific performers in mind – duos for violin and viola, string quartets, song cycles, full orchestral scores or music for the many bands he created, from the electronica of Free Radicals to the klezmer-influenced music of The Zestnicks. This diverse history points to some of Jonathan’s enduring characteristics – his zest, his can-do inventiveness, his versatility, his amiability, his gregariousness, his responsiveness, his drive.

For almost as long as I knew him, Jonathan was talking about this book, and I’m so pleased he got to hold a finished copy before his untimely death. Many of his friends were writers – poets, novelists, playwrights, historians, art writers, critics – and he was determined to become a writer himself, even though as a borderline dyslexic (as discussed in the book) writing presented difficulties for him. I did a search through old emails from Jonathan, and the earliest mention of the book that I came up with was: “Now I’m back on my memoir – reread.” This was in February 2015, more than seven years ago, and he had obviously been working on it well before then. Jonathan does not say much about this lengthy process in his note at the back of the book but does acknowledge four editors who worked with him on the manuscript at various stages, the latest being Nicola McCloy, named with Jonathan on the title page, who finally brought the book to bed. 

A portrait of Besser from the 1980s. (Photo: Supplied)

Despite half a century in New Zealand, Jonathan sounded when he talked like Woody Allen and looked increasingly (as he said himself) like Albert Einstein; he remained to the end a New York Jew. In fact living in New Zealand if anything enhanced his sense of Jewishness. He writes: “I have no idea if I would have eventually written similar Jewish music or identified as Jewish as much as I have if I’d stayed in New York.” In New York, the most populous Jewish city on earth, being Jewish was commonplace, part of the air that he breathed; in New Zealand being Jewish gave him an edge of difference and he came increasingly to explore it, as in, to give just one example, the song cycle Aroha/Ahava he wrote for Māori singer Mere Boynton: “The concept was to find and exploit the unique cultural connection between Māori and Jewish people using the Song of Solomon from the Old Testament.” 

An increasingly strong influence on his work was klezmer music, defined by Wikipedia as “an instrumental musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. The essential elements of the tradition include dance tunes, ritual melodies, and virtuosic improvisations played for listening; these would have been played at weddings and other social functions”. Several of the groups Jonathan formed, such as Bravura, The Besser Ensemble and The Zestnicks played this style of music, oscillating between infectious vivacity and plangent melancholy and with an unusual combination of instruments. The Zestnicks, for example, used trumpet, vibraphone, violin, viola, bass, guitar, voice and of course always with the impresario Besser dynamic at the keyboard.

The Besser Ensemble: (clockwise from bottom left) Rachel McLaren, George Packard, Roger Sellers, Ross Harris, Noel Clayton and Besser in the centre. (Photo: Supplied)

But while remaining something of an exotic in our native garden, Jonathan identified himself deeply with his adopted country. He lived at various times all over the place – in Dunedin, where he held the Mozart Fellowship, as well as for long periods in Wellington and Auckland; though essentially urban in instinct he even spent time living remotely in the Hokianga. He left New York in the early 1970s because he found it abrasive, dangerous and harshly competitive. He writes: “I love my found country New Zealand – the human scale of it … Here in this small land, I work with dancers, make film music, write for symphony orchestras and top chamber groups, perform on piano … make conceptual artworks, ad-lib with laureate poets, and work in poor schools. I feel you have to be versatile in New Zealand to eke out a living and happily get by.”

Jonathan Besser did more than “happily get by”. New Zealand did much for him but he in his turn gave so much back. As this absorbing and lively memoir – crammed with anecdotes, characters and unique fragments of cultural history – shows, he made an indelible contribution to our cultural fabric and his passing leaves a gaping hole.

Around the Corners, Out to the Edges: A Memoir by Composer Jonathan Besser, by Jonathan Besser with Nicola McCloy (Bateman, $50) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington

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