Sonic Arts

Story by Marcus Jackson

New Zealand School of Music, 2017

“A confluence of turning points”

“A focus for those looking to reject or exceed the limitations of instrumental music”: this is how scholars John Young and Michael Norris (2001, 22) described the early days of the Lilburn Studios for electronic music, housed in the New Zealand School | Te Kōkī (NZSM).

Douglas Lilburn

Founded by Douglas Lilburn in October 1966, the studios came about as part of Lilburn’s own creative revolution. Lilburn’s turning point came out of a feeling that he was growing out of touch with the European tradition of instrumental music.

Influenced by the experimentalism of German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, and a commission by New Zealand Broadcasting to provide music for a play, Lilburn began to compose electronic music. This became his sole focus over the years until his retirement in 1979.

Encouraged by Frederick Page, who had appointed Lilburn to the music department, the legacy of experimental electronic music in Aotearoa New Zealand was borne out of the studios.

Ross Harris

In 1980, composer Ross Harris took over the studios – known then as the Victoria University Electronic Music Studios – and taught composition at Victoria. Things were considerably different to how they are today, composers worked with reel-to-reel tape recorders, razor blades, and splicing tape.

As an active instrumental composer, Harris made use of the technology available to create pieces for live instrument and tape delay.

Requiring two tape machines and a quick-handed performer, the sound would be recorded onto one tape, then recorded at a delay to the other, resulting in an echo-like effect. However, at certain points, the performer would have to switch over the tapes – such are the limitations of analogue technology.

These days, Sonic Arts at NZSM is much more than reel-to-reel tape machines and electronic music. The Lilburn Studios boast an octophonic ring of speakers and wide range of software and hardware, meaning composers have a world of sonic possibilities at their fingertips – without the need to ever touch a piece of tape.

Dugal McKinnon

Current Director of the Lilburn Studios, Dr Dugal McKinnon completed his Bachelor of Music with Honours alongside a Bachelor of Arts in English at Victoria. Under the tutelage of Jack Body and Ross Harris, it was the latter who introduced him to the world of electronic music.

Studying during the early days of digital synthesis – making sounds with a computer, rather than tape and hardware samplers – it was the cumbersome, and ultimately unattractive Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument that initially put McKinnon off electronic music.

Re-engaging with the studios in his fourth year, McKinnon began work on electronic music again. This was a turning point in his music life and he went on to complete his PhD at the University of Birmingham (UK) in composition, with a focus on electronic music.

Dugal in Action

Sonic Arts and NZSM

McKinnon introduced Sonic Arts as a major to NZSM. Building on the legacy of those who came before him, he sees the role of Sonic Arts at NZSM to be both self-contained, focused on the possibilities of electronic music, and interdisciplinary; working in collaboration with Performance students, with Music studies, and furthering the interplay between Sonic Arts and Instrumental Composition.

While stretching the boundaries is necessarily important for academic music, it is is not the role any more for Sonic Arts to be only about the avant-garde. Rather than trying to be as different and out-of-the-box as possible, McKinnon believes it is important to do things extremely proficiently.

This is what the Sonic Arts programme is teaching students – technical fluency to allow them to create the best art (and sound) possible.

Long gone are the days of academic isolation – the way forward for Sonic Arts involves much crossover. What role does sonic art play in popular music?

Where is the place for sonic art among the fine arts? These are the questions propelling the Sonic Arts programme forward.


Gate 7, Kelburn Parade, Kelburn, Wellington 6012, New Zealand