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Nelson, July 2022

Updated: May 4, 2023

Reflection 2/10 - the Spirit of Nelson

It's no secret that I have a mild obsession with Nelson. It was first sparked by an interest in a rockquest band in high school, and later spurred on by a summer spent there as a young and in love university student. Nowadays though, I associate Nelson with friendship and community with the Nelson Composers Workshop (aka “Nelson” or NCW for short) being a highlight of my year.

As a young "composer" I was always reluctant to engage with the "compositional community". My brief (3 day) stint as a Law student had me feeling like an outsider within the music world. On reflection this was merely because I joined my classmates in the second week of term - missing out on only 3 hours of teaching. My peers seemed to be “more formed” musicians because they had made the “informed” decision to study music at university. In contrast, I had made a largely uninformed, probably rash, and honestly a bit too strongly influenced by the girl I liked, decision to study music. It is not that I didn’t like law school, I just didn’t give it much of a go. The Socratic method of Vic’s law programme - one of the factors which drew me to Wellington - created an overwhelming sense of dread. Something I wasn't going to put up with for the next five years. Studying science as well as music added to the feeling of not being a “proper” music student, yet alone a musician. It was a feeling that'd persist well into my undergrad.

My first Nelson (Composers Workshop) was a pivotal moment for my musical identity. Although by all accounts the workshop itself was a bit sterile, the extra-musical activities were fertile. Many friendships that were forged in pews of the Freehouse are still strong to this day and I can trace the very first grains of so many ideas to a specific moment there. A key part of the Nelson experience is engaging with contemporaries and their work, which I found to be the odd mix of inspiring and comforting. It provoked the sense of being in the right place and on the right track, and I left my first Nelson feeling confident as a music student - I’d even go so far as to call myself an “emerging composer”. Needless to say, after one I was hooked.

The next Nelson was similarly significant. It was a surprise to be invited onto the administration team for the Workshop’s 40th anniversary. When the offer was made, I was in the depths of my masters study and was admittedly reluctant to accept given the workshop’s proximity to submission date. It seemed like a major step up in scale from my current projects but I loved Nelson and saw it as a great opportunity. One that somebody else would take if I didn't.

The planning process was nothing short of a rollercoaster. An administration team of 5 was reduced to 2 with the workload significantly increasing beyond what was expected. I often wonder if I would have still agreed to take on the project if I had known what was ahead. There were many important lessons but even more conflicted feelings. A major highlight of the process, however, was the working relationship and later friendship formed with Ihlara, my co-convenor. It's refreshing to meet someone who is so unashamedly themselves and a genuinely remarkable person. Our working relationship was bolstered by having very complimentary administrative styles. I would periodically give the project a boost in momentum and Ihlara would ensure that everything was running smoothly, never taking her finger off the pulse. Perhaps its a bit like curling? Ihlara always has the empathy, kindness, and compassion to deal with any situation.

Anyway, back to lessons. In an attempt to practice being a backpacker, I made the now regrettable decision to walk from the Nelson Airport into town. This was the first of a few questionable life choices that I now consider great opportunities for growth. You see, I had heard that the best way to "see" a place was to walk it, and so instead of a 15 minute taxi-ride I opted for the 2 and half hour walk into town - yes I missed the turn off and went around the port. Also I underestimated how much carrying a suitcase would slow me down and the blisters that would result from such a journey. On the bright side, it was a gorgeous mid-winter day and I saw plenty of things you can only see on foot.

This Nelson, I also also learnt the importance of being diplomatic even when somebody asks “what do you really think?” as generally they are looking for you to reaffirm their thoughts rather than express your own. Generally I take people quite literally. When someone says "I promise I won't be mad", I tend to believe them. The friend in question had been prodding at this subject for at least six months and after deflecting these attempts very successfully, late one night at the Nelson YHA I let my guard down.

That brings me nicely to another lesson. Earlier that evening was a celebration of my portfolio and thesis submission from the month prior. It was towards the end of the workshop week and I was due an early night to save some energy for the final few days. With the gentle encouragement of my colleagues and friends - who reminded me that this was our first proper hangout in nine covid effected months and that the achievement of completing a masters in the middle of a pandemic deserved a true Nelson celebration - I agreed to stay for one. And then two. And then three. A wiseman told me that if you're going to convene Nelson, you had to convene ALL of Nelson.

Even earlier that evening I had gone out for dinner at one of Nelson's finest establishments. The venue and cuisine were not my first choice, but the company certainly was. I happened to find myself attached to a group of performers who had rather adventurous and exotic tastes. Wanting to seem adventurous and exotic myself, I joined them. Struggling to choose between the popcorn chicken hearts and the beef tartare, I found myself in the unusual situation of being grateful that this was a sharing restaurant - usually my least favourite type of restaurant. Wanting to give everything a go, I launched into the edamame beans. I was finding them rather tough and fibrous until I looked up to see that you are not meant to eat the shells. Rescued by a phone call and able to duck off before showcasing my inability to use chopsticks, I left on an empty stomach and craving a burger.

It didn't take long the following morning to realise that some reflection was in order. I recall texting Ihlara at 6:55 informing her of my current condition which was greeted with total grace and understanding. Upon reflection, the events of that whole evening stem from the desire to fit in. You could argue that perhaps I was just being adventurous, open minded, and maybe a little bit culinarily naive but I know I wanted to present a more "cultured" version of myself. I also know that I said yes to the night out because I wanted to be seen as "fun and exciting". It's paradoxical, though, because I associate Nelson with being the place where I can truly be myself. I'd like to pretend that these were the thoughts that I had as I took some time to myself that morning in another one of Nelson's finest establishments - Maccas. However, truthfully they have just dawned on me now. At the time I was probably just stoked that you could get a Big Mac before 9am.

As the Nelson roller coaster pulled into the station, the track mostly smoothed out. Once the troops were on the ground, the true spirit of Nelson returned. The atmosphere was set during the first dinner and drinks with the legendary “do the Johnny Chang” motif emerging. New friendships were also tested with the toilet paper challenge, another great success. Despite having to do a bit of Ashley Bloomfield-ing on the final day, this trip to Nelson is my favourite to date. Seeing a group of participant composers, many of whom were strangers before that day, and hearing their enthusiastic and engaged conversations ahead of the workshop’s orientation serves as a reminder that it was all indeed worth it.

I arrived anxious, insecure, and feeling out of my depth. I left inspired, accepted, and appreciated. This was the moment I felt that I was a musician.


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