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Space waltz: A Synthesized Universe was first performed at Otago Museum’s planetarium. Photo/Ian Griffin/Supplied

Anthonie Tonnon is transporting concert-goers in a different kind of way

The Kiwi musician with a background in history wants to send his fans into orbit – or just down the line.

Anthonie Tonnon is a historian. Yes, he’s a musician, too – a one-man band of electronica, keyboards and a particularly nice 1968 vintage Yamaha guitar – but these days he’s primarily involved in repackaging New Zealand’s past into poignant indie pop performances to make his audience rethink how, why and where we live as Kiwis.

Sounds intense? Well, actually, no – it’s all rather fun and hands-on. For example, when the Listener gets in touch to talk about a few upcoming gigs, Tonnon is deep in preparations for a home-town Whanganui performance of his Rail Land show, which requires the audience the travel to and from St Peter’s Church, Gonville, on a specially chartered bus that traces the old No 6 tram route between Castlecliff Terminus and Whanganui Tramshed at Taupo Quay.

It’s a familiar shtick for Rail Land – the first, last November, involved chartering a train from Dunedin to Waitati; others have involved the audience catching trains to Palmerston North, Paekākāriki, Masterton and Ellerslie.

The effects of including the transport in the entertainment aspect of the show aren’t just that it creates a collegiate, all-in-this-together atmosphere, but also that Tonnon can highlight the network of rail and tramways that once linked small-town New Zealand and that were scrapped to create what are now essentially – in his words – “zombie towns”.

Old Images, the song released to accompany the original Waitati Hall Rail Land performance, is packed with wistful strings and lyrics about Tonnon touring old Otago stations, lingering over rusted fences and disused tracks. But he’s quick to ditch any notion that he’s wallowing in nostalgia. Yes, he spent hours doing research for his shows at the Otago Settlers Museum, Otago Museum and the Hocken Collections at the University of Otago Library, and, yes, as a history graduate, he revels in talking about primary and secondary sources and explaining the “farebox recovery ratio”, which determines the viability of a particular transport route. But he’s primarily fixated on making his audience concentrate on the “now”.

We are, he insists, “fighting against an incredible loss of memory”.

“The rail system has been so under-valued, by those who run it and with the generational change in the 1990s, that all the information about it hasn’t even been digitised. You need a history degree just to work it out. Rail Land is the ultimate metaphor for talking about the way we think and the way we manage our country and our resources and the way in which we value our cities and our towns.”

So, are the shows a form of protest? Tonnon says that for his generation – it’s telling he defines this by saying he was born just after finance minister Roger Douglas floated the dollar in March 1985 – protest doesn’t work in the way it did for boomers.

Anthonie Tonnon. Photo/Shanaya Allan/Supplied

“The generation I’m part of is ambivalent about the forms of protest that were more common before the 1980s – I don’t feel as if letters to the editor would work and I don’t focus on writing protest songs in the same way as There is No Depression in New Zealand was a protest song. There’s an unwillingness to be didactic in that way; instead, we use different methods. So, I wouldn’t say that Rail Land is a protest; instead, it is doing something.

“That’s where I see potential for change – if I get 150 people together and [we] have a great experience by running a train, that to me is much more interesting than writing letters to the editor.”

In the same way that the Rail Land show changes from location to location – and, he hopes, will grow with his music year-by-year – Tonnon’s second set of shows this year is also an evolution – this time from an idea conceived to run as part of last year’s New Zealand International Science Festival and first performed at Otago Museum’s planetarium.

A Synthesized Universe relies, like Rail Land, on a great deal of research condensed into a one-hour show. It originally involved using a real-time planetarium display for its backdrop, but, Tonnon says, it was unrealistic to have a show that relied on “anyone who has a state-of-the-art, half-a-million-dollar planetarium”. So he’s adapted it to be able to tour smaller venues and arts festivals by incorporating 3D holograms created by projectors and computer mapping, which run behind a constant flow of spoken-word narratives, history-telling, theatricality, a synthesizer score and individual songs.

Although Tonnon started out as a traditional release-an-album, tour-an-album performer and still intends to release albums, he’s adapted quickly to what he says is the far more interesting process of building themed live shows and tours.

“I struggle with the culture of music that I grew up in of just playing songs and ‘being real, man’. I don’t think we were respecting people’s time.

“I’ve come to realise that the only reason a performer deserves to have people turn up and give them an hour of their valuable time is if that performer has spent a lot more time preparing for that hour than the audience has. If you can distil 200 hours of research and preparation into an hour on stage, then you can transcend time, and that’s where the magic of performance comes from.”

A Synthesized Universe, Tairāwhiti Arts Festival, Gisborne, October 11; Nelson Arts Festival, October 24; Tauranga Arts Festival, October 26.

Dave Dobbyn. Photo/Getty Images

Coming to a town near you

Anthonie Tonnon is just one of many local acts using the coming month’s arts festivals as a touring springboard. Here's some other highlights:

Dave Dobbyn

The veteran singer-songwriter warms up for the summer with two dates. First, he’s joining Anika Moa, Annie Crummer, Maisey Rika, Rob Ruha and Teeks on the opening weekend of the Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival for a show entitled “Under an East Coast Moon”, at the Gisborne Soundshell on October 6. Then, he’s under canvas in Havelock North (October 21) for the Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival, performing A Night In With Dave Dobbyn, a show that promises some stories as well as songs.

Tami Neilson

The county-soul singer is including the Nelson (October 21) and Tauranga (October 28) arts festivals on her seven-date national tour, which features her brother and occasional co-writer Jay playing guitar.

The Topp Twins

The nation’s favourite yodel-comedy sibling duo return with shows at the Hawke’s Bay (October 25) and Nelson (October 27) festivals.

Reb Fountain. Photo/Getty Images

Pitch Black

Also at the Hawkes Bay and Nelson events is the pioneering dub-electronic act who are touring on the back of new album Third Light. They’ll be soundtracking the mixed-media street show “White Night” in Napier on October 19 before performing on the Nelson Cathedral steps (October 25), accompanied by a triggered video show.

Reb Fountain

Fresh from her impressive appearances on the recent Live Rust supergroup tribute to Neil Young, the singer-songwriter takes her own songbook around the country, with the festival dates on her tour including Gisborne (October 17), Havelock North (October 20) and Tauranga (October 24).

Björk

All Is Full Of Love: The Blackbird Ensemble, helmed by composer-arranger Claire Cowan, takes its live homage to the songs of the Icelandic pop artist to Nelson (October 18) and Hawkes Bay (October 24), among other tour dates.

NZSO

Our national orchestra kicks off its six-date North Island Podium Series with an appearance at the Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival on October 17. The concert, at the Gisborne War Memorial Theatre, features the world premiere of composer Kenneth Young’s Te Māpouriki, a work commissioned as part of the NZSO Cook’s Landfall Series.

This article was first published in the August 24, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.