When I was a student at Auckland University (more than 20 years ago) our orchestra was invited to perform Vivaldi’s ‘Gloria’ live with the Douglas Wright Dance Company at the Wellington International Festival of the Arts.
One of the things I remember about that time is that there genuinely seemed to be more heroes for kids like me (of the impassioned, classical music variety) in the mainstream New Zealand media. You could turn on the television and see the live final of the Young Musicians competition or the Young Achievers awards and local documentaries were made about artists and art-forms that were far more obscure and adventurous than anything you’d ever see on public access television today.
And so, I had seen a documentary about Douglas Wright’s work on television – not long before our orchestra was engaged to perform with him – and I’d been well and truly captivated by his work. The documentary was, I think, my first exposure to real contemporary dance (prior to that, it was ‘Cats’) and I remember being amazed by the freedom and physical imagination of the choreography – and by the fact that such incredible work was being made here. Douglas Wright became – and has remained – one of my heroes.
I pine a bit for the good old days – like any self-respecting middle aged person should – because there has been a great deal of change in the creative industries and some of those changes have made it harder to create and harder to survive. But I’m also excited to be composing music here and now – where the seeds people planted back when I was an impressionable teenager have borne such incredible fruit – and where technology is constantly transforming the landscape and creating new worlds to explore and possibilities to embrace. Occupying these worlds is not always easy, comfortable or secure and the audience so often seems to live on the horizon… in sight, but moving away from you as quickly as you can approach them. What keeps me tied to the arts though, is the ocean of endlessly inspiring people and their amazing ideas – along with the enduring hope of making work that articulates the kinds of things I’ve always hoped I could say.
Taiaroa Royal – one of the founders of the Okareka Dance Company – was in the Douglas Wright Dance Company at the time the University Orchestra performed with them. I remember watching him dance and being utterly in awe. I’ve since seen him dance in many other works – and, later, Taane Mete too. They are both unique and beautiful to watch. They could only have come from here. They reveal things that are both immediately recognisable and yet also so powerfully different, honest and confrontational, that you come away changed by them. After two decades of watching them from afar, to be approached by them and invited to collaborate was exciting, humbling… terrifying, actually.
Mana Wahine was born from a conversation between Tai and his cousin, Tui Matira Ranapiri-Ransfield, about one of their ancestors – Te Aokapurangi of the Ngati Ohomairangi people – a woman who saved her people from slaughter using her wits, courage, resourcefulness and of course, her feminine power. The work extends from celebrating this story to exploring what female power is, where it comes from and how it is expressed in the world – what it means for Maori women, for Pakeha women and for men. It has been made for the x-chromosone in all of us.
To this end, Tai and Taane invited Malia Johnston to join them in choreographing Mana Wahine. Malia is another one of those people on our creative landscape who is steadily expanding the boundaries of what is possible and exploring the ways that dance can express something individual and profound. Working with all three choreographers and witnessing the open way in which they’ve been prepared to share and accept each others ideas – along with mine and all of the other collaborators’ involved in this production – has provided a lot of insight for me (so used to occupying – as I often do – a small room, a computer, a dressing gown and a comparitively isolated creative world). I have a new batch of heroes now.
These things are not small things to be thinking about and experiencing. And composing music in real time alongside the choreography (not to mention the set, the costumes, the images) as everything evolved over a 5 week period, was intense and all-encompassing – and it made for something of a mental and spiritual overload (in the best way).
I thought about my mother (the 10th anniversary of her death coincided with this process), my children, the women in my life, my own conflicts and imperfections – about how I, and other women, see ourselves and each other. What supports us? What holds us back? I thought about Te Ao Maori and Te Ao Pakeha… about my place in this country, how I came to be here, what it means to be here… And then there was feminism, art, music, philosophy. On it goes…
Piece by piece, the music came together. Some music, I wrote in response to conversations I had with Tai, Taane and Malia. They would then put the music to the dancers and respond with movement, gestures or directions. I would respond again to what I saw – and the process continued in that way. Other music, I was inspired to write purely from having seen particular movements or gestures to begin with – and so the feedback loop started from that point. The music evolved as a constant series of responses that looped back into themselves and re-emerged, transformed.
Tui composed several waiata for Mana Wahine and, of course, working with these – and with her – allowed me to engage with the spirit and intention of the work in a completely different way.
I had an amazing experience with Tui in the recording studio at Radio New Zealand, where Andre Upston and I recorded her Karanga (call of welcome), Waerea (prayer of protection) and Patere (chant). The Patere, which you hear at the end of Mana Wahine in its fullness, is essentially a whakapapa (genealogy) of woman.
(With her permission, I’ve reproduced Tui’s composition in its entirety here.)
In Te Reo, Tui describes the origins of life, the nature of Papatuanuku (Earth Mother) in all her forms – “outstretched, unrestrained, sacred, strong, fertile, all-knowing & understanding, unconditionally loving, vital, ecstatic, erotic, physical, spiritual, supreme”. And then the manifestation of Hine Ahu One – the first woman, forged from the earth. And her child Hinetitama – the first female to be born – who also exists in many forms, visceral physical and elemental. Maori spirituality doesn’t avoid the body or the physical nature of existence and I found Tui’s description of the female essence to be incredibly powerful and inspiring – and so very different from the chaste, austere portrayal of women in Western tradition.
Hine-titama by Robyn Kahukiwa
As I was writing the music for Mana Wahine, I thought nothing about whether what I was writing evoked femininity or anything associated with that concept. I thought more about what kind of energy surrounds women, what forces represent us. As it turns out, we’re rather noisy… a lot of the music in this work is percussive and made with natural and organic sounds. There are earthquakes mixed with lakes mixed with pianos mixed with birds mixed with wind mixed with Tui’s voice…
Richard Nunns also lent his voice to the music, which includes many Taonga Puoro – putatara, pukaea, koauau, puotorino, hue, poi a whio whio, purerehua… and many of the elements associated with these instruments have also been used – water, earth and air. It’s worth mentioning that, while Dr Nunns is most certainly of the male persuasion, many of the Taonga Puoro are associated with, and governed by, female energies and goddesses – Hine Raukatauri and Hine Pu Te Hue among others. Click here to read more about the Taonga Puoro and their kaitiaki (guardian spirits).
I also recorded the dancers laughing, breathing, stamping, sliding across the ground. I recorded Tui and myself making a huge assortment of noises… cries, wails, gasps, claps, hisses, grunts and shrieks.
For the following piece of music, which is a duet, I began writing with a single image from rehearsal in my mind – two dancers coming onto the stage, one clinging to the underside of the other like a baby animal. This primal image, which seems delicate but requires such incredible strength on behalf of the dancers, spoke to me. It made me think of my children and everything they mean to me. Contained within it is the conflict between intimacy and independence, the overwhelming love and never-ending paradox of the mother-child relationship. Peace and serenity, glitches, imperfections and frustrations – all trying to find their own odd balance, which is different for every mother and every child. The power of the movement in this duet made me think about all of that, where we find ourselves now, some women working and juggling, others at home and also juggling – in a society without precedent – and how our families have been redefined.
In this next piece, the dancers transform their costumes from skirts into men’s coats. I used the piano because, not so long ago, it was the instrument of choice for proper young ladies wishing to display their refinement. As the dancers essentially lose their femininity and take on the mantle of the masculine world, they become more fractured and anxious. Over time, the piece – which has a constant and restless rhythm – includes the sounds of a piano being taken apart (as recorded by the brilliant Tim Prebble – creator of the sound design library HissandaRoar).
This piece also includes fragments of chant by Hildegard of Bingen – the 12th Century Benedictine abbess, visionary, philosopher, artist, mystic and composer. The voices sound smooth to begin with, but over time they are cut up and reassembled.
Hildegard is the first notated female composer in Western musical history. She inhabited a time and place where the Western world was in a state of chaos and darkness, amidst the ruins of the Roman Empire. It was a time dominated by superstition, fear and overwhelmingly patriarchal religious thought. The embers of reason and science were preserved in monasteries, where monks and nuns remained, almost uniquely, literate.
Hildegard – who has since been beatified by the Catholic Church – had profound and physically crippling visions which she translated into texts, compositions and images. In one text, she writes:
“The earth is at the same time mother,
she is mother of all that is natural, mother of all that is human.
She is the mother of all, for contained in her are the seeds of all.
The earth of humankind contains all moisture, all verdancy, all germinating power.
It is in so many ways fruitful. All creation comes from it.
Yet it forms not only the basic raw materials for humankind,
but also the substance of Incarnation.”
Despite knowing that she was a pious and faithful member of the church, there is so much in her work and her philosophy that seems incredibly removed from what I perceive the Church’s way of thinking to have been, during the Dark Ages, when she was alive. I see her as a light in the darkness and her work is prescient, beautiful and revelant today.
There are such beautiful similarities between Hildegard’s vision of the world and Tui’s whakapapa of womanhood – concepts that seem miraculously aligned across centuries, continents and cultures.
It has been a remarkable journey, seeking out and exploring these things which bind us all together.
PATERE / by Tui Matira Ranapiri-Ransfield – accompaniment by Victoria Kelly
an illumination of Creation by Hildegard von Bingen