Malcolm Ibell, sound engineer and live mixer extraordinaire, sent me through this file that he stumbled across when he was cleaning out his hard drive recently. It’s from a live performance that The Bellbirds gave in 2013. The song is ‘Love Will Come Round’, which I wrote a few months prior to this performance.
Playing in The Bellbirds, with Sandy Mill, Don McGlashan and Sean Donnelly – three of my most favourite and beloved musicians on the planet – was an incredible source of happiness for me. We started an album together, but things happened, children were born, lives were moved back and forth across oceans, careers transformed, and we never quite finished it. Perhaps one day.
Malcolm recorded this live at the Great Lake Festival in Taupo. The quality of the audio is a testament to his sterling work, as this mix came straight off the desk. It makes me feel most honoured to think I shared a stage with these fine people.
Last Sunday NZTrio, Horomona Horo, Tim Worrall and I gathered at York Street studios to workshop some of the ideas for Toi Huarewa so far. Also joining us was Jonathan King, who documented the process for us on film.
Having the opportunity to work together with everyone in this way was invaluable and, I think, crucial to the development of the piece. The feedback and objectivity that all these wise and wonderful people were prepared to offer created many new directions – and the change in perspective allowed me to hear things quite differently.
The voices of the Taonga Puoro are, in many cases, gentle and delicate. They come from a time and place where there was no means or need to amplify sound. So to hear them in the context of romantic instruments such as the Piano, Violin and Cello – which have evolved over time to project across large halls and alongside symphony orchestras – can be like trying to hear a whisper in a crowd.
According to Maori mythology, the main character in this piece (Hine Raukatauri / a case-moth, represented by Puiaki) has an almost inaudible voice – so the myth I’ve written to be the form for this music involves a struggle to be heard and therefore the ensemble sometimes has to tread on the threshold of silence.
This simple differences between the instruments – such as their relative volume – have had a fundamental impact on the music of this piece. It’s not a matter of asking the Trio to play softly, or the Taonga Puoro to play louder – its more about finding a musical world where a natural balance can exist between them. This was one of the aspects of our rehearsal that was illuminating – looking for that balance, experimenting with the instruments and getting a feeling for how they – and the players – could best resonate together.
As much as I might try to imagine the sound and feeling of these instruments when I’m writing – and I mean all of them, not just the Taonga Puoro – there’s something very different about hearing them in the open air. Among other things, there’s the chemistry that’s created by the personalities of the players and what they each bring to the music. An intricate web is being woven when these forces come together.
In our workshop situation, Horo was able to suggest things and experiment with his instruments in the context of the Trio, creating sounds and combinations that then influenced the direction of the composition. The Trio did the same, as they explored the possibilities of their own instruments, finding common ground with the Taonga Puoro. Tim offered a totally different perspective on the music, sometimes challenging aspects of the writing and the concepts behind it from quite obtuse angles. His perspective, throughout the the time we’ve been working on this piece, has caused me to totally rethink things more than once. It’s an inspiring way to work and, I think, quite different from the lonely world that composers often inhabit.
Working collaboratively and having a sense of collective responsibility for a work of art is not a strange concept in Te Ao Maori – which is infused with a deep sense of family and interconnectedness – but for a composer raised in the Western tradition of being isolated and autonomous and having sole ownership of your work… opening the process up to include others is a departure. I’m grateful for the experience I’ve had working in film, because it’s an intrinsically collaborative artform – and my enjoyment of that aspect of it is partly what has set me off along this path. The idea of disappearing off on my own to write music doesn’t seem quite so fulfilling anymore.
When I was approached to write this piece, I realised that I wanted to find a way to incorporate that wonderful (if not sometimes a little uncomfortable) aspect of letting go and relinquishing control – and that this was the perfect opportunity to do it. All creative works have a whakapapa – all composers are influenced by many people and things. I wanted to explore my musical whakapapa and go beyond my boundaries as an individual, to engage with my music’s immediate and extended family.
According to the tikanga of the Taonga Puoro, Horo doesn’t just speak for himself when he performs, he speaks for his ancestors and for the ancestors of his instruments. You could also say that the Trio speaks for their ancestors when they play because many generations of composers, performers and instrument-makers have been the architects of their music. They have a more abstract and less conscious dialogue with their instruments than Horo does with his – but what he does is not foreign to them at all. When Justine picks up her violin to join Horo, there is an echo of Bach, of Franck, of Sibelius or Berg in the sound she makes… even if it’s just in her muscular memory, or pressed into the fingerboard of her instrument.
Sarah’s relationship with her instrument is slightly different, because she has to play a different piano in every venue she performs in. Imagine how many pianists she is connected to, by way of her contact with each instrument she performs on – and by way of the energies within each set of strings and the grain of the soundboard, that are released and made resonant by each set of hands.
The piano as an entity is linked to a vast and luminous tradition too, with an ancestry that includes Rachmaninov, Schumann, Beethoven and Bach. But the piano, as we know it, wouldn’t exist if its most ancient performer – with a single-stringed ancestral instrument made from sticks and hair and gut – hadn’t thought to hit it instead of bowing or plucking it.
There are no bowed string instruments in the Taonga Puoro, but the Ku – a single string that is hit with a stick – could easily be an ancestor of the piano. I like to imagine that, just by putting those two instruments in the same room together, Horo and the Trio are transcending some time and space and showing us exactly how different we are not.
All photographs by Jonathan King.
This project has been made possible with the generous assistance of:
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.
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
I travelled to the USA and England in 2014 to showcase Neil Finn’s new album – Dizzy Heights. This photo was taken by Frank Donnelly during the New York show at ‘Le Poisson Rouge’ and other shots from the show can be viewed here at Neil’s official website.
Neil, myself (keyboards and backing vocals) and the superlative Chris O’Connor (drums) had the great pleasure of working with a 9 piece string ensemble in each city we visited.
In Los Angeles, we performed at Largo at the Coronet, where we were joined onstage by Sebastian Steinberg, Mark Hart, Grant Lee Phillips and Mitchell Froom. Eric Gorfain from The Section Quartet contracted the string players (who included the other members of Section) and also did a super arrangement for ‘Sinner’, which we then performed in the other showcases too.
Here’s a performance of ‘Impressions’ that we did live to air on KCRW in LA:
In New York, we played at ‘Le Poisson Rouge’ and were joined onstage by Neil’s sons Liam and Elroy along with EJ Barnes. My dear friend Mat Fieldes (who performs in the incredible Absolute Ensemble) contracted the string players in New York, which included some of his fellow musicians from the Broadway show he’s currently playing – Matilda (which I had the great pleasure of experiencing from the orchestral pit).
Here’s a performance of ‘Recluse that we did live to air in New York:
It was a very happy coincidence that my dear old friend Matt Penman happened to be in London while I was there and playing a show at Ronnie Scott’s (with Zhenya Strigalev) the night before ours. We went to a vegetarian pub (yes, that exists). I listened to Matt play (and you really should check him out on some of these recordings – with James Farm, with the SF Jazz Collective, on one of his solo albums or with Root 70). It was food for the soul.
In London we performed at the St James’ Church in Piccadilly which was an utterly gorgeous venue (thrown together by some guy called Christopher Wren) and were joined onstage by Connan Mockasin (whose latest video – I Am The Man, That Will Find You – is ever so slightly disturbing and utterly brilliant). The strings were contracted by Isobel Griffiths and were a sterling bunch of people and players. I received one of the greatest compliments of my life when one of them asked me (before we had been introduced) if I was Neil’s stylist. I thank that person from the bottom of my heart!
And then there was Paris… where we didn’t play.
But since I, as a creature from the Antipodes, was visiting New York and London for the first time and had always dreamed of one day indulging my francophilia and seeing Paris, city of my dreams, I got myself onto the merry Eurostar and went there for two days to meet dear friends and experience something of the ancient sophistication and elegance that I have so often imagined.
I did, indeed, sit in a cafe eating cheese and drinking carafe after carafe of Bordeaux, speaking appalling French to Parisians who politely allowed me to destroy their fine language – and indeed, encouraged me to do so – with the fond, gentle smiles that people normally reserve for small children.
I ate SO much cheese. I drank SO much wine. And my friends and I, reunited for such a short and happy time, talked about love and art and death… and it was all just about too much for my little heart.
So. I went to New York – and I didn’t see the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State. I went to London – and I didn’t see the Tower of London or the changing of the guard. I went to Paris – and I didn’t see La Tour Eiffel or the Avenue des Champs-Elysees. But I did eat and drink. And I wandered the streets and played music and met people and talked to cab drivers and strangers – and tried as hard as I could, in the fragments of time available to me, to sense and experience the nature of the places. And it was wonderful. Every city had its own magic, every population had its own electricity. I feel totally changed by the whole thing.
So here, for all romantics, is Notre Dame de Paris as I first saw her… at 2.00am, in faint and freezing rain…