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Composing with taonga puoro (Otago Daily Times)

This article was originally published by Otago Daily Times on 17 March 2022. Click here to view the original article.

Rebecca Fox, Otago Daily Times | 17 March 2022

Gillian Whitehead featuring taonga puoro and Western string instruments, a new performance will feature as part of the Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Art. Dame Gillian talks to Rebecca Fox about the milestone.

Dame Gillian Whitehead is a master of the understatement when you talk to her about her seminal composition Hine-pu-te-hue.

"It was quite, I suppose, experimental in its way."

The piece brought together taonga puoro (Maori musical instruments) and Western string instruments for the first time.

It is part of a chamber music series curated by the artistic directors of the Adam Chamber Music Festival and members of the New Zealand String Quartet, Helene Pohl and Gillian Ansell, for the Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts being held online from tomorrow.

Ansell says it seemed fitting to include the piece given the first performance was at the Adam festival on March 14, 2002. The string quartet went on to play the work around the world.

"It’s very special to us, it’s a beautiful piece. It is like coming back to an old friend."

However, its recording for the festival was not without dramas after taonga puoro player Horomona Horo tested positive for Covid on the morning of travelling to Wellington for the rehearsal and recording. So, on very short notice, Bob Bickerton stepped in, saving the recording.

"It was a big ask on such short notice but he did a brilliant job at getting his head around it. We were very fortunate."

Dame Gillian Karawe Whitehead, looking pensively away from the camera
Dame Gillian Whitehead DNZM MNZM (Ngāi Te Rangi) - Photo: The Arts Foundation

Whitehead, who splits her time between Northland and Otago Peninsula, says it was quite challenging at the time as not only did it require combining the instruments but also the way they are played — taonga puoro expert Richard Nunns preferred to improvise whereas the New Zealand String Quartet mainly read notation.

"I had to blend those two styles together so that it became seamless, if possible, which it did."

The other challenge was to make sure the taonga puoro were heard, as many of the instruments are very quiet. She chose mostly instruments made of gourds which were swung, tapped or blown like a flute to go with the strings as with both gourds and violins it is the air vibrating in an enclosed space crafted from plant material that produces the sound.

"Hineputehue is the goddess of peace and the gourd holds water and food — those are symbols of peace. I was writing this as President Bush gave his state of the nation address after 9/11."

Whitehead also used a ku — a bow which uses the mouth as a resonating chamber while the taut sting made from supplejack is tapped rhythmically.

"We were a bit worried if it would work in an audience with 400 people but remarkably it did. The listening was drawn down to very quiet sounds. That was a fantastic thing to discover with that piece."

Writing that first piece came after Whitehead discovered taonga puoro, which she describes as "this new sound world", in the 1990s after hearing Richard Nunns dedicate two koauau to the Victoria University’s new music building. Soon after, she heard Nunns and Hirini Melbourne present a workshop.

"I was very moved by hearing these sounds. Richard and Hirini’s presentation touched me very deeply."

But it was not until hearing Tungia Baker tell her about a story she had written at a composition festival in Sydney that it came to her to use them in composition.

"I woke in the middle of the night and thought — that’s a story in the tradition of the old teaching stories, and it could be told using a cello as the voice of Waka. It had never occurred to me to use the taonga in composition till that point."

From then, Whitehead began to look at ways she could create a sound world more like in pre-European times.

"Maybe drawing on sound you would hear in the bush. I found that translated into my writing in general over time."

She went on to write several more songs for taonga puoro and Western instruments despite Nunns (who died last year) warning her that if the playing traditions died out they might never be played again.

"I said we’ve got a recording of them though."

She also liked to be inspired by stories from the past in her composition. Nunns asked her to write a piece for taonga puoro and flute after showing her a fern growing at the base of a tree, describing it as the hair of Hineraukatauri.

"So for the first time, I had to think of how to write for flute and taonga puoro as equal partners in a piece of chamber music."

Then there was a piece for Nunns and Canadian bassoonist George Zuckerman based on the story of Hine te Kakara, who was either the wife or daughter of Ihenga, an early explorer of the lakes region. When Ihenga returned from a hunting trip, he found the murdered body of Hinetekakara in Lake Rotorua at Muruika, where a settlement was named for her — Ohinemutu, meaning the end of the woman. Ihenga walked there by the lake and sang an angry lament.

"It was a very, very remarkable performance seeing that performed 200 yards from where she died."

In another piece, she celebrated the whale after Japan broke the moratorium on whaling. Puhake ki te rangi, which translates as "spouting to the skies" was also written for Nunns and the string quartet.

The taonga puoro used in this piece were all made from whale or albatross bone.

"They would be aware of each other, the biggest creature in the sea and the biggest bird in the sky."

In 2019, Whitehead gave the Lilburn Lecture on the renaissance of taonga puoro and spoke of what she believes is the first time taonga puoro and Western concepts of music were combined.

It was in Dunedin during the protests over the proposed building of an aluminium smelter at Aramoana in the 1980s when Mozart Fellow Chris Cree Brown was given a koauau from the late Maarire Goodall, a Ngai Tahu kaumatua. He devised a piece using the instrument, the sounds of the sea and about 15 objects made of aluminium which were struck with beaters by visitors to the exhibition at the Hocken Library.

"But this may have been the first use of taonga puoro in a modern setting, and should be recognised as such," she says.

Nunns’ concerns about the playing of taonga puoro have failed to eventuate given a new generation of players has taken taking up playing. There is also more knowledge about the instruments and more women performing with the instruments.

"They’re really exploring, doing a tremendous amount of research, which is great. Other projects are starting to happen, which is exciting."

While it had been some time since many taonga puoro pieces had been played, many younger performers were picking them up and playing them again.

Also to be played at this concert is a new piece for the same instrumentation by puoro specialists Philip Brownlee (Te Atiawa, Ngati Mutunga, Ngati Toa Rangatira) and award-winning waiata writer-singer Ariana Tikao (Ngai Tahu).

Another of Whitehead’s works is to be performed as part of the chamber series — 21 x 21 by soprano Jenny Wollerman and concert pianist Jian Liu. It features works by 21 female poets and composers.

Whitehead submitted a solo voice piece she wrote for Sir Alan Mark’s Risk Assessment Project based on a poem by Fiona Farrell.

New work by Whitehead will be coming to Dunedin later this year. She is working on a piece for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and also a dance work with Daniel Belton and the Good Dance Company, Ad Parnassum, which is also to go online due to Covid-19.

"I like a variety of projects."


This article was originally published by Otago Daily Times on 17 March 2022. Click here to view the original article.

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