Vincent Olsen-Reeder writes about collaborating with experimental Māori musician Rob Thorne and the New Zealand String Quartet, and the push and pull of multicultural exchange and taking traditional forms to new worlds.
Composing music has been a love of mine since I first picked up a guitar at age 10. I’ve always felt an intrinsic connection to the guitar, like it was an extension of my hands. I’m not saying I’ve ever been any good at writing music, just that it felt good to be doing it. I never really performed well, only giving it a nudge in my teens.
When I was 18, a second passion revealed itself to me: te reo Māori. I never grew up with the language so I learnt it at Victoria University, where I now teach and research. As my proficiency grew, I managed to find ways to bring my love for music and te reo Māori together. I’ve quality assured the Māori language content of a song, for example. I’ve co-written on occasion, or let others put music to words I’d written as karakia, not necessarily as song. They’ve all been seriously empowering experiences for me, as well as harrowing ones (I haven’t always done it well, or correctly). Given too that both composing music and learning your heritage language are couched in fine lines of ego balancing and identity crises, they’re as empowering as they are vulnerable. I’m still not sure if the two are best as friends, or strangers.
Both of these passions once again collided when I met Rob Thorne (Ngāti Tumutumu), currently at Victoria University as the Composer-in-Residence 2017-2018 at Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music. In a noisy café we shared kai and kōrero about life, Māoritanga, music and caught each other up on the whereabouts of mutual friends and some of my family Rob knew.
I’m not sure about Rob, but I felt we clicked on a level of understanding about the tightrope on which many contemporary Māori artists, practitioners and educators balance in fret – bridging traditional knowledge with the contemporary. Wanting to both respect the old but allow the new to extend, knowing it might make people unhappy. We’re often afraid to reach out and push our contemporary selves into new worlds of artistry for fear of justly purist repercussions. Remember, purists aren’t always a minority in the Māori world, nor are they old fogeys with chips and shoulders.
In our current decolonisation position, we’re all on the purist spectrum somewhere – if not for respect and awe for our craft then for fear of befuddling or muddying what has been deliberately oppressed to near obliteration. I exist in this world mostly theoretically, as an educator. I think Rob exists here more tangibly, as an artist of an artform we lost almost entirely. Rob, alongside just a few others (such as Richard Nunns and Horomona Horo) possess collectively our entire knowledge of taonga pūoro. A simple act of making a pūtōrino sing expresses more knowledge about ancient Māori understanding than I could ever inhale. They’re special people, to say the least.
When Rob asked me to help him create something, he didn’t tell me what it was for. He couldn’t, due to the confines around the performance. I had a brief of the ‘new world’, but other than that I was pretty much free to explore that world on my own, whatever it was. It didn’t take me as long as some compositions do. It turned out that I really liked the idea of exploring the kind of language we use in Māori to talk about other worlds (such as that of Hinenuitepō), but in a more futuristic space. The Māori world has a strong penchant for remembering and acknowledging the past, much stronger than the Western world which forgives itself more than it should for being forgetful. Perceiving that language as future also led me to thinking what such a world would feel like, and under whose divine domain that might fall. In Māoridom, every domain in our existence is guarded and kept by an Atua. Who’s was this new world to be? Playing God (as composers are allowed to do) I decided this new world was to be that of Rongo, typically cast as the god of peace, but also of healing and of the senses. This world, I decided, was to be one free from the current plights of our time, of which there are many to write about. So too would it be about healing and sensing – after all, that’s what music, and particularly taonga pūoro, is supposed to do.
As I later learnt, the words were used to inform Rob’s performance, titled ‘This New World’, alongside the New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl – first violin, Monique Lapins – second violin, Gillian Ansell – viola, Rolf Gjelsten – cello), as part of the New Zealand Festival 2018. The words pre-empted what proved to be a stunning exchange between Rob and the Quartet, calling on the works of Rob himself, Salina Fisher, Gillian Whitehead and Gareth Farr. At times this exchange was obvious – taonga pūoro and classically Western string instruments calling and responding. At one point I’m sure Pohl (first violin) was imitating the karanga manu Rob had just put down. At other times it was subtler, like when Ansell (viola) substituted strings for striking stone tumutumu. Subtler still was during Whitehead’s Pūhake ki te Rangi, when all four members of the Quartet aspirated careful breath, bowing their instruments at the same time.
Of course, readers well-versed in the world of chamber music will be familiar with the composers and their work. I wasn’t. I encountered them anew. Luckily, in Māori we have a word to use when encountering exchanges like these for the first time, tāutuutu. In one sense it is an acknowledgment of mana and domain (important when establishing new worlds, I imagine). Wāhine are the most powerful exhibitors of tāutuutu, when they karanga on the marae. They announce a new encounter is taking place, and then together they exchange and reveal information about the event. Together their calls dominate the entire ātea and dictate group movement, space and time. That’s what Te Ao Hou The New World was for me.
Talking balance in this way is important. During that rainy Tuesday night in St Mary of the Angels, many voices spoke before an altar of native green. Neither was louder than another nor did one voice dominate the conversation. I wondered what it would be like to share in a world where all of our dialogue is voiced and heard in this way. Something to ask Rongo for I guess, when the sun comes up. Haumi e, hui e, tāiki e!
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