Puhake ki te rangi, which translates as spouting to the skies is a celebration of whales, and was written late in 2006 for the New Zealand String Quartet and Richard Nunns as a project undertaken while I was the CNZ/NZSM composer-in-residence, living in the Lilburn House in Wellington.
Although one section is based on a transcription of whale song, there is no programme to the piece – no confrontation with humanity, for instance. The guiding principles were the extreme range of whale song, the changing patterns of their song, and the image, given to me by the late Tungia Baker, of a whale in Campbell Island waters allowing seal pups at play to slide down her flanks over and over again until, tiring of the game, she flipped them gently away.
The taonga puoro (Maori instruments) used in this piece are all made from whale bone or the bone from the albatross, the whale’s avian counterpart. In the order they are played, the taonga are, the percussive tumutumu, made from the jaw of a pilot whale washed up on Farewell Spit, a karanga manu (bird caller) made from an orca tooth, two nguru (flutes) made from the teeth of sperm whales that stranded one in Tory channel and one at Paekakariki, two putorino koiwi toroa (instruments made here from albatross bones, which have two different voices, being played as flute or trumpet), made here from the wingbones of a wandering albatross from the sub-Antarctic islands and a young royal albatross from the Chatham Islands, a nguru made from the cochlea of a hump-backed whale and finally a putorino koiwi toroa, especially made for this piece from the rib of a right whale that beached at Cable Bay. Members of the Quartet play percussive instruments – whalebone tumutumu and tokere (castanets). All these instruments were made by Brian Flintoff.
In the score, the taonga puoro sections are improvised; mostly the quartet parts are notated, but sometimes the players are required to improvise.