In 1995 I was approached by the NZSO to write an overture to commemorate the recent death of New Zealand’s most famous war hero, Sir Charles Upham. Upham was famous for having won the Victoria Cross twice for bravery during World War II. He was, however, extremely modest when it came to discussing his achievements. Some years before his death it was suggested to Upham that he have a state funeral; he simply replied, “A bugle will do”. This comment seemed like a good starting point for my piece.
There are no bugles in the orchestra, but the opening section depicting the horrors of battle contains plenty of brass. Sub-titled Maleme and Ruweisat Ridge, the music is fast and furious, built from several motifs, and includes the opening rhythm for the most well known Maori haka (war dance), Kamate, kamate. The music builds to a climax, and the scene changes to a bleak Colditz Castle, where Upham was imprisoned during the war. While in prison he dreams of rural NZ, and the farm near Kaikoura called ‘Landsdowne’, where he eventually settled after the war. This brief pastoral section links into a coda celebrating the outbreak of peace. Motifs from earlier in the piece return but changed into brighter modes. ’
A Bugle Will Do was first performed by the NZSO in 1996 under Andrew Sewell, and was subsequently performed in the USA.
The overall conception of the piece is underpinned by an evolving, wave-like movement – continuous cycles stretching/compressing/proliferating. There is a strong connection to the sea, as in [… and…11], composed in 2002. A passacaglia of seven chords, gradually permutating until they eventually assemble into reverse order, form the ground or ‘canvas’. The various textural and linear surfaces of the piece all emerge from this ground as reflections, extensions, compressions, or distillations of the core material. Quarter-tones (division of the chromatic scale into 24 tones instead of the usual 12) enrich and intensify the harmony while rendering it more tactile and less pitch-defined.
“The 7-minute a gentle infinity…is both atmospheric and deft in Ker’s handling of a large orchestra, subtly dynamic (not least in the use of percussion), edgily communicative, and vibrant in its imagery; a piece full of good things, arguably cut off prematurely. Conducted by Pavel Kotla, the LSO once again suggested that Ker (in attendance) is a composer to watch out for.”
A message to Han Cho (the Yangzhou magistrate) for orchestra was inspired by the Chinese poem, A message to Han Cho by Du Mu (803-852AD, China) in the Chinese Tang dynasty. In this poem Du Mu expresses the sadness of the magistrate yearned for the day to return to his distant love. This orchestral work contains musical ideas influenced by the Eastern culture and utilising Western orchestration to imitate the sound of Chinese instruments (Chinese zither and vertical bamboo flute) to purposely maintain the cultural connection with the original tenor of the poem. To achieve this synthesis I experimented with the pronunciation of the poem in Mandarin, and then compose the melodic lines to suit the four-line poem which became the theme of the music. The image of a fair lady plays the flute under the moon on the Twenty-Four Bridges is a traditional Chinese painting specially selected for this particular poem.
青山隱隱水迢迢, From mist the green hills emerge and afar the river flows,
秋盡江南草木凋. grass still grows in Jiangnan, yet the end of fall is close.
二十四橋明月夜, Over the Twenty-Four Bridges the bright moon glows,
玉人何處教吹簫. where the fair lady teaches the flute no one knows.
Afterword commissioned by the University of Auckland Orchestra and inspired by the history of Anti-Chinese riot in Indonesia. The Tubular bells imitated the bells in the Indonesia temple. The soft dynamics, diminished triads and minor tonality were used to depicting the sense of fear, anger and sadness. The intensive triplets created a sense of uncertainty about the future and feeling of hopelessness as the ethnic Chinese lost their freedom, peace and equality of human rights.
‘Alegria’ is an education piece for children of primary school age. It focuses on aspects of rhythm and ostinato, and it is based on the flamenco principle of 3+3+2+2+2 (12 beat cycle). Flamenco music is based on Spanish gypsy music, and is often accompanied by clapping, so there are clapping parts included for members of the orchestra. The audience may learn the simple clapping patterns so they can accompany the orchestra when they hear the patterns. The central section in 5/8 is intended as an asymmetrical contrast to the duple and triple meters of the outer sections. “Alegria” means ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’ in Spanish.
Anxiety is a common psychological disorder in modern society. It is a state of uneasiness or tension caused by over-worrying about a possible future problem or danger. Ecstasy here implies a state of exalted delight, joy, and then, gradually moves to a more extreme emotion.
A person experiences various feelings every day. However, some people have to overcome certain psychological difficulties, such as phobia or anxiety. This piece reflects two aspects of feelings, anxiety and ecstasy, which are unique in humans. One maybe we are trying to avoid, while another one, we are trying to pursue. Some people may have already experienced both of these two states in real life. Others may have just suffered anxiety but never have made the journey into the euphoria of ecstasy. It is interesting to notice that if these two feelings are persistent or triggered by certain events, they both can lead to intense emotions, such as Anxiety Attack and an ecstasy of rage.
Two movements adapted from chamber work, Barcelona Postcards.
The first movement illustrates the plethora of fish to be seen at the aquarium at feeding time. There are small fish, big fish, colourful fish and plain fish. I have tried to mimic the darting movements of the small fish with quick high grace notes and tremolos. In contrast, the darker notes of the oboe and the piano represent the bigger, slower and brooding fish.
Finding large as life puppets in the square outside the Cathedral was a delight. I imagined them to be alive, moving jerkily, interacting and dancing a little in an empty space.
On May 25 2010, the New Zealand Parliament passed the Sentencing and Parole Reform Bill, also known as “Three Strikes” legislation, sponsored by David Garrett, the ACT Party, and the Sensible Sentencing Trust, and supported by the National Party, under Prime Minister John Key. The law imposes mandatory maximum sentences on offenders who commit three “Strike” offences, removing judicial discretion. An almost identical bill was passed in California in 1994. California’s crime rate remains 11% above the national average, its prison population has increased to nearly 200,000, and its recidivism rate is the highest in the United States.