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.
During 2007 I spent a lot of time making field recordings of background noise in Paris, and analysing the spectral and rhythmic content of those recordings. I found the more I listened to my recordings, the more musical material I found hidden in these background hisses and hums, chatterings and otherwise banal noises: rhythms, mysterious melodies, energies and harmonic tensions. While working on this commission for the NZSO, I decided to try to capture the intrinsic musical essences I could hear in my field recordings, and interpret those sounds in an orchestral context, with the juxtaposition of the original noise recordings finding musical relationships in the orchestral counterpart. The resulting piece is a conjuring of various energies, or furies, caught in the background noise of Paris, and finding their way into the back of my throat to be sung into a quiet fury.
This music was originally commissioned by Richard Campion for the New Zealand Players’ production of Ring Round the Moon by Jean Ahhouil, translated by Christopher Fry. In the second act there is a ball taking place offstage and demanding a large number of dances which are specified in the text.
The music was first recorded on acetate discs by a ad hoc orchestra led by Alex Lindsay; these small recordings were then played through speakers for the production, sounding very loud to the cast but filtering out more gently to the audience. At the end of the long national tour, the cast knew the music very well and suggested to me that I should do something with it.
The result, some years later, 1957, was a suite of nine dances first performed by the Alex Lindsay Orchestra. This rapidly became my most performed piece and was commercially recorded by the Alex Lindsay Orchestra in the 1960s, a recording still available today from Kiwi Pacific Reords.
Ashley Heenen, through the NZ APRA Committee, commissioned an arrangement for full orchestra for the NZ Youth Orchestra to take on a tour of Europe and China in 1975. This version was shortened to six dances by leaving out the first three numbers. The music has also been used for a ballet, The Wintergarden, choreographed by Arthur Turnbull for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company – this version included a tenth dance not in the 1957 Suite. Since 1975 two further version have been commissioned: Waltz Suite (1989), for string orchestra (five dances) for the Nova Strings, and an arrangement of the original Dance Suite (1992) for violin and piano (nine dances) for Isador Saslav.