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.
This brass octet with its somewhat dense texture of waiata-like fragments, is inspired by the spatial as well as the dynamic and energetic qualities of the mountain. The Maori title may translate as ‘The Mountain Called Wharepapa’, which is the original name for Mount Arthur in the Nelson district, a significant mountain in my childhood landscape. This piece is dedicated to the memory of my father, Tas McKee.
Mata[hou]rua is the first in a series of solo works that focus on timbral exploration.
This piece was originally inspired by a painting by New Zealand artist Sofia Minson, exploring the spirit of the legend of Kupe – the first navigator to travel from Hawaiiki to NZ on the waka Matawhaorua.
There are many different translations for the component parts of the word Matahourua. In relation to this piece ‘mata’ is taken to mean fresh, green and not fully developed. ‘Hou’ is seen to bind together the two (‘rua’) elements of human breath and the clarinet itself.
Underlying this is my continuing passion for the koru. From its natural organic growth patterns, to its numerous associations and symbolic meanings.
These three vocalises, using Maori vowel sounds, were first recorded by the Wellington members of the National Youth Choir. They were composed for the opening section of ‘Wahine Toa’, a dance theatre celebration of Maori female ancestral figures. This work was performed at Taki Rua Theatre in Wellington in 1992 and in Christchurch in 1993. The three pieces are: 1. Te Po Nui, Te Po Roa, where male voices hum a series of sustained chords. 2. The Earth Lay in the Womb of Darkness – inspired by Robin Kahukiwa’s painting of the same title. This choral vocalise by full choir begins with alto melodic line, soon building to a widely spaced texture of superimposed fifth chords. 3. Papatuanuku – the Separation of Ranginui and Papatuanuku. The vocalise begins gently, becoming increasingly contrapuntal, building to five strong chords, and ending with a sighing texture of vocal glissandi. Wahine Toa was choreographed by Keri Kaa, Jan Bolwell and Sunny Amey, and was commissioned with assistance from the Queen Elizabeth 11 Arts Council of New Zealand.
Inspired by sparkling waters of Tasman Bay Nelson, this choral work (SSAATB) was originally composed with flute accompaniment, which has been substituted in performances by the Shakuhachi (traditional Japanese flute) and also the Koauau (traditional Maori flute). There are recordings of Pounamu with each of these flutes. The piece’s choral texture uses Maori vowel sounds and a text which is a whakatauki (proverb) from the Waikato region.
The starting point for this piece was a curiosity in the metal doors that covered the entrances to cells imbedded in the cliffs near Andersons Bay inlet, in Dunedin. A friend informed me that during the 19th century Maori prisoners were kept there at night, and worked on the Dunedin Harbour land reclamation during the day. Some of these prisoners were brought down to Dunedin from Taranaki in the North Island, as a result of the conflict in 1881 at Parihaka.
Upon reading Dick Smith’s book Ask that Mountain – The story of Parihaka I learned of one of the most shocking incidents in our country’s history. The land wars of the 1860s provoked a new approach from Maori to the protection of their lands. Te Whiti, Tohu and their followers at Parihaka combated the Pakeha land grab by organising passive resistance through a variety of means. In response to unauthorised land confiscation Te Whiti ordered the ploughing of fields, building of fences and planting, all of which impeded the surveyors who wished to carve up the land for settlers. Many were arrested, offering no struggle, and soon prisons around the country were full. Despite the many injustices Te Whiti maintained his policy of passive resistance to the end. In November 1881, government troops entered Parihaka with guns and artillery. They were greeted by Maori women and children chanting songs, but no armed struggle. Te Whiti and Tohu were taken away, the Pa was broken up, and hundreds sent away to prison. Despite a press blackout, two reporters were smuggled into the Pa, one commenting that “it was one of the saddest and most painful spectacles I have witnessed”.
Remember Parihaka attempts to sum up my thoughts and feelings about the events at Parihaka. The slow opening is peaceful, like a sun rise, with melodic fragments that slowly unfold into a fuller, more passionate statement. Flutes and oboes announce a chant-like theme, based on an actual song composed at the time of the incident. This ‘Maori’ theme alternates with a more European-sounding theme on solo violin, accompanied by an Irish drum, the bowron. At the heart of the piece the various melodic ideas come together over a grinding, relentless bass, building to a climax. In the short postlude, the peace of the opening is suggested, but now it is tinged with sadness, and a slightly uneasy feeling.
Remember Parihaka was first performed in 1994, under the baton of John Hopkins.