When I was initially approached to write this work to celebrate Auckland Choral’s 150th anniversary, I knew I wanted to write a piece that would be accessible, both chorally and instrumentally, to the wider choral community. I wanted it to have a life beyond that of the specific occasion for which it was commissioned. I was also keen to include a ‘youth’ choral element.
My first decisions concerned the text. I felt that in writing a work for New Zealand’s oldest arts organisation, I wanted to set one of the texts traditionally associated with a large symphonic choir. Hence the Latin Mass as the basis of the text. I also wanted to include elements which would place the work securely in the Asia/Pacific area. New Zealand is uniquely placed between these two areas of the world, and increasingly looks in both directions for its cultural identity. The ‘additional’ texts are drawn from New Zealand, Pacific and Asian sources. While the main choir largely sings the traditional Latin text, the ‘youth’ choir and soloists sing the other texts. At times this distinction is blurred, most notably towards the end of the work. I also wanted to avoid writing a work that became a catalogue of ‘trendy effects’ and ethnic/cultural associations. I’ve used specific musical allusions sparingly in both the choral parts and the scoring. (Hence also the deliberate spelling ‘Pacifica’ rather than ‘Pasifika’.)
The instrumentation is the same as that of Bernstein’s ‘Chichester Psalms’. This was a practical decision. It is an ensemble that is not hard to assemble: 3 each of trumpets and trombones, 5 percussionists, 2 harps, and strings. It also provides the Bernstein with a companion piece suitable to fill out a concert.
The opening ‘Kyrie’ begins with a distant voice suggesting a Maori ‘karanga’ a calling together. The music then becomes more rhythmic with the women’s voices presenting a lyrical melody. The men’s voices enter at the ‘Christe eleison’, with the repeat of the ‘Kyrie’ introducing the two solo voices. The second movement combines a traditional Maori text of unknown authorship with Joy Cowley’s bi-lingual Morning Blessing. The percussionists suggest the rhythmic sound of pois, while the upper strings and harps suggest a guitar (a guitar may also be added). The ‘youth’ choir sings the Maori text while the women of the main choir sing the English words of the Cowley text, and the men the Maori words.
The next four movements set the text of the ‘Gloria’. The third movement begins with lively and rhythmic music, giving way later to more sustained singing. The end of the movement pays homage to the ‘Chichester Psalms’ where the opening rhythmic music returns quietly against as sustained note in the choir, emulating the end of the second movement of the Bernstein. The fourth movement, ‘Domine Deus’ is for soprano solo, while the fifth movement ‘Qui tollis’ features both soloists. The sixth movement initially features the alto soloist, with the main choir soon joining in. The music is lively until more sustained music from the first part of the ‘Gloria’ returns at the words ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu…’. Finally the opening ‘Gloria’ music returns and the movement ends with a noisy and energetic ‘Amen’.
The seventh movement features the ‘youth’ choir with just the percussion section. Here the music suggests a type of Pacific Island choral singing, using a ‘call and response’ technique typical of such choral traditions and also of many Afro-American spirituals. The text is a simple entreaty to God, sung in the Tongan language.
This work is essentially a ‘missa brevis’, a Mass without the Credo. Once I reached the Credo text it became obvious that to include it would mean a work of more substantial length than required. However I decided to include a short instrumental movement, as a meditation on that text. While working on the music I added the two solo voices as well, they sing the opening and closing lines of the Credo text. It is a dark, brooding and questioning movement. Following a brief dissonant opening section, the music develops into a long slow canon for the strings and harps. Once the voices enter, the preceding music reappears with a simpler harmonic framework. The movement ends rather abruptly although quite gently, but still without a sense of complete resolution.
The Sanctus allows the men’s voices a chance to feature. After two attempts at writing a noisy vigorous movement, I ended up writing music that starts gently and rather like plainsong – the music is marked ‘reverently’. The ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ section begins softly, but gradually as more voice parts enter, it builds to a massive climax. The music returns briefly to a softer and more reflective mood at the end of the movement.
The Benedictus returns to music from the Quoniam section of the Gloria. The traditional Latin text is replaced by a Maori translation of the words. The soprano soloist has a melodic line that at times suggests the contour of traditional chant. The Hosanna (‘Ohana i runga rawa’) has the main choir alternating bold tonal chords with the treble voices of the youth choir. While writing this movement I felt I wanted something to complement the energetic and noisy singing, and finally decide to incorporate a setting of ‘Whisper to me’, a lullaby text by Patricia Grace. This work already existed as an independent piece having been commissioned by St Cuthbert’s College (Auckland) in 2003. The words, partly in English and partly in Maori, provide a beautiful counterpoint to the blessing of the preceding music.
The lively eleventh movement mixes the Agnus Dei text with a Maori hymn text by Hirini Melbourne. The words speak of being ‘cleansed by the wind, washed by the rain’. The women of the main choir sing a simple counter-melody part based on the chorale from the fifth movement. I wanted to include texts beyond the immediate Pacific area, to acknowledge that New Zealand is also part of Asia. I finally found the poem ‘Outing’ by noted Singaporean poet Edwin Thumboo. Professor Thumboo is Director of the Centre for the Arts at the National University of Singapore. The text begins ‘Therefore bring your words with you. They grow in number, shuffle, show disquiet…’, and this seemed to be a wonderful summary of the ideas behind the whole work, a gathering together of diverse texts with their many associations and cultural meanings. The music, sung by the two soloists, is based on music from the canon section of the Credo, somewhat simplified. One of my early choral experiences was to sing in the ‘Dona nobis pacem’ from Bach’s ‘B minor Mass’, and the gradual unfolding of that music is suggested in my own setting of those words. The music which was first heard as the ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ in the Sanctus reappears. At first it appears intermittently, interrupting the text of ‘Outing’, then builds gradually to include the youth choir’s voices in a final climax. ‘Missa Pacifica’ then ends with an extended jubilant ‘Amen’ section.
The premiere of ‘Missa Pacifica’ was scheduled for not long before my fiftieth birthday. It seemed, on reflection, that this major work presents a summary of my compositional style up to this point. I also sense the beginnings of a change to a leaner style in other recent works, so perhaps ‘Missa Pacifica’ marks a watershed moment in my compositional career. ‘Missa Pacifica’ was commissioned by Auckland Choral to mark the choir’s 150th anniversary in 2005. Special thanks go to the authors of the texts used in the work, who so willingly allowed their poetry to be part of this project.