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Ko te tātai whetū: A Potent Direction for NZ Music


Ko te tātai whetū: A Potent Direction for NZ Music
by Charlotte Wilson
October 2015

In June this year a significant new work for taonga pūoro and symphony orchestra was premiered by the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra: Ko te tātai whetū, concerto for taonga pūoro, by Phil Brownlee and Ariana Tikao.

“Ko te tātai whetū – Concerto for Taonga Pūoro and Orchestra was exciting in its conception, presentation and impact. As a melding of two cultures its success came from the depth and dignity of Ariana Tikao, who played a selection of traditional Māori instruments and incorporated a Māori waiata… I look forward to the next essay into this musical combination of musical cultures. In Ko te tātai whetū Philip Brownlee and Ariana Tikao have pointed New Zealand music in a potent direction.” David Sell, The Press

The concerto, 18 minutes long, was commissioned by the CSO for their Kaleidoscope Colours concert in June, alongside Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin suite and works by Peter Sculthorpe and Lissa Meridan. The original idea was for Richard Nunns to perform the taonga pūoro, but his health prevented him and instead he suggested Ariana Tikao, acting as her mentor and ultimately the work’s dedicatee. Ariana composed the waiata at the heart of the work and the (semi-improvised) parts with Māori instruments, and Phil wrote the orchestral parts – collaborating closely together, over several months of composition.

Brownlee has always been a collaborator: he loves the ‘relationships between the score, the performers and the audience’ and has worked extensively with Stroma and 175 East, as well as the cross-disciplinary group Amalgam which won Best Music Show at the 2000 Wellington Fringe. This is his third work incorporating taonga pūoro, following He rimu pae noa of 2009 with Richard Nunns and Horomona Horo, and he describes Richard as a major influence in terms of introducing him to this whole other music world.

Phil writes about it in an excellent resource that he and Ariana put together with the CSO:

“In many ways, the things which attract me most to the sound of taonga pūoro are also the things which are very different to Western classical music: the extreme flexibility, the fluidity of pitch. From one point of view, the instruments are limited, but these limitations are also the source of their expressivity; very small nuances of pitch and timbre are able to carry a lot of meaning. The quietness of the sound of many of the instruments and the magnification of the smallest details of articulation really draw the listener in close to the performance. So I feel that part of my responsibility in working with musicians like Richard or Ariana is to give them space to do what they do naturally.”

Ariana herself is well known as a singer and composer in the indigenous music scene, as well as a taonga pūoro performer. Of Kāi Tahu (Ngāi Tahu) descent, she began writing waiata in Kāi Tahu dialect while studying at Otago University in the early 1990s, and started performing in 1993 with the folk group Pounamu. Currently she’s in the rather fabulous-sounding “Maori-Celtic themed folk group” Emeralds and Greenstone, based in Christchurch, and the more experimental group Ara in Wellington, where she lives. She has had quite some success including three solo albums and several music videos (of which Tuia won an international award at the imagiNATIVE Film + Media Festival in Toronto in 2009). Richard Nunns collaborated with her on her first album, Whaea (2002), and he has since become a mentor to her in the art of taonga pūoro.

“I first heard them on an album that Ngahiwi Apanui had done, with his band, Aotearoa [one of the first modern Māori bands]. It was quite an early recording, from the 1980s, and when I first heard the instruments I remember just being really intrigued by them. What I find interesting is not only the history behind them but also how individual the instruments are. Each instrument is so unique and you need to spend time with each one to really get to know it and understand it, and that’s really exciting. They have quite a lot of character in that way. It means that my relationship with them changes as I work with them more and develop my playing, and the experience of playing each instrument is quite a private thing I find, a personal thing. I just have to sit there almost in isolation really and just spend time individually with the instruments.”

Photo of Ariana by David St George.

What was that like then, sharing them with a whole 60-person orchestra?
“It was still quite a personal experience, even though I was playing with a large group of people.  I felt like I had to lock in with the orchestra, and relate to them on quite a personal level.”

It was also a fantastic experience for Phil, as his first major, public work for full orchestra. He speaks warmly of the support from the CSO, and describes the process while he was in the middle of writing it:

“For me, there are particular challenges in approaching this with a symphony orchestra. I'm trying to write music that sounds free, but not taking it too far away from the coordination with the conductor. So a lot of what I've written works as a framework for Ariana's improvisation. There's a lot of space and, I hope, a balance between foreground/accompanying roles - whether it’s Ariana's response to the orchestra, or the orchestra’s response to her. I know the pitch centres of Ariana's instruments so those centres provide points of contact for the orchestra's harmony. At the moment the texture is quite open - a few sounds, but the right sounds in the right places, focusing on the colours of individual events. Finding the balance between the natural language of the instruments, and what the player does when there's some friction with their surroundings, is the point where the two worlds turn into something else. That's getting a bit abstract, but that's some of the philosophy behind my view of this sort of collaboration.”

After Otago University Ariana did post-graduate study in museum studies at Massey University in Palmerston North, where she got her first experience of the taonga pūoro up close – her research project involved rehousing the collection in the Whanganui museum. It was not long after that that she met Richard Nunns and (later) Brian Flintoff, and became captivated by their great journey of rediscovery with Hirini Melbourne: a process that took them to all corners of the country, learning the stories and uses of these instruments, over decades. Now she is learning how to make them herself, with the Porirua-based carver Tamihana Katene.

“He’s been so generous to me. I’m making a pūtorino …. it’s the first time I’d actually held a chisel and learnt the mechanics of carving which is really a cool experience. There’s quite a growing group of people who are interested in the taonga pūoro and from all different aspects now which is very exciting”.

But it’s not only the instruments that have a personal connection for her. She also has a very personal connection to this work, Ko te tātai whetū, which translates roughly as “adornment of the heavens” (although she prefers not to nail it down in English) and comes from the words of the original mōteatea, chant, of one of her ancestors. This was Teone (aka Hone) Taare Tikao, her great-grandfather, and the great Kāi Tahu rangatira who was born in 1850 at Wairewa (Lake Forsyth) in Banks Peninsula, within months of the arrival of the first Pakeha settlers in Canterbury. The ravages by Te Rauparaha had taken place one generation earlier, and his father Tamati Tikao and uncle Hone were among those taken captive; after his release, the elder Hone was among those to sign the Treaty of Waitangi at Akaroa in 1840, and was also a signatory to the sale of Canterbury eight years later. It’s quite a history. The young Hone Tikao grew into a distinguished leader, scholar and politician – his biography is in Te Ara, the NZ Encyclopedia – and importantly for this story, he related a number of the old stories and legends to Herries Beattie, the historian. This is one of them, recorded in Beattie’s original copperplate in a manuscript in the Hocken Library.

“It’s a mythological story, an origin story, relating to the story of Hinetītama who was the first person born. Hinetītama was the daughter of Tāne, the god of the forest, and Hineahuone, who was fashioned from the earth. She fell in love with Tāne, and ended up marrying him: and at one point she asks who was my father, where did I come from. This is where the waiata text starts. When she finds out that Tāne is both her husband and her father, the shame of that makes her flee, and she goes into the underworld and becomes Hine-nui-te-pō, the guardian of the people who pass away. She’s sometimes translated as the goddess of death but it’s more that; she’s there to look after those who go back into the underworld. Tāne follows her back down into the underworld to try and get her back, but she tells him to go back and take their children back to the world to bring them up in the world, and then she instructs him to adorn the sky on the way back with all the different stars, as a cloak to clothe Raki (the sky father). So the song ends with quite a list of stars and constellations…”

It’s incredibly beautiful and also very appropriate for its first performance during Matariki – this is another reason Ariana chose this particular text. She plays several instruments, as well, beginning with the crystal-clear bell of the pahu pounamu, the gong, and including kōauau, putatara and two pūtorino.  It’s half improvised, half-composed, and is the second time she has worked with full symphony orchestra (she played in Kenneth Young’s In Paradisum with the APO earlier this year), but the first time in such a large role.

“Yes, that was certainly different from what I’m used to – I guess just the scale of it, the sheer number of people. Also because I don’t read music, that was a challenge, and working closely with the conductor [Benjamin Northey] was really integral to that. Ben was really great to work with and I felt there was a lot of trust there on both sides. Also, having all that time with Phil meant that we developed something that really works, I think. We had months to develop our parts together and I think that Phil composed the orchestra parts with such sensitivity, it led to something that complemented each another, with times of interplay and call and response which was dynamic and quite fun, but also space for the voice and taonga pūoro to breathe.”

Phil speaks just as highly of Ariana, and if the opportunity presents itself, they are keen to collaborate again. And his conclusion of the performance? “I think we got a good balance. That was very satisfying because with this one in particular I didn’t quite know for sure that it was going to work until we got to the rehearsal stage. It was also really moving in the way that the audience responded to it, that they found something in it and that we were communicating with people.”

There’s a karanga from someone in the audience at the end – watch the video and you’ll catch it. Imagine what Hone Taare Tikao would have thought! Maybe he was gazing down from the stars…

Read more in the CSO document: Concerto for Taonga Puoro, Schools’ Resource Package.

You can view a video of  Ko te tātai whetū, a concerto for taonga pūoro and orchestra below. Performed by Ariana Tikao and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Northey, at the Air Force Museum of New Zealand, in Christchurch.