Book Review: Moon, Tides & Shoreline

By William Dart

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Moon, Tides & Shoreline: Gillian Karawe Whitehead, A Life in Music by Noel Sanders
Steele Roberts $49.99

Gillian Whitehead's Moon, Tides & Shoreline is an absorbing read, keenly illustrated. Photo / Supplied
Gillian Whitehead's Moon, Tides & Shoreline is an absorbing read, keenly illustrated. Photo / Supplied

None of our composers can rival Gillian Whitehead for the manner in which her music has so tellingly grown out of the dreams and aspirations of our still fledgling nation.

Her personal journey, from that very traditional 1963 Missa Brevis to the liberated waiata-like bloom of her 2009 clarinet solo, Mata-au, can be seen as a reflection in music of the spiritual and political transformation of our society.

Not surprisingly, she provides a rewarding subject for Noel Sanders' biography Moon, Tides & Shoreline, its title taken from Whitehead's 1990 string quartet.

Sanders, a wonderful weaver of words and benefiting from being a composer and a close friend of Whitehead, has excelled himself. This is a remarkably readable book, even when we have to face up to some nitty-gritty musical analysis; among its delights are its vivid characters, from a sketch of Whitehead's early teacher Ronald Tremain to her crucial partnerships with Fleur Adcock and Richard Nunns.

In the beginning, Sanders stresses, there was Whitehead's musician father, Ivan (born Hopa Ward Karawe), with his table of contemporary music scores at the various Cambridge Music Schools - and how timely it is to be reminded that the deluding generosity of internet resources cannot compete with the thrill we had in discovering the published scores of Boulez and Stockhausen in the 1960s.

Whitehead herself would write of her battle with breast cancer in the early 90s a decade later in Margaret Clark's Beating Our Breasts; here it is made clear how this played its part in her clear-sighted reappraisal of where she was going as a composer.

The result was an exploration and embracing of the simple yet resonant truths Maori culture had to offer. Her new interest in collaboration and improvisation would echo her generosity towards her fellow musicians.

A few quibbles aside - one of which is the strange omission of the tapping stone effects at the end of her 2002 Alice and a scrappy bibliography - Moon, Tides & Shoreline is an absorbing read, keenly illustrated. An obligatory purchase, one would imagine, for all who fell under Whitehead's spell during her Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra residency a decade ago.

An accompanying CD includes a welcoming collection of works, with Janet Roddick singing the words of Glenn Colquhoun, Gregory O'Brien reciting his own and a full ensemble of musicians around Richard Nunns and Aroha Yates-Smith in the moving Hine Te Kakara. Add Stephen De Pledge playing Whitehead's contribution to his Landscape Preludes and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra taking us on The Improbable Ordered Dance - persuasive reasons for having the book.

- William Dart is the Herald's classical music reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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