By our mid-20s most of us have learnt not to expect much from a birthday: socks and undies, maybe a book voucher or a few Facebook posts.

For his 26th birthday, Eve de Castro-Robinson's son, Cyprian, is getting a new piece of music and having it performed by a professional orchestra in the Auckland Town Hall. It's the sort of thing that only happens when your mum is an internationally regarded composer.

If you're worried we've ruined Cyprian's surprise you needn't fear, he was informed in advance and, for a brief moment, it looked like one of his own compositions would be folded into the new work. It should be noted that Cyprian is not a classical musician, but a member of a grindcore punk band.

"We thought it would be fun to do a cover of his band Sick Old Man's latest song," says composer Eve de Castro-Robinson. "That's what I started off trying to write. I thought I could turn the raspy vocals into stopped strings and that kind of thing, but actually it was hard not to sound like a ghastly pale imitation of the original and I realised it wasn't working."

Advertisement

This, she says, is part and parcel of a creative life.

"Sometimes you're more or less trying things out; some seem to work and some don't. However, I kept a vestige of the punk spirit that's important to Cyprian."

If there's punk in the final work, Tipping Point, which opens Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's 2018 season, there's more than a hint of goth, too.

"The vision of [Cyprian's] generation's future, with the impending crises of climate change and threat of nuclear war, in many ways feels bleak," writes the composer in her programme notes for Tipping Point. Is she as pessimistic as her note suggests?

"Yes, I am," de Castro-Robinson says. "I think if you're exposed to the news and non-stop global information you almost have to be. It's pretty clear that my son's generation will inherit a mess, so yes, I'm sensibly pessimistic as we all must be about the future. But in the meantime I've just had a fabulous summer of swimming and walking and drinking and eating and laughing."

Tipping Point has an unusual structure, with a pair of short, contrasting halves that can be played in either order.

"The conductor [Giordano Bellincampi] and I will probably decide which one to begin on for the premiere," de Castro-Robinson says, "but it's always rather nice to send a creative piece out into the world with something open about it."

Tipping Point is being sent out into the world with some illustrious company, having been programmed with Beethoven's "Emperor" piano concerto — played by the masterful Jean-Efflam Bavouzet — and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.5.

De Castro-Robinson's philosophical about her work accompanying two established masterpieces.

"I've found over the years that you'll always be upstaged. You can only write from the heart and hope that a connection is made. My piece will sound smaller, much shorter, an oddity, a bit tuneless and a bit what-was-that?-ish. And that's all right, because the audience will have the luxury of bathing in the 'Emperor'."

Tipping Point marks the beginning of several extremely busy months for de Castro-Robinson. When we speak, she's about to start the new academic year at the University of Auckland, where she is an associate professor. She describes New Zealand composition as being in very good heart.

"There are terrific young people with a lot of energy. When I look back and think about my peers and students, and the people who have kept going, it tends to be energy and drive that are the defining necessities for a composer."

She points to young Auckland musician Alex Taylor as an example. The pair runs a performing group called Hearsay, which has a concert on March 11 at the Tim Melville Gallery, featuring a politically charged pairing of Louis Andriessen's Workers Union and Frederic Rzewski's terrific Coming Together. The concert is, appropriately, titled Soapbox.

A forthcoming CD of de Castro-Robinson's work has a similarly evocative name, The Gristle of Knuckles, and gets its release on February 25 as part of a showcase by music label Rattle at the Auckland Fringe Festival.

The album features leading musicians including Don McGlashan, Delaney Davidson and Kevin Field reworking de Castro-Robinson's music in occasionally startling ways. Among the highlights are Countercurrents, in which emerging saxophonist Callum Passells blows with the sort of urgency jazz musician Nathan Haines showed in his youth, and Haines himself in a funky take on Doggerel, complete with flutey barks.

Those lamenting the absence of grindcore punk in Tipping Point can turn instead to the Hendrix-on-cello fireworks of Stumbling Trains, performed by NZTrio's Ashley Brown.

"I'd like to do a lot more collaborating," says de Castro-Robinson. "I think I used to jealously guard my music, but with the right people it's extremely rewarding to feel the energy and discovery and the thrill of mutual creativity. I've not had so much fun and silliness on an album before."

LOWDOWN

What: APO, The New Zealand Herald Premier Series, Bellincampi. Bavouzet. Beethoven, opening with Eve de Castro-Robinson's Tipping Point
Where & When: Auckland Town Hall, February 15

What: Auckland Fringe Festival, Rattle Showcase 1 — Eve de Castro-Robinson The Gristle of Knuckles album launch
Where and When: Lot 23, February 25

What: Hearsay presents Soapbox
Where and When: Tim Melville Gallery, March 11