William Dart: The gentle strains of heaven

By William Dart

Victoria Kelly has composed music that stems from Maori whakapapa. Photo / Jonathan King
Victoria Kelly has composed music that stems from Maori whakapapa. Photo / Jonathan King

NZTrio closes the Auckland Arts Festival tomorrow evening with a concert titled Convergence. It offers 70 minutes of music from Chinese composers Gao Ping and Chen Yi, and New Zealanders Gareth Farr and Victoria Kelly, celebrating "a common place in culture, time, mythology and spirituality".

It might sound a little portentous but Kelly is remarkably down-to-earth when we catch up in her Grey Lynn studio. As we talk, she copes with visiting carpenters and there are children to be picked up from school in due course.

"Being a mother of three has changed every priority I ever thought I might have had," she laughs. "I spent a lot of time trying to fit my new and old self into the same body, but sitting down and writing music seemed so indulgent and surplus to requirements."

You may have heard Kelly's music on screens, big and small. Check out the NZSO recording of her score for Jonathan King's 2009 film Under the Mountain and the music she and Sean Donnelly wrote for the new season of The Almighty Johnsons on TV3.

For a composer who dislikes "working away on my own, locked in a little room," her latest work Toi Huarewa/Suspended Way, created in close collaboration with NZTrio and Horomona Horo, has been heaven.

"It's lovely to feel their constant input into the plasticity of the piece," she explains.

The concept behind Toi Huarewa, a constructed myth about reaching the highest level of heaven, is Kelly's. It reflects a continuity and connectedness that stems from the Maori whakapapa. "We don't exist in isolation," she asserts.

"There's a whole family of ancestors who have put us in this part of time."

Kelly relates this to Maori instruments or taonga puoro, likening them to "the waist in an infinite hourglass".

"They evoke the elements that they were made from and the land that hosted those elements, as well as the people who have touched and played them."

She talks with reverence of how beautifully Horo describes the different characters of the instruments and "how his whole journey as a musician has been shaped by his relationship with Hineraukatauri, the goddess of music, which has enabled me to write quite intimately for him".

Working with Horo, she was won over by "his incredible generosity and what he's prepared to offer".

"He quietly takes in what you say and then interprets what's asked of him. He just feels it with a musicality that western ears aren't trained to hear."

Kelly plays an excerpt from a February workshop, in which Horo's delicate, breathy koauau creates extraordinary harmonies with the bending tones of violin and cello.

"I love harmony," she explains. "It's my favourite thing in music. The taonga puoro are not harmonic instruments but they have an internal harmony of their own, with its own tension and release, that interacts with the tonality of the western instruments."

Kelly marvels at how "Maori music is so integrated into the culture".

"One single koauau note may sound simple but it is speaking on behalf of so many voices."

There are, however, warnings to be heeded.

"These instruments are small, gentle voices. They are easily swamped by massively developed instruments, designed to project across auditoriums."

She admits that, even though the Town Hall concert chamber is not enormous, "it's a lovely idea to imagine that people will need to lean forward to hear because that's the nature of taonga puoro as well. This is not declamatory music. Some people imagine that Maori music is all haka but there's so much peace, science and poetry as well."


Auckland Arts Festival

What: Convergence with the NZTrio and Horomona Horo
Where and when: Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber, tomorrow at 7pm

- NZ Herald

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