My Sonic Art
Insights and Techniques for Composing Sound-Based Music
In 2018 I was reminded of how much I still have to learn while visiting a taonga pūoro carving wananga in Wellington presented by Sam Palmer and Tamihana Katene. I had brought a number of my instruments with me as I wanted to show off their innovative qualities. Tamihana had also brought a number of his pūoro, which he allowed me to play. I was immediately struck by the tone and range of his pūtōrino, which seemed to be alive with breath and touch. Excitedly, I asked him how he had achieved such stunning result, and he began to share with me the way in which he had carefully split the wood, precision carved the circular-to-elliptical bore and the all-important internal shape of the māngai. To demonstrate, he took a piece of wood and carved his knowledge into it. I thanked him profusely then like an over-excited Labrador moved on to playing his pūkāea - an instrument which demonstrated similar jaw-dropping musical qualities. Again he shared with me the intricate details of carving, which I jotted down on a piece of paper. This interaction continued for an hour or more, after which time I returned to my own table. I glanced at my instruments, their oversized and misshapen bores, and considered the way in which I had blundered through the making of them with my power tools. I felt embarrassed, but I was also elated to have undergone such a profound learning experience.
For years I've played my taonga pūoro every morning as part of my mediation practice – and whilst living in Muriwai, often sitting under the 300-500-year old pohutukawa in front of our house. I have learned to receive teachings through them. More recently I have been learning te reo Māori for the purpose of studying the instruments and their stories. Many strands come together to inform the when, which, how and what of playing taonga pūoro. These include the purpose and context of playing, together with the unique ‘personalities’ of each individual instrument, which incorporate at least the material qualities, associated stories, traditional uses, voices and playing techniques and improvisatory playing strategies.
The first and most important consideration, in my view, is purpose and context. Iterating the statement ‘for me’, suitable occasions for playing might include gatherings of friends for the purpose of promoting 'eudaimonia' - to develop ‘a generative framework for exploring issues of meaning, identity, purpose and ethical conduct’. For me, this is the most public of settings where I am comfortable to play taonga pūoro but notably, they are often employed as part of a larger instrument set (drums, lurs, harps etc). In other private contexts, the instruments might be played alone or with close family and friends and might be used for simple relaxation, musical appreciation and creativity, to meditate on connectedness with the natural environment, love for whānau, loss of loved ones and other matters of the spirit. In my personal practice, I use taonga pūoro for two main purposes: to assist in my daily mediation and to assist in group mediation (such as the 'sound circle' previosly described). I no longer attempt to use the sounds as materials in my sonic artworks, although I have done (sparingly) in the past. An example of respectful use in sonic arts contexts is drawn from my acousmatic work While the Sun Shines, which utilises a recorded archive of a deeply felt personal playing session on Tiritiri Matangi where I was mourning the loss of my niece. The work, which retells the grief experienced by my family, provides the context, while the purpose of the playing/recording is as a memorial to my much loved irāmutu (my nieces and nephews are Māori). The recording of kōauau ponga ihu features in the middle of the work in its raw form, and again at the end in time-stretched form.
The given purpose and context also informs the type of pūoro that might be co-opted. Here, it helps me to consider each individual instrument as a unique personality that might contribute to the given scenario. In a traditional sense the union of purpose/context and instrument might be more accurately described as a mediated conversation between the human world and the divine, with the instrument and player acting as a translator of messages to and from the spirit world. This is an altogether different ideology than that of western contemporary composition where instruments might simply be ‘used’ for their sonic qualities. It is my contention that when it comes to taonga pūoro, all essential qualities relating to the instruments must be respectfully considered. These ‘personality traits’ include at least the material qualities, associated stories, traditional uses, types of voices (often gendered) and playing techniques. Each individually carved instrument offers a unique set of characteristics and idiosyncratic qualities. As a summary statement to the when, which and how of playing, it is my contention that where the sounds of taonga pūoro are used in either referential or abstract form, the purpose of their use and the specific context within which they are used must be carefully considered with reference to the unique personalities of individual instruments and how they might be co-opted in that particular situation.
Once the instrument has been chosen, the issue of ‘what to play’ comes sharply into focus. From a traditional standpoint, spoken words play a big part in the playing of any instrument that is blown from the mouth, and particularly for pūtōrino and kōauau. The trumpeted instruments such as pūkāea make announcements, and these affirmations should be deeply felt by the player. Kupu might include pepeha, names of loved ones, karakia, declarations of love, and even insults for your enemies. As Richard Nunns writes in his book Te Ara Pūoro '... for Maori the playing of instruments was intimately connected with song or speech, and that pouro did not represent an independent ‘instrument’ category of music but an extension of the human voice - singing, praying, exhorting, signalling, insulting' (Nunns 2014), The sounds produced are similar in form to spoken materials but notably often stretch to longer timeframes too. The augmented rhythms of kōrero are also used in the playing of percussive instruments such as rōria and tumutumu. According to tradition, playing with the nose uses breath that is untainted by words and is therefore more pure in spirit. Concentrating on the breath and spirit also tends to align well with meditational practices such as zazen and transcendental styles, and beautiful sounds can often be produced through the simple act of exhaling from the belly through the instruments. For me, playing with the nose while meditating is most effective while maintaining single notes or series’ of notes produced through changes in breath pressure. My breath-watching approach together with a sense of spiritual awareness might also be transferred to other instrument including those played with the mouth. For some trumpeted instruments, it is also possible to stretch-out single notes indefinitely using circular breathing techniques. The imitation of natural sounding events can also be very fruitful. One might imagine and attempt to recreate the sounds of birds, insects, the wind, the ocean, babbling rivers and boiling mud pools while playing; however, it is important to maintain subtlety in this approach. Non-sounding events too, such as sunsets, light on the water, the feel of heat from the sun can be wonderful sources of inspiration. A fourth consideration regarding ‘what to play’ concerns the distinct pitches produced by many of the instruments. Here, a traditional cross-reference of how to play with microtonal variation around four notes is provided through the study of waiata mōteatea. For me, a combination of these four techniques: saying something with intent, meditating on the breath, mimicking nature and following the established patterns of traditional waiata and karanga tends to produce the best results. The four techniques might also be seen as remedies or counteragents to the inclination to play 'technically' and/or to adopt western ideologies of playing scalic or modal melodies on the instruments.