My Sonic Art
Insights and Techniques for Composing Sound-Based Music
My initiation into the world of taonga pūoro happened on a sunny day at Whakarewarewa in mid-September 2009. My guest, a visiting professor from the UK (let’s call him Tom) and I had just watched a powerful kapa haka performance as part of our tour of the thermal village. We spotted a sign on a building that said ‘instruments’ and walked into a small shop expecting to find a number of traditional Māori instruments for sale, but instead we saw only a modest collection of carved flutes sitting on a table at the end of the room. Tom picked one of them up, a pūmotomoto I think, and attempted to play it. It made no sound. An impressive Māori gentleman in his late thirties appeared from behind a screen. He said, ‘Hey guys, you can’t just pick these up and expect to be able to play them!’ He plucked the pūmotomoto from Tom's hands and returned it to its rightful place in the collection (his own private collection as we learned later). ‘Oh no’ said Tom, ‘I’m a professor of music and I play the flute … actually, we’re both musical experts who work at universities …’ The man was unimpressed. ‘I’ll tell you what,’ he said ‘If you’re really interested, then come back in an hour, and I will play a few of them for you’. ‘An hour!?’ said Tom. ‘Yes, an hour’ said the man ‘I’m busy right now’. He then introduced himself as Jason Phillips, tā moko artist and taonga pūoro maker and player and said ‘I hope to see you guys later.’
Outside the shop Tom asked ‘what do you think we should do?’ I casually replied ‘I think it could be worth checking out - perhaps we should hang around?’ Tom agreed, and an hour later we were back in Jason’s shop. He began to share stories with us about the taonga pūoro in his collection and I asked him if he minded if I recorded him. ‘That’ would be fine,’ he said ‘I’m used to being recorded’ and he began to play. First came the pūkāea with its arresting deep drone and a sung accompaniment that produced an other-worldly musical texture. I’d never heard anything quite like it before. My stomach tightened, and I intuited that something significant was taking place. Next, he took two stones and began to rub and strike them together - his big hands working as filters to produce an elaborate rhythmic result. The haunting tones of the pūmotomoto followed. Darting quickly between registers and using the full range of the instrument together with bent notes produced by partially blocking the end, Jason created a hybrid musical texture reminiscent of both ancient Celtic and Māori traditions. My heart skipped a beat, and tears began to well up in my eyes. Next came the soft tones of the kōauau ponga ihu - so pure in breath and spirit. There was something about these sounds that touched my soul. On and on he played progressing through pūtōrino voices both male and female, poi āwhiowhio and hue puruhau. I now realise that Jason, a master of his craft, was presenting to us the numinous qualities of each instrument, interfacing their unique personalities with his assessment of our needs, but I had no understanding of this at the time. I could only rely on what I ‘felt’ - and I felt like I had discovered something extraordinary - but notably, I also felt a slight sense of discomfort as I wrestled with how I might use these sacred sounds in my own sonic arts practice. Perhaps Jason would be interested in collaborating, or teaching me how to play? When it came time to leave, Tom said ‘I bet when I contact you in ten years time, you'll look back to this day and say “this was one of the most significant moments in my musical journey.” He was right.
It didn't feel right to use the recordings Jason had allowed me to make, and within a month I had returned to Whakarewarewa for private playing lessons. By that time Jason had (pre-emptively) carved a pūtōrino for me that I named ‘kuia’ and gifted me other pūoro including kōauau ponga ihu and pūpū. I found the techniques and tīkanga he imparted during our sessions to be spiritually significant and inspirational - and I came back time and time again to learn more, and to hear stories of the instruments that had been passed down through his whakapapa (genealogical line). My fascination with the sounds of taonga pūoro had now become a deeply personal transformative experience. Jason encouraged me to start making my own instruments and over the months and years that followed we engaged in in-depth lessons and discussions concerning making and playing techniques. At home in Auckland, I experimented with clay, wood and shells, making a number of nguru, kōauau ponga ihu, pōrotiti, pūrerehua and pūtōrino. I also attended several other taonga pūoro workshops around this time as I began to grapple with how I, a Pākehā male in his forties might find my place in this sacred culture through the rite of passage I’d embarked on with my kaiako (teacher). Should my taonga pūoro practice be kept behind closed doors? Was it appropriate for me to be making taonga pūoro at all? Did I have the right to play them publicly? Did I have the right to play them privately? was there a way to use the sounds respectfully in my sonic artworks? These questions began to weigh heavily on me.
I received some useful guidance on these issues at a taonga pūoro wānaga I attended at the University of Auckland in 2012. Several experts were present and one in particular described my predicament as follows: he said ‘it may help you to consider that there are two types of practice: taonga pōuro ō te Māori and tango pōuro a John Coulter.’ His words assured me that my personal practice of making and playing had been condoned as natural part of the evolution of the culture of taonga pūoro, and at the same time I was reminded that I was not a part of the movement to conserve traditional taonga pūoro. By this time my practice had made its way into my daily mindfulness meditation sessions, so his comments, which allowed me the freedom to develop my own personal style, resonated with me strongly - and so it remained within the confines of my private daily life for a number of years. Then in 2018 I began studying te Reo Māori. I also moved to Muriwai Beach with my partner Sheridan. Suddenly I was surrounded by wind, waves and native bush with a newfound understanding of kupu and kōrero. By the end of the first year I had made twenty-one new instruments from fallen pōhutukawa branches found around our house, manuka found in nearby Goldies Bush, and shells and stones collected from the beach. Many were hybrids of traditional designs, making use of both mouth and nose playing techniques, and retaining the natural forms of the materials used, such as the curvature of branches. Over this time my playing practice was also transformed through the recitation of pepeha and karakia through the mouthpieces of the instruments. A deeper understanding of ngā taonga pūoro and their significance began to form.
By mid-2019 I felt that I was ready to take my taonga pūoro practice to the next level - to start to come out from behind closed doors. I knew that this would involve finding answers to the questions that still followed me. I spent a number of hours discussing the issue of personal boundaries with Jason, and at the same time I began to build a website for the purpose of documenting my journey - which had now become a full-blown research project. I also attended a taonga pūoro carving wānanga in Wellington hosted by Sam Palmer and Tamihana Katene where I received further guidance including some golden advice concerning pūtōrino and pūkāea carving techniques from Tamihana. Sam checked my website and offered me editing advice, encouraging a spirit of generosity and openness where multiple and contrasting viewpoints might be freely welcomed. This, he said, was a continuation of the kaupapa of Hirini Melbourne, Richard Nunns and Brian Flintoff who had spearheaded the revival movement. Brian Flintoff (who lives very close to my parents) was also very kind and supportive in passing on precious information concerning the making of pōrutu. From this intensive period of making, playing, studying and receiving advice from experts, I was finally able to make sense of the guiding principles surrounding the practice of taonga pūoro making and playing as it stands for me.
I found the concept of whāriki to be of great value in presenting these guidelines as one. Many strands are weaved together to create a resilient fabric. Each strand is important, and each relies on the others for support and strength. For me, these strands include at least making - natural materials, tikanga whakairo, tools; playing - purpose and context, traditional uses, techniques, voices, te Reo; health and wellbeing - fitness, meditation, spirituality; the natural environment and the love I feel for whānau. There are a number of finer points associated with each of these strands that take time to digest. They include issues such as where and when may be appropriate to play as well as what and how to play. I continued to document and reflect on my approach to each of these points. For me, there was no easy way to come to terms with the tikanga surrounding the practice. It took me thirteen years and a concerted effort to find answers to my questions - answers that finally came from deep within myself - through my own sense of personal integrity.
My position is this: I have always considered myself to be an end-user of taonga pūoro, and I have developed my personal practice within certain self-imposed constraints with the intention of honouring the instruments and the culture from which they came. I would go further in saying that ngā taonga pūoro, even the ones I have made, are not mine. They belong to Māori. For this reason, I do not perform in public, nor do I teach the history, making or playing of pūoro, nor do I comment on how they should be used or who should use them. I do not wish to hold myself out as an expert on the topic in any way and I do not speak on behalf of those who conserve and guide the evolution of taonga pūoro. I do; however, feel comfortable to use the sounds for meditation and sacred music-making purposes so long as certain key principles are upheld. I also feel compelled to share my story (with approval from my kaiako and the ambassadors of the domain who have the mana to guide its evolution) for the purpose of helping others find their own pathways. My chance meeting with Jason thirteen years ago has undoubtedly been the most significant moment in my musical journey. It exposed me to a beautiful practice and culture that despite my Pākehā heritage, I have been blessed and privileged to share in. It has gently permeated through all aspects of my life and has radically transformed my previous way of thinking for the better. I think that is a story worth sharing with others.
A natural extension to this story is to attempt to analyse some of my underlying attitudes and how these have changed for me over the past thirteen years. I have also attempted to compartmentalise my observations for the purpose of presenting them as a more general set of sociocultural concerns faced by individuals and groups when attempting to engage in taonga pūoro practices. Although my story is personal, I believe that many of my early attitudes and understandings are shared by larger groups of Pākehā throughout Aotearoa/New Zealand.
On the issue of approaching the domain of taonga pūoro for the first time, it is clear that Tom and I, both experts in the field of contemporary music composition, had no understanding of the appropriate protocols to use. The transactional model we attempted to apply, based on the conventions of buying and selling, was patently unfit for purpose. It was only through Jason’s patience that we were given a second chance, but this was a tall order for both him and us to fulfil. It would require forbearance on Jason's part, and a paradigm shift in our thinking - a giving-up of our delusions of power. But were they delusions? Our societally accepted notions of knowledge and dominance deemed us the musical experts and powerful buyers (the customer is always right). We needed to demonstrate a willingness to learn, to take the more tenuous stance of acknowledging our ignorance. This, we achieved this by adopting a model we were both familiar with - the European classical music teacher-student paradigm. Fortunately, this was more successful, but it was far from ideal. There was very little in respective educations that had prepared us for this type of sociocultural interaction. Tom had studied in the USA and UK, and neither my upbringing in Nelson, Aotearoa/New Zealand, nor my tertiary education in Christchurch and Brisbane, nor my workplace environment in Auckland had equipped me with the understanding I needed to approach things Māori - a sobering thought given the New Zealand education sector’s commitment to honouring the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi! Had there been a course associated with traditional Māori instruments offered at the University of Canterbury, I certainly would have taken it. Instead I studied Himalayan music.
On the issue of ownership, It is important to note that from the outset I faced an ethical dilemma. Part of me responded to the sounds simply as they were - for the blessings they provided me with at the time, but another part wanted to use the sounds to service my needs as a sonic artist. Now, in retrospect, it pains me to admit that my treasure hunter’s attitude was alive and well during my initial listening experience. I was transfixed by the prospect of recording and transforming the sounds for compositional purposes, and I wondered what mechanisms might be available to me to provide me with such permissions. I also felt anxious about the prospect of resolving this problem, and for good reason - I had unwittingly collided with the gargantuan paradigm of cultural appropriation, and I had arrived unprepared, with only euro-centric art-music conventions at my disposal. The established customs of recording, composer-performer collaboration, and D.I.Y. performing-composing drawn from the word of contemporary music composition did not contain the protocols that I required to engage with the domain of taonga pūoro.
A strong contributor in my early thinking was that Jason had agreed to be recorded. In music industry practices, If someone agrees to this, then they allow their recordings to be used for certain implied purposes. A written and signed ’waiver’ is the formal version of this agreement, which normally states what is to be recorded and how it is to be used. Did Jason understand that I initially wanted to stretch, pitch-shift, granulate and spectrally transform these recordings? I dared not ask. The ethics of my predicament weighed heavily on me, but the training I had received did not come to my aid. It only encouraged an approach now commonly referred to as plunder-phonics - a practice somewhat justified by electroacoustic music theory, which holds the view that all sounds may be manipulated to the point where they were no longer recognisable. I imagined a scenario where the sounds I had recorded might be used with the same potency but without reference to their cultural underpinning. It pains me greatly to share these early thoughts, as I my views have now changed so radically. It is my personal conviction that in using the sounds of taonga pūoro at all, in either referential or abstract form, I am unavoidably borrowing from traditional Māori culture.
Outside the shop, after our initial meeting, Tom speculated whether or not Jason might be interested in collaborating. This sounded like a realistic possibility at the time, but knowing what I know now, I am uncertain whether he would have been interested in such a Pākehā-centric proposal. Through my exposure to the world of contemporary composition, I was already familiar with the model of Pākehā composers coming together with Māori tango pūoro players. I had been sold the idea of the meeting of two cultures for mutual benefit - but this was something that more traditional composers did - those who worked with notes, not sounds. For me the model was far too conservative, and besides, I had heard stories of how problematic this ‘coming together’ could be. In his book Te Ara Pūoro, Richard Nunns documents several cases where ‘working out a reciprocal relationship between the two traditions proved elusive’ (Nunns 2014). Elizabeth Kerr who reviewed one such performance in 1988 wrote in the Listener: “I was certainly not the only person appalled by the total absence of cultural sensitivity with which the whole matter was handled from start to finish.” (ibid.) Although the composer’s fraternity has leaned much from these early mistakes, it has been slow to relinquish the conservative models by which much of its practice is carried out. It was only in 2019 at the Nelson Composer’s Workshop, that the model of composer-performer collaboration in the context of taonga pūoro was reexamined. Those present unanimously agreed that a composer-composer collaborative relationship was more appropriate that the incumbent composer-performer model. This is a good example of how the ambassadors of the domain are now guiding the process of evolution of the culture of taonga pūoro and making changes to the status quo.
It wasn’t until my follow-up visit in 2009, after Jason had made my first pūtōrino, that I started playing the instruments myself. At that time, my treasure hunter’s attitude was still alive and well. If I produced the sounds myself, I thought, I could do with them what I wished. I had seen this D.I.Y performer-composer model put to good use in music industry and academic settings. My musing continued, although I may not be able to produce the sounds as skilfully as Jason, I thought, I had the computer at my disposal, so by blowing a note or two I should be able to develop a range of effective musical materials that might serve my needs as a sonic artist. Now, in retrospect I realise that the act of playing - and this extends to making too - does not transfer ownership rights of the sounds produced by ngā taonga pūoro to the player. They, and the instruments too, remain the property of Māori - or to put it another way, the concept of ownership, in this context, from a Māori perspective is irrelevant. I now hold the view that in choosing to play the instruments, my personal responsibilities became far greater than if I had had the opportunity to collaborate with Jason. This is the exact opposite of my initial understanding, which was supported by my education to that date. In my current view, these responsibilities include an obligation to serve the principles of appropriate use, which combine the purpose and context of playing with the unique personalities of each individual instrument, incorporating at least their material qualities, associated stories, traditional uses, voices, playing techniques and improvisatory playing strategies. Where, when, which, how and what to play are issues that become evermore important as personal practice makes its way out from behind closed doors. As a Pākehā maker and player, I am cognisant that I occupy a domain without genealogical authorisation. For me, it has been essential to undergo a lengthy rite of passage under instruction from my kaiako - and although I have now served this apprenticeship, my right of access to ngā taonga pūoro remains through his mana and the tikanga he has imparted to me.
Now, a few years later in 2022 I have retreated even further from the limelight of taonga pūoro performance and/or art-making. I have taken what I have learned from this extended research project and applied it to making and playing other types of traditional instruments - those that I feel I have a genealogical connection to. These instruments include Lurs, flutes and harps originating in Europe and Scandinavia. My journey with taonga pūoro has provided me with a model to carry out this work, and I am eternally grateful for the wisdom it has imparted to me.