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Sound world for landfall

The arrival on these shores of explorer James Cook is the theme of an orchestral work that will have its world premiere at the War Memorial Theatre next month.

Of Maori and European descent, Dame Gillian Karawe Whitehead’s new work, Turanga-nui, commemorates the arrival of explorer James Cook and what is described as the cultural misunderstanding that resulted in the percussive birth of modern New Zealand. The work is one of four commissioned by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO).

“They wanted four pieces dealing with Cook’s arrival by four different composers,” says Dame Gillian.

“I was asked to do something around landfall.”

Dame Gillian could not use the title Landfall, though. That is the name of the body of commissioned work by four New Zealand composers.

“I thought for a long time about what I was going to write. I read as many versions of Cook’s arrival here as possible and imagined what it would have been like.”

Dame Gillian recalls seeing a replica of Cook’s Endeavour emerge from thick fog during its arrival in Dunedin in 2000. The original ship was a stumpy collier repurposed for the scientific expedition that brought Cook to the Pacific. The composer was struck by how small it was.

“Iwi saw it as a giant bird when it arrived in 1769, a very different perspective. When the Europeans arrived it was wonderful to see land but there was nothing they would have recognised.

“On the other hand, Maori would have no conception of the change to come. I thought about that for a long time. There’s a sense of unease . . .”

Dame Gillian originally thought the work would have to be large scale to encompass the story of Endeavour’s voyage from the other side of the globe.

“There were so many different sound worlds to draw on. I thought first about the movement of water.”

Instrumentation suggestive of taonga puoro features in a section of the work that deals with the sight of fires and activity along the shoreline as the ship approached land.

“I knew there were fires on the land so I tried to achieve a sense of awareness and strange happenings with a chorus of horns,” says Dame Gillian.

“I wasn’t going to do a scenario of what happened. There is a build up to a sense of confrontation built on total misunderstanding.

“There is no resolution.”

Long-time collaborator with the NZSO, Gareth Farr composed a work for the Landfall series with his composition He iwi tahi tatou. The work had its world premiere in Auckland in June. He Iwi Tahi Tatou is built around Governor William Hobson’s greeting to the Maori chiefs as they came forward to sign the Treaty of Waitangi — “He Iwi Tahi Tatou” (“We are all one people”).

“In 250 years New Zealand has grown as a nation where two very different cultures have, over time, come together — not just through obligation but by a gradual understanding of each other, to embrace, mix and bind, despite tensions and difficulties along the way,” says Farr on the NZSO website.

“He Iwi Tahi Tatou is somewhat less complicated in its politics. It is simply a celebration of the vibrant culture that we live in — the good and bad, the ups and downs — but above all the unique cultural diversity and energy that makes this country what it is.”

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra will premiere Dame Gillian Karawe Whitehead’s work Turanga-nui as part of the Classical Hits concert at the War Memorial Theatre, September 6 at 7pm.

FIFTY YEARS ON: Half a century has passed since the Eurocentric bicencentenary of explorer James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand, but next year’s commemorations are on track to be very different. To mark the upcoming 250th anniversary of first meetings between Maori and Cook, the New Zealand Symphony orchestra has commissioned works from New Zealand composers such as Dame Gillian Karawe Whitehead whose composition Turanga-nui will have its world premiere in Gisborne next month. Picture from Gisborne Photo News, No. 185, November 5, 1969.
Cook arrival