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How the NZSO are exploring the cultural collision of Cook's arrival

Michael Norris. Photo/Supplied

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's Mātauranga is inspired by Captain James Cook's arrival 250 years ago.

Composer Michael Norris has thought hard about the cultural contradictions inherent in his new orchestral work, Mātauranga (Herenga). The NZSO will this month present their premiere within their “Landfall” Series, part of the national commemorations of the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s arrival in Aotearoa on the Endeavour.

Cook was on a voyage of scientific discovery, and as Dame Anne Salmond points out in her book Tears of Rangi, the Endeavour was a “travelling laboratory”. They also brought a colonial world view based on Enlightenment values and a European “Order of Things” that was worlds apart from mātauranga Māori, the indigenous knowledge and understandings of the inhabitants of this land.

Norris has chosen to combine the instruments of the orchestra with taonga pūoro, Māori traditional instruments made from materials such as toroa (albatross) bones, the vertebrae of an upokohue (pilot whale) and the wood of kōwhai and kauri trees. These instruments embody the indigenous flora and fauna the Endeavour scientists planned to classify.

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“There’s a symbolic convergence of the instruments of the symphony orchestra, which represents the Western Enlightenment’s ideals of refinement, with indigenous New Zealand history represented by taonga pūoro,” says Norris. “And there’s another musical element, live electronics, as a kind of bridge between the two worlds.”

Norris was also inspired by thoughts of the long, unbroken days at sea on Cook’s three voyages around the world and the movement of the waves has found its way into his music. “It’s subtitled Rerenga, which can mean ‘flowing’ or ‘voyage’,” he says. “The taonga pūoro lead the texture, and live electronics pick up those sounds, sustain them and shape them into waves. And then the orchestral writing imitates the electronic textures.”

Another element of the composition is derived from traditional weaving. “There are three ideas,” says Norris. “The flora and fauna of New Zealand represented by the taonga pūoro, the journey across the sea represented by the electronics and picked up by the orchestra, and the way the flowing wave-like sounds are woven together in the texture, perhaps the way Māori weave with harakeke.”

Norris sees his Mātauranga (Herenga) as commemorative rather than celebratory. “It’s an evocation of that time, of the natural seascapes and soundscapes of New Zealand around the time of that first contact [between European and Māori]. I hope my music furthers the discourse about the future of taonga pūoro and contributes to the ongoing cultural discussions in this country.”

Mātauranga: the NZSO play music by Mozart, Osvaldo Golijov, Nielsen, Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Michael Norris with Steven Osborne (piano) and Carlos Kalmar (conductor). Wellington, Napier, Tauranga, Hamilton and Auckland, July 13-20.

This article was first published in the July 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.