The Journey of Matuku Moana

The Journey of Matuku Moana

by William Dart

Gillian Whitehead finds herself drawn to the power and eloquence of the solo instrumentalist or singer, writing works for unaccompanied violin, unaccompanied cello and even solo recorder, with the short score Korimako (1996), written in memory of Tracey Chadwell. Chadwell was the soprano who gave the premiere performance of Whitehead's Awa Herea, which also has solo or minimally accompanied sections.

Why solo?

Recently Gillian admits that she's been very much 'thinking in line' and is often 'drawn to the quality of sound you can get out of a single instrument rather than a combination of instruments, either in chamber music or in orchestral music'. Or, as Australian composer Graham Hair has commented, writing about The Journey of Matuku Moana, the challenge is 'to make something positive of limitations, by looking at them as features to be exploited in order to produce something which grows out of the nature of the instrument'.

An Australian Commission

The Journey of Matuku Moana was commissioned by the Australian cellist George Pedersen and premiered by him at the Sydney Conservatorium in 1993. As well as Pedersen's own recording (on Tall Poppies label, TP129) the work is included by Alexander Ivashkin on his Manu double CD Under the Southern Cross: New Music for Solo Cello by Australian and New Zealand Composers. (All timing references at the end of this piece are to the Ivashkin recording).

The composer comments in her notes for the piece:

"Matuku Moana (or matuku waiwai) is the white-faced heron, commonly found in New Zealand, which originated in Australia. While writing the piece, I had in my room a large wooden sculpted heron, quite assertive, which was something of a focus for me at the time. Shortly afterwards, moving to the Otago Peninsula before the piece was finished, there were many such herons. One day I saw 25 in a macrocarpa tree outside my window."

Harrowing Times

This work has other special associations for Gillian as it was written at a time when she was undergoing radiotherapy for cancer; in her own words, this piece was ‘a way of writing through the experience'. And The Journey of Matuku Moana found a responsive spirit in dancer Jan Bolwell who, after discovering that she too had cancer, choreographed her solo work Off My Chest to this Whitehead score. Off My Chest was danced with the cello accompaniment played live (by Rowan Prior) at the Musicwomen Aotearoa Festival in Wellington in April 1999.

This was a performance that particularly impressed visiting English composer Nicola Lefanu, who commented:

"I already know and love The Journey of Matuku Moana. I think it's a most beautiful and eloquent work that Gillian Whitehead has written and it was quite striking to see it danced. There's a wonderful point when the dancer is like an archer pulling a bow. It's a tremendous gesture of strength - it's all about the strength of one's chest muscles and it's a beautiful pun because the cello is pulling the bow all the time . . . and I think that the courage in the dance is quite wonderful." 

And on Screen

In 2001, filmmaker Gaylene Preston used Bolwell's dance and the cello work on the soundtrack of her documentary, Titless Wonders, in which the filmmaker interviewed various women who have experienced breast cancer.  It was a happy marriage of sound and vision: Gillian found that the director was 'incredibly sensitive to the score, so much so that it felt as the film was being cut to the music'.

Graph Charts and Bird Calls

The Journey of Matuku Moana skilfully reconciles the demands of a virtuoso solo piece with the formal concerns that one might expect Whitehead to have after her studies in Europe in the 1960s and 70s. The work originated in a graphic chart, which consisted of various raw motifs or ideas _ a number are given out in the first bars of piece - and these provide Gillian with the material for the whole piece, ‘sticking with the pitches but stretching the time scale to suit the musical ideas'.  There are also references to two specific bird-calls - the Australian currawong at 3'02" and the Otago korimako at 13'15". The bell-like tones of the korimako mark Gillian's return to Dunedin, where she completed the piece in the early days of 1992.

Echoes of Bach

The opening flourish, with its massive chord, catches the spirit of Bach's Cello Suites, and you'll hear this important idea recurring throughout the piece (2'50" is just one of many examples). There is also a distinctly Bachian spirit in the patterning at 11'17", marked ‘lightly' and ‘rapidly'.

Diversity and Variety

Whitehead shows great ingenuity in drawing many wonderful colours from the instrument. Within the first minute alone, she has used powerful chords, tremolo, double stopping and brilliant passage work. Later in the work, she makes effective use of the flute-like tones of harmonics (1'43" marks their first appearance).

The title of this work operates on many levels. As well as the ‘journey' of the birds, and that of the artist travelling back to her homeland, there is also a ‘journey' to be traced in the way that Gillian organises the thematic content of the piece. There are a number of central ideas which recur, in various guises and reworkings. The interval of a fourth is particularly prominent (first heard at 00'11", and then given many later guises including an appearance in the substantial middle section at 6'51" marked ‘simply')

One of Gillian's commissions for the recent Auckland Philharmonia Michael Hill World Violin Competition was to write an eight-minute violin solo, Bright Silence, which was performed by all 18 semi-finalists. The Journey of Matuku Moana, too, has been played by at least three performers, and Gillian is delighted at 'the variety of interpretations that both pieces can inspire'.


Taurangi, for flute and piano, was commissioned by the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts and was premiered by flutist Bridget Douglas and pianist Rachel Thomson in March 2000. Taurangi was singled out by composer and critic Michael Norris as one of the standout pieces of Douglas and Thomson's recital:

'This is a work that transforms from moving elegy to something far more otherworldly. Douglas wrought spine-tingling sounds through harmonic overblowing while Rachel Thomson created a dark, shimmering environment from inside the piano.'

You can hear the two musicians play the piece on the Waiteata recording Composer Portrait: Gillian Whitehead (WTA003). (All timing references are to this recording.)

The Beginnings

The Maori title of the work has several meanings all of which, according to the composer, bear relevance to the piece. One of them is 'wanderer', another is simply an expression of grief; it can also signify 'incomplete, changing or unsatisfied'.

Gillian started to write the piece in Australia in 1999, but the mood of the music soon became coloured by the news of the invasion of East Timor, and of the death of her colleague and mentor John Mansfield Thomson, the pre-eminent scholar of New Zealand music.

As the composer comments:

'Here I was sitting down trying to write a piece for flute and piano and all I could think of was John and East Timor and I felt that my response to those events very much got into the music.' John was very much in the composer's mind when she wrote the central Lament section

Discovering New Sounds

Gillian found Taurangi was a difficult piece to write, because 'there's such a lot of music that already exists for flute and piano and you don't want it to sound like either the Boulez Flute Sonatina or the Poulenc Sonata'. She also had trouble in 'finding out where the piece started', as the first part to be written was a central section. 'As work progressed, it felt like as though layers were being removed. For instance, halfway through, the sounds of the keyboard give way to sound generated from within the instrument. And the piece needed those more ethereal sounds. The conventional keyboard would have been too harsh at that point.'

The Jazz Connection

One of the most striking moments in Taurangi is provided by the rich, mysterious piano chords that open the work . You might even be forgiven for thinking Bill Evans or Billy Strayhorn were an inspiration here and, although Whitehead is sure that the chord originated with something structured, she also remembers her teacher Ron Tremain saying 'you should always play what you have written because sometimes your fingers play better than you wrote. I've always thought that was a very wise saying'. These chords continue to make their presence felt during the piece, most noticeably in the approach to the central lament (5'44")

Writing for the Flute

Writing for the flute was a special challenge for Gillian. There is something of the tone of the Maori koauau and putorino in the Lament section (5'53") with its oscillating third, sliding notes and 'bluesy' shift between major and minor; elsewhere there are all sorts of radical sounds using the extended techniques familiar in international contemporary music.

Amongst these techniques are breathy notes with exaggerated tonguing (3'19").  There are also multiphonics, in which the player, by carefully overblowing, creates what are in fact chords (3'59") a technique which needs very specific fingering to be supplied by the composer. 'Ideally you work with the performer but if you can't do that, you work with a good book on specialised techniques and talk to the musician about practicalities later'.

Meanwhile at the Piano

The pianist too has his or her share of explorative sounds. He or she is asked to deliberately blur a cluster of dissonant notes with sustaining pedal (1'05"), and play with the right hand while the left holds down a handful of notes silently, creating eerie resonances (2'39"). Contrasted with this is the pristine clarity of the D arpeggio introduced in the Lament section (6'10").

Towards the end of the piece the pianist investigates inside the instrument. At first, the strings are stopped with the fingers of the left hand, while notes are played on the keys with the right (8'23"). Then, after a low ominous cluster (8'39"), the player takes a ping pong ball, sliding and rolling it over the strings, moving from a menacing rumble of a glissando to wiped chords which recall the sounds of a tape played backwards. Why a ping pong ball? 'There was a lot of experimentation to be done before I came up with just the right sound. The balls of the fingers? Too soft. A plectrum? Too hard. And a ping pong ball was just right!'

Using Tonality

The final pages of the piece are played out against the rustling glissandi in the upper register of the piano (beginning at 10'51").  For the final minute, the flute settles on what are basically a few notes in C minor - taken from the song of the korimako - although it ends with a question mark at 12'49 with the note being slightly pitch-bent.

Gillian comments:

'Most of the composers of our generation had to find their own way out of serialism and modernism. There's a huge spectrum between tonal and atonal, it's not necessarily one or the other. As part of my harmonic language now I can touch back into and out of tonality.'


A Border Lament

Hotspur was the first of a number of collaborations with poet Fleur Adcock - the others would include Eleanor of Acquitaine in the following year and Out of this Nettle, Danger in 1983 - all of which use the form of monodrama, influenced no doubt by Schoenberg's great Erwartung of 1909.

Hotspur is the lament of Elizabeth Mortimer, wife of Henry Percy, the fourteenth-century English warrior known as 'Hotspur'.  In the Border Wars of the time, Hotspur fought in a number of conflicts, including the Battle of Otterburn in 1388, which is depicted in Gillian Whitehead's score. Ironically, as his widow tells us in the final section of the work, Hotspur did not die at Otterburn but rather 'on the field at Shrewsbury, a rebel against the crown'.

A Work of Its Time and Place

Hotspur was written in the North of England, when Whitehead and Adcock were both Fellows at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

‘I was living on the moors in Northumberland at the time, close to where the Battle of Otterburn was actually fought. In that environment I was very aware of natural sounds - the sound of the wind, the birds, blizzards - and those sounds really impinged on my way of hearing things. I now hear those sounds in the music of Hotspur.'

Fleur Adcock was a special collaborator for Gillian: 'I just thought she captured the time and the place in her poem, it was beautifully researched and had such a compelling narrative'. The two women are currently working on a new monodrama, Alice.

'I find women easier to write with than men. For me the deeper problem has perhaps been the Maori-Pakeha thing so I've found it difficult to relate to what difference being a woman composer makes. I don't feel I've suffered terribly much in my career through being a woman composer. I don't feel victimised or picked on, though I know some women do.'

Meanwhile on the Other Side of the World

Roger Covell wrote of its premiere performance in Sydney in 1981:

‘Hotspur deserves to win further admirers for this distinctive and gifted composer. She has a genuine creative power, one that sets up lingering resonances in the listener's imagination . . . . she has the rare gift of knowing when to use nightmarish vehemence and when to be utterly straightforward.'

Subtle Connections

Whereas most of the vocal sections fall into ballad form, the instrumental sections which separate them are founded on more intricate formal structures. Gillian exploits extremes of pitch, rhythm and technique in the instrumental writing. In the opening pages, there is the dramatic disorientation of superimposed rhythm patterns along with striking contrasts of texture (two bars for full ensemble marked 'wild' are followed by a simple, sighing fall for violin).

At one point, at the words 'Last night the moon travelled through cloud", there is a particularly symbiotic relationship between voice and instruments. In this passage Gillian has derived the actual sound of the strings and marimba from the vowels and consonants that occur in Adcock's text. 

Dramatic Flair

Yet, with her sure dramatic instinct - a flair which can also be seen in her most recent opera Outrageous Fortune _ she makes sure that we meet the character of Elizabeth Mortimer in the music. From the beginning, the vocal setting itself suggests the emotion behind the words. There is that wonderful, billowing setting of the word 'dream' in the singer's first line (‘There is no safety/there is no shelter/the dark dream/will drag us under'). The first two of these lines recur throughout the piece, every time slightly changed, catching what Gillian describes as ‘the sense of fate and impending disaster'.

Contemporary Ballad

Much of the vocal writing is in a ballad-like style (‘I married a man of metal and fire') but with each 'ballad', the inflections behind it are slightly different. The singer might be accompanied by nervous, edgy strings or a shuddering motif on clarinet (‘he has three castles to his use'). Towards the end, she has moments that are almost unaccompanied (‘He did not fall at Otterburn') and in the final, gruesome climax, there is a scattergun surge from the instruments when she describes the mutilation of her husband's body ('They tied his corpse in the market place").

‘These ballads are pushed beyond what a simple ballad would normally do, although they are still recognisably ballads. I saw what I was doing as very similar to what the Expressionists were doing in painting - heightening or distorting the structure of the piece to bring out the emotional undercurrent in the text'.

Another Virtuoso Turn

Hotspur demands much of its singer. It is intended to be performed in costume, with a minimal set (artist Gretchen Albrecht, who had worked with Whitehead on her opera Tristan and Iseult in 1978, provided banners for the 1981 performances in Britain). In 19xx the work was presented on Television New Zealand's Kaleidoscope programme, with singer Anthea Moller.

Moller, currently resident in Canberra, has sung the role on many occasions, most notably in the 1993 Composing Women's Festival, and in 1997 for a recording under the auspices of the Anthology of Australian Music on Disc (CSM 32).

The Improbable Ordered Dance

Cellular Music

This orchestral piece, written during Whitehead's recent residency with the Auckland Philharmonia, had its origins in a collection of essays by the American writer Lewis Thomas titled The Lives of a Cell.

In the words of the composer, Thomas wrote 'a wonderful essay about the spectrum of sound made by all living creatures. He believes that all creatures have the urge to make some kind of music, even by tapping their heads or inflating their lungs and Lewis wonders where the rhythmic sound emitted by all creatures mightn't be the recapitulation of something else, an earliest memory, a score for the improbable dance of living forms. I found it an enthralling essay and that was what generated the ideas behind the piece.'

Universal but Recognisably of this Place

Premiered in May 2001, as part of the orchestra's Royal Sun Alliance series, it received enthusiastic critical response. Brigid Ursula Bisley, writing in Music in New Zealand, saw the work's significance as going well beyond the printed score and its 20-minute life in the concert hall:

What is moving and significant about this piece is that it was composed by someone who - amidst all the crisis of identity that goes on here - is deeply connected to and proud of her local environment, and is passionate about the development of musical culture in New Zealand. Whitehead makes no apology for being a New Zealander and, while respectfully acknowledging compositional trends elsewhere, does not attempt to pay lip service to them. She also has a gift for creating a language which is universal but recognisably of this place, and which audiences can respond immediately to. This is an important affirmation especially for those of us who have chosen to live and work here as composers in an emerging culture.

The Journeying Dance

William Dart in the Listener traced something of a journey in this new dance:

There is consummate order in this dance, and it far from improbable. It opens mysteriously, with the crackle of rainsticks and gently clattering strings. Shafts of colour break out - at first cor anglais and solo violin with a winding duet and then Ashley Brown's cello sings its heart out in a stirring waiata. The work gathers momentum with cool woodwind chorales, brilliant birdsong and finally, there is the celebratory dance. In due course, the mat is rolled up and the work retreats to whence it came.

New Freedoms

A new and evocative soundscape is announced in the opening bars by the resaresas or rainsticks, which the composer describes as 'something coming from nothing, from nowhere, and perhaps also suggesting the sound of the sea'.

Over the last few years, Gillian has been collaborating with musicians like Judy Bailey, the Australian improvising pianist and Richard Nunns with his traditional Maori instruments. For these musicians, the printed page is not the final word, and Gillian, too, has found herself incorporating more improvisation into some of her scores. There is particularly noticeable in the shimmering opening pages of The Improbable Ordered Dance:

‘When I was writing in Europe everything was extremely highly structured: it had to be because I needed to build up that kind of control and discipline in order to develop a technique. And then, after I realised what a strain playing music like this was on performers, I started building in much freer elements. More recently it's the apparently unstructured material that seems to dominate. If I find myself setting up rigid structures now, I just want to break them down, push them away. You can either stay stuck in the same kind of writing all the time or you can develop, and I'm not really interested in staying stuck in the same mould all the time.'

A Mixed Heritage

On the other hand, there are still passages in the music that are very highly structured and regulated. The central section of the work features time signatures that change by the bar, reminding me of the pioneering work of Stravinsky in The Rite of Spring. Beneath this exciting, almost primal dance, is an intricate network fuelled by prime numbers.

She also feels that the opening cor anglais melody, from which one major strand of the work will eventually flow, makes a certain connection with her Maori heritage:

'Musically it's a very compact figure that's based on just three notes or four notes close together in range. I suppose in the back of my mind when I was writing that I was thinking of a waiata. It may not sound like one and it certainly takes off in different ways but there is a feeling there that does connect the piece to this part of the world.'

Outrageous Fortune

Raunchy Rather Than High Class

Gillian Whitehead's most recent opera, Outrageous Fortune, set in 1862 in the Otago goldfields, was commissioned to mark 150 years of Pakeha settlement in the province. The driving force behind the commission was the late Elizabeth Hinds who wanted a stage work that was 'raunchy rather than high class' and which would be 'a statement by the settlers themselves'.

The work received its premiere in Dunedin in November 1998, in a production directed by Louise Petherbridge. A live archival recording was made from these five performances and released on the double CD. (All timings refer to this recording.)

Three Cultures: One Opera

Working with librettist Christine Johnston, stories were culled from various sources, following three main cultural strands. The first is the tale of a young, pregnant Pakeha bride who goes off to be reunited with her bridegroom on the goldfields; the second explores the tense relationship between two Maori brothers on the same goldfields, and the pregnant bride that one has left behind; the third shows two Chinese goldminers trying to reconcile the present with the past.

Outrageous Fortune is a rich score, very much the fruit of Whitehead's openness - not only to different types of music and cultures, but also to the musicians who worked alongside her on the project. Richard Nunns and his traditional Maori instruments (taonga puoro) played a central role in the work. It is the timeless sounds of these ancient instruments that launch the work's Prologue and perhaps it's the presence of Nunns, together with three fine young singers in Deborah Wai Kapohe, Robert Wiremu and Te Oti Rakena that makes the Maori tale so immensely moving.

The Lamenting Wife

Rona's opening lament, sung with lightly scored strings and taonga puoro is a full-scale aria that has stylistic links with Whitehead's music in her earlier monodramas, such as Hotspur.

Rona asks her brother-in-law Hoani to go to the goldfields in search of her husband.  She tells Hoani to let her brother know that she is with child and that she loves him, the music soaring to an exultant top A at this point (Disc 1: Track 2: 1'05"). The music becomes increasingly darker; she sings of her tuberculosis and the devastation of the land:

When the west wind blows, the black ash falls on our faces: we can taste the totara, the matai and the mahoe on our lips (Disc 1: Track 2: 4'18").

‘For me the challenge with this aria was to combine the sense of the text with Deborah's huge vocal range and the limited pitch range of the Maori instruments.'

The Triumph of a Husband

Rani, her husband, also has an eloquent extended arioso, singing of a golden future lying just beyond his grasp. The trembling coloratura shows his distress: he can't go back to his people empty-handed. Ophelia-like, he sings a wistful snatch of a ballad telling how a woman reveals her innermost secrets only to the man she loves. As with a woman so it is with a river, and Rani leaps into the treacherous waters. There is consternation, but the scene ends in triumph as he has found gold.  ('The river can be swum, brother! The battle's almost won, brother!') (Disc 2: Track 8)

The Cultural Blend

One of the great achievements of Outrageous Fortune is the way that it has managed to blend the essence of Maori and European musics. In the scene towards the end of Act II in which Rani is describing to his brother his meeting with the spirits of his wife and her mother, a European vocal line in English combines with a lamenting chant in Maori, with putatara (conch), putorino (flute/trumpet) and strings in the background. (Disc 2: Track 15: 1'20")

In December 1998, Music in New Zealand  published  two features on the Outrageous Fortune, one by musicologist Suzanne Court, the other by composer Jenny McLeod, a contemporary and colleague of Whitehead.

McLeod, who herself created one of the great musical meeting-places of Maori and European culture in Earth and Sky (1968), saw Gillian's opera as working towards the same goal. In McLeod's words, Gillian 'had somehow managed to discover, or to create, a real middle ground in between the various disparate cultural elements so that not only was a smooth transition now possible from one side to the other, but even more, that moment by moment during the course of the piece, one culture could more-or-less reflect, or impinge on, or bounce back off the other in quite subtle and unexpected ways, so as to show each in quite a new light. The composer has become a creative mediator, a genuine discoverer of new solutions, rather than more-or-less a collage artist'.

Bitter-sweet Harmonies

Whitehead,, who has been letting major and minor chords, increasingly slip into her work over the past few years, is skilled at using tonality as a dramatic device. When Bess, the hotel-keeper, sings of her children who haven't survived, it's is the bitter-sweet clashes of harmony in the opening bars and the clear, sharp dissonances of much of the song that give it its structure (Disc 2: Track 7).

‘I often use certain musical ideas - chords, a melodic fragment, a rhythmic idea - as symbols of perhaps an emotion or a character or a situation.  As the piece progresses these ideas can become quite structural and, hopefully, they're picked up subliminally by the audience. Alban Berg did this in his operas, Wozzeck and Lulu.  Perhaps it's also a bit like a Wagnerian leitmotiv, but less literal, and used in quite a different way.'

Building for a Future

Outrageous Fortune was ingeniously written for a regional, ad hoc company with limited resources, both musically and financially - Louise Petherbridge's rough-hewn set making much of our country's iconic corrugated iron. One initiative of Whitehead's was the stirring choruses she penned for the miners and townsfolk. It is one of these choruses that closes the opera, a chorus of reconciliation in which the cast addresses the audience, as Mozart's was wont to do, and tells them

It was the best of times

It was the worst of times

Remember the good we did

And not our crimes.

(Disc 2: Track 17: 2'44")