10 Questions: Rob Thorne

28 February 2018 / 10 Questions

We're delighted to be working with Rob Thorne for our NZ Festival performance of Te Ao Hou | This New World. Rob is a leading exponent of traditional Maori instruments (known as taonga pūoro or 'singing treasures') and is currently Composer-in-Residence at the New Zealand School of Music. We asked him to tell us more about his background as well as his current role at NZSM. 

1. What’s your background as a musician?

I grew up singing and learnt to play trumpet at Saturday morning music classes when I was 10, then learnt guitar when I was 15. In my first year of university I started busking and writing songs for guitar and voice and then began playing guitar and singing in alternative rock bands in Palmerston North.

2. When and how did you get into playing traditional Māori instruments (taonga pūoro)?

In 1999 a friend of mine gave me a kōauau. My wife was pregnant with our first child and my friend encouraged me to play the kōauau to my wife’s puku, to our unborn baby. I was captivated by the instrument and felt challenged to learn how to master it.

3. Who have your mentors been in this field?

Richard Nunns was a great inspiration to me. I’ve worked and played with Richard and his approach to taonga pūoro has influenced me enormously. Another key mentor has been Warren Warbrick, whom I worked with on my Master’s thesis. Warren comes from a Palmerston North punk rock/free noise background that was similar to my own and we were really able to connect through this.

4. How has your masters in anthropology fed into your journey with taonga pūoro?

I did my Masters on the traditional methods and techniques of making taonga pūoro, particularly the kōauau rakau (wooden flute). During my studies in this area, I moved from being an ‘outsider’ in the knowledge field of taonga pūoro to becoming an ‘insider’. 

5. Has that journey with traditional instruments also deepened your own personal journey with your identity as Māori?

My father made sure he taught his family about our identity, but his perspective was that it was a personal journey. So I grew up knowing that I was Māori, what my whakapapa was and who my ancestors were.  But I also grew up being challenged by the fact that I wasn’t perceived as being Māori because of the way I looked, yet I felt Māori on the inside. The study into taonga pūoro definitely confirmed and developed my identity and as an anthropologist I was very conscious of this, since that’s what anthropology is all about! Taonga pūoro is a phenomenal gateway to coming to terms with one’s Māori identity and I think that’s why it’s a really important part of the current renaissance in Māori culture. There’s an immediacy to the music which allows people to experience the culture without having to think about it.

6. You’re the current Jack C. Richards Composer-in-Residence at the NZ School of Music at Victoria University – how is that going for you and what are you working on there?

It’s truly an honour to have this position and the experience has been incredible. I’ve been involved in a number of projects with students – working on films, with ensembles, doing interviews with ethnomusicology and music therapy students, giving lectures and talks, and encouraging student composers to write for taonga pūoro. The biggest thing that’s coming out of it is my engagement with the students and staff and normalising a daily engagement with Māori music at the School of Music. Musical collaboration is a conversation, and collaboration with taonga pūoro is a conversation with Māori. I feel this is what the Treaty of Waitangi is about – a daily conversation, and keeping the conversation going.

7. In 2016 you worked closely with Salina Fisher on her award-winning composition "Tōrino: echoes on pūtōrino improvisations by Rob Thorne". How was that experience for you?

It was wonderful – Salina is amazing and I felt very honoured that she came to work with me. She is very open, which I relate to, and I think we’re similar in the way that we need to have something that we don’t yet know about to drive us up to the next level. So everything is a learning curve – not just about music, but about life. I really hope that we can do more work together.

8. You’ve collaborated with a number of musicians across a wide range of musical genres. How has it been collaborating with the New Zealand String Quartet?

Working together on our performance for the NZ Festival, and in particular the piece I’ve written for us to play, has probably been the biggest project so far of my residency at the New Zealand School of Music. I’ve never written for strings before and I’ve never composed in that formal way. The Quartet are wonderful, kind, generous and caring people and of course are extremely professional. When you put all those things together you get a recipe for success, and that was hugely reassuring for me as a composer working in a new medium. This project has highlighted to me my own work processes and revealed to me that I have a voice and something to express in this genre.

9. In your NZ Festival programme with NZSQ you’re playing works by Gillian Whitehead and Gareth Farr – what influence do you think those works will have on future compositions of your own?

I really love these pieces and feel very honoured to be able to play them with the New Zealand String Quartet. I think they have already influenced me in that they reflect the distinctive voices of their composers and through them I felt challenged to find my own voice in the medium.

10. Tell us about the work you’re writing for yourself and NZSQ to play in the NZ Festival: Tomokanga…

I began with some very strong ideas but as I started writing it, it began to take on a life of its own. I wanted to compose something beautiful and transcendent, something about passing into another world, but having to work in order to get there. Tomokanga means ‘gateway’ or ‘portal’ and the piece has ‘gateways’ to each new section. There’s pain and darkness in the piece at times, but ultimately we arrive in a beautiful place.

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