Horomona Horo

14 December 2013 / Composer Focus

Requiem for the Fallen with the New Zealand String Quartet, Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir and taonga pūoro is another step on the journey of bringing together the distinctive voices of peoples who share a country and shared a battlefield. Working alongside western classical composer, Ross Harris, Horo composes the Māori voice within this composition, using an array of instruments to reference the past, present and future of those who were lost, those who survived and those that were left behind to build a future. Using his unique script, Horo’s role is to craft lines and sounds around the Western notation, while staying true to the traditions of his own music and culture. It is an ambitious, thought provoking and humbling project.

Standing on the fields of Passchendaele in 2007 for the 90 year commemorations, Horo played and paid tribute to the fallen of the battle. In 2014, we remember 100 years since the start of that Great War and trust that this, the first major composition of those commemorations, will pay lasting tribute in remembrance of those that were lost.

2013 has been an extraordinary and dynamic year for composer and musician, Horomona Horo, with little sign of things becoming less exciting any time in the near future. With a focus on sharing the knowledge of the music, culture and history of his people, Horo has again performed and lectured across three continents this year from humble tearooms to leading festivals and conservatoires.

His unique collection of priceless treasures, his taonga pūoro, travel wherever he goes – well, at least the ones that he knows will be allowed in and out of each country on the route. Customs officials are becoming familiar faces as each registered instrument is carefully checked and noted on Horo’s way in and out of New Zealand. Made from an assortment of meticulously selected wood, bone, jade, stone, crustacean and plant materials, the intricately carved collection of flutes, trumpets, gourds, whistles and percussive instruments hold a fascination for the viewer, even before they become a listener. Then, in the hands of their master, the unique sounds of Aotearoa are released with the life-breath of a tradition of great beauty, almost lost, but starting once again to flourish and be sounded around the world.

Horo first heard the instruments when in Europe as part of a youth contingent in his teens. He felt an inexplicable connection to the sounds and music, without knowing what they were or where they were from. Being told they were the sounds of the instruments of his people and culture, was an undoubtable shock, but also the beginning of a journey that has now shaped his entire adult life. Returning to New Zealand, he started to immerse himself in his culture, learned everything that he could about the instruments, every melody and sound recorded and available. His educational journey to Waikato was ostensibly to study, but soon became more about waiting outside the office of the late Dr Hirini Melbourne, to ask him daily questions about these instruments on which he was the authority.

Mentored by Dr Melbourne until his death in 2003 and since that time by Dr Richard Nunns, Horo first came to public attention in 2001 when he won the inaugural Dynasty Heritage Concerto Competition in 2001 using an array oftaonga pūoro. It is unlikely that Hirini would have conceived that twelve years later the student who had been hanging around outside of his office would have played with an orchestra in Germany, lectured to and engaged with Doctors and Professors of archaeology, anthropology and music at universities and conservatoires, represented his country at numerous international engagements from South America and China to Slovakia and the UK, been noted in Gramophone magazine and performed live to an audience of 600,000 people on BBC Three’s Drive Time show.

Perhaps in one of the most interesting programming line-ups of 2013, Horo and his group, Waiora with guitarist Joshua Rogers, performed at this year’s Singapore Grand Prix, scheduled alongside Rihanna, Tom Jones, Justin Bieber, Bob Geldof and magician, Dynamo. This followed on from their European concerts and lectures at the prestigious chamber music Konvergencie Festivals in Kosice, the European Culture Capitol (2013), the London engagement and the recording of Legends of Rotorua with composer Paul Lewis. Later in the year, they were chosen as the first performers from New Zealand in over a decade to perform at the World Music Expo in Cardiff. It was also the first time that taonga pūoro had ever been presented at this, the largest annual gathering of the world music community and as such garnered significant media attention for the instruments and the traditions that they represent.

As a composer of taonga pūoro and of western musical formats, one of the constant challenges faced by Horo is the choice of collaborative partners, particularly in the genre of Western classical music. Remnants of archaic colonial attitudes toward indigenous instruments, where they are viewed as a primitive novelty by classical fashionistas are being slowly eroded as more understanding and respect is shown to composers and instruments of other traditions.

The journey is a difficult one for indigenous composers around the world as they struggle to have instruments and unique musical systems recognised in their own right without an imposed Western musical system judging the mechanism and context. A note or series of notes, played on a koauau (Māori flute) orputaatara (Māori trumpet) may have many meanings and associations outside of the note itself. The note is not merely sound or pitch, functioning within the overarching microtonal system that exists for taonga pūoro, it has cultural, current and historic context. The note, note-series or percussive sounds are chosen by the taonga pūoro composer not only for their timbre and pitch, but for the meaning and cultural context that surround them.

Likewise, the non-formal learning system used to transmit the cultural and musical knowledge which are so connected, can be difficult for many to understand in today’s qualification-driven society. In the case of Horo, knowledge has been passed on over an extended period of time from the first modern masters of taonga pūoro to their student, and he will continue to pass on this knowledge to those who follow in a quiet, in-depth manner which honours the traditions in their own context. As greater understanding and acceptance grows between the myriad of musical cultures around the world, so too we can hope will the attitudes toward the value of notes on a page and letters behind a name.

Written by Elizabeth Woollacott, December 2013

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