New Zealand String Quartet share a piece of Maori culture

by Alison Young, Minnesota Public Radio
May 27, 2009

Last month, the New Zealand String Quartet brought two biggies to their program at Luther College - Mendelssohn's String Quartet in e minor and Schubert's String Quartet No. 15. In addition to these masterpieces was an unusual piece by Maori composer Gillian Whitehead for string quartet and nearly a dozen traditional instruments.

St. Paul, Minn. — It's curious that with Gillian Whitehead's Maori heritage, she was less inspired by the sounds of her own tradition than by those more classical and European. This all changed when she happened to hear a presentation of the sounds of singing treasures or "nga taonga puoro" given by the master himself, Richard Nunns.

Nunns is not Maori, but a "pakeha" - a European New Zealander. Nevertheless, he is the authority on Maori traditional instruments and his beguiling playing convinced Ms. Whitehead to begin writing music for tradtional ensembles interwoven with these unusual, earthy sounds.

Ms. Whitehead wrote "Hineputehue" on commission for the Wellington International Festival. It was 2002 and George Bush had just made his State of the union speech before the invasion of Afghanistan.

"Hineputehue" - the woman of the gourd - is the Maori Goddess of Peace. Ms. Whitehead explains she did not intend the work to celebrate peace, but rather to tell a story from the perspective of someone hidden in the bush, hearing hostile sounds and hoping to avoid confrontation.

Richard Nunns plays a variety of instruments with the New Zealand String Quartet:

Pahu pounamu - greenstone bell

Poi awhiowhio - small swung gourd

Pumotomoto - shakuhachi-like wooden instrument

Ku - mouth bow

Ngru niho paraoa - whaletooth flute

Hue puru hau - large blown gourd

Putatara - shell trumpet

Pukaea - war trumpet

Ororuarangi - flute

Tumutumu - tapped percussion

Koauau ponga ihu - gourd nose flute

The New Zealand String Quartet and Richard Nunns performed "Hineputehue" at Luther College on April 3, 2009.

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