Ahead of the 2023 Michael Hill International Violin Competition, we spoke to Michael Norris, this year’s Composer of the NZ Commissioned Work, about his creation of ‘Waipounamu’ – an original musical work. The work will be performed live by all 16 quarter-finalists in Queenstown on 4-5 June 2023.
The role of the work within the competition is to demonstrate a young artist’s individual interpretive skills and identify a competitor’s capabilities with contemporary repertoire – in the absence of mentorship and in a relatively short timeframe (the competitors will not receive the work until 1 April).
Specifically for 2023, the judges will be testing the competitors’ ability to confidently engage with the static audio file as evidence of their flexibility with new genres in the fast-changing environment in which they are intending to succeed.
What is your creative process?
For this piece, there’s a constant creative tension between, on the one hand, processing the recorded audio to make the background ‘sonic tapestry’ — a very fluid, experimental and technical discipline — and on the other, composing a fully notated score for the violinist to perform. I have to try and hold both elements in mind constantly, considering how they might come together or break apart during the piece. Sometimes I know exactly how I want the two elements to combine; at other times, I have to take a ‘leap of faith’, and push forwards with one element, trusting that I can make the other work.
How does the inclusion of taonga puoro instrumentalists add to this piece?
I’ve been working with a number of taonga puoro musicians over the last 5 or so years, especially Alistair Fraser, Ariana Tikao and Jerome Kavanagh. The sounds and voices that they bring to the project are unique to this time and place — all of their instruments have been carved from the trees, rocks and bones of Aotearoa, and each instrument is tied to a particular place of provenance. As such, there’s a very special layer of meaning that only these instruments can provide.
For this piece, in particular, I was inspired by the history of pounamu (greenstone) collecting from the rivers around Queenstown, after a summer trip up the Dart River (Te Ara Whakatipu). I asked the taonga puoro performers to bring any gongs or flutes they might possess made out of pounamu — these sounds will be heard throughout the electronics, furnishing the soundtrack with the sounds of the stones themselves.
What challenges and successes did you encounter during this composition experience?
Although I’ve composed a reasonably substantial number of works featuring live electronics over the last 10 years, this is the first time in a long time that I’ve composed what’s called a ‘fixed-media electronic component’, namely the backing track that the violinists will play to. It’s a bit like trying to ride a bike again after a decade of not having done so — you remember the general principles, but sometimes you forget the specifics. It’s been good to blow the cobwebs out!
What do you hope to communicate to the audience in your composition piece?
I don’t necessarily believe in the idea of music communicating a specific story or idea — or if it tries to, that that is not necessarily music’s great strength. Rather, I’m more interested in music opening up a space for evocation, immersion and imagination — for the listener to ‘get lost in’. While I certainly hope that this new work will suggest the kind of sublimity of the southern landscapes that inspired the work, I hope that each audience member (and each violinist!) will furnish that general impression with their own specific memories, emotions and experiences.
Why do you think it’s important to bring together contrasting genres like traditional composition and electronic music in your work?
For me as a composer, working across different disciplines keeps me on my toes, providing constant artistic challenges. For the performers, on the other hand, it acknowledges that we are now several decades into the twenty-first century. Musicians must be adept at interpreting many different styles and forms of music-making. Traditional repertoire is all well and good, but the real test of a performer’s mettle comes when faced with something completely unknown, for which there are no reference recordings to listen to. Having an electronic component provides further challenges to the performer: they have to constantly listen and balance their dynamic so as not to overly dominate (or underplay). It’s almost akin to playing chamber music, without the other musicians.