Speaker by Various Artists

The precise and lexical beauty of Richard Nunns and Hirini Melbourne

by James Littlewood

What's worse than the current race debate? No race debate. Which is exactly what will become of whatever it is that we're supposedly having now if Don Brash ever gets onto the 9th. If the red team seem a little double-jointed in their policy statements lately, and a little bit to the right of what your granddad recalls from the old days, one day of the blue alternative will have you longing - begging - gagging - for just a few closed schools.

These will look like glory days.

When in the early 90s Roger Douglas advised would-be reformers to:

define your objectives clearly and move towards them in quantum leaps [because] opponents' fire is much less accurate when directed at a moving target

… it would appear that Don had his ears on.

He does not want a debate. From the outset, it was the last thing he wanted. Let others debate. It's the perfect smoke screen, and it's been the same strategy for political tyrants in this country for most of my lifetime, and probably beyond. I'm sure many readers can recall all-too-painfully the "debate" around sport and politics, a.k.a. the '81 Springbok tour. After it was all over, it almost paled in comparison to the devastating economic situation that had been developing at the same time behind the bike helmets, bats and batons.

When Roger Douglas started his quantum leaps to free market weirdness, there was also plenty of debate, just not with him. He was far too busy deregulating things.

Trouble is, I told Russell I wasn't going to write about politics unless it had some impact on our cultural lives. At the time, I guess I was thinking culture with a capital C, as in Art, but what the hell, we all know the distinction's bogus. Still, a promise is a promise, so let's get to the point.

The point is that I was going to review Richard Nunns and (the lamentably departed) Hirini Melbourne's album te hekenga-a-rangi, featuring Aroha Yates Smith. The connection is that in all honesty it's hard to think of anyone who's done more to articulate the musical voice of tangata whenua than Nunns and Melbourne, let alone use such a voice to contribute to the broader musical and cultural interpretation of these islands.

It is not that Nunns and Melbourne have dissolved cultural differences. On the contrary. What I love about these pieces is the way they emphasise, entrench, and celebrate cultural specifics.

There is a degree of precision in the whole project that makes a mockery of the cheapening expressions that get bandied about like, "creative industries", or "intellectual property". For example, one of the epochs in which we live is the age of hip hop, in which to be authentically Aotearoan in front of a mainstream audience, Aotearoan artists are obliged (or compelled) to emulate one of the most commodity-driven and Americanised genres the world has ever known.

It's a cruel irony that sorely warrants further discussion (and me not usually one for genre bagging). Partly as a result of the endless commodity drive in popular music, the repetition of proven success formulas has itself been elevated to an art form, complete with its own vocabulary and champions, including me. Either that, or it has largely displaced artistic originality, holus bolus.

As you probably know, Hirini Melbourne and Richard Nunns spent some years researching traditional Maori instruments. They worked with carvers (of wood and stone) and weavers and produced instruments that hadn't been seen outside of museum cases in living memory. In some cases, even then, only in fragments. Lots of them: wind, percussion, stringed. Then they learned to play them, a remarkable feat in its own right, considering that for many of them, performance was a lost art.

And they composed for them. I used to have this brilliant flat with Tim Gummer, and one of the many memorable aspects was my exposure to the record company he ran with Keith Hill from our living room: Rattle Records. Nunns and Melbourne's first album Te Ku Te Whe was our best seller, eventually going gold. Astoundingly, they laid down the whole thing in less than two days.

The story of the two musicians is well told in a documentary (directed by Keith Hill) that comes on a DVD bundled into the more recent album te hekenga-a-rangi. Among other things, they tell how learning the new-old instruments not only revealed old sounds, but old voices, and that revealing old voices also revealed old words.

They tell how mortal humans are not the only audiences for these lexical sounds, but also that marae have appreciated the iteration of them at graves and burial sites, where these musical, lyrical voices have been silent - in some cases for hundreds of years - and sorely in need of korero.

And yes, you too will find this music will communicate with parts you never knew existed, by means of timbres, orchestrations and arrangements you never thought possible. Well, I didn't anyway. Flax. The music of weaving flax. It's not what you're thinking.

I can't describe it. The work of Melbourne and Nunns sounds like nothing else. Some of it is so small, so delicate you could break it just by turning up the volume. Some of it, so large it hardly fits in the house.

A hybrid of masterful playing techniques is deployed on re-discovered, re-invented instruments, captured with contemporary recording gear and subtle, tricky studio techniques. A delay on Aroha Yates-Smith's hypnotic vocal, set right at the back of the mix, is then placed several beats in advance of the live signal.

Dr Yates-Smith - As Melbourne says in the doco - was invited into the studio both for her voice and for her authoritative knowledge of femininity in pre-European Aotearoa, gleaned in large part from her researches on female Maori gods. "It needed the female voice" he says, but seems uncomfortable, as though his words somehow reduce her knowledge to her sex, and her voice to that part of her which sings. He gesticulates, and tries again. "It needed Ö the Ö female Ö aah Övoice!"

This can be a tricky concept for some Pakeha and Western academics to get their heads around, because it implies that there's a fundamental, insuperable difference between males and females, and that's an uncomfortable allowance for people who live with their heads up the Lacan.

Fortunately, it's pretty straightforward to the rest of us, who live in a world which, no matter how constructed or even prefabricated it may be, confronts us daily with blinding, profound, essential difference.

Again, that's what this musical entity is so good at. Doing things that nobody else has done (within living memory at least), and that few people could do, even if they tried. This music, on these instruments, made by this carver, performed by these artists, using their techniques, right there.

I also heard Hine pu te hue for string quartet and taonga puoro on Concert FM the other day, composed by Gillian Whitehead and performed by Nunns alongside the New Zealand String Quartet.

The funny thing about composing for taonga puoro is that currently, it has a concert-grade talent pool of one: Richard Nunns (although new musicians and instrument makers and carvers are developing through various wananga).

While the politicians and the N.I.M.B.Y.s squabble, it is immensely affirming to hear artists banging, blowing, bowing, scraping and twanging out their cultural differences in an organised and productive manner. There's tension and conflict alright: musical tension, aesthetic conflict.

Anyway, Whitehead's score gives both Nunns and the NZSQ plenty of room to improvise, but also includes many passages in which the composer has fun throwing the two culturally specific musical forms at each other in atonal collisions reaching violent crescendos. It's a very, very good thing. I had to pull over and listen to it while watching skaters and petanquers at Victoria Park. Could've been nasty otherwise. Bit distracted.

I have to say I've been more impressed by Concert FM in the last couple of years than in the past. I'm sure it still has an infuriating preoccupation with European men from the 18th and 19th centuries, but some of what I've heard has completely slain me, and much of the contemporary stuff seems to be locally composed.

Well, it'll all be over before you can quote Thatcher's "there's no such thing as society" if Brash has anything to do with it.

Anyway, that's me for the time being. We're well up the duff round at our place, so I'll be focussing on getting work out of the way and then hunkering down in the domus for a while. "Do the whole mammal thing" was how the midwife put it (I don't think she was talking about Discovery Channel either). The one exception to periodic domestication might be the rock'n'roll high school rendition of Donizetti's "Elixir of Love." Haven't found any reviews yet, but the hype's working on me.

Anyway, thanks to all who sent responses to my four little publicaddress.net pieces this year. I appreciate it. And thanks to Russell for having me. Appreciate that too. I'll be back after parenthood arrives. Aaiiee!!!