Philip Norman's history of Kiwi composers begins with the dawn chorus

Composer, musician and writer Philip Norman
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Composer, musician and writer Philip Norman

It starts with birdsong.

Christchurch composer, musician and author Philip Norman hopes to open his forthcoming history of New Zealand composition with the dawn chorus.

The dawn chorus was a thing of wonder before European settlement and the introduction of predators like rats and stoats destroyed bird populations. In 1770, botanist Joseph Banks heard the dawn chorus when Captain James Cook's Endeavour was anchored in the Marlborough Sounds.

He described it in his journal.

"Their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells, but with the most tuneable silver sound imaginable."

Norman believes New Zealand's distinctive birdsong is one of two major influences on Kiwi composers.

"It starts with a whole lot of birds singing in the forest. That is the first chapter. It is one of the biggest source materials for New Zealand composers over the years, that and traditional Maori culture. If there is such a thing as New Zealandness, then those two aspects of our sonic environment are what is most likely to define it as New Zealand.

Philip Norman at the Christchurch Schools Music festival in 2011.
Stacy Squires

Philip Norman at the Christchurch Schools Music festival in 2011.

"It's irresistible because we have some of the best bird singers in the world."

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Norman has been a professional composer since the late 1970s, composing and arranging hundreds of pieces over the decades, including everything from the Footrot Flats musical in the 1980s, a series of musicals with Roger Hall and a much-performed opera based on A Christmas Carol.

His latest venture, a definitive history of New Zealand composition, has just been granted $100,000 from the Michael King Fellowship. Norman began the book about a decade ago, but the money will allow him to complete it over the next two years.

The next key moment in Norman's history of New Zealand music comes in 1642, when Dutch explorer Abel Tasman first encountered Maori in Golden Bay at the top of the South Island.

"Abel Tasman, in the diaries of that time, said they heard some chanting on shore and what sounded like trumpets. They assumed the Maoris were giving them a welcoming concert. So they started singing a few bawdy Dutch sailors songs and tooted their trumpet, but what the Dutch were hearing was the Maori haka and the trumpet sound was probably the war trumpet calling all the tribes around.

"The next morning, all was revealed that it wasn't a concert, but a challenge. To me, that is a prime example of music not being a universal language."

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He said he has to be careful about which composers to include in the book.

"A key problem with this book is: What is a new Zealand composer? I've decided this is about composition in New Zealand. They might have been born here, but if they spent their whole career out of the country I wouldn't look at it unless it had an impact on culture here."

But he will not include his own work in the book, despite his work on Footrot Flats and a series of Roger Hall musicals making a major impact on Kiwi culture in the 1980s.

He has fond memories of working on the musical with Footrot Flats creator Murray Ball. 

"I had an old Morris 1000 in those days. I was still a student and these great names of NZ comedy needed a ride so I had to jam pack Roger Hall and AK Grant and Murray Ball into this car.

"My main thought was, 'I better not have an accident', or I would wipe out New Zealand's comedy scene."

"[Ball] was a real gentleman. He was lovely to work with. Quiet, unassuming, modest. Once he had approved the plotline, he just said 'go for it'."

But he says very few New Zealand musicals have "have impinged upon the public consciousness" since the 1980s.

"Cultural traffic flows south from London and New York. We are happy to watch musicals set in New York, but I don't think New Yorkers would be happy to watch a show set in Christchurch. The location gets confused with the theme.

"Straightaway a New Zealand composer has the dilemma – do you go for the the local market, or the international one? It is a difficult affair.

"[American and British musicals] come to New Zealand with hype and marketing. Those shows also come having had people pore over the score and script and chisel it down and fine hone it over years.

"Locals have to produce a really raw product and compete with the finely honed overseas product. The odds are overwhelmingly against the local composer. That is why we haven't had any musicals that have impinged upon the public consciousness since that time."

Norman is looking forward to finally completing a project he has been working on for a decade.

"My studio is jam-packed with boxes of notes and books and CDs. It will be a delight to find out what colour the carpet is underneath those books."

 - Stuff

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