Q&A with Jerome Kavanagh and Salina Fisher

APO's Joshua Clark interviewed taonga puoro expert Jerome Kavanagh and award-winning composer Salina Fisher ahead of their collaboration for The New Zealand Herald Premier Series: In The Elements.

It’s exciting to witness two incredible musicians leading the way in a new modality that is important for the growth of our national identity. What unique challenges and opportunities do you both anticipate when blending taonga puoro with an orchestra? 

JK: Kia ora ra! Thank you. From my perspective the biggest challenge is balancing volume between the orchestral instruments and the voices of our taonga puoro. We will be amplified though, so fingers crossed the sound engineer will be able to rise to the challenge.

SF: I’m very excited for this unique opportunity to hear the many different voices of taonga puoro blended with full orchestra. I’ve been dreaming of the combination of these sound-worlds for a while now, and it's amazing to think it will all come to life so soon! From a compositional perspective, it has been a unique challenge and opportunity to blend notated and non-notated forms of music. There will be very specific cues throughout the piece for everything to line up.

Jerome, can you tell us a bit about which taonga you will be playing for this performance and why?

JK: I will be playing 19 different taonga puoro in this piece, ranging from nguru (whales-tooth nose flute) and porutu pounamu (greenstone flute) to putorino and putaatara. As far as I know this is the most extensive use of taonga puoro in an orchestral composition that has ever been created. It is a world first and includes rarely heard taonga like roria and koauau karengo. They have been chosen to support our kaupapa of Papatūānuku and show that these voices connect to each other, back to Papatūānuku/Ranginui and everything in between.

Salina, can you describe some of the orchestration techniques you use, to help our audience understand how you create these seemingly unearthly soundscapes?

SF: The approach I’ve taken with the orchestration in this piece is to consistently centre the puoro. The entire orchestral part is written around, and in response to, recordings of Jerome’s taonga puoro that we made together. As well as transcribing them all, I spent time improvising with them with an orchestra in mind. I’ve tried to keep that improvisational feel in finding orchestral textures and harmonies that feel most natural in the way that they support each taonga, as well as ways of shifting organically between them. Many of the textures involve layers of sound inspired by breath.


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Jerome, how would you describe the role of taonga pūoro in the landscape of modern Aotearoa? 

JK: For me the role of taonga puoro in modern times is the same as it has always been - to voice the songs and sounds of our natural world. To be utilised as our tupuna did, for our health and well-being, for ceremony and to support our ancestral narratives in song and storytelling.

Salina, you have had the opportunity to collaborate with many of Aotearoa’s orchestras. When writing for the APO, what comes to mind in terms of the orchestra’s ‘sound’.

SF: Each opportunity to create music with/for a large group of amazing musicians is such a privilege. I’m grateful for APO’s beautiful and committed performances of my music over the last few years. The combination of their musicianship and the beautiful acoustics of the Auckland Town Hall makes me feel that every note I’m writing is in very safe hands!

If you were given the opportunity to do a creative project with no constraints, what would you do? 

JK: Great question. One major creative aspiration we are working on in my whanau is to create a kura puoro - a school of taonga puoro situated on our whenua which will adjoin a native bird and bush sanctuary. We will be reviving the Rongoa practice of taonga puoro - everyday practice of them in family life and also in connection to the taiao. We move back onto the whenua this spring and will begin planting. Our tamariki are growing up with taonga puoro as a natural part of their life. My personal artistic aspirations are to win another Grammy Award that features only taonga puoro and reo rangatira.

SF: Actually, for me, this piece is that ‘dream project’ that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time! Collaboration really interests me, so the next dream project would also include some form of collaboration across different art forms and/or musical traditions.

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Porutu Pounamu

There is growing significance and understanding of the story of Ranginui and Papatūānuku across New Zealand. What is the narrative focus of Papatūānuku for taonga puoro and orchestra? 

JK: Yes you are right there is an enormous growth in the understanding and practice of Te Ao Maori in our society. The narrative focus of Papatūānuku is recognising that we are out of balance as a human race. Papatūānuku is a piece that honours the rebalancing of taha wahine and taha tane - the female and male elements of all life. All taonga puoro have a male and female voice within them.

SF: This piece honours Papatūānuku (earth mother) as the bearer of all life, and centers instruments/voices that are closely connected to the natural world. It also honours the interconnectedness between wāhine (women) and whenua (land, placenta), recognising te whare tangata (the house of humanity) as both the womb of a woman, and womb of the earth. A number of the taonga featured in this piece are directly linked to birthing. For example, the pūmotomoto is an end-blown wooden flute that is traditionally played towards a newborn’s fontanelle as it closes. Something that has been incredibly special during the creation of this work is the arrival of Jerome and his partner Ruiha’s baby Tāwhirirangi. They have been sharing and normalising the traditional uses of taonga puoro during this precious time.

Who has had the biggest influence on your career?

JK: My kuia Marina was the one who showed me my first taonga puoro when I was a child. My tupuna will always be a huge influence, and equally so are my family and tamariki. Our atua Māori - the natural world and the power and intelligence of nature.

SF: My family who have supported me all along. My incredible composition teachers/mentors including Patrick Shepherd, Michael Norris, John Psathas, Susan Botti, and Reena Esmail. So many other wonderful people, including Rob Thorne who introduced me to the world of taonga puoro back in 2016.

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What are some of your favourite albums to listen to?

JK: All of Matua Hirini Melbourne’s albums as well as Bob Marley.

Currently our latest album is my favourite and what I am listening to the most - Oro Atua - Tangaroa a Roto. It’s a great album to go walking and rest and relax to. You would think after spending the last two years creating, recording and producing this album that I would be sick of it, but I still love it very much. It features only taonga puoro - songs in our traditional vocal style that tell stories of our atua that relate to taonga puoro, along with personal field recordings of our whenua, whale songs from Rangitahua (Kermadec Islands) and some very rare recordings of the old taonga puoro collection at the British Museum which I played and recorded in 2009 and 2014.

SF: I’ve been listening to Haumanu Collective – He Kete Pūoro Volume 1 which was just released during Matariki. Each track features a taonga puoro player in collaboration with one or two other musicians, including artists like Maisey Rika and Mara TK. Jerome and myself (on koto) contributed a track with our very talented friend Neil MacLeod (electronics) called ‘Mana o te Wai’ that we’re excited to have out in the world!

What do you do for fun and/or relaxation?

JK: Spending time with our whānau, spending time in nature, playing taonga puoro and working in the maara.

SF: Going for walks around Wellington, going to gigs, catching up with friends.

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