Q&A with Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper

APO's Joshua Clark interviewed composer, producer and arranger Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper ahead of his collaboration with Troy Kingi for this year’s Matariki concert, Matariki with Troy Kingi.

JC: I’m fascinated to be talking to a musician who so successfully bridges the gap between two forms of music that can sometimes seem quite distant. What is your approach to bringing together contemporary artists and orchestras, and how can we progress these collaborations here in Aotearoa?

MB: The combination of a symphony orchestra and a great singer/songwriter is always going to be a special thing, especially if you’re able to experience it live. The tricky part is getting the balance right (particularly when amplification is involved). The orchestra has so many wonderful dynamics and colours at their disposal. If you're able to bring the songs into that environment you really get something magical. My aim is to serve the songs but wrap them in a set of couture outfits for people to hear them in a new way.

I love the commitment the APO has, especially in the last five years or so, to these types of concerts, I think you are paving the way. If we’re able to put on more concerts, try new things out and make the experience even more immersive then these collaborations will be an important and regular part of the concert / gig culture in Aotearoa I reckon.

JC: Throughout your career, you have worked with an incredible group of Aotearoa’s finest recording artists. Can you tell us more about your experiences working in the studio in the capacity that you do?

MB: Growing up I’ve always loved the magic and mystique of the recording studio. While finishing my postgrad studies in Sydney I started work in a recording studio learning the ropes. From there I’ve had the privilege of working with artists like Teeks, Maisey Rika, Rob Ruha, Tom Scott and L.A.B to name a few.

I love the possibilities within the studio environment where there are no parameters, just imagination. On the flipside, finding the real essence and wairua to communicate the intent of the artist and the song means a lot of those ideas then need to be discarded to get to the gold.

These days most of my time is spent composing for film and television which feels like the ultimate culmination of all those years of violin study and studio work.

JC: Are there any insights you can share into your collaboration with Troy Kingi for our upcoming Matariki concert?

MB: Troy is a wonderful songwriter, he creates a different universe with each album and this one definitely requires a spaceship to navigate. The songs all take you on a journey. Most of the time there was no need to stray any further from the harmonic language that Troy had laid out. Following the changes and adding the right colours at the right time. My favorites are 'Eyes At 80 Fathoms' and the outro of 'Gold Shoes'.

JC: Our recent Discovery concert for secondary school students featuring your arrangement of Six60’s Kia Mau Ki Tō Ūkaipo was an incredibly special moment for the APO and the students who attended. Can you tell us more about your creative process with this piece?

MB: 'Kia Mau Ki Tō Ūkaipō'… It’s a unifying song and needed to have the jaunt of the original while slowly building to that great tutti orchestral hits section - and then having a mini harp concerto to bring us back down to earth in the outro. It’s always wonderful creating these dynamic moments. A big shout out goes to Joe Harrop, one of my oldest friends, and now with the ever-increasing workload, a regular assistant and collaborator.

JC: Vincent Mendoza has been such a huge influence in the international jazz and pop recording scene, especially after Gregory Porter’s album Nat “King” Cole & Me. Which international orchestral arrangers for popular and jazz styles do you draw inspiration from?

MB: People who spring to mind - Bob James, Quincy Jones and Leonard Bernstein. I remember listening to Westchester Lady for the first time on big Quested speakers in a great studio environment and being totally captivated by that ‘70s style of arranging and studio production. Both Quincy Jones and Leonard Bernstein are god-like in what they have produced and their ability to cross and combine genres and ensembles. Bernstein’s Westside Story is one of the greatest pieces of modern orchestral and musical theatre. And Quincy Jones... no need to say anything more!

JC: In the last 60 years, the concept of genre has really blown apart, largely due to the work of musicians such as yourself who shapeshift between mediums. What would you say to our rangatahi as they journey through the wealth of music available to listen to in their formative years?

MB: I would say when you hear something that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, immerse yourself in it, pull it apart, figure out how it works and do that again and again and again. Keep searching for those moments because it’s those experiences that will point you in the right direction and keep you hungry. It is such an individual journey but if you are determined enough you will get there.

JC: Who has had the biggest influence on your career?

MB: It started off with me falling in love with the violin after hearing Isaac Stern as a six-year-old and has continued through pivotal moments in my life, whenever I hear something that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up…

JC: What are some of your favorite albums to listen to?

MB: A Handful of Beauty by Shakti, anything with Louis Cole in it, Hilary Hahn playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, you can’t ever go past Prince’s Purple Rain album... I could go on but these are the ones that spring to mind first.

JC:  What do you do for fun and/or relaxation?

MB: No time for fun! Any downtime (which is few and far between if I’m honest) is spent hanging out with my two young kids.

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