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Voices for the Oceans

This month, Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir is embarking on a unique tour of nine regional centres for Chamber Music New Zealand. Choirs Aotearoa Chief Executive Arne Herrmann tells us more…

As artists we have the privileged opportunity to be given a stage and an audience. When discussing the next big project for our national chamber choir, Voices New Zealand, there was the strong desire to talk and sing about topics that are acutely relevant to people. The state of our oceans is a huge concern and the idea for “Taonga Moana” was born.

Artistic Director Karen Grylls and Voices staff met with scientists and environmentalists and drew on oceanic research, religions, mythologies, and historical figures to craft a story across the world’s ocean. Keen to push the performance envelope, theatre and opera director Sara Brodie was brought in to develop the storyline and to create a theatrical performance experience for audiences.

Karen asked Finnish composer and professional translator Jaakko Mäntyjärvi to write a new piece about the cold Arctic Ocean. Jaakko must have worn both his professional hats when creating his work ‘The Seafarer’, as he decided to set it to a text in Old English straight from the Exeter Book dating from the 10th century. That added three days to our rehearsal schedule, with pronunciation classes and language lessons. The artistic voice for our close neighbouring white continent, the Antarctic, was found in Aotearoa. Warren Maxwell, the driving force behind psychedelic blues quartet Little Bushman and founding member of Trinity Roots, had spent time on the ice on an artist residency. A musical giant in Aotearoa, Warren was one of the five inaugural recipients of an Arts Foundation New Generation Award in 2006. Here was a chance for Warren to express his life-changing experiences in a creative project and for Voices to connect his compositional prowess to choral music. With that, his first choral composition Te Tai Uka a Pia (The Tides of Icy Shards) was created, and has become his way of sharing his emotional response to Antarctica with the world – a place which he has decsibed as “gobsmackingly beautiful… it just left me breathless!”. A special ‘guest appearance’ will include the sounds of a Weddell seal, recorded by dropping a GoPro camera into a scientist’s dive hole at Scott Base.

Bringing ‘outside sounds’ into the concert hall opened the door to add more environmental sounds, such as the crashing of waves and grinding of an iceberg, to the a cappella singing of Voices NZ. Australian-based video designer Mic Gruchy created atmospheric visuals from ocean footage he shot while diving, and mixed those with existing footage. The fusion of live sounds from the ensemble with the visuals projected onto a large backdrop behind the singers is part mesmerising, part exhilarating, part thought-provoking.

Marrying input from collaborators from around the globe in this live performance event is a nerve-racking exercise, a risk, but also an incredible thrill for the Voices team.

Lending a voice to the oceans – TAONGA MOANA is an exciting event for anybody who cares about our planet, loves exquisite music and appreciates human creativity – the explorers, the seafarers, the beach dwellers, the thinkers, the environmentalists.

Tour dates 4 – 20 October