Challenging received perspectives, Alan Wells

Maori Music
Mervyn McLean
Auckland University Press $59.95
ISBN 1 86940 144 1

Likely to become the standard text on the subject for the foreseeable future, Melvyn McLeans Maori Music is the culmination of nearly 40 years of research, recording and writing. In this comprehensive survey, the author succeeds in balancing analysis of the music, as a European might define it, with a detailed exposition (frequently drawing on historical accounts and illustrations) of the place of this music in Maori culture.

A bonus of this approach is that it can reveal differences between the Western and the Pacific concepts of “music” that challenge – and broaden – received perspectives. For example, the haka is treated extensively in its many varieties (the familiar war dance, peruperu, being only one). Along with other forms that are either chanted on a single note, or spoken, it spans the overly-rigid European distinction between speech and music (maybe rappers like Dam Native are not so remote from age-old tradition after all). Similarly, with its foot-stamping and body-percussion, the haka also crosses the divide between music and dance.

Haka was a largely male preserve. The recited, monotonal patere, by contrast, arose as the spirited womans reply to unjust criticism. The semi-sung karanga are exclusive to women, and of the wholly or mainly sung genres, waiata aroha (love plaints) and waiata whaiaipo (personal love-songs), though usually performed by mixed groups, were composed by women.

Among the remaining sung categories, I found McLeans description of the pao especially intriguing. These sequences of pithy, topical couplets were often set to standard, pre-existing airs. This practice underscores the importance of the words in Maori song, and conceivably prefigures the adoption and adaptation of European tunes that gave us a succession of popular hits – constituting, arguably, our strongest claim to a corpus of folksong. I wanted more on these twentieth-century developments (I would, however, characterise the musical environment of many young Maori – and Pakeha – as “Afro-American” rather than “European”).

The findings of the authors exhaustive examination of the scales and interval patterns of 800 songs are summarised. So too are those of his research on koauaun and nguru scales – regrettably without adequate caveat as to how portamento and pitch bending on these short flutes might affect the confusions.

It is gratifying that, following Richard Nunnss demonstrations, McLean acknowledges that the short curved flute, the nguru, can be played (from the wide end) with the nose. Nevertheless, the work of Nunns and his colleagues Hirini Melbourne and Brian Flintoff deserves more than a perfunctory mention. A fuller assessment is needed, even if – especially if – McLean were sceptical of their methodology of reconstructing Maori instruments from oral testimony. No less than four, uncited, items which could have served as sources, were in print by May 1994 (within the preparation timeframe of the book). My own New Zealand Listener review (September 9, 1991), highlighting the nguru as a wide-end nose flute, as well as the effective (albeit speculative) use of hand-horn modulated melodies on the putatara shell trumpet, appeared before the 1994 New Zealand Herald report quoted by McLean (actually misquoted by McLean: the “rich, haunting tone” elicited by the nose, was attributed by the reporters to the koauau conga ihu gourd vessel-flute, not the nguru).

Additionally, there may be scope for revisiting McLean’s presumption of the “myth” of quarter-tones. Though microtones unquestionably occur in Maori music, McLean doubts their structural significance in “the system as currently practised” (and who can be certain about the unrecorded period B.C.E. – Before the Coming of Edison?). If James Davies was over-eager to find quarter-tones, could McLean, conversely, be too ready to fit Maori music to Western intonation? To his credit, he does admit a sole case of apparently essential quarter-tones. I would suggest there might be others.

McLean dismisses the “leaders note at the end of each line” of Song 14 in McLean & Orbell, Traditional Songs of the Maori, as merely “decidedly variable in pitch, sometimes appearing as a D-flat, sometimes as a D-natural, sometimes in between”. Yet I see no D-naturals at the ends of the lines, just an equal number of D-flats and microtonal “in betweens”. Further, at the “half-strophe” point, the microtone recurs so often that McLean has, sensibly, included it in his abstracted “basic melody”. Song 7, the same theme from a different singer with different text, has only a slightly lesser predominance of the microtonally flattened D in identical position.

Even such “incidental” microtones as are accepted by McLean are instructive: those in the “little crescendos on long-held notes” are analogous to the Czech folk-singing that inspired Alois Hába, while the “merest suggestion of a change in pitch” that “eventually appeared as an unequivocal non-microtonic note” foreshadows the metamorphosing techniques of the Mexican microtonalist Julián Carillo.

Contentious issues aside, numerous minor flaws blight what should have been the crowning achievement of McLeans long and fruitful career. For instance: the aftermath of the first documented exchange between Maori and European, a dialogue of trumpets, is variously given as three (p191) and – correctly – four (p23) dead of Tasmans crew; the type 6 flute scale should be in Group II, not Group III (p95). Unfortunately, I could go on.

McLean ends with cautious optimism. Despite trends militating against the survival of the traditional styles in an unacculturated state, there is a chance that their central elements (“[a]mongst them … narrow range, small melodic steps, few notes, centrically organised scales, two-phrase formal structure and terminal glissando”) will be maintained in new songs created to replace those lost through normal or accelerated attrition. I would hope that at least some Maori composers, when forging a “truly integrated blend of old and new”, will look beyond commonplace harmonic progressions and equal temperament, to more adventurous idioms and resources.

Alan Wells is a Wellington music critic, composer of microtonal music and poet.

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Posted in Māori, Music, Non-fiction, Review
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