Gillian Karawe Whitehead

Puhake ki te rangi

For string quartet and Maori instruments (taonga puoro)

Puhake ki te rangi, which translates as “spouting to the skies”, is a celebration of whales, and was written late in 2006 for the New Zealand String Quartet and Richard Nunns as a project undertaken while I was the Creative New Zealand/New Zealand School of Music composer-in-residence.

Although one section is based on a transcription of whale song, there is no programme to the piece, no confrontation with humanity, for instance. The guiding principles for the piece were the extreme range of whale song, the changing patterns of their song, and the image, given to me by the late Tungia Baker, of a whale in Campbell Island waters allowing seal pups at play to slide down her flanks over and over again, until, tiring of the game, she flipped them gently away.

The taonga puoro used in this piece, mostly made from whale bone or bone from the albatross, the whale’s avian counterpart, are, in the order they are played, the percussive tumutumu, karanga manu (pounamu bird-caller), two nguru made from whale’s teeth, two albatross putorino (played as both trumpet and flute), a nguru made from the cochlea of a whale and finally, a newly made whale-bone putorino.

Programme note by the composer


Hine-pu-te-hue translates literally as the woman of the sound of the gourd, and she is the Maori goddess of peace. The work was written in 2001, at the time of President Bush’s State of the Union address shortly before the invasion of Afghanistan, and suggests the fragility rather than the celebration of peace, particularly in a pre-European environment.

A number of instruments used in Hine-pu-te-hue are made of gourds – the gourd, which carried food and water, is a symbol of peace. These include the poi awiowhio, a very quiet bird lure which is swung around the head, the tiny koauau ponga ihu or nose flute which ends the piece, the hue puru hau, a large gourd which is blown across its top opening and the gourd rattles played by the quartet. Two other wind instruments frequently made from gourds, the nguru and the ororuarangi, are also used. Other instruments are the putatara or conch shell trumpet, traditionally used for signaling, the pu kaea or war trumpet, a nguru niho paraoa or flute made from a whale’s tooth, the pumotomoto, associated with birth, and tumutumu (tapped percussion).

There is a similarity between the stringed instruments of the quartet and the gourds, in that they are made from plant material, with sound emitted through sound holes. Another link is the ku, the only stringed instrument known to Maori, which is a small musical bow played like a jaws harp (jews harp) using the mouth as a resonating chamber. The idea of ororuarangi, which can be translated as spirit voice (or double stopping in a different context) has had some influence on this piece as in the parallel movement of the strings.

Commissioned by the NZ International Festival 2002 for the New Zealand String Quartet and Richard Nunns.


Gillian Karawe Whitehead (b. 1941)

Gillian Whitehead was born in Hamilton, New Zealand in 1941. She graduated BMus Hons in New Zealand in 1964, and then studied composition at the University of Sydney with Peter Sculthorpe, graduating MMus in 1966. That same year she attended a composition course given by Peter Maxwell Davies in Adelaide and in 1967 travelled to England to continue studying with him. She worked in London for two years and then with the assistance of a New Zealand Arts Council grant worked in Portugal and Italy from 1969-70. For the next seven years she continued freelance composing, principally based in the UK. From 1978-80 she was Composer in Residence for Northern Arts attached to Newcastle University (UK). In 1981 she returned to Australasia to join the staff of the Composition School at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and was for four years Head of Composition there before taking early retirement in 1996. She now divides her time as a freelance composer between Sydney and Dunedin, New Zealand.

In 1999 she was honoured with membership to the NZ Order of Merit. In 2000 she became one of the inaugural Artist Laureates of the NZ Arts Foundation and she has three times won the prestigious SOUNZ Contemporary Award for her compositions. In 2005/6 she was the inaugural Composer-in-residence at the New Zealand School of Music.