Ngā ingoa o Te Wiki o te Reo Māori

2 Jul

Source: New Zealand Gazette.

Source: New Zealand Gazette.

It’s Māori Language Week, bitches!

Yesterday I saw that my improv colleague Jennifer O’Sullivan had changed her Twitter name to “Kōtea Patupaiarehe“, or ‘pale fairy’, the literal way-back-when meaning of “Jennifer”. I was inspired to discover my own best conversion into Māori, but to go hardout and do all three of my names. And none of this transliteration crap either, Mr Ropata.

Note: I did all this research before someone else pointed out that Te Reo educationalist Te Mihinga Komene was already running “Pimp My Ingoa” for the Twitterverse – that’s where Jen got her name done. With the caveat that Te Mihinga is an actual proper Te Reo speaker and I’m just a Pākehā who knows how to use Google, here goes.

“Robert” comes from the Old Germanic “Hruodberht”, which means ‘bright fame’. I could make it “Rongopurata” (rongo = fame, renown; purata = bright), but given that “Robbie” is a diminutive, let’s go with “Rongo”, which has the advantage of being a name already.

“Thomas” comes from the Aramaic for ‘twin’. Pretty easy literal translation there: “Māhanga”.

Where shit gets interesting is with my surname. “Ellis” apparently entered Great Britain following the Crusades as a loan name from Hebrew (related to Elias/Elijah). The Māori Bible names Elijah the Tishbite as “Iraia” (Kings 1 17:1), obviously a transliteration from English and unsatisfactory for my purposes.

So, let’s go back to the Hebrew. “Eliyahu” literally means ‘Jehovah/Yahweh is God’. The monotheistic Christian ‘God’ is called “Atua” (somewhat controversially given pre-European Māori spirituality but whatevs). But guess how ‘Jehovah’ is transliterated? That’s right: “Īhowa”.

So basically every time you sing the first line of the national anthem, “E Īhowa Atua”, you’re addressing all Ellises… and Elis, and Eliases, and Elijahs, and Eliassons, for that matter. Just don’t get me started on that line’s completely out-of-place skippy dotted quaver-semiquaver thing in the published version… yeah.

Anyway, I still haven’t found a non-transliterated surname. I could go with the clumsy but literal “Kō-Atua-Te-Atua”. Hmm. Seems a bit… repetitive.

Nah, screw it. My name on Twitter this Māori Language Week is:
Rongo Māhanga E-Īhowa-Atua.
Āmene to that, Aotearoa.

Starving Artist Productions presents

19 May

Dawn. Music suggesting an impending battle scene.

ROBBIE surveys the creative landscape and delivers a soliloquy to camera.

leonidas-gerard-butlerAs I return to the soil of my birth after a long exile, I wish for strength. I wish for courage. I wish for the fortitude to withstand long periods of no work coming in before that six-hour job that pays two grand will see my rent through for the next little while. Or that out-of-town tour where I get paid and I keep most of my per diems.

I summon the gods to be on my side in this endeavour. To help me accept with equanimity the vicissitudes of the self-employed life. To guide me towards restraint in times of feast and parents’ free meals in times of famine. To ward off malevolent witchcraft from infecting my Subaru chariot’s motor so as not to summon an eye-wateringly expensive mechanical shaman. To give me the clear sight of Teiresias to know I don’t really need to buy that book for forty bucks because, let’s face it, I probably won’t get around to reading it.

As I approach the ramparts of Auckland atop this less than comfortable divan in the bowels of a noble Boeing ship, I call on all potential employers within the city gates to regard me with favour. To broadcast producers who will employ my oratory across vast distances. To directors of Dionysian festivals, those theatrical presentations that may use my talents. To the agents of merchants, those advertising creative directors, who wish my stentorian tones and facility with the barbarian argots of foreigners to help sell their wares in a pre-recorded fashion. To orchestra managers who see use in an arrangement of Macklemore’s Thrift Shop for solo cor anglais, strings and drum kit. To musical performers of any instrument who want to commission me to channel the muse of St Cecilia. To Creative New Zealand, and to anyone who can pay me to do improv theatre. (Probably mutually exclusive groups, to be honest.) Give me recompense for my toil, ye nobles of the arts!

I wish for strength in this endeavour because the prize is worth it. The spoils of my battle are to be a freeborn citizen of the City of Auckland. Not I, a common slave to a common master who will capriciously order me to be present at his place of trade from the ninth hour of the morning to the fifth hour of the sun’s descent, five days of every seven excepting civic and imperial feasts.

Nay, my life is henceforth mine own. My projects are worthy, if most likely underfunded. My credit card limit has just been increased by three grand. I am ready. I am capable. Come at me bro.

This is madness. Madness? THIS.. IS.. FREELANCE!!!!!!

ROBBIE strides purposefully towards the sun as the music swells to its conclusion:

Ending to an epic film score.

Ending to an epic film score.

The “wow” moment – Part 1

18 May

I have a habit of writing blog posts at airports. But that is apt – airports are portals for the beginnings and ends of journeys. Palaces of taking stock. Palaces of excitement of what is to come and reflection on what has been. And palaces of not enough power points and intrusively annoying WiFi networks. Yes, I’m at LAX.

I’ve been on the road 127 days on my longest travels yet. I’ve been in two improv festivals, gone to the world’s largest musical festival, seen improv, comedy, music, theatre, ballet, musical theatre and opera. I’ve entered five countries, three Canadian provinces and twelve US states (four of which I was in for transit only).

I’ve identified 15 performances in which I had a “wow” moment. Or a “whoa” moment. Or “Fuuuuuck.” Put simply, they amazed.

I can rattle off honorable mentions by the dozen, but for the time being, here’s the first half of my abiding memories from Travels 2013.

1. Roberto Fonseca & group
Thursday 24 January 2013
La Zorra y El Cuervo (Vedado, Havana)

Originally from Cuba, jazz pianist Roberto Fonseca divides his time between Havana and New York. He is a demon on the keys, and his band were equally virtuosic. The final number of their first set was a relentless 15-minute fast rock groove, with a head so fiddly and complicated (yet memorable) that most musicians couldn’t even attempt it. Solos lasted an age but maintained momentum the whole way. I sat with a Uruguayan couple who told me I had my mouth open for the last 80% of that number.

Clint & Buck Vrazel, from Twinprov. (Source: their Twitter.)

Clint & Buck Vrazel, from Twinprov. (Source: their Twitter.)

2. Twinprov (workshop)
Friday 15 February 2013
Jet City Improv (University District, Seattle)

Two white guys from Oklahoma do an improv rap show. Not a promising description, but these guys are deserved megastars of the North American improv scene. Twinprov is the twins Buck & Clint Vrazel, and I met them at the Seattle Festival of Improvisational Theater. They bring it for a show, no doubt, but more significantly they are the most effective workshop teachers I’ve ever seen in improv. Teaching music to non-musicians is a difficult prospect – if adults have had negative experiences with music when young (like being told they aren’t good at it), it’s so hard to get them to open up. Rap is a more intimidating genre still. But Buck & Clint are f**kin’ mint at breaking down those barriers – Nick from Canberra, if you’re reading this, get these mofos down to Improvention some time.

3. 3 For All
Friday 1 March 2013
BATS Improv (Fort Mason, San Francisco)

All down the west coast I’d been told “book for 3 For All, book for 3 For All, they will sell out”. For reasons of geography, this long-tim trio gets together only three or four times a year, so it was lucky coincidence that I was in San Francisco the same weekend. The thing I took away from this was the superb physicality they exhibit. I don’t mean that they are frenetic and full-of-energy, but rather their immaculately controlled movements to indicate changes in time, place, setting, character. I once heard it said about Jane Austen’s writing that you never need to see “said so-and-so” after lines of dialogue; you instantly know who’s speaking by the precision of her writing style. The same applies to the actors of 3 For All – the moment you look at them, you know where the story’s at.

4. Dudamel Conducts Firebird
Sunday 3 March 2013
Walt Disney Hall (Downtown Los Angeles)

I hadn’t intended to go through Los Angeles so early in my trip. I had booked to spend a week in the area at the end of my four months and have a single direct flight home. However, when I saw the LA Phil‘s offerings for early March, I changed my plans: Stravinsky’s Firebird and a brand new John Adams work within five days of each other, both conducted by His Curliness, Gustavo Dudamel. My eye-wateringly expensive ticket for Firebird meant for one superb seat at eye level with the front desk of the first violins. And Disney Hall has such a clear sound! I do love the Auckland Town Hall for all its fond memories for me, but it is a wallowing Brucknerian shoebox that doesn’t do any favours to my own compositional style, or many other composers’. As for the playing, what an all-encompassing sound. Stravinsky’s jagged string writing sounded so full and rich, the brass was immaculately balanced with the winds, ogh, it was heaven.

5. Matt Davis Gets a Girlfriend
Tuesday 5 March 2013
UCB Theatre LA (Hollywood, Los Angeles)

A very pleasant surprise! Taking a look at the offerings of the main comedy and improv theatres in Hollywood, I came across this intriguing one-man musical on the UCB website. Matthew Patrick Davis performs his show solo from the keyboard, in the first person, and has this rich Sondheimesque linkage of themes and motifs that inspired me so much. Some still linger in my head: “I’m gonna get a girlfriend”, “I’m gonna die alone”, etc. I got inspired by all the thematic threading and repetition of musically-associated phrases, and designed my libretto to Annie & Joshua around that principle. Now I’ve got my own phrases like “None of your business”, “Okay, okay”, “If you must know”, “Please, please, please go on a date with me!”, etc. (More on Annie & Joshua another time – Bridget Costello and Callum Blackmore perform it in Short+Sweet Song, 11-15 June at the Herald Theatre in Auckland.)

The Bolzen Beer Band's album cover. (Source: Bandcamp.)

The Bolzen Beer Band’s album cover. (Source: Bandcamp.)

6. Bolzen Beer Band
Tuesday 12 March 2013 (or early Wed 13)
Corner of 6th Street & Trinity Ave (Downtown Austin)

I went to SXSW. It’s probably the biggest music festival in the world. I saw Coolio. I saw The Specials. I had a great Saturday night watching the most amazing mélange of styles (see below). But the Bolzen Beer Band made me lose my shit in the geekiest way possible. They’d done one single official SXSW showcase that Tuesday night – a lowly slot, to put it mildly – but they didn’t care. They were just going to jam the shit out of the rest of the festival, on the street, in indie gigs, wherever. I’ve recounted this story enough: they are a polka punk band from Lincoln, Nebraska. They have an accordionist, a tuba player and a punk drummer. They wear Lederhosen. The one hook of theirs that is still in my head is “We love weed and beer, my friend, we love weed and beer! / Pour a glass of ice-cold weed and score a sack of beer!”. And the coup de grâce (grass?) was when the lead singer went into a half-time rap breakdown IN GERMAN. They had all the right spirit.

7. Red Baraat
Saturday 16 March 2013
Stage on Sixth (Downtown Austin)

This looked like a pretty good night at South By: long-time LA-Mexican party band Ozomatli, home-town favourites Grupo Fantasmo, and Bajofondo from Argentina. But Red Baraat killed me. Hailing from Brooklyn, their frontman plays the dhol. Combine that with a rhythm section; a sousaphone for the bass line; and horns that include the unusual bass trumpet, you have a bitchin’ crossover of Bollywood dance rhythms and New Orleans bounce. My first ‘wow’ moment came when the frontman called for a sousaphone solo. Perfectly synchronised, every other band member ducked down low to the ground, flashed their attention towards the sousaphone’s bell, and the lights snapped to put a solo spot on him. These mofos finished their set with a procession out onto the floor of the venue and being right up and close with us dancers and punters. They were drenched in sweat by the end, having given their all. What an impressive group.


Part 2 of my “wow” moments will take in the Chicago Improv Festival, a diverse range of Broadway offerings, one of the most novel theatre shows I’ve ever come across, and a live dog. You can look forward to that in a few days.

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Now this is a story all about how

6 May

Yo quiero Liberty Bell.

Yo quiero Liberty Bell.

I’m in Philadelphia. I’m so near the end of my travels. There’s an organ concert on in two weeks’ time in Auckland, which contains my piece Relish in Immature Bombast. I made a video, because I’m staying just a few blocks away from the biggest (working) organ in the world.

This was made at the request of SOUNZ – The Centre for New Zealand Music. They do great things – music retail (scores, CDs, DVDs, books), reference library services, music promotion – for New Zealand art music. Normally they’d send someone with a camera to get me to answer questions, but last time I checked they didn’t have a branch office here… or anywhere outside Wellington.

If you haven’t booked your tickets for Organ Spectacular, this whole paragraph is a link to the event page on the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra’s website. The APO has a Buy Tickets link and tickets are only $15 for students and $25 for real humans. You really should buy said tickets and come to this concert on Thursday 23 May.

And there’s a Facebook event too.

Now ONTO THE VIDEO! You can hear four tiny bits of my piece scattered throughout the four-minute span. And you should go to SOUNZ’s transcript which has linky links to information and stuff.

And thanks to my improviser friend and Philadelphia native Bobbi Block for doing some of the videoing.

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Only because someone blogged about me.

31 Mar

Right now I’m ensconced in Chicago. The change in climate from Austin’s glorious spring sun to the Lake Effect has been shocking – far worse than when I made a similar transition from Guadalajara to Seattle in mid-February. Last week I bought my first ever pair of gloves, for instance.

I designed my trip so that I’d be able to catch up on projects now, instead of constantly travelling. With three weeks in Chicago, I have no pressure to see all the sights in a short time, and I’ve been able to spend lots of time in the public library and a café being a creative.

First I had to edit my 15-minute segment about SXSW for Music 101 on Radio New Zealand National. Embedding is disabled for this piece of audio, but you listen to it here. Then the deadline approached for show and workshop submissions for Improvention 2013 – that had to be adhered to.

Since that time, I’ve been flitting from project to project. Arrangements for a band I want to form when I get back? 15% complete, then BAM I hear about Short+Sweet Song, a festival/competition of 10-minute musicals happening in Auckland a few weeks after I get back. I buckle down, attempting to transform a Thomas Sainsbury playscript into a singable libretto, but that’s haaaaaaaard.

Then Jess Rodda tweets me out of the blue asking for a short piece for her horn, trombone and tuba trio. Why not procrastinate on a new creative project? I write 95 seconds of fiddly ragtime music in just under four hours.

I first call it Rag to a Bull (geddit? geddit?), then Trolling the Trio. I settle on Trolling the Tuba because it’s an inherently funnier word.

Two days ago I got “commissioned” and wrote the notes, yesterday I revised and tidied up the score and parts, last night Jess blogged about it (complete with my programme note) and today I complete the blogging echo chamber. All within 46 hours.


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21 Feb

Looking east onto North Pender Island from the Gulf of Georgia.

Looking east onto North Pender Island from the Gulf of Georgia, taken as I write this post.

I write from the ferry between Victoria and Vancouver, in the territorial waters of British Columbia/Washington State/British Columbia. It’s Wednesday 20 February here in North America, but en Nouvelle-Zélande it’s a Thursday at a particular time of the month. This means Song Sale is on in Dunedin!

Now, it is a little odd and a little superfluous for me still to be spruiking for this monthly gig. Yes, I founded it in Dunedin and it was my baby, but now that Daddy has moved to a new city some foster parents have taken responsibility for the rambunctious toddler. Or something. I’m not good at parent-and-guardian analogies.

Regardless, I look from afar wishing all the best for this year’s gigs. I know it will thrive under new management: Corwin Newall is a fantastic writer and performer, and even though he’s young I can see him developing into a really good teacher and director of talent. Gabby Golding is one of the most enthusiastic and organised people I know in the Dunedin arts scene, and late last year she enthusiastically took the reins to organise this mother. (Told you my family member analogies weren’t good.)

They’ve secured funding from both Creative Communities and the Dunedin Fringe Festival, so they must be doing something right – importantly, this means the gigs remain free entry. They’ve also engaged Angus McBryde, a professional, to do their graphics. This is instead of retaining my, uhh, ‘idiosyncratic’ design principles of textual overload. Compare December 2012 and February 2013:

But beyond who manages it, Song Sale is not only an entertaining show for an audience, it’s a valuable vehicle for many different types of creatives.

For a songwriter in the generally-popular-music world, it’s a chance to submit one’s self to a deliberately constrained process: writing something in a hurry. If the song is no good, it can die after its first outing. If it’s great, all the better. If you write enough songs in a hurry, you develop good instincts about which is which and this helps you early in the writing process.

For composers – those trained in a classical, dots-on-paper tradition – Song Sale teaches timing, audience interaction, and Seeing What Works. So many composers are nervous wallflowers, afraid to put themselves out there. While the gig may look terrifying to total introverts, the vibe of the show means The Audience is On Your Side. Even if you try and fail, the audience will still love and support you.

That’s a precept of improv theatre as well – worth mentioning since many Song Salers are members of Improsaurus. The audience doesn’t come to a show to see the perfect response to any situation, they go along to see what on earth the response ends up being. There’s always a little thrill for an individual audience member when that person’s own suggestion is picked up and turned into a scene (for improv) or a song (for Song Sale), but even if the suggestion didn’t come out of your own mouth, you still feel like you have a stake in it: it came from the room and You Were There.

Added to this, many improvisers are also stand-up comedians and many stand-up comedians incorporate music. Song Sale is a pretty sweet song development laboratory, and it bubbles up musically comedic moments that don’t occur when you deliberately craft songs on your own. After a year-and-a-half of Song Sales in both Wellington and Dunedin, I have a heeeap of songs that have had several outings, become more refined and cogent, and could be turned into a solo show and/or an album.

If you’re reading this from Dunedin, do turn up tonight: 7pm at The Church, 50 Dundas St. The gig has a new structure (or a structure full stop): an established act performs for the first half – tonight it’s Reed Street Posse from Oamaru – and the commissions come after the interval. As always – and with gracious thanks to Creative Communities funding – entry is free and commissions are $5 per song. Here’s the Facebook event – go forth and spread.

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Postcard piece

14 Feb

Juliet Palmer, a New Zealand-born Toronto-based composer, alerted me to Redshift Music Society the other day.

This Vancouver new music outfit has put out a call for scores, with a deadline of 1 March. Basically:

The idea is simple: the entire score, musical concept or set of instructions for the piece has to fit on a postcard.


Please submit by REGULAR MAIL only! (not email)

As I was coming to the end of my travels in Spanish-speaking countries (Cuba and Mexico), I figured I was finished hearing a particular type of sound: the pregón. The dictionary definition of the word is ‘proclamation’ or ‘announcement’, but more typically it refers to the repetitive patter of street vendors, market stall-holders, touts, jineteros, etc.

I had been notating down these cries as approximately as I could in iPhone Notes. Sitting at a restaurant in Guadalajara Airport, having consumed my rather meagre and overpriced chicken burger, I transcribed some of them for alto sax and various voices. Thus, my first composition of 2013 is called 8 Pregones – it’s up to you whether you whether you pronounce it “eight” or “ocho”. (Or for that matter, “chicuyei“.)

Hopefully they have someone willing to give the Spanish language and Latino accents a go...

Hopefully Redshift has someone willing to give the Spanish language and Latino accents a go…

For the moment, this piece exists only in two hard copies: a draft on the back of my A4 flight itinerary, and this postcard winging its way from México to Canadá.

I do intend to write out another copy (I have a couple of spare Guadalajara postcards) and send it to SOUNZ though. It would probably be appropriate for it to bear a Vancouver postmark – I should be there next week.

By the way, here’s the obverse. This is José Clemente Orozco’s sweeping mural of Mexican independence leader Miguel Hidalgo, in the Palacio del Gobierno.

8 Pregones (20130212 GDL obverse)

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1 Feb

Che to the left of me, Fidel to the right...

Che to the left of me, Fidel to the right…

I’ve been travelling for a bit. I lack the discipline to organise my thoughts into blog-length discursive reads, but if you’ll forgive bullet points, here’s where I’ve been. Pictures are on Facebook. One is also here.

Thu 10 Jan: Flew AKL-SYD-DFW. Met a friend in Old Sydneytown and saw the Chinese Garden. Because of flight delays, Qantas put me up in an airport hotel near Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.

Fri 11 Jan: Flew DFW-CUN, got a shuttle from Cancún Airport down to Tulum. (Mexico.) Pottered around Tulum.

Sat 12 Jan: Saw the ruins near Tulum. Went to the beach.

Sun 13 Jan: Went to the beach.

Mon 14 Jan: Bus from Tulum to Cancún, checked into that hotel room I was supposed to use on Thu 10 Jan. Went to Isla Mujeres and the beach thereon. Beautiful. Ate or drank something dodgy that evening.

Tue 15 Jan: Spent most of the night with gastric problems. In the afternoon, flew CUN-HAV. Went straight to the Hotel Sevilla in Havana, Cuba (two nights booked there) and holed up in my room, reluctant to face the world, and with no appetite.

Wed 16 Jan: Wandered La Habana Vieja, struggled to find the bus station, still ate next to nothing.

Thu 17 Jan: Bus from Havana to Santa Clara. Pottered around the town. Spoke German all night at a bar, resulting in the first time my head has ever held three separate languages without any one bleeding into another.

Fri 18 Jan: Pottered around Santa Clara. Went to a subversive rap gig at night.

Sat 19 Jan: Visited the Che Guevara Statue/Mausoleum and the Memorial to the Armoured Train. Jammed with a son band in the street at about 1am.

Sun 20 Jan: Bus from Havana to Trinidad. Pottered around the town. Went to the Casa de la Música at night.

Mon 21 Jan: Day at the beach at Playa Ancón. Met four Canadians who were doing the all-inclusive resort thing, so they fetched me food, beer and coconuts all day. Mean as eh. In the evening, a son band let me sub in on piano for El Cuarto de Tula at Palenque (one of the music clubs).

Tue 22 Jan: Saw some sights in Trinidad. Went to Casa de la Música in the evening.

Wed 23 Jan: Bus from Trinidad to Cienfuegos. Pottered around Cienfuegos and walked to Punta Gorda. Met two huuuge Finnish guys (salesman and petrochemical engineer) and had a conversation about Magnus Lindberg/Kaija Saariaho/Kalevi Aho/Kari Kriikku/Hannu Lintu/Leif Segerstam. One of them had met Leif Segerstam at some random dive bar in suburban Helsinki. Sounds like Leif Segerstam.

Thu 24 Jan: Colectivo taxi from Cienfuegos to Havana. Found my casa particular in Vedado. Wandered much of Vedado. Saw a powerful adaptation of Antigone at Teatro Brecht and got my mind blown by Roberto Fonseca’s band at La Zorra y El Cuervo (jazz club).

Fri 25 Jan: Woke up on little sleep to have breakfast at the time I told my casa owner. Walked through many performing arts venues to find out what was on. Passed through Plaza de la Revolución. Waited an hour to use the internet. Lacked energy to go out at night, even though Havana d’Primera was on at the Casa de la Música in Habana Centro.

Sat 26 Jan: Checked the venue schedule at Casa de la Música Miramar – Los Van Van playing that night, Bamboleo playing the matinée the following day. I knew where I was going to be that night.

Sun 27 Jan: Lazarito Valdés and Bamboleo in the early evening at Casa de la Música Miramar. Lázaro Valdés y Son Jazz late night at La Zorra y El Cuervo. Son and father in the same day.

Mon 28 Jan: Pottered around Vedado. Spent the rest of my Cuban currency on CDs. Tip for the wise: don’t buy CDs anywhere else in Cuba except La Habana Sí (corner of 23 & L, Vedado, Havana). Everywhere else has a tourist trap mark-up on it, and nowhere near the range of La Habana Sí.

Tue 29 Jan: Woke up at 3am to fly HAV-MEX. Got a bus successfully to my hostel. Spent half an hour searching for a place to buy a cardboard tube to post a Cuban artwork back to NZ. Pottered around the Centro Histórico and stumbled into the Torture Museum. Went to the Cathedral.

Wed 30 Jan: Pottered around the Centro Histórico, including the Museo de la Ciudad (free on Wednesdays, just my luck) and the Merced Market. Rode the Metro at peak hour and didn’t have my pockets picked. Wandered to the Zona Rosa for dinner.

Thu 31 Jan: Organised package tour which took in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, the big Virgin of Guadalupe area, a stone-working workshop in Teotihuacan, and finally the big-ass pyramids at Teotihuacan. Sat down to write this blog post.

Coming up: more meanderings around Mexico City, unsuccessful attempts to find a decent live music gig based on internet research, the delights of Morelia, three whole days of do-nothing at the beach at Ixtapa, and Guadalajara.

Feb 12 I fly to the Seattle Festival of Improv Theater, then down the West Coast. Along the way I see Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Then a vaguely eastward motion until May. Lots of time in Chicago and New York City.

I arrive back in New Zealand on Sunday 19 May.


General Update

9 Jan

A generic travel-related icon.

A generic travel-related icon.

There are a whole lot of things that I should have written about, but haven’t. It’s been a while since an update.

In the last month I’ve moved cities from Dunedin to Auckland. Over my last week down south (10-17 December), I had a whole lot of stuff to finish off: my last Song Sale, recording the tracks for Promise & Promiscuity, recording further vocals of songs with other Song Salers, and producing a live radio broadcast from Albany Street Studios. And of course there was the simple fact that I was leaving Dunedin after my one year as Mozart Fellow, a damn significant time in my life… maybe I should blog about these things when they come to fruition.

After Christmas with the family in Auckland, I was back down to Wellington to do some work as a presenter for Radio New Zealand Concert, and some development work on At Least We Have Our Jobs, a drama production for Radio New Zealand National. I spent a lot of time in the studio for that.

Tomorrow I fly off to Mexico and I’ll be away from New Zealand for four months. In that time I’m going to Cuba (Cuba!), the Seattle Festival of Improvisational Theater and the Chicago Improv Festival, and I’ll be in Austin during SXSW. I may not answer emails or Facebook quite as regularly.

I’m feeling a bit arse because of vaccines and dental work a couple of days ago. I still have tax and GST to do, not to mention packing for four months away. Eep.

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9 Dec

This afternoon, Buz Bryant-Greene gives the première performance of my solo piano piece #llamadrama. That’s right, I’m so social media my composition is a hashtag.

Buz first played my music in May 2009, specifically the Sonatina for clarinet and piano with Anna McGregor. Before long, he followed it with Seven Banana Songs for soprano & piano, Maeve for piano & tape, and a silly little microscore called Drying Music.

However, still by then I had written no substantial solo piano piece for anybody, so Buz applied to Creative New Zealand in August 2010 for funds to commission me for a 10-12 minuter. Six weeks later we were granted success. I even got paid up-front!

This was momentous for me: it was my first fully-funded CNZ commission (link is a .doc). I was suddenly a “real” composer! Some years previously I had made a resolution that I would stop attending the Nelson Composers Workshop as a participant once I received my first professional commission. The day had arrived.

I got feverishly down to work… if I recall, this was when the cast of Austen Found: The Undiscovered Musicals of Jane Austen was supposed to go to Sydney to perform at World’s Funniest Island, before that festival was cancelled nine days before opening. That would have been my first getting-flown-overseas-to-do-a-show moment… ah well. Just the one major career milestone per month then.

Progress stalled when my girlfriend and I broke up the following month – we’d been living together, it was a less than straightforward separation, it sent me pretty down. I well and truly lost compositional momentum – in fact, it took me a further eight months to finish the work in fits and starts, writing the last note on 18 July 2011.

But nothing’s ever simple. By the time I finished #llamadrama, Buz had developed some pretty serious musicianly injuries in his shoulders and back. He wasn’t going to be doing any much playing for a while, especially the 12-13 minutes of physically demanding piano pounding and fine motoric gestures that I’d composed for him. We thought there’d be the première in April this year, in fact, I even arranged a whole trip from Dunedin to Wellington around it, but Buz wasn’t yet up to it.

However, the time is now. Nearly two and a half years after Buz applied for the commission funding, he’s giving the première. He’s the accompanist for The Glamaphones, the choir of Wellington’s GLBTQ community, so it’s part of their end-of-year concert at St Andrew’s on The Terrace at 4pm today. He’ll be giving subsequent performances in Nelson, Auckland, and many other places, I hope.

It’s a programmatic piece, and the narrative is… uhh… long. It’s below!


On the afternoon of 27 August 2010, an escaped llama made its way onto the Western Ring Road in Melbourne, one of that city’s busiest freeways. The story became a minor sensation on Twitter with this tweet from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s @abcnews feed:

Drama: Police are trying to capture a llama on Melbourne’s western ring road
12:54:07 Aug 27th 2010 (UTC +10) via Tweetdeck
Retweeted by 100+ people

Within two minutes, this message had been re-tweeted 15 times, spreading the news quickly throughout Melbourne and to the wider world. The news story generated a flash of amused responses and commentary, often under the hashtag #llamadrama. I’ve identified some factors which contributed to its sudden popularity: the simple linguistic device of rhyme; the involvement of an animal; the potential for Benny Hill-like chase scenes between police and said animal; the heightened attention to Twitter for breaking political news following the inconclusive result of the Australian federal election six days earlier; the inherent funniness of the word ‘llama’; and the fact that bored office-workers will tweet and/or retweet nearly anything for shits’n’giggles on a Friday afternoon.

Humorous comments came thick and fast. One was a tweet by @silencewedge parodying a 1961 Barry Mann pop song:

Who put the drama in the drama llama ring road?

Guitarist and music journalist Peter Hodgson, a.k.a. @iheartguitar, provided another rhyme for consideration:

Llama drama or Alpaca Fracas?

However, my favourite remark of the whole affair was a pun from market researcher and consultant Stephen Downes, a.k.a. @downesy on Twitter:

A loose llama on the Western Ring Road? It must have been trying to get to the Tu-llama-rine Freeway #llamadrama
13:25:17 Aug 27th 2010 (UTC +10) via Tweetdeck
Retweeted by 21 people

Some 80 minutes after the affair started on Twitter, @abcnews reported:

Breaking news: Police have captured the llama that was on the loose in Melbourne #llamadrama
14:16:40 Aug 27th 2010 (UTC +10) via web
Retweeted by 100+ people

From there, instances of the hashtag #llamadrama tailed off. For half an afternoon it had captured the imagination of a localised section of the “Twitterverse”, and as the story died a natural death it was quickly forgotten. (The sheer volume of traffic on Twitter with the lack of an effective archive search function means events more or less disappear after a week or so.)

Even in this world where cameras in mobile phones are ubiquitous, nobody took photos or video of the escaped animal – or at least no such images made it to the internet, despite appeals from news media. After the event, the websites of ABC News and The Age newspaper carried brief text stories, light on details and specifics and probably based entirely on police communications (i.e. second-hand information). While there is no apparent reason to doubt the basics of the event or to call it a hoax, I felt a bemused unreality (or surreality) in following reports as they developed, best summed up by @cfsmtb:

Pics or it didn’t happen

This piece of news was arguably perfect for Twitter. The limited concrete information available was only slightly more than what can be contained in a tweet of 140 characters, and its bemusing nature and temporary news value meant the “Twitterverse”, including me as a composer, could imagine the zany and the fantastical. After all, who cares if it’s true or not, as long as it’s funny?


Starting in a field close to the Western Ring Road, a llama lives a placid and slightly bored existence. Absent-mindedly picking at a chain-link fence, a gap appears: the animal can fit itself through and escape its confines. After a few cautious steps, it lurches forward and runs in sudden jerks. Making its way down a grassy hillside, it reaches the freeway crash barrier. Occupants of moving vehicles begin to notice the animal: “there’s a llama!” After a few tries, it successfully vaults the crash barrier and makes it onto the road itself. Vehicles whizz by and drivers honk their horns, but the llama is enjoying its freedom too much to be affected by them. Reports begin to reach news services: we hear a radio news theme and the growing noise of the Twitterverse.

The din of chatter around Melbourne becomes overwhelming and little more than indistinguishable noise, so the llama retreats into its head and to its elated thoughts: “I’m free! I’m my own animal! This is my dream, I’m no longer bound by a chain-link fence! It’s a whole new world! There’s a smile on my face for the whole…”

SQUEAL!! Its reverie is interrupted by an SUV with an absent-minded yet aggressive driver: the vehicle has to brake extremely suddenly to avoid hitting the llama, and misses it only by inches. Police have arrived on the scene and have begun to divert traffic. The llama becomes outnumbered to a greater and greater degree: there’s one last chance for escape, one tricky path to freedom, one last high-stakes roll of the “OOH TASTY TASTY LLAMA TREAT ON THE GRASSY BANK!! I LIKE TASTY LL… oh damn.”

Thirty minutes later, in the same field close to the Western Ring Road, the llama is once again bored. Picking at the chain-link fence, there’s no chance of escape. The fence has been repaired, the gap closed, the llama’s life restored to its former boredom.

Written 15 October 2010 to 18 July 2011 in Auckland and Wellington.
Commissioned by Buz Bryant-Greene with funding from Creative New Zealand.

Duration: 12-13 minutes.
Pronunciation note: The title should be said “hash-tag llama drama”.

First performed by Buz Bryant-Greene, 9 December 2012, St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington.

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