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Rob Thorne

Rob Thorne

Interviewed by
Chris Cudby
Friday 24th October, 2014 12:22PM

Rob Thorne's recent and acclaimed album Whaia Te Maramatanga was the result of intensive research and exploration of toi puoro (traditional Maori instruments and music), with his live performances using traditional instruments in conjunction with contemporary technology such as loop pedals to create mesmerising sonic voyages. Having completed a nationwide tour in support of his album, and nominated as a finalist in the Waiata Maori awards for best traditional album, the Palmerston North artist generously took some time out to chat about his recent album and upcoming adventures...

UTR: How did your latest album come about? What was the process in recording Whaia Te Maramatanga?

THORNE: The album was a result of five years working live with a well-wrought and successful format. It had become obvious from people's responses, and requests, that I should at least record and consider releasing something of what I was doing. I had decided quite early on that I wouldn't be pushing this stuff, that it had to be done for personal and creative reasons, and that I would only play live when invited. That attitude was the best place to start from as it kept me tight to what I needed to achieve with the instruments and the music. In 2012 I applied for and received a CNZ Quick Response grant to record. This gave me a huge budget to work with, and with that came dilemma. Who and where to record with and so on. I decided on three producers from completely different fields that could each honour in some way what I was trying to achieve creatively. When I recorded with Steve Garden of Rattle it soon became clear to him that this was something that would suit his label.

We recorded it in a day. I had strong ideas about how it might be done simply and effectively according to my established live process, and Steve knew how that could be translated to the studio in a quality way. After that Steve spent quite a bit of time working with the final sound and the production, and the overall outcome of the album according to the original concept. It was a beautiful thing working with someone who gathered a strong feeling about the music and had ideas about how it could work on other levels.

I'm quite interested in the relationship between your recorded work on Whaia Te Maramatanga and your live performances – the recordings to me seem sparser and less layered than when I've seen you perform live. Could you talk about your approach and intentions for this album?

The album is about the composition Whaia Te Maramatanga. It was one of the first compositions I wrote with the loop pedal that worked with the idea of a single, set, length piece of music. I wrote it sometime back pre-2010 and wanted to start the Rattle journey back from that beginning. The epic composition concept is about creating pieces that are a whole performance, rather than single song-like compositions, that present the instruments on their own, within their own, as music makers. I've worked with the idea of scripting so I could present, basically, the same piece of music again and again, and from this gather more ideas for new work through my own experiences in the live realm and audience response. Kind of like an experimental control piece. I was intrigued by some of the audience feedback, and what they were getting from the music and performances and felt a need to look into that deeper. The album production definitely went toward the more sparse, which was both great and encouraging, as often it can tend to swing the other way, but Steve really liked how I was trying to work with space, and jumped on it.

Are your intentions different, does your approach change in a live setting?

The intention and approach tend to differ between recording and live. Live is about how the sound works - mostly. The approach is much more immediate. Especially if it's full improv and I'm just working in the moment, as I go. If I'm working with a planned piece, or something more conceptual, there is a desire to impress the original intention of the work into the performance. Underlying all of that is the need to have the instruments speak for themselves, and even deeper than that is to let the sound do it's amazing thing with those present, the magic. The live also has that edgy improv thing which people sense. There is always a pressure with performance to be active, to be giving the audience something more, rather than less. That dichotomy can be challenging, to pull back in the live scenario, but the recording process is ideal for accomplishing those things in a measured way that focus on the composition's original intention and concept. The live stuff is much more dynamic because the instruments are dynamic in a real setting, and also because nowadays I am working constantly on new material that I am fielding to the live stage to work and hammer into existence. Live is the hunting ground, where new things can be discovered, captured, explored and reiterated. Recording is more of a curing or preservation process, where the hard work of hunting is put into perpetuity for the future before breaking camp and moving on.

What instruments did you use in Whaia Te Maramatanga?

The set of taonga puoro on the album is quite limited, and that's part of the minimal intention of what I'm doing. Basically I use breath as a bed, and as an instrument. It shapes the whole feel, and subconsciously affects the listener on a deeper level. From what I know, breath is not a traditional instrument as such, but with the taonga, especially the wooden ones, breath is very present. Often when teaching and sharing, people will ask about the purity of the sound and ask what they are doing wrong when the sound of their breath comes through, and how to get rid of it. Instead of attempting to eliminate that element, I wanted to write a piece that used it. Of course there is the esoteric element of the breath also, and the psycho-physical effect. The next main instrument is the porotiti, the whirrer. This has a strong breathing element also, though intriguingly no breath is used to make it play, and is believed to have been used in traditional healing for the breath and lungs. The next predominant instrument is the putorino, an instrument that I just can't get enough of at the moment creatively. There are other instruments, putatara, pukaea, koauau, nguru, putangitangi and so on, but basically, WTM is a putorino and porotiti composition.

There's extensive research involved in the instruments you perform and record with – were there any discoveries made over the course of recording Whaia Te Maramatanga?

Recording the album was focused on getting down what I knew already, but there is always more to discover. I think the biggest lesson musically from recording the album was about the vital power of space and time. In Te Ao Maori there is the belief that everything comes out of nothing because within nothing is the absolute potential for everything. This is part of the creation story, and I directly relate this to creativity also. Creativity is all about creation, and the creation of art is all about potential, and the decisions we make in the production process of that art. As an artist faced with a blank canvas I have the potential to produce the same as any of the greats, but the decisions I make from out of my absolute potential differentiate me absolutely from others. I see this as a part of the whole improvisation consciousness also. Improv is all about potential and decisive action, space and time.

I'm really interested also in how you research your instruments – what problem-solving is involved when there's gaps in information on a specific instrument?

There are so many ways to find something out. Research is not just about learning what others have done, it is also about learning what you can do. I wrote a paper about Jumping The Gap for Audio Foundation's SoundBleed which attempts to express how broken ancient traditions can restore misplaced knowledge through action and practice. A big part of knowledge attainment in ancient traditions was about practice. Some types of knowledge cannot be taught through conventional teacher-pupil relations and this is often the case in the traditional shamanic world. Several very different examples come to mind. One story of traditional putorino practice holds that the student was given the instrument and sent away into the bush, instructed to not return until they could play. Such a practice can easily be translated into a modern context, and could even be considered as the exact method upon which most taonga puoro playing has been revived. This method could also imply there was a wide variety of unique styles and individual techniques present in the playing of the instrument. Another example is about the knowledge transmission in traditional plant medicines. Across the planet, including traditional Maori, plant medicine healers report that they learn vital knowledge directly from the plants themselves, often through dreams or visions where the plants talk to them, that they then apply practically with success. Inspiration, and learning comes in many ways and forms, and can lead to profound discoveries and practices. Before we assume that such intuitive methods have no place in a modern, scientific world we should consider the work of Watson and Crick, whose work perceived the DNA as a laddered double helix. Their work was huge, and took a long time and a lot of hard work but the major perceptual breakthrough came to both of them independently, on the same night, one in a waking dream and the other while sleeping. Incidentally, one of them was involved in the use of a visionary plant medicine at the time.

At best, we do what we can with what we know, now. I believe the more we play and use the instruments the more we will learn from the instrument. I have learned so much from both playing alone, and to people and them expressing various things that they felt, heard, saw or understood from experiencing the instrument. This specific method was used by Dr. Nunns and Hirini Melbourne in their journey and has been vital in the revival of taonga puoro knowledge and practice over the last 40 years.

You've talked about how music-making isn't the only role that these instruments used to play – for example the porotiti is associated with healing and meditation and there seems an aura of mystery around some of the instruments. How do you feel those associations relate to, or transform, your role as the player of these instruments ?

Understanding the many traditional functions and uses of the instruments is key to maintaining my responsibility to the taonga, their past and future, and the purpose and transmission of the knowledge. There is no doubt historically that many of the instruments were used in ways that weren't just musical. Te Ao Maori is a profoundly meaningful world. Traditionally, everything has meaning. Cosmologically, Maori live in an interwoven complex network of meaningful connectedness. Everything is connected, and everything has meaning. On a simple level these instruments attest to that. They are meaningful. At a deeper level, they feed into and off that world, they function within it, and if everything is connected, they even manipulate it. Connectedness flows both ways. I believe that the magic of the instruments has transformed me personally, on a deep level. Whether because the disciplined practice of breath-control transforms the mind, or because of something more traditional and esoteric, since working with the instruments I have grown emotionally and spiritually as a human being. I have become more connected with who I am as Maori, and more connected with those who went before me. Life has become more meaningful and more connected, on many levels.

Can you tell me about your use of the loop pedal when performing these instruments live, which  puts the sounds in a very contemporary context and places them in relation to another 'tradition' (ie. recent experimental music). Where did the idea of live looping these performances come from?

The idea for looping came about accidentally. A friend loaned me her RC20xl loop pedal and I began exploring the idea of putting the instruments to acoustic-electric nylon string guitar. At the time I hadn't actually been playing, or consciously creating in a solo capacity much. I had been singing in bands a lot, and occasionally singing and playing guitar with Black Pudding, but working solo from the Man Alone point of view had been dormant creatively for some time. After putting a few performances together with guitar and taonga puoro loops I felt a need to drop the guitar. It was like I was trying to bend the taonga to fit the guitar, which is an excellent experimental precept on its own, but with my free noise experience I could see a way forward conceptually and musically that was just all about the taonga on their own. What I really like about this form is that it does put it in a very contemporary context, while at the same time, I am able to explore various potentials in regards to how the instruments were, or may have been ensembled traditionally. Of course, this can be done in a group also, and is being done by a number of people. The loop pedal simply allows me to work alone, and in a way that doesn't require consultation, which has it's advantages conceptually, compositionally and in live performance, though it doesn't replace the inspiration that comes from working with others.

Do you make many of your instruments?

I do make instruments, but I don't really consider myself a maker. I am a musician. I prefer to play. My Masters in Social Anthropology is about traditional methods in the making of koauau rakau, the short, wooden open-ended oblique flute. That research was mammoth. It consumed over 10 years of my life from start to finish. It involved a lot of strands - ethnography, interviews, archaeological museum studies, and action-archaeology. Action-archaeology is about practice. Putting traditional techniques into practice and then comparing the outcomes with archaeological artifacts. What I learned with all of that was profound, I doubt I will ever fully come to terms with what it all involved. One of the biggest things that came out of that work was an understanding of simplicity in the art of traditional making. So much of archaeological culture gravitates toward the beautiful and glamorous, the ornately carved, the highly prized, and it's obvious why, but from a museum's front-of-house perspective, this can tend to marginalise the vast majority of archaeological culture: the everyday, the simple, the drab but very functional, even the substandard, because it isn't gorgeous looking. Anthropology is about the everyday, and it's also about the process not just the outcomes.

One element of sound making that came through the research was the whole field of 'found sound'. Instruments that are found ready to play, as is, or with very little adaptation required. From pairs of struck stones and shell bird callers, to found-ready bird bone flutes and other hollow tubes like dried or bug-eaten hollow branches, and hollow kelp stipes and bladder pods. Almost any hole with the right edge is playable as a flute with the oblique playing method. This cracked opened a whole world of easily achievable and immediately playable sound, but also forced me to consider how much archaeology becomes incorrectly catalogued through misassumption or because the original cultural definition becomes lost in modern translation. An example of this is the 'bone toggle or flute' controversy, a discussion that has highlighted a situation where long, unadorned bird bone flutes become wrongly categorised as impractical and cumbersome cloak toggles.

I do make, and I like to make, particularly for others, and in educational workshops, but for me that is more about passing the torch in regards to the music and knowledge. For me the key is simplicity, and this is what I mostly want to pass on to others in the hope that they will have a go themselves.

Photo credit: Alexander Hallag


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