Taking the Moon and Stars to Hong Kong
A conversation with David Hamilton
Always up for a challenge, composer David Hamilton wasn’t phased by NZSSC’s brief for a new commission. Not asking much, we were after a work with text in Mandarin and Maori, and that can be performed by NZSSC plus a male-voice choir …
And he’s done it! Songs of the Moon and Stars will have its world premiere at the Auckland concert on 7th July, before being shared and performed with Hong Kong’s Wah Yan College Kowloon Boys Choir and the Hong Kong Baptist University’s choir, Catoria. The project has evolved from NZSSC’s 2016 tour as Guest Choir to International Choral Kathaumixw where they first met Wah Yan, crowned ‘Choir of the World’ as winners of the festival’s top award.
David, where do you even begin when faced with a new choral commission?
Finding the right text is often the biggest challenge. Once I have that, I usually work quite quickly. The text ‘tells’ you what the music is going to be like.
Sometimes I have writer’s block, but there’s nothing like a deadline to unleash the creative urge again.
For this work, I was interested in the request to combine Chinese instruments with the choir. I’ve been wanting to explore Chinese instruments and this gave me a great opportunity to learn more about the erhu—a two-stringed bowed musical instrument, and guzheng—a 21-stringed zither.
It’s my first time working in Mandarin. Luckily my partner is originally from Taiwan so he helped me, and I had advice from a couple of other Chinese speakers I know. It was definitely an added challenge getting the right script into the score (Chinese has traditional and simplified forms).
We’re excited you’ll be joining us in Hong Kong—direct from Rome. Tell us what you’ve been up to …
I’m about to head to Italy where the top choirs from Westlake Girls and Boys High schools will perform, first off at St Peter’s in Rome! I was asked to write five new pieces for the Sunday afternoon Mass performance. The choirs are also singing three works of mine in a choral festival and competition in Florence.
In May, I attended the premiere of one of my works at Carnegie Hall. It came about through conductor Dr Jennifer Flory from Georgia College, who has performed and commissioned several works from me.
You’ve been involved with NZSSC for a while now …
The choir has sung and recorded several of my works over the years, although this is the first formal commission. I’ve also been a tutor for them and went on tour to Canada with the choir in 2000. I’ve always admired NZSSC so was delighted to be asked to write a new piece.
How did you discover your love of music?
Growing up in Taupo, there were limited opportunities to extend my interest in music. I only got involved with choirs when I went to Auckland University. Singing the Verdi ‘Requiem’ with the University Choral Society had me hooked, and I’ve been singing in choirs ever since. I also dived into composition during that time, and haven’t looked back. Peter Godfrey was my head of department, and very supportive of me.
I was a foundation member of the NZ Youth Choir and was delighted when they took two of my works, including a newly commissioned piece on the choir’s first tour. I’ve been a member of Auckland Choral since 1982 and am now its president.
You’re also a conductor and teacher, what keeps you going?
My students can still inspire me—maybe it’s an unusual way a student sets a text, or an ingenious manner of writing for an ensemble. I hope I have managed to instill my love of music in them, a willingness to explore new music, and be prepared to expose themselves to unusual and difficult pieces of music.
Like most creative people, there’s an inner drive to create and express yourself. I particularly enjoy writing choral music, but I’ve written for most forms and ensembles. I’ve always been keen to explore different composers and styles of music, although I am very fond of contemporary American music.
What are you most proud of?
My favourite work (and possibly best) dates from 1985, The Moon is Silently Singing for double choir and two horns. Often the piece I like least is the one I’ve just finished—I’m just glad to get it done and sent off! With time though, I come back and re-evaluate a work’s merits. Occasionally I finish a piece and think ‘yes, that’s a good one’!
Any advice for our members studying composition?
Compose! Compose lots of music. Take every opportunity to write music, and if necessary create your own opportunities. Offer to write for people. And listen to lots of music, in many different styles, from all eras. Learn from other composers and be involved as a performer. Join a choir and learn what music feels like from the inside.
Learn more about David's work on his website