The Ever-Circling Light — Te Ao Hurihuri

1980 30 minutes
choir, percussion ensemble
Text Traditional Maori poetry

The Ever-Circling Light is a personal statement about NEW ZEALAND In particular, its weathers, the land and its proximity to the sea; and about human life in general. The traditional Maori poetry was an ideal starting point because it contains all these elements in abundance and furthermore, it epitomizes New Zealand for me, merely by its being Maori. All these “poems” were in fact already songs but I have not drawn on their original melodies or rhythms directly, instead I have allowed a study of Maori music to effect my own style. Thus many aspects of the work will sound “maori-ish” - the various chants, glissandi at phrase ends, stamping, etc. - but none of these is taken from an original Maori song. It is difficult for me to say what has shaped my own style, but I would like to acknowledge one important source: the many young people (primary, secondary, tertiary) I have worked with over the last 12 years. The problems we have met in working with percussion instruments and voices and the solutions we have reached together have left an indelible mark on me and on all that I say musically.

Kit Powell January 1980

Christchurch Star Review from 5.7.1982

Powell's The Ever-Circling Light sets Maori texts to a musical style which blends authentic Maori chant idiom with atmospheric non-melodic tone painting a la modern Polish school. A traditional orchestra, which would sound incongruous to the mood of this work, is rejected in favour of vast battery of percussion instruments requiring six players in this half hour work. Although these include standard percussion, the most appropriate sounds came from the many home-made ones especially those made of wood. These are used with introspective sensitivity to atmosphere although some of the sounds added little if any audible effect such as the rubbing of stones and the singers’ cooing through cardboard tubes. Without the dynamism of melody and rhythm these static clouds of quiet sound can become, uneventfully flabby like those Penderecki oratorio effusions, unless contained within a tolerable time limit. Powell's work suffered from this very point where atmosphere outweighed incident (a trap which McLeod's equally Maori-ish ‘Earth and Sky’ cleverly avoided). The powerfully rhythmic third movement provided dynamism and incident as did the far less coherent fourth movement to a lesser degree but it was outweighed by the interminable static choral whispers, vowel cooing and shushing in the remaining three movements. The opening movement with its directional build-up towards two climactic chord sonorities is strongly structured and its mirror effect in the equally cohesive finale give the work a fine outer unity. The weaknesses are in the cluttered jumble of the fourth movement and more so the second movement. Its slow finicky static effects don't come off and the first movement says it all far more coherently. The strong movements (No.s 1, 3 and 5) are by far the best work Powell has produced. With pruning and also a more lucid coherence in the fourth movement, it could be a very fine work.

The following article was written for CANZONA in the late 80s (Kit)

In the last two years two features of my composition have become more prominent:
  1. the use of found and home-made instruments and
  2. the use of chance.
The first of these works was The Ever-Circling Light commissioned by the Royal Christchurch Musical Society in 1980 and first performed in July 1982. My main aim was to write a New Zealand piece about the land, its people and its weathers. I chose texts from traditional Maori poetry which would serve this purpose and arranged them in movements to show a New Zealand day as I saw it. Thus the macro-form is largely programmatic, but chance processes were used to determine details of the micro-form. I shall describe two uses of chance systems in The Ever-Circling Light which typify most other uses. The quiet introduction of “night sounds” is subdivided into “bars” whose proportions are derived from the Fibonacci Series: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 . . . . I wrote 6 of these numbers (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 34) on the sides of a die and rolled it until, calling the numbers seconds and each roll one bar, they added up to a minute and a half. The number of instruments playing at the beginning of each bar was found by rolling an ordinary die, and which instruments by rolling another.
A similar process was used in the last movement, in which each singer of the chorus (except the basses) sings only one note. The note is taken from the harmonic series of a low F and the plastic tube which each singer has is tuned to his or her note. For the whole movement (Waiata Tangi) I used random number tables to decide how many seconds each singer would alternately sing and rest. Over this pattern I imposed another pattern—like a solid inverted V (see diagram). All durations outside this V were rejected, and the voices which were thus made redundant were then required to sing the Waiata. This was chanted on one note, a D flat, especially chosen to contrast with notes in the harmonic series of the low F.

If one is to accept the critisism of Ian Dando (above), one important experimental feature of The Ever-Circling Light probably failed. The abstract voice sounds, which are heard first in the introduction, are intended as a simple fore-taste of the richer and more complex palette of fricative sounds used in Rimurimu. In the introduction one hears just ‘f’ and ‘s’ fricatives, but in Rimurimu are added ‘sh’ and ‘ch’, each being filtered by the mouth shape, between the shape for ‘i’ and for ‘u’. In the introduction the chorus is divided into two stereo groups, in Rimurimu into four groups. The text, half whispered, is superimposed (in 4-way stereo) over this, and all is heard against a background of delicate percussion sounds plus the long notes from the four solo sopranos. Some listeners responded very positively to this movement, others felt it didn't say anything new that the opening “night sounds” had not already said. This is probably a valid response, due mainly to the inability of the chorus to differentiate clearly between ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ and the half-whispered words. I now think the movement would be improved if, as well as four solo sopranos, there were four solo speakers, so that the text could be clearly projected and the chorus could concentrate on the filtering of the fricative sounds.

Photos from the final rehearsal of The Ever-Circling Light: Three of the six percussionists
Photos from the final rehearsal of The Ever-Circling Light: Three of the six percussionists
Speaker of the Karakia — Percussionist playing stones — Kit conducting The Ever-Circling Light in the Christchurch Town Hall
Speaker of the Karakia — Percussionist playing stones — Kit conducting The Ever-Circling Light in the Christchurch Town Hall

See also: Ian Whalley and Gennie Delange