Q&A: Warren Maxwell

Musician and composer Warren Maxwell (Trinity Roots, Little Bushman) loves his “slice of paradise” over the Remutaka hill.

He recently composed soundscapes for Mana Moana Volume 2 Digital Ocean, a new collection of multi-media and video art by Māori and Pasifika artists.

He tells us about his biggest regret, teaching music, and making time to listen to nature.

Describe your favourite Wellington memory.

It’s from 1989 – and it is so completely etched into my memory. A friend and I came down from Whangarei,  and we were driving down Ngauranga Gorge, just where all the industrial buildings are at the bottom, and coming round that corner we saw the lights of Wellington. I just remember my heart racing and we were both just buzzing. Seeing all those lights and the foreshore – it was like this beacon of potential and possibility. A really exciting time for us, a couple of 19 year olds from Whangarei.

Where do you work and what do you like about it?

I’m a senior lecturer at Massey University in Wellington, and I mostly lecture in performance and cross over a little bit into composition. A lot of it is around concepts of music and role of music – I love having those conversations with our students. You can sort of get narrow minded or narrow sighted thinking about music today, listening to pop with a Spotify playlist. But you know I did it – watching music videos as a kid – I just wanted to be the guy who played in a band! But it has wider aspects and that’s something I really enjoy, introducing the wider functionalities with students.

We’ve got to combat the really pop-centric industry of music. We’ve got to say, hey yeah that’s great but there’re historic kinds of things, like ballads about things that happened. There’s knowledge and stories that are embedded in music and in art. Who knows, someone might write a ballad about this Covid Lockdown and in 200 years they’ll be analysing it!

I’m only up there at Massey three days a week. The rest of the time I’m in my home studio composing. I work on film scores, anything I can get my hands on really. It’s a good balance. I’m very privileged, very lucky to be in this position.

What have you always wanted to try?

I’ve always wanted to try welding! I’m a builder by trade and working with wood is fantastic but I’ve never really dabbled with the art of engineering. I love the idea of being able to make anything. If I learned how to weld I might be able to just whip something up.

What’s your biggest regret?

Not understanding or acknowledging my Māori culture earlier in life. My Mum is Tuhoe, and she’s of that generation where she was punished at school for speaking te reo. So she never taught us any of the tikanga or any of that side of our culture because of her fear of us being punished in the same way.

Now, I really feel like there’s this national acknowledgement. You know with Tiriti o Waitangi, we have this beautiful bicultural potential and this idea of getting our tikanga and Māoritanga up and recognised. I grew up with my Pakeha side and I love all of my ancestors – I’m a fruit salad! But yeah, one of my biggest regrets is not understanding and learning about my culture earlier and falling in love with it earlier.

I’m very thankful for the Māori Language Commission. Back in the 70s they made a stand – the Treaty, this is a right for us to know our language, know our tikanga. And it’s great for all of us, for all New Zealanders.

What are you listening to at the moment?

I’m listening to nature. I know it might sound a little cliched or boring, but gee it’s so peaceful. Mother Nature’s ambient music is right there you know. She’s also got a bit of death metal in there as well though as the recent storm has shown. I got to stand out by Owhiro Bay when those southerly swells were coming in and there’s your death, black metal there. Whether it’s a calm day or it’s miserable with 120 km winds coming in, it’s all cleansing.

Part of the soundscape I’ve put together for the new Mana Moana website actually includes recordings from under the ice. From Antarctica. The Ross Sea Recordings I did in 2016 were quite pivotal for this sort of tangent that I’m going on now, that my musical journey is taking me on. I went down with a visual storyteller as part of the Antarctica NZ community engagement. We recorded lots of things – the ice cracking, standing under a glacier, and the winds. But when I heard the seals under the ice – singing, like birdsong and some like synthesisers – it was a realisation, or reminder, that Mother Nature, Paptuanuku, is the original muse for all of humanity’s original compositions. Our early ancestors mimicked nature as a way of communicating with or bonding with nature.

Now it’s like, what else is out there? What other sounds are in nature. There’s all sorts to be discovered or re-acknowledged again.

What’s the best local purchase you’ve made this year?

A fishing rod. My friend just recently got me into trout fishing and I am hooked on it, excuse the pun. It’s such a therapeutic thing for me, to go out. I haven’t caught a bloody thing but it’s just the act of being physically by the river, of getting up at six o’clock in the morning and going out. Being out in nature. So, from a material purchase has come a kind of energy and wellbeing kind of thing.

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