04 May 2023

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Gemma Peacocke
Gemma Peacocke (Image supplied)

New Zealand Music Month will see Kiwi composer Gemma Peacocke return to Aotearoa from the United States, where she is based. Gemma will begin in Christchurch on 6 May for the South Island premiere of White Horses, with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. 

Gemma, originally from Hamilton but now calling Princeton New Jersey home, explained White Horses was a commission between the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. It premiered in Auckland in September, so this is the second outing of it in New Zealand. 

Explaining the origins of the piece, Gemma said she was asked to write something that had a ‘New Zealand sound’. 

“I wasn’t sure what that would mean for me,” she says. “That’s partly because I’ve lived away from New Zealand for such a long time and partly because I only know how to sound like me.”

She explained her approach to the brief was to explore what she refers to as New Zealand’s “cinema of unease and gothic literature”. That’s when she found the story of Viva Waud Farmar who was a WWI nurse and one of Aotearoa’s first female pilots. While a passenger in a biplane flying over the Cook Strait, Viva apparently opened the hatch and leaped out. Gemma explained that Viva was never found but the pilot recounted circling where Viva fell, and that the ocean’s surface was rough, with ‘white horses’ everywhere.

“To me, there was something captivating and obviously tragic about her sudden disappearance. And that was the image I had in my mind when I was writing the piece. It starts with a sort of deep, dark churning motif, with later sections depicting my interpretation of weightlessness and stillness.”

Gemma went on to explain the topic of her PHD thesis was cultural haunting – which clearly aligned with White Horses

Despite being a sought-after composer, Gemma didn’t grow up planning to write music. She grew up playing the violin, though she describes herself as “ill disciplined” saying she wasn’t interested in practicing the pieces assigned to her. “I was always making things up instead,” she laughs.  

Even though she went on to perform in bands and choirs for years, Gemma said she never really loved being the focus of attention. 

“So, when I discovered that composing was a job you could do and not have to be on stage... that was really how I got into it.” 

She describes the pathway as relatively straightforward, while acknowledging it has taken a long time to build a career where people commission her to compose pieces. 

A recent commission for later this year is a project called Rhythms of Change for Sydney-based internationally acclaimed percussionist Claire Edwardes and is supported by Creative New Zealand. 

Hayley Dingwall, Arts Practice Director - Music & Opera at Creative New Zealand explained the importance of supporting Gemma to contribute to this project.

“This is an initiative aimed at increasing the representation of women in classical music and specifically in the field of percussion music”, Hayley says.

“This is the second in the series and while both series focus on female and non-binary composers, this time it will feature international composers, including Gemma.”

This will be Gemma’s first piece for solo marimba. 

“We will workshop it later this year and I’m pretty excited”, she says. “Not only is Claire such an amazing player, but it's also a really difficult solo instrument to write for. It’ll be a great challenge.”

Recently Gemma worked with Henry Wong Doe, a New Zealand pianist who went to Juilliard and lives part of the time in New York. Henry was awarded a Creative New Zealand Arts Grant for his latest commissioning and recording project, Perspectives. This project features six new works for piano by New Zealand composers including a composition by Gemma. 

Perspectives will have its New Zealand premiere on 2 June. 

“There are so many cool projects which are combining those still living in New Zealand and people like me who are kind of between New Zealand and other places.” 

Another piece of work that has Gemma excited is upcoming work with Orchestra Wellington and Arohanui Strings in Lower Hutt. 

“I’ve never had the chance to write for kids before,” she said. “It’s more difficult to write music where you must think about the skill and experience level of the students. And they have smaller bodies, so you have to think about what’s possible with smaller hands. 

“I’m looking forward to meeting these young people and hearing what they love about playing their instruments.”

Gemma explained that people often think about classical music as something that's for older, often white and wealthy audiences. 

“That’s a reflection of access.  Young people these days are getting into classical music through film music and game music. There are lots of opportunities for organizations to reach a more diverse audience by exploring different ways of programming, especially programming more living composers. 

“Audiences really respond to music of our time by people who look, and sound like them.”  

When asked about her hopes for classical music in New Zealand, Gemma said she’d love to see more effort to expose more young people to classical music as a career option. 

“Growing up in Hamilton going to public schools I didn't really have any opportunities to meet professional musicians until I was in university. I didn’t have a sense of what it actually takes to be a professional musician.”

“It would be so cool to have more connections with young people. There are a lot of exciting opportunities in New Zealand for classical musicians, but there's also a big wide world where you can work. So, I’d love to see us advocating for both the music and for young people who are interested in it.”

Go to the Christchurch Symphony website to buy tickets to White Horses