Photo: Whare Ra Temple used with permission of MTG Hawke’s Bay.
The actor Cliff Curtis, composer Phil Dadson and authors Damien Wilkins and Georgina White discuss the importance of discovery in the process of creating new performances or writing. Justin Gregory is in the chair. Recorded in association with the Arts Foundation.
No-one quite knows what went on, or at least they said they don’t
For all of the panellists in the Napier edition of You Call this Art, creating new work involves being open to discovery, with all the tolerance of uncertainty it entails.
The actor Cliff Curtis, famous for his role in Once Were Warriors and starring in The Dark Horse which is making a name for itself in international festivals and award competitions, certainly agrees. His risk-taking as an actor in the roles he has undertaken is possible, he thinks, because of the stability of his home life.
The author Damien Wilkins was struggling with a play script based on the final period of the life of the English writer Thomas Hardy, until he chanced on the idea of converting it into a novel (called Max Gate, after the author’s country house where he died in 1928).
A different kind of country house was at the centre of history hidden from view in the Hawkes Bay at exactly the same time.
In the 1980s, when two teachers bought the imposing Havelock North residence called Whare Ra, an and crafts house designed in 1912 by James Chapman-Taylor, they discovered a large cast-iron door. Prising it open, they encountered an extraordinary sight – a seven-sided concrete cell seven metres wide, hand-painted in vivid colours, and entirely covered in symbols of planets, elements, and astrology. This was the inner sanctum of the Stella Matutina, or Morning Star, a clandestine occult order led by English doctor Robert Felkin, for whom the house was built.
Napier curator and historian Georgina White was intrigued by this discovery, and the decades in which the elite of Havelock North’s population entered this sealed cell to meditate on symbols, to invoke, commune with, and supposedly travel to the astral realm.
“No-one quite knows what went on in Whare Ra,” says White. “Or at least they said they don’t.”
Since the 1970s, the artist and composer Phil Dadson has been devising what he calls sound stories, designed to complement his music by providing for the reader an experience as close as close as he can make it to listening to one of his compositions.
He recalls sleeping overnight on a marae:
“Well before dawn, I’m awakened by an old man reciting a karakia, a sacred Ringatu chant accompanied by an orchestra of 100 people snoring. A vocal solo over a dense tide of harmonic breathing, as if ancestor spirits are communing on the breath of the living.”
When he was working near Hokitika on a film about the notorious murderer Stan Graham, he explored dry old river courses in the breaks and discovered flat rounds of schist magically flecked with silver. If they were the right size, he found he could make them sing by holding one flat in the palm of his hand and oscillating the other stone on it.
He has gone on to develop these stone songs into an impressive repertoire of improvisations, saying “The stones chatter with voices resonant of water-worn histories.”
- Phil Dadson biography
- Phil Dadson and the nine dragon heads at the Venice biennale
- The 2014 S3D festival - experimental musical instruments and improvisers
- Sound Full exhibition
- Phil Dadson interview
- Whare Ra Temple
- War brides of WWII
- Old photo sparks voyage of discovery - Hawkes Bay Today article
- MTG wins national award - on the MTG website
- Damien Wilkins biography
- Damien Wilkins about the AK Writers Festival 2014
- Playing Favourites with Damien Wilkins
- Damien Wilkins about his novel Max Gate
- Thomas Hardy's house Max Gate - on the National Trust website
- Book review: Max Gate
- Drinking Games