Sounds in worlds and worlds in sounds: taonga pūoro, mimesis and composition in Aotearoa/New Zealand

Sebastian Lowe, Master’s thesis, Visual Anthropology, Aarhus University, 2016.


Walter Benjamin in 1933 suggested that ‘mimesis’ as more than just a concept, being instead an inherent human faculty, namely the ‘mimetic faculty’, which facilitates our instinctive impulse to look for the ‘similar’ and furthermore feed our desire to adapt to and momentarily assimilate with the Other by means of an ‘empathetic tie’. In this thesis I explore the relationships between the ‘wildly’ elusive ‘family’ of concepts that encompasses ‘mimesis’, and various compositional techniques used by contemporary taonga pūoro (Māori musical instruments) practitioners in Aotearoa/New Zealand. I explore how taonga pūoro practitioners improvise within the contemporary tradition, to what extent ‘mimesis’ is at ‘play’ within the musical paradigm, and if taonga pūoro practitioners harbour the ‘magical’ power of being able to transcend multiple soundworlds seen in the natural environment. I also examine how the medium of film can be used to capture mimesis at ‘play’. I concluded that the mimetic faculty is very much ‘alive’ regarding compositional approaches within the paradigm of taonga pūoro. I have also seen the potential for experimental film as a method of ethnographic enquiry: to play, improvise, and critically analyse human phenomena in conveying the “stuff of life” (Marks 2002, x).

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