Constant music - Regional News | Connecting Wellington
 Issue 210

Photo by Andrew Empson

Constant music by Alessia Belsito-Riera

16-year-old Leilani Aaron Woodmore has just become the youngest winner in the history of the Compose Aotearoa! national choral composition competition. Since 2020, Choirs Aotearoa New Zealand has invited composers across the motu – from the freshest to our most esteemed – to create a new work for a mixed four-part choir in a capella or accompanied by up to three instruments. Leilani Aaron is one of three winners in 2023.

A Year 12 at Wellington College and a member of the New Zealand Secondary Students Choir – the equivalent of being a trainee for the All Blacks – Leilani Aaron’s life has always been filled with music. We had a chat about the sound world, Compose Aotearoa!, and why music sparks so much joy in Leilani Aaron’s life.

Huge congratulations on your win. What inspired the composition?

When it came to the actual composition itself, I looked into the meaning of the text that I chose, a fishing karakia composed by this guy who is pushing out his canoe into the harbour. I wanted to recreate that sea with the voices and also paint that picture of the water and the waves and the light of the sky, etcetera.

I was told that you wanted to tie in your Hawaiian heritage as well?

Yes. I wanted to make sure that I could explore a more painting-like texture with voices and introduce Hawaiian music into not only my composition repertoire, but also, in a way, the wider repertoire.

What qualities does Hawaiian music have?

Traditional Hawaiian music is split up into two different categories from what I can tell. You have Hawaiian mele, which is comparable to waiata – it’s a more vocal song – and then Hawaiian oli, which are chants and all about the rhythm and the repetitiveness – more meditative. That’s the one I incorporated into my music.

How did you hear about Compose Aotearoa! and what drove you to enter the competition?

My neighbour was initially going to enter as well. He’s a good friend of mine. He couldn’t enter this year because his piece that he was planning to use was actually performed, and you’re not allowed to do that. But the day before, he asked, ‘How’s the piece going?’ and that was the moment I realised it was due the next day. So I spent the day doing everything: eight hours’ research, two hours’ composing.

Do you think you’ll enter more competitions in the future?

Definitely. The thing that enticed me about this competition was the fact that I knew I’d be able to get feedback. It’s one thing I always jump at the opportunity for. With this competition, the category I entered was one where the text needed to be in te reo Māori. Because it’s not something I’m so familiar with, I was excited to get feedback and grow as a composer.

Where does your love of music come from?

I’ve always grown up with music, but especially in recent years, I’ve noticed myself coming more into my own self as a musician. Being able to express myself and process emotions through music, both through the creation and performance of it.

I really started music when I was around six with the children’s choir at the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul. Slowly over time, it’s been built up with lessons with my piano teacher when I was 10, which I am still continuing now, and then just a lot of choirs as well. It’s been a constant in my life. With lots of things changing, having that one constant being music and always being able to rely on it and be able to process things has become a very integral part of who I am today.

Is there something in particular that you enjoy the most about music? Is it composing? Is it singing? Is it playing an instrument?

That’s a question I think about often and it’s always difficult to answer because it isn’t really a good comparison – they’re all very different media that you can express yourself through and they all have their own unique qualities. With composing I’m creating the image of myself completely, almost out of the blue to express who I truly am at the rawest level. There is also beauty in the performance aspect and combining that idea of myself with the previous performer but also the composer. That’s a beauty you don’t get when composing your own music because you’re combining it with yourself as opposed to with others. That joy of sharing music is something that is beautiful. But, again, they’re all unique and almost required. At least for my identity, I can’t separate the two.

Is there a specific composer or style that you enjoy?

At the moment I have been flip-flopping between two composers in my regular listening. One of them is Jacob Collier, who is a jazz composer. He’s much more on the pop side than anything I listen to, but I really enjoy his stuff and his approach to harmony and rhythm. It makes me think of a different way, especially having a traditional, more classical training.

The other is Arnold Schoenberg, who is notable for his very atonal works. In the music world there is certain music that’s considered the weirdo music, the ‘that doesn’t really sound like music, that just sounds bad’. That’s the sort of music I’m getting into, which is not for the uninitiated. At least for me, if I really wanted to appreciate it, I don’t think I could truly do that without the musical context and the history behind it.

How would you describe your style?

That is a difficult question, because looking at my recent compositions, the only thing connecting them is the fact that I composed them. One of them is Gregorian chant, which is just a single voice focusing on the melody. The harmonies are very basic because you can’t really be too explorative without breaking the structure of the music. Then I also have solo piano works, where the harmony is much more dissonant and crunchy. It’s very out there. Those two are very distant from each other, and then I also do stuff that’s in between, so it’s really hard to describe.

I’m so glad you found your niche. I hope that you continue to find a space there to express yourself and be creative.

It’s very nice to have a constant that feels like me.  

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