2000 Music

… the improbable ordered dance …


For full orchestra

I wrote … the improbable ordered dance … in 2000 for the Auckland Philharmonia, when I was composer-in-residence with the orchestra. They gave the first performance conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya in the Auckland Town Hall on 31 May 2001.

About the work

The title comes from a fascinating essay entitled ‘The Music of this Sphere’ in Dr Lewis Thomas’s The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher.

Thomas believes that the urge to make music is as much a characteristic of biology as our other fundamental functions, and wonders what we might hear if we could experience the whole range of sound, most of which is inaudible to us, created by most living things. Thomas believes that the rhythmic sounds might be the recapitulation of something else — an earliest memory, a score for the transformation of inanimate random matter in chaos into the improbable ordered dance of living forms.

The piece grows from a quiet beginning, introducing first a cor anglais melody, contained within a close range, then a wider-ranging cello melody. A section suggesting birdsong leads into a chorale, and these ideas evolve and develop around the central energetic dance-like section before the piece moves back to silence.


… the improbable ordered dance … is scored for 3334; 4331; harp, piano, timpani, 3 percussion and strings.

Scores and recordings

Buy or borrow the score from SOUNZ.

… the improbable ordered dance … — SOUNZ

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra has released this work on CD.

Alice — CD

Listen to and watch the Auckland Philharmonia’s 2016 performance.

… the improbable ordered dance … — video

RNZ Concert recorded an NZSO performance in 2006.

… the improbable ordered dance … — audio

Kenneth Young recorded an introduction to the work for RNZ Concert.

… the improbable ordered dance ..: introduction — talk


… the improbable ordered dance … won the 2001 SOUNZ Contemporary Award.

SOUNZ Contemporary Award

Ngā haerenga

Choral music, Vocal duets and ensembles

For 2 sopranos, 2 altos, percussion and male narrator

Various texts including Bill Manhire, Ernest Shackleton and the composer

Ngā haerenga was commissioned with financial assistance from the Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council by Voiceworks. They gave the first performance in 2000 conducted by Francis Greep with Daryl Pratt (percussion) and John Pringle (narrator).

About the work

Ngā haerenga, which translates from Māori as ‘journeys’ tells stories about mythical, legendary, allegorical and actual journeys.

Part I

The piece opens with a soundscape evoking central Australia. Across the sand and rock by day and night, through heat and cold, Kuniya, the Woma python, is travelling to Uluru where she will lay her eggs. Her timeless journey spans the piece.

Part II

The second section needs some background. By perhaps 6,000 BC, because of huge glacial melting in Baffin Bay and elsewhere, the sea level had risen 120 metres over roughly 4 millennia — this is reflected in the descriptions of flooding in the creation myths of most civilisations. A tribe then living on coastal lowlands, now underwater on the Sunda shelf in Indonesia, took their language, knowledge, traditions and artifacts with them as they and their descendants moved continually to higher ground to escape the rising water, and over time spread through Asia, Europe the Pacific and America, where traces of their culture survive.

In the second section this story is briefly told and a prophetess warns her followers of the impending inundation as the water levels rise. After a continuation of the story of Kuniya, we hear in Māori the song of Kupe the legendary discoverer of Aotearoa New Zealand. In mid-ocean, Kupe, at the prow of the waka, or canoe, asks for a calm and speedy journey over the waters, travelling with dolphins and flying fish along the paths of the great whales, to the south where the sun, trapped in the net of Maui, stands still.

Parts III to V

Where the sun really seems to stand still is in Antarctica in midsummer. It is December 1914, and Ernest Shackleton is setting off in the Endeavour on his epic journey to cross the icecap. Only the first part of this 3-year series of epic journeys is told here.

The entire journey, which taxed the resources of the expedition to the utmost limit, involved being trapped in ice for 10 months until the ship was crushed by the pressure of the ice. This resulted in a trek across the ice to open water, 2 dangerous journeys in southern seas in open boats and a final march over uncharted highlands and glaciers to reach help. Thanks to Shackleton’s superb leadership, every member of the crew survived.

Over soundscapes evoking the Antarctic, the narrator tells Shackleton’s story in short excerpts from his writings. The singers elaborate the story with excerpts from Shackleton’s diary, with 2 wonderfully evocative poems by Bill Manhire, and with a quotation from Job which Shackleton tore out of his bible and kept with him throughout his ordeal.

Part VI

After the Endeavour is crushed in ice, the piece ends with an allegorical journey of the soul. In this 9th century Latin poem, a swan is flying over the ocean, lamenting his unfortunate state, his exile from dry land, his failing strength, his inability to rise above the level of the water. He calls on Orion to light his way, to sweep away the clouds. As dawn comes, his strength returns and he rejoices and praises God as he reaches dry land.

About the text

Apart from the 9th century allegory and the 2 Manhire poems, I devised the text. The background information for the second section comes from Eden in the East by Stephen Oppenheimer and Ernest Shackleton’s South was the main source for his story. The Bill Manhire poems come from what to call your child, published by Random House New Zealand in 1999.


This work is scored for solo singers, but could be sung by a choir.

Score and recording

Contact me if you are interested in seeing the score.


Listen and watch online to videos from a 2013 performance.

Ngā haerenga: Parts I-IV — video

Ngā haerenga: Part V — video

Ngā haerenga: Part VI — video

Girl with a guitar

Voice and instrumental ensemble

For mezzo-soprano, cello and piano

A setting of Ruth Dallas’ sequence of the same name

The first performance was given by Panache, in ‘Like Flowers in Rain’, a celebration of the writings of Ruth Dallas at the Globe Theatre in Dunedin as part of the 2000 Otago Festival.

About the work

Girl with a guitar sets 7 short poems taken, with the poet’s kind permission, from Ruth Dallas — Collected Poems (Otago University Press, 2000).

The subject matter, drawing largely on nature images, is reflected in the titles: Autumn Leaves, Flowering Thorn, By the Sea, Boat Moored to a Willow, The Shining Moon, Tree on the Cliffs and On the Plains.


Buy or borrow the score from SOUNZ.

Girl with a guitar — SOUNZ

Symphony: the islands by Jack Speirs

Orchestra, Collaborations

For full orchestra and baritone

Poem by Charles Brasch

This symphony by Jack Speirs was incomplete when he died in 2000. I edited the first 2 movements. It is yet to receive a public performance but the 2 movements were recorded in 2010 by the NZSO conducted by Luke Dollman with David Griffiths (baritone).


Symphony: the islands is scored for: 3*333; 4331; timpani, percussion, harp and strings.

Percussion: 3 drums, suspended cymbal and side drum

Score and recording

Buy or borrow the score, or borrow a CD of the NZSO performance from SOUNZ.

Symphony: the islands — SOUNZ

RNZ Concert has recorded the first 2 movements.

Symphony: the islands — audio