Some commonly asked
1. What is the favourite
composition from your own music?
My favourite work of my own is
probably “The Moon is Silently Singing”. This piece (I
think) works really well and always makes a good
impression in performances. I've never been tempted to
revise it or change it. Other choral pieces I like of
mine are "Whisper You All the Way Home" (a set of three
lullabies), "Dance Song to the Creator" (a lively work
for three choirs with piano duet and percussion
accompaniment), "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day"
(for SSA and guitar - this was originally written as
part of a cycle of pieces using Shakespeare's texts),
and "Whisper to me" (for choir and string orchestra -
another lullaby text). I'm also very fond of my
orchestral piece "Elysian Fields" which has been
recorded by the NZ Symphony Orchestra.
2. What other type of music do you
like listening to - who specifically?
I find these days I get very little
time to listen to music for pleasure. It depends on my
mood at the time. I enjoy Bach and other Baroque music,
the symphonies of Sibelius, music by Vaughan Williams,
various choral pieces and so on depending on how I feel.
Also the composers mentioned below. I'm not a great fan
of jazz, and don't listen to a lot of rock music these
days. What music do I NOT like - that's an easy one: rap
and most hip-hop!
3. What is your favourite piece by
My favourite work by another
composer tends to change from time to time. I very much
like the music of JS Bach, especially the orchestral
music. My other favourite composers come from the 20th
century: Charles Ives (American composer of early in the
century), Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams have
all influenced my style (the group of composers known as
'minimalists'). More recently I have become very
interested in the music of Michael Torke, Robert Moran,
and Aaron Jay Kernis (American composers). I like the
music of Scottish composer James MacMillan - often quite
challenging and dissonant music, but very intense and
dramatic. Recently I've been discovering the music of
Esa-Pekka Salonen, a Finnish composer who is also a
highly regarded conductor with the Los Angeles
Philharmonic, and also some of the 'mid-career' British
composers such as Jonathan Dove.
4. Why do you write mainly choral
Because I enjoy doing it. I like
setting words to music. I enjoy singing in choirs and
currently sing with Auckland Choral. I was a
foundation member of the National Youth Choir. I used to
conduct choirs at school (Epsom Girls Grammar School)
and have been a tutor for the NZ Secondary Students
Choir. Recently (2008-2012) I conducted St Mary's
Schola at St Mary's College in Auckland. I've been
invited to Japan twice and to Hawaii to be an
adjudicator at choir competitions, in 2009 travelled to
Argentina to adjudicate at a choir contest, and in 2012
and 2013 was an adjudicator at the eisteddfod in
There are lots of choirs around,
and choirs seem to be more interested in performing
contemporary music than instrumental groups. I enjoy
writing for amateur performers. Most communities have a
choir so there's lots of scope for selling music too! I
also enjoy working with and conducting community choirs
- so usually a Hamilton piece appears on the programme
of music I'm conducting.
Most of the pieces I've had performed overseas are choir
works, and the only music that I've had published and
recorded overseas is choir music.
5. Do you prefer choral music to
writing instrumental music?
Given a choice I would prefer to
write for choirs - I enjoy setting words to music.
6. Why are so many of your choral
pieces sacred music?
Actually it's not a significantly
larger proportion of my choral music that's sacred.
Music with a text can be divided into two broad types:
sacred and secular (non-sacred). I enjoy writing both
types. Sacred pieces are often useful to choirs if they
want to sing in a church service, and a number of my
sacred pieces have been written for church choirs or for
school choirs with a significant involvement with church
services (such as many of the private schools). Usually
it's just a matter of what text I find that I
particularly like. I enjoy looking for interesting texts
to do with Christmas, although many choirs in New
Zealand have stopped singing by the Christmas holiday
7. What is your own musical
I began learning the piano when I
was six years old. I went through all the grade
examinations for piano and theory for Trinity College. I
started working on the ATCL diploma when I came to
Auckland to university, but I soon realised I didn't
have the time to do enough practice for it. So I
switched over to a purely theoretical diploma: the
AMusTCL diploma. In 1985 I made a submission for the top
Trinity College diploma: FTCL and was granted that (in
composition of course!). I never thought I had the
talent, or the desire, to be a solo piano performer.
I hold Master of Music and Bachelor
of Arts degrees from Auckland University. My main area
of study in Music was in composition and I also took
related papers in orchestration, analysis, contemporary
music, electronic music and so on.
8. Can composers make a living just
It's really really hard to make a
good living as a composer. You need to have a lot of
music being regularly performed. From performances you
get paid "royalties" - money for the right to use your
music. However this is never a lot of money! Another way
of making money from composing is through "commissions".
This means people asking you to write something, and
signing a contract with you to pay you a fee when it's
finished. New Zealand's arts council Creative New
Zealand often helps pay for commissions. You can find
Creative NZ at: www.creativenz.govt.nz
Most composers tend to have another
job - either full-time or part-time. I taught at Epsom
Girls Grammar School from 1981 to 2001,although I had
two years on leave in 1999 and 2000. During 1999 I was
with the Auckland Philharmonia as their
Composer-in-Residence. That meant I was paid to be able
to concentrate on writing music for a year. In return I
wrote them a major orchestral piece ("Leukos") and also
some smaller pieces for their lunchtime chamber music
A third way of making money from
music is to have music published (which means that
people will buy it and perform it). I've had works
published by several overseas publishers. There's not
really a music publishing industry in New Zealand.
9. Where do the ideas for your
compositions come from?
If I'm writing music which involves
voices (choir music or solo songs) then the text gives
me strong ideas. The music I write has to reflect the
mood and style of the words, and also the words give me
rhythmic ideas. When you set words, the natural accent
of the music must match the natural accent of the words.
Purely instrumental music will
sometimes come from a visual or literary idea, or from a
musical idea. Musical ideas might be a short rhythm, or
a melodic fragment, or a series of chords (harmonies).
Sometimes I might be trying to write using a particular
10. How important in your music is
the musical style known as "minimalism"?
As mentioned above, I enjoy the
music of composers who would be classified as
"minimalists". I like the repetitive rhythmic energy of
the style, and the fact tat the music is never afraid to
be quite strongly tonal when it needs to be. Much of my
instrumental music written from the mid-1980s onwards is
heavily influenced by minimalism. It is usually quite
rhythmic, often reasonably fast moving, and basically
tonal (in a key). That doesn't mean the music is never
discordant - sometimes the music can be quite dissonant
and angular. I've never been completely drawn to styles
such as serial music, which I find quite limiting.
With choral music it is harder to
use a minimalist style because one has to be aware of
the text and maintaining the meaning of the words.
Repetition of text can sometimes make the words
meaningless or simply nonsense, so choral minimalism has
to be handled a little more carefully. Even an early
work such as "The Moon is Silently Singing" (written in
1985) shows some elements of minimalism in the small
number of chords used, and the repetition of harmonies -
often passed back and forth from one choir to the other.
Minimalism is often characterized by slowly changing
harmonies and this is certainly a feature of much of
this particular choral piece.
11. Your piece "Didn't it rain" is
widely performed and studied. What is its background?
"Didn't it rain" was written for a
small vocal group of 5 singers. Organised by noted
choral conductor John Rosser, they performed under the
name Quintessence, and gave occasional concerts for
several years in the early 1980s. The piece was written
for them. It was not formally commissioned, but just
written for a group of friends who enjoyed singing
together. I wanted to write a piece that was enjoyable
to sing, and immediately accessible for an audience. It
uses several musical ideas that featured in my choral
music at that time (1982): lively rhythms with irregular
time signatures (5/8, 7/8 etc), simple chords moving in
parallel movement, strongly tonal music but with
occasional 'side-steps' onto unexpected chords, and a
preference for 5-part (SSATB) choral textures. The text
is a traditional American one, re-telling the biblical
story of Noah and the flood. The text is:
Now didn't it rain, chillun,
God's gonna 'stroy this world with water,
Now didn't it rain, my Lord,
Now didn't it rain, rain, rain.
Well, it rained forty days and
it rained forty nights,
There wasn't no land nowhere in sight,
God sent a raven to carry the news,
He histe his wings and away he flew.
Well, it rained forty days and
forty nights without stopping,
Noah was glad when the rain stopped a-dropping.
God sent Noah a rainbow sign,
Says, 'No more water, but fire next time.'
They knocked at the window and
they knocked at the door,
They cried, 'O Noah, please take me on board.'
Noah cried, 'You're full of sin,
The Lord's got the key and you can't get in.'
12. In 2012, Auckland Choral
commissioned "The Necessary Rain". This work, for
soprano solo, choir and orchestra, sets a text from Bill
Sewell's cycle of poems "Erebus". These relate to the
crash of the Air New Zealand sight-seeing flight in
Antarctica in 1979. David Hamilton was asked some
questions about the process of writing this piece, and
his answers are reproduced here....
How do you deal with that first
blank page in front of you? Do you come to the piece
with ideas already buzzing around? Do you start with the
larger architecture, or with smaller motifs? Do you
write at the piano or at a manuscript paper covered
Writing anything with text means
that text selection is the first step. Sometimes that
takes time, and sometimes there is a text waiting around
that has been in line to be set. With “The Necessary
Rain” I knew I wanted to return to Bill Sewell’s texts,
and it was a matter of deciding which one. The text
therefore gives a shape to the work. These days I
generally start at the piano but soon move to the
computer which has a music keyboard attached anyway. I
see composition a little like a sculpture – manipulating
sounds and moving things around until one is satisfied.
Sometimes working instinctively, sometimes in a more
How does it feel to watch a
piece coming together at rehearsal, especially when part
of the choir?
Sometimes frustrating, sometimes
exciting. One has an idea of the final sound in one’s
head, and it can be a little nerve-wracking when that
doesn’t happen immediately. As a composer you have to be
patient while the choir learns the notes, and starts to
feel confident with the score. It’s also interesting to
hear the reactions that choir members give you – usually
positive! Maybe they are too polite to make negative
comments to me!
“The Necessary Rain” is based on
texts relating to the Erebus crash in 1979. Did the
crash have any personal meaning for you?
I was at university at the time of
the crash, and, like most New Zealanders, I can remember
the evening when word came through that the plane must
have come down as it had run out of fuel. The parents of
a school friend were on the plane, but other than that I
was not directly touched by the event. It was just one
of those defining moments in the life of the country.
What were the main challenges in
writing this work? Did the initial vision/inspiration
change much during the writing of it?
The main challenge with a choral
work, once you’ve selected a text, is trying to do
justice to the words. I knew I wanted to set another of
Bill Sewell’s poems from the “Erebus” cycle, and that
the soprano would take the largest role in presenting
the text. The addition of the “Lux aeterna” text came
some way in the composition process, and means that the
choir sings almost nothing of Sewell’s text. They
feature more like a Greek chorus, commenting on the
text. While I do some very general initial planning,
things tend to evolve as work progresses, and final
shape of the piece is a little different to what I had
Do you have any particular
expectations or concerns about the performance of this
The choir has some difficult
entries where they have to pitch their music quite
quickly out of a complex texture. Also, as far as the
orchestra goes, I’m a little concerned about the Celesta
which has a large role in the piece – I hope I’ve got
the balance of sound right! I do know that Ursula
Langmayr will do a wonderful job with the solo part, and
she has already indicated she likes the piece.
You’ve written a number of works
for Auckland Choral over the years. What are the main
challenges in writing for them?
Being a singing member I know what
will work well for the choir. For instance I know it’s
not advisable to divide the tenors (always low in
numbers) and that the altos can be relied on to produce
a lovely sound (so they get some nice bits to do!). I am
also concerned to write a work the choir will enjoy
performing and which they will feel some ownership of.
As a choral singer I think I have a good idea of how to
use the voice effectively.
Are you still intending to
complete the opera for which you said “The Necessary
Rain” and “Breaking the Quiet” were the beginning steps?
I would like to complete an opera,
but it is a major undertaking, especially if there is no
guarantee of a performance! At the moment I could see
myself working on it as time allows around other
projects, but should a complete work be formally
commissioned then I would love to have the luxury of
time to work more consistently on the score. “The
Necessary Rain” is probably most of the final act of the
proposed opera – a kind of epilogue.