Coral chorus

Summit + Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra

Text Ikaika Hussey
Art Solomon Enos
Thread music

The Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra, formerly known as the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra, was founded in 1900. The symphony is the second oldest orchestra in the United States west of the Rocky Mountains. Originally housed in a clubhouse on the slopes of Punchbowl, the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra now plays from the Neal S. Blaisdell Concert Hall in downtown Honolulu.

Anders Paulsson is a prolific composer, and is widely recognized as one of the finest soprano saxophonists in the world. He is also a diver and conservationist with a focus on reef preservation. Paulsson visited Hawai‘i in 2016 for the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS), and it was at this gathering of biologists, environmentalists and caretakers that a Native Hawaiian scientist taught him about the Kumulipo, a Hawaiian creation chant that explains, cosmologically, how mankind evolved from ancestral species like the coral polyp. Paulsson was so inspired by this experience that he decided to write a special piece of music to honor the wisdom encapsulated in the chant, blending his love of music with his passion for preserving our ocean ecosystems.

Summit (S): How did you first discover the Kumulipo?

Anders Paulsson (AP): I helped to found an NGO called Coral Guardians with some researchers from the Stockholm Resilience Centre in 2014. We attended the 13th ICRS and, as we were meeting people at the Kewalo Marine Laboratory, a doctorate student named Narissa Spies, who is Native Hawaiian, introduced me to some oli and prayers and to the Kumulipo itself. She explained that these oli of permission are required protocol before you go down and take a sample of coral. I thought that was very poetic and beautiful.

When she explained to me that the Kumulipo regards the coral polyp as the most basic unit of life, I felt great inspiration. So the creative spirit started to work. I asked for a meeting with the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra (HSO) executives and they were quite interested in the idea of composing an ode to the Kumulipo, and from then on it just started growing.

S: Tell me about your creative process: how did you go about composing the piece?

AP: I have a deep awe and admiration for the actual sacred chant. I asked my mentor, a Hawaiian cultural specialist named Aaron Mahi, if he would allow me to record him performing the chant in a sacred place of his choosing. It was December, and he told me that he needed to seek permission from his kūpuna, because it’s a very sacred chant and it’s not something to be taken lightly. By Christmas Eve he had received permission. The next day, on Christmas morning, we went down to the Kewalo peninsula, the same place I had first met Narissa, and I recorded him sharing the chant.

My intention with this is to have the musical piece reflect on the chant, and build on it respectfully. This whole endeavor is, in a way, an attempt at reconciliation and a meeting of cultures. He allowed me to record him, and it was very moving. Looking out across Waikīkī, I contemplated the knowledge that so much marine life has been decimated—but I was reminded that there is still the potential for resilience, of nature coming back. It was a profoundly moving experience: to hear the power of the chant as an invocation of the resurrection of life.

We also made a special video for New Year’s Day. The video shows Aaron chanting at sunrise, on the East end of O‘ahu, at midday on the North Shore of O‘ahu, and then sunset at the West end. This January 1 video was designed to “anchor the endeavor in the cosmos,” as Aaron put it. Once I got back to Sweden, everyday I would first take about an hour to just be still and to become as receptive as possible and then I would listen to the chant and get to work and see what would grow from it. It was a very organic process, and I wanted the spirit of the Kumulipo to really be as deeply entwined with the music as possible. It’s for a Western symphony orchestra but, for instance, the inclusion of the pahu drum, with its shark skin and its deep sound, invoking the spirit of the ancestors, is like this processional that carries the whole piece.

A leading Swedish composer came to me for help on instrumentation and notation and, after listening to the piece, he said: “Wow this is an amazing form. How did you succeed?” And I told him that it’s not me. The form I had achieved came from the architecture of the Kumulipo itself. And that’s true: the architecture of the piece is built around 17 wā, or segments of time, and 13 invocations of partnership and guardianship between land species and the species in the sea, just as it is in the chant. All this connection is mirrored with instrumental duets within the orchestra, and all of that just grew out of the Kumulipo.

S: Tell me about the soprano saxophone.

AP: I started on the tenor sax and then moved to alto and I was climbing higher and higher in register, and my colleagues and friends at the Manhattan School of Music told me that if I was going to play up there, I might as well play soprano. The soprano is acoustically different from other saxophones, being a straight air-column. It has more relation to the oboe and the clarinet and the flute, which makes music written for those instruments quite accessible to the soprano saxophone. My vision is to really establish the soprano sax as a classical concert soloist instrument. I try to be in constant evolution.

S: How did you become interested in coral reef preservation?

AP: I volunteered as a diver for Coral Cay Conservation in the Philippines, some 20 years ago, and my job was to count coral species along the shipping lines to gather data about reef loss. The work was very meaningful: the area later became a marine sanctuary that’s been recognized as the best-managed reef in the Philippines. I’ll be going back to the Philippines soon—for the fifth time now—to play benefit concerts there for the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation. We, as musicians, have the opportunity to act as a catalyst to bring people together—scientists, decision-makers and community members—to facilitate more creative and constructive talks. So that has become a great source of passion and joy for me.

S: This idea of translating from an oral tradition—the Hawaiian language—to a totally different format, this 12-tone orchestral form that doesn’t exist in the Hawaiian musical context or the traditional realm of Hawaiian oli and mele is fascinating. Moving that into a 12-tone language, with a totally different timbre and sound, and also setting—because the traditional oli would only have been heard by a few people, it would not be performed in front of the masses—reminds me of the process of translating a book into a film or some other medium.

AP: It’s been an inspiring process, and very intuitive too I might add. I wasn’t guided by intellectual frames as much as daily listening and really trying to get the vibe and the feeling of the chant. This idea that we are a globalized society, and how can our cultures meet in respectful ways that honor tradition and celebrate the differences and the connectivity, brought a deep sense of fulfillment to me, to be trusted with this. Before I met Aaron in person, I told him about my vision and that HSO was receptive to the idea. He replied with a formal letter of invitation for me to come study with him, and I secured a grant to come to Hawai‘i. But he had to spend some time with me before he could decide if he trusted me. But, once he did decide to trust me, it was an unconditional kind of trust, as if—suddenly—I was a part of his family.

I also really like the idea of putting an indigenous cultural element into the role of soloist in an orchestra. Because, in Western music, that position is the crown jewel. To honor native culture by putting Aaron in the soloist spot—to have him perform the chant live in the concert setting—is pretty radical in some ways. But it just feels right to me.

S: So this piece is roughly 16 minutes long, and it encompasses the first wā a of the Kumulipo. Are you planning on writing additional pieces that will involve the subsequent wā as well?

AP: I think that might be beyond my scope. But I’m incredibly grateful that JoAnn Falletta, the conductor, instantly decided to adopt the piece and to program it the following season. All through the composing process, it was an act of faith. I didn’t have a literal contract or commitment from the orchestra. They said, “well this sounds interesting” [laughs]. And, really, I was so absorbed by it that I didn’t even find time to find funding. But after centuries of Western cultures abusing native cultures around the world, I was very conscious of making sure that I didn’t become another Westerner taking something from a native culture and making a profit. So I treated it like a donation. The reward is the inner-fulfillment, so to speak, and it’s up to Native Hawaiians what they want to do with it.

S: Are you also planning to have it performed in your native Sweden?

AP: Well, it is arousing some interest. I’ve given the score to both the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra for consideration, and they’re both eagerly awaiting the sound and video recording from Hawai‘i before they decide. But, as Aaron says, every culture in the world has its own creation story. This is the Hawaiian one, but it’s a way for all of us to reconnect to where we come from. This kind of cultural bridge-building—it’s a symbol of reconciliation. But even symbols can mean a great deal.

Music is not just about the art of it, it’s also about the social impact of bringing people together. That makes it even more fulfilling. Most of my life, I’ve been this concert and concerto soloist, which is fun and exciting, but with music having this message of peace and reconciliation and bridge-building, it makes the experience more relevant. And since I’m advocating for coral reef preservation and ecosystem preservation, it’s all about how we relate to the Earth and interact with it.

The Kumulipo clearly states how every species, every single living organism, is our ancestor, and so the coral polyp is our ultimate parent, and all living things are to be respected as our parents. That level of awareness is what the scientific community calls “back-to-the-future management.” Meaning that we use the skills and technology of today, but we intertwine it with the wisdom of the past and of native cultures. I see great beauty in that.

And it’s essential, because we need to reconnect with the biosphere as stewards of the land. Hawaiians had a very clear vision and knowledge of what it took to take care of the land so that it takes care of us—not taking more than it can regenerate. We all need that reconnection. In spite of all the troubles we’re experiencing these days, I see a lot of wonderful examples of people reconnecting to the Earth, and realizing the harmony that we can have if we choose to.


Summit is Hawaii's magazine of ideas and style for the global citizen. We're named for Queen Kapiolani's motto, "kulia i ka nuu," strive for the summit. Summit is available on fine newsstands throughout North America and the Asia-Pacific region.

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Ikaika Hussey
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