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Gillian Whitehead : Represented Artist

Random Audio Sample: Virgin and the nightingale : SATB choir by Gillian Whitehead, from the CD laughter of mermaids


Photo of Gillian Whitehead

Photo: Erica Murray

Since spending her formative compositional years in Europe, Gillian Karawe Whitehead divided her time between Australia, where she taught composition at the Sydney Conservatorium for 15 years (taking significant periods of leave to focus on writing music), and her native New Zealand. She is now based largely in New Zealand in her two homes - one in Dunedin, in the South, and another one Ruakaka, on the North Island.

Whitehead's honours and awards include Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM) in 2009, the KBB/CANZ Citation for Services to New Zealand Music (2007) and DMus (honoris causa) by Victoria University of Wellington (2003). In 2000, she was honoured by the Arts Foundation of New Zealand for artistic achievement as one of their five inaugural Laureates. She is a three-time winner of the APRA/SOUNZ composition competition.

In 2013, she was resident artist at the Pah Homestead (the James Wallace Arts Trust), in 2005-06 she was the CNZ/NZSM composer-in-residence, living in the Lilburn House in Wellington; and, in 2000-2001, she was composer-in-residence with the Auckland Philharmonia.

Her music has been widely performed and broadcast both nationally and internationally, and numerous pieces have been published or recorded for commercial release. Her output includes operas and monodramas, works for orchestra and other large ensembles as well as numerous chamber, choral, instrumental and solo works.

Whitehead's writing has evolved out of the modernist tradition, and has in recent years drawn significantly on improvisation and, more recently, on her Maori heritage. A significant number of pieces involve voice and text; collaboration with writers, dancers and performers is most important to her. Fleur Adcock and Anna Maria dell'Oso are the writers with whom she has most frequently worked, and her collaboration with the taonga puoro (singing treasures - the range of Maori musical instruments) player Richard Nunns has resulted in a number of pieces which combine taonga puoro with various ensembles of traditional Western instruments. An invitation to present a program of Whitehead's music in Jakarta in 2004 led to the formation of the group Tuhonohono, which presents programmes of her music influenced by Maori language and traditions.

Works composed in the 2000s include the improbable ordered dance …, written for the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (2000), Piano Trio (2005), commissioned by the New Zealand Trio, Karohirohi (2006), commissioned for the NZSO and featuring the harp; Hineteiwaiwa (2006) commissioned by Canada's ERGO ensemble; and Puhake ki te rangi (2007) for the New Zealand String Quartet and Richard Nunns. Clouds over mata au (2010) for string quartet was followed by another quartet, No stars, not even clouds (2012)

In 2011, several works by Whitehead were included in the program of the City of London festival: Missa Brevis, Moon Tides and Shoreline, The Journey of Matuku Moana, Arapatiki and Puhake ki te rangi.

In August 2016, a new one-woman opera, Iris Dreaming, about the life of New Zealand poet Robin Hyde, will receive its world premiere in London. Iris Dreaming was commissioned by New Zealand soprano Joanne Roughton-Arnold, with text by the composer's long-time collaborator and friend Fleur Adcock. The performance of the opera will be followed by a concert of Whitehead's music in Berlin, by the Prague-based Stamic String Quartet, with oboist Vilem Veverka and pianist Patricia Goodson.

Recordings of Gillian Whitehead's music include a CD of chamber music Puhake ki te rangi, released in 2007, and CDs Arapatiki and Alice released by Atoll in 2012 and 2013, respectively.


GW 2007 / AMC 2016 — current to 2016

Selected Commissions

  Work Commission Details
Piano trio (trios: piano, violin, cello) (2005) Commissioned by NZTrio.
Digital sheet music sample Taurangi : for flute and piano (1999) Commissioned by New Zealand International Festival of the Arts.
Art of pizza : opera (1995) Commissioned by Chamber Made Opera with funds from the Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council

Analysis & Media

Book: Moon, tides & shoreline : Gillian Karawe Whitehead: a life in music / Noel Sanders.

- Article: Women of note

- Document: Five Songs of Hildegarde von Bingen Song Company and Sydney Philharmonia Motet Choir 1984

- Review: Virgins and Nightingales The Song Company St James Church 29 May 1992

- Review: The Song Company Women and Music September 1994

- Review: The Song Company Viewing 30 May 1999