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20 April 2016

Gillian Whitehead at 75: we still have stories to tell

Gillian Whitehead Image: Gillian Whitehead  
© www.gillianwhitehead.co.nz

Charlotte Wilson caught up with Dame Gillian Whitehead shortly before the composer's 75th birthday (23 April 2016). At the time of the interview Gillian Whitehead was preparing to spend more of her time in the Bream Bay area of the North Island - the return to this landscape, familiar to her from early childhood, is in many ways a return to her roots. It also means less time spent in Sydney and the company of her many close Australian friends.

This article was commissioned by our sister organisation SOUNZ and is published on Resonate by permission - see the SOUNZ 'Gillian Whitehead 75' webpage for more resources and videos.

> Auckland Philharmonia performs Whitehead's work the improbable ordered dance on 5 May 2016.

Gillian Whitehead is showing no signs of slowing down. Since her 70th birthday in 2011, which coincided with the publication of Noel Sanders' biography of her, Moon, Tides & Shoreline (read an extract on Resonate), she has held the artist residency at the Pah Homestead in Auckland and had her major new dance work PAH presented at the Auckland Arts Festival. PAH is a multi-media work, realised together with choreographer Carol Brown and visual artist Star Gossage - a collaboration from which Gillian has derived an immense amount of enjoyment. She has also had two new CDs released: a recording of her SOUNZ Contemporary Award-winning opera Alice, recorded by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; and Arapataki, a collection of chamber works for instruments and voice, ranging from her early song cycle Camelot to the recent Hinetekakara with Richard Nunns, Aroha Yates-Smith and the cross-cultural group Tuhonohono, formed especially to perform her works.

She has been travelling extensively, both in Europe, where her works are enjoying increasing support, and in Asia, where she recently presented two new transcription-based works in Hangzhou, China, at a conference in memory of Jack Body. Jack was a close friend, and Gillian worked tirelessly as one of the editors of the commemorative book Jack!, published in 2015 shortly before his death. It's strange, she says, to have him gone - and to find herself (together with Ross Harris) in the position of New Zealand's most senior composer.

Currently, Gillian has just finished a new one-woman opera, Iris Dreaming, about the life of New Zealand poet Robin Hyde. Iris Dreaming was commissioned by New Zealand soprano Joanne Roughton-Arnold, with text by Gillian's long-time collaborator and friend Fleur Adcock. She will be travelling to the UK for the London premiere in August, straight after a repeat performance of the orchestral work the improbable ordered dance in Auckland in early May. Then it's off to Berlin for a concert of her music given by the Prague-based Stamic string quartet with oboist Vilem Veverka and pianist Patricia Goodson, including a piece commissioned by EuroArt specifically for those six performers.

Gillian Whitehead has become increasingly popular in Europe since the New Zealand-Australian-focused City of London Festival 2011, when the New Zealand String Quartet presented a number of her works and the Choir of St Paul's Cathedral sang her Missa brevis of 1963 in the extraordinary space of the famous Cathedral - one of the highlights of the last few years for the composer. Frequent concerts in Prague have followed. Gillian now travels to Europe most years - she has many friends there, connections she has maintained ever since periods of living and working in London, Lisbon and Rome some 50 years ago, at the beginning of her career. This time around she plans to spend a good six weeks going to rehearsals and concerts, possibly in Denmark as well as Prague and Berlin. Travel is important: as she's said in the past, not only for broadening your horizons, but also for developing your own distinctive voice.

'Sometimes I feel that Europe is in a sort of stasis, and that they feel a necessity to find new directions without quite knowing where those directions are. Here in New Zealand we still have a multitude of stories to tell, and new things to experience, and if any country still has a lot to experience and send out into the world then it's us.'

Here at home, Gillian is returning very much to her roots with a move from Dunedin to the other end of the country, Ruakaka, some 20 minutes' drive south of Whangarei. It is the same place that her family had as a bach when she was a child, and where her parents built a retirement house, looking straight out over Bream Bay, with the Whangarei Heads and the islands, Hen and Chicken Islands and Little Barrier, in the distance: a beautiful view that has not changed in decades.

She had to sell her flat in Sydney for the purpose, a move that was something of a wrench, since she has close connections to Australia from her 15-years-plus living there, teaching at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and making life-long friends. However, it was an obvious choice. The house in Ruakaka came up for sale in 2014, and she is living there with her sister and brother-in-law - the house is large enough for them all - and upstairs is currently being renovated. This is where Gillian will be, enjoying the rather warmer climate than Dunedin and expecting it to be a fruitful place to work.

'It's my tūrangawaewae, yes [our 'place to stand', our foundation, our home]. Because it's the place I knew as a child and it's the landscape that has always been in the back of my mind.'

What will it do for her, for her work?

'That remains to be seen! I wrote the Jack Body pieces here, and they went happily and well. In terms of how I think as a composer, I don't know whether it'll change it or not.'

Gillian is also keeping her place in Dunedin, at Harwood where she has been based for the last 15 years, looking out over the salt flats that stretch at low tide towards the heads of the harbour. She will be spending her birthday down there on 23 April, with family and friends, and looks forward to having the freedom of alternating between her two homes, depending on work, and the season: ultimately she sees the cottage at Harwood as an artist residence, not knowing how long she will be staying there herself. Two homes, two beautiful views, increasing travel, excellent health and continuing commissions and premieres all over the world - it seems a fine way to celebrate being 75.

Further links

Gillian Whitehead - AMC profile
Gillian Whitehead 75 (SOUNZ)
Gillian Whitehead - homepage
'Moon, Tides & Shoreline' - extract from Noel Sanders's Whitehead biography (AMC's Resonate magazine, April 2011)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Charlotte Wilson is a NZ-based freelance writer and radio journalist.


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