"Sometimes you hear a finished thing but other times you only know the kind of soundscape or the sound world you want and you have to find the way to get to it."

Gillian Whitehead is a prolific composer whose steady stream of works include operas, orchestral works, choral pieces, vocal and instrumental chamber compositions, solo works, pieces involving taonga puoro and compositions including improvisation.

Fourteen years in Britain and Europe firmly established her international reputation, but in 1981 she returned to her Maori and southern hemisphere roots and began a 15-year teaching career at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, taking extended periods of leave without pay to focus on composition. Today she lives on the Otago Peninsula in Dunedin, devoting herself entirely to writing; she is acclaimed as one of the most important composers in Australasia.

From 2000 to 2001 Gillian was composer-in-residence with the Auckland Philharmonia, and several first performances took place during this time, including Taurangi for flute and piano, Nga Haerenga, a work for four women singers, percussion and narrator in Sydney, The Improbable Ordered Dance, written for the Auckland Philharmonia, and Bright Silence, for solo violin, written as the competition piece for the eighteen finalists of the inaugural Michael Hill World Violin Competition.

In 2002, Hine-pu-te-hue for taonga puoro and the New Zealand String Quartet was commissioned for and played in Gillian’s Composer's Portrait concert at the NZ Arts Festival.

In 2003 Arapatiki a ‘landscape’ prelude for piano, received its first performance from Stephen de Pledge in the Wigmore Hall, London, Alice, with a text by Fleur Adcock and written for Helen Medlyn and the Auckland Philharmonia, was performed twice in Auckland, Quintet was toured for Chamber Music New Zealand by the Brisbane-based Southern Cross Soloists and Gillian’s Hineraukatauri (1999) represented New Zealand at the International Association of Women Musicians in Seoul.

During 2004 - Gillian was invited to present a concert of her music in Jakarta, and formed a group, Tuhonohono for the occasion, and Taiohi Taiao, a setting of a specially-written text by Aroha Yates-Smith, was performed by Tower Voices in the Otago Festival.

2005 saw Gillian completing a commission for the New Zealand Trio and wrote a piece for Canada's ERGO ensemble, presented with four of her pieces in two concerts in Toronto, while several performances of Hine-pu-te-hue took place in the USA. In the same year, Gillian was appointed as Composer- in- residence, at the School of Music at Victoria University, Wellington. She lived in the Thorndon house that had belonged to Douglas Lilburn, where her time was spent on various composition projects, including an opera collaboration with 2001 Laureate and filmmaker, Gaylene Preston.

2006 – Gillian continued her residency to mid-year at Lilburn House, Wellington. There were a number of performances of Gillian’s music; first performances included Karohirohi (The Shimmering of Light), in Wellington by the NZSO with Carolyn Mills as soloist, and Hineteiwaiwa, performed by Canada’s ERGO Ensemble in the Glenn Gould Auditorium, Toronto.

2007 began with the first performance of Puhake ki te rangi, written for Richard Nunns and the New Zealand String Quartet, at the Adam festival of Chamber Music in Nelson, and Chamber Music New Zealand presented two performances of Gillian’s music by Tuhonohono, in Auckland in Wellington. A documentary on Gillian was filmed by Wild Iris Productions during her year as composer-in-residence and was screened on TVONE; The Auckland Chamber Orchestra Composer Portraits Series focussed on Gillian’s work at a concert in Auckland featuring several pieces, including Hotspur. The NZSO-SOUNZ Readings played the first two movements of Symphony: The Islands, the realisation by Gillian of a symphony left unfinished by Jack Speirs at his death in 2000.

Gillian was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1999. She has won the SOUNZ Contemporary Award three times; in 1999 for the opera Outrageous Fortune, in 2001 for the improbable ordered dance, and in 2003 for Alice. In 2000 she was made an inaugural Laureate for the Arts Foundation of New Zealand, in 2003 she was awarded a D.Mus. (honoris causa) by Victoria University of Wellington and more recently she was awarded the KBB Citation for Services to NZ Music. (The Citation is presented annually to an individual or organisation in recognition of their outstanding contribution and commitment to New Zealand composition). In 2008 she was awarded a Distinguished Companion of The New Zealand Order of Merit (DCNZM) in the Queen's Birthday Honours, for services to music.

Gillian divides her time between two homes – one on the Otago peninsula, and the other at Ruakaka, on the same section where her family owned bach when she was a child.


Gillian Karawe Whitehead talks to Film Director Gaylene Preston
William Dart speaks to Gillian Whitehead about five of her different compositions.


Dame Gillian Whitehead (Laureate), interviewed by Hilary Hahn, for 'In 27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores'
Arapatiki was commissioned by Creative NZ, this work is part of Stephen de Pledge's Landscape Prelude project. All 12 works in the series were performed for the first time at the NZ International Arts Festival - 27 February 2008.
Born Hamilton, New Zealand; childhood in Auckland and Whangarei.
Studies at the University of Auckland.
Graduated BMus Hons, Victoria University.
Graduated MMus Hons,Sydney University; study at Adelaide Conservatorium with Peter Maxwell Davies.
Travels to England to continue studying with Peter Maxwell Davies, works in London composing and copying music for two years.
Pākuru performed by Pierrot Players conducted by Peter Maxwell Davies in Berlin
With the assistance of a New Zealand Arts Council grant works in Portugal and Italy. For the next seven years continues freelance composing, principally based in the UK.
Te āhua, te atārangi, string quartet, wins NZBC/APRA/NZ Music Federation competition.
Marduk for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble premiered by Fires of London,Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Appointed Composer in Residence for Northern Arts, Newcastle UK; premier of opera Tristan and Iseult (which wins the Silver Scroll, 1978) at Auckland Festival.
Hotspur the official celebration for Waitangi Day at NZ House, London Appointed Lecturer in Composition Sydney Conservatorium of Music.
Premier of opera Bride of Fortune at Perth Festival.
Short residency at School of Music Victoria University
Appointed Acting, and subsequently Alternating Head of Composition Sydney Conservatorium of Music
Mozart Fellow Otago University
Returned to New Zealand
Appointed Acting, and subsequently Alternating Head of Composition, Sydney Conservatorium of Music.
Premier of opera Bride of Fortune at Perth Festival
Mozart Fellow Otago University.
Takes early retirement. Divides her time as a free-lance composer between Sydney and Dunedin, New Zealand.
Release of CD Ipu; premiere of opera Outrageous Fortune.
Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to music; opera Outrageous Fortune wins SOUNZ Contemporary Award. 'Hineraukatauri' premiered in Atlanta.
Inaugural Arts Foundation Laureate Award; Release of CD 'Waiteata Collection of New Zealand Music Vol. 3 - Composer Portrait: Gillian Whitehead(2000-2001)'; Composer in Residence with Auckland Philharmonia. Becomes a Governor of the Arts Foundation.
SOUNZ Contemporary Award for ... the improbable ordered dance ... for orchestra
Composer Portrait concert at the NZ Arts Festival
Honorary Doctorate Victoria University; SOUNZ Contemporary Award for Alice for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. 'Hineraukatauri' represents NZ at International Association of Women Musicians in Korea.
Founded ensemble 'Tuhonohono' to perform in Jakarta.
NZ School of Music/ Creative NZ Composer in Residence; inaugural resident at Wellington's Lilburn Residence
Artsville documentary Composer in Residence by Wild Iris Productions
KBB/CANZ citation for services to New Zealand Music
Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit; Release of Puhake ki te rangi, a CD of chamber music
Artist in Residence at the Henderson House, Alexandra
Moon, Tides, and Shoreline (a book about Gillian's life) launched. Visits to Cambodia with Jack Body to research ‘O Cambodia. Leads delegation of artists to Beijing.
5 pieces played at the city of London festival. Missa Previs , Moon Tides and Shoreline, The Journey of Matuku Moana, Arapatiki and Puhake ki te rangi. O Cambodia premiered in Auckland Arts Festival. Hilary Hahn commissions ‘Torua’ for her 27 Encores project.
CD Arapatiki released by Atoll. 'No stars, not even clouds', toured by ENSO quartet.
James Wallace Arts Trust Residency at  Pah Homestead;CD Alice released by Atoll. 'Out the window breath bone feather' collaboration with Carol Brown.
'Shadows Cross the Water' premiered in Prague by the Stamic Quartet.
'O Cambodia' toured in Cambodia and China. Gillian moves north to Ruakaka.
Iris Dreaming premiered in London’s Grimeborn Festival. Portrait concert in Marienkirche, Berlin.
'Shadows Crossing Water' – CD release by Rattle of music recorded in Prague by Stamic Quartet.