Dame Gillian Whitehead was born in Hamilton, New Zealand in 1941. She studied at the University of Auckland and Victoria University of Wellington before leaving New Zealand to study in Sydney, and with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies in Adelaide. From there she travelled to Europe where she worked as a freelance composer firmly establishing her international reputation. In 1981 she began a 15-year teaching career at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, often taking leave without pay to focus on composition and explore her Maori heritage. Today she divides her time between homes on the Otago Peninsula and Ruakaka in Northland where she continues to write for, and collaborate with leading musicians in New Zealand and overseas.
Gillian is a three-times winner of the SOUNZ Contemporary Award. She has been composer-in-residence with a variety of organisations, including the Auckland Philharmonia and the New Zealand School of Music, and in 2010 was invited to be the artist-in-residence at the Henderson House in Alexandra. In 1999 Gillian was honoured with membership of the New Zealand Order of Merit and in 2000 she was an inaugural Arts Foundation Laureate. In 2003 she was awarded a D.Mus. (honoris causa) by Victoria University of Wellington and more recently she was awarded the CANZ KBB Citation for Services to New Zealand Music. In 2008 she became a Distinguished Companion of The New Zealand Order of Merit (DCNZM) for services to music.