Ways of Looking and Listening

"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 Karawe Whitehead talks to Film Director Gaylene Preston 


GP         Let's talk a bit about your writing.  Do you find you've got work that sits on your shoulder?

GW      Every piece I start is like starting from scratch.  It ought to get easier as time goes on but it doesn't. I know last year I was writing an orchestral piece and I was realising it was 12 years since I'd written for orchestra.  In my other writing my style had changed considerably.  What was going to happen when I started writing the new piece for orchestra?  This was around the time I received the Arts Foundation Laureate award, and I was thinking oh, I've got to write a really good piece, and I was really nervous about writing it. It seemed to take me an awfully long time to get started on it and when the piece was finished, I thought well - yes I could still write for orchestra and I could adapt what I was doing, but there was that awful time for a few weeks when I just wondered whether I could do it.

GP       How do you decide what to do next?

GW      I'm usually commissioned to write, and most commissions I've been asked to do I have accepted because there's always something about them that makes me think in a different way.  When I was asked to write a piece (Taurangi) for flute and piano, for instance, I started by thinking how I could combine the sound world of the two quite disparate instruments and consequently how the piece should be structured, so that the ensemble and the length of the piece are the first determining factors of how the piece will be.

Taurangi, for flute and piano, was commissioned by the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts and was premiered by flutist Bridget Douglas and pianist Rachel Thomson in March 2000. Taurangi was singled out by composer and critic Michael Norris as one of the standout pieces of Douglas and Thomson's recital:

‘This is a work that transforms from moving elegy to something far more otherworldly. Douglas wrought spine-tingling sounds through harmonic overblowing while Rachel Thomson created a dark, shimmering environment from inside the piano.'

GP       If a piece wasn't commissioned, you'd have to define its parameters yourself anyway, wouldn't you?

GW      Of course. I suppose there are a few pieces I've written where the controlling factors have not come from outside in some way.  Obviously if I'm setting words the text is a major determining factor.

GP       When you write without the controlling factors being defined by anything other than your own internal system, how does that work for you? 

GW      It's a while since I've been in that situation in that if there's been a piece I've particularly wanted to write, then I work with people involved - writers, performers, producers and so on - to put those determining factors in place.

Writing Places

GP       Do you find that where you're writing affects what you're writing?

GW      I know the place I prefer to write is on the Otago Peninsula because it's quiet there - there's natural sound, and usually that's the only sound there.  Once years ago I'd been living and working in London for some years and then I moved to Northumberland where I had a cottage on the moors, where I found there were certain sounds that I'd been able to write perfectly happily in an urban environment that I could no longer write because they were alien in that place.  And I found I was very much aware of the sounds of the birds and the wind. It was probably around about then that those sounds started to come into my writing.  It wasn't exactly conscious, but I could look back later and see that it had happened.

"Matuku Moana (or matuku waiwai) is the white-faced heron, commonly found in New Zealand, which originated in Australia. While writing the piece, I had in my room a large wooden sculpted heron, quite assertive, which was something of a focus for me at the time. Shortly afterwards, moving to the Otago Peninsula before the piece was finished, there were many such herons. One day I saw 25 in a macrocarpa tree outside my window."

GP       So it's not as though you hear a finished idea and then put it down, or do you hear it?

GW      Sometimes I hear a finished idea but at other times I only know the kind of soundscape or the sound world I want, and I have to find the way to get to it.  One way I've worked is by setting up a pattern of pitches that stretches my imagination as I need to build something that can involve them all in a musical way. Sometimes even within a single piece there are some bits that I know very clearly and other parts that I have to explore, that may take a lot of time to get right.  In a couple of pieces I've written recently, it's been difficult to determine where the piece starts.  I started working on the piece and thought no, it starts further back, so I go further back and then I write something that encompasses that bit and the next bit - but no, it starts even further back.  And that's been quite a new experience for me. Because in the past I could always start at the beginning and go on from there. But now the question seems to be, just how far back do I have to start?

New & Evolving Things

GP       Do you have any favourite pieces?

GW      I'm sure any artist would agree that there are some pieces that work really well and that you're really happy with and others that you're not so pleased with.  But that has a lot to do with the fact that you're continually evolving so that something you do in one piece which may be quite insignificant may become a central issue in another piece or three, then become less important in the next and then disappear.  So that you're always bringing new things into your ways of working, and those will automatically displace other things you've been working with previously, so that each subsequent piece is different. Some of them will work well, and others not quite so well but you couldn't have the ones that work well without the other ones that you're not quite so happy with.

GP       Yes you have to have the lot.

GW      Yes and probably you're your own sternest critic anyway.  I mean something that I may feel - oh I'm not really happy about that at all, why did I do that, it just doesn't work, is something that no one else would ever notice.

Strength & Simplicity

GW      When I was in London in the ‘70s I was writing pieces that were very difficult to perform.  There was, one for instance, which was based on the Tower of Babel, and it was a huge, huge project for three 8-part choirs, soloists and orchestra. In the text, which I compiled myself, I tried to get examples from all the language groups in the world, which I didn't quite manage but I learnt a tremendous amount about the structure of languages! Making the intricacies of the structure work musically was a huge, huge challenge.  The piece is quite unperformable because it would be phenomenally difficult to play and far too expensive to put on. Round about that time, I wrote a number of very difficult pieces but because I wrote those I was able to write what I wrote later.  I developed a strong technique and then I could spend the rest of my composing life playing with it, and simplifying it. 

The Warp & The Weft

GP       So that now you're able to approach it more like a weaving and have plenty of possibilities.

GW      Images of weaving have always been really strong for me in music.  I've often thought that the music I was writing, particularly perhaps in the 70's but not only then, was more to do with weaving patterns than anything else.  That was the way I described it then.

GP       The warp and the weft - can you define what they are?

GW      I'm not sure which is the warp and which is the weft but one of them would be technique, the ways of filtering things, and the other is content.  I suppose it's form and content, or technique and inspiration, or art and craft, or however you want to define it, all interwoven.  And when the two are in balance, that's your best work. 

Ways of Looking & Listening

GP       You were saying things come in and they go away over time.  What have been those kinds of things for you?

GW      Often ways of looking at things technically, I suppose, and environmental change.  For a long time when I was living in Europe I was working with ideas that came out of magic squares.  A magic square would be a numerical sequence, say 1 to 25 or 1 to 36 where you have the numbers vertically, horizontally, diagonally all adding up to the same number.  I was playing round with this one day because I think play often sparks the most creative ideas, and I wondered what would happen if you - given the fact that you've got 12 notes in the tempered chromatic scale - attached notes to the numbers in a magic square.  When I looked at the resulting diagram, there were the most wonderful symmetries, musical symmetries, built in to the structure of the squares.  I just couldn't believe how beautiful those structures were and I thought well, I wonder if I can start using these patterns to write with?  And it worked, it helped me write the music I wanted to write. 

Then, still in Britain, I found living in a rural environment made me aware of sound in a different way. There were certain sounds I could no longer use - they were too harsh.

After I came back to this side of the world I continued using the magic squares to generate material, but then I started breaking them down. In one opera when I needed something random-sounding, I found a new way of working that led me into the amazing patterns found in prime numbers. So the next few pieces use both techniques, side-by-side and in combination.


Then I started wanting something far more random again, so I started working with improvising musicians, in pieces like Ipu, and in subsequent pieces there are structured sections and sections that are improvisational in character. 

Through working with Richard Nunns, who improvises on a range of Maori instruments (taonga puoro), I was led into a new soundworld, with organic and subtle and tiny sounds that have very much to do with the natural sounds of this country as it was before colonisation. And then these sounds found their way into more structured music again.

 So I'm constantly evolving new ways of exploring the material and transforming it, and I never know what the next change will be or when it will happen!


GP       I want to ask you about your whakapapa.

GW      My iwi is Ngai te rangi. My turangawaewae would have been at Oponui on Rangiwaia off Matakana Island, but the people left the area long ago.

My great grandmother Huihana married the first white man to come to the area.  If the stories are to be believed, and I imagine they are, when she was 13 she was betrothed to an aged chief, and her mother had her kidnapped/rescued by John Calloway and she lived at The Elms in Tauranga until she married him when she was sixteen. The name Karawe which I've taken as my middle name is the Maori version of Calloway.  They married and went and lived at Kikowhakarere just north of Coromandel in what I believe was the first wooden house (built of pit-sawn kauri) in the Coromandel. It's still standing.

GP       So we're talking when?

GW      We're talking the 1850's.  Huihana died quite young and had six children.  My grandmother was one of the younger members of the family and my father was the youngest of her children, so in fact my great grandmother would have been alive at the time of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi which is really not so long ago. 


GP       Tell me a little bit about your mother and father.

GW      My father was away at the war for the first four years of my life - I think he was there for my first 6 months but I don't remember!  He came back to Auckland and we moved up to Whangarei when I was six and my sister Joyce was born shortly after that.  When I was small in Auckland my mother and I were very close - I was all she had to focus on - so we had a very close relationship with just the two of us. At night she'd put me to bed and play the piano so for me that was a continuation of that relationship.   In Whangarei my father taught music and conducted choirs, in Whangarei, Waipu and occasionally elsewhere. He also imported music.  During the 50's and 60's he was importing scores by Stockhausen and Boulez that you would never be able to buy in this country now.  He had a most wonderful collection of music that he used to sell by mail order and through the country.  It didn't mean that much to me as a child but later I realised the value of it. 

GP       So much for the cultural desert we were all meant to be living in.

GW      And if ever the National Orchestra, as it was then, came to town we'd have all the players coming up the hill to buy scores and so on. I've never seen a collection in a shop in this country that comes anywhere near the music that he had there.  My mother was a good pianist and she taught a few very good students and did a lot of playing in the town, and was the official pianist for the radio station which was 1XN. Those were the days when every radio station in the country had its grand piano and its recording studio and did live broadcasts several times a week.  The most wonderful training ground for people and now we've got only one studio in Auckland - and that's it!

GP       How old were you when you did your first radio broadcast?

GW      I seem to remember playing in some kind of string ensemble, which probably sounded fairly appalling, when I was 13 or 14. I don't know to what extent such a tradition exists now.  Hardly at all, I think.  These were the days when everybody sang around the piano or whistled in the street. It's amazing now to remember the amount of live performance that happened in a town like Whangarei in those years, before television.

Early Memories/Growing Up

GP       When did this all start for you?

GW      The first pieces I can remember writing was when I was at high school in Whangarei.  My father had a choir there and I can remember writing a piece of music and they sang part of it, which I found very exciting.  It was probably when I finished university that I began to realise that writing music was what I wanted to do. In the late 50's early 60's composing wasn't a thing that anyone would choose to take up as a career.  It took quite a while before I worked out that I didn't want to do anything else!

GP       I remember you told me about very early childhood memories -

GW      The earliest things I can remember relate to sound.  When I was a child I could put myself in a situation where there was something very soft and dark and comforting close to my face and a kind of watery whooshing sound. It was only a long time later that I realised it must have been pre-birth memories that I could recall then that I'd use to put myself to sleep. Also, my mother would put me to bed and play the piano every night, when she had some peace and quiet. So there was a lot of music I knew before I could talk, and that music still has a huge power when I hear it - I hear it differently from any other music.

GP       There are people who sing to their children in the womb.  I remember I used to do that with my daughter, that we'd sing to her right up close to her and there's no doubt that music sounds do have an effect on babies in their mum's tum.

GW      Richard Nunns has an instrument called the pumotumotu  - a Maori instrument, that in the old days used to be played over the mother's stomach, and also when the child had been born it was played into the fontanelle. Richard played this for a friend, and whenever the child hears that music now, it becomes very, very still and listens intently.

GP       Have you been susceptible to the sound environment?  Has it been the way that you find your environment?

GW      To a large extent yes.  I mean I'm always very aware of the sound environment around me.  I don't know to what extent that goes back to a teacher at primary school who would say "Right, close your eyes and put your hand up when you've heard 10 sounds" He did that frequently.  I'm sure it was just a ruse to keep us quiet but perhaps it made me aware of sound in a new way. Certainly I'm always very aware of the sound around me especially when I'm trying to write!


GP       OK - so emerging from this sort of cauldron really, how did it go when you went off to university?

GW      I went to Auckland University and I suppose I didn't find university quite like I expected it to be although it's difficult to say how and why.  I had a real interest in the music of people like Dufay and Josquin and this was something I really wanted to explore and come to understand, and we covered them in a quarter of a lecture.  I sang in the St Mary's Cathedral choir in Auckland for a while which was a wonderful training ground.  I played the violin but I stopped while I was in Auckland because I assumed I was going to be a teacher because what else was there to be?  I decided piano was probably more useful to focus on, but then I studied composition with Ron Tremain, who was a really fine teacher, inspirational and enthusiastic and I just learnt so much from him. In fact I didn't realise how much I had learnt from him for several years. 

The Jazz Connection

One of the most striking moments in Taurangi is provided by the rich, mysterious piano chords that open the work. You might even be forgiven for thinking Bill Evans or Billy Strayhorn were an inspiration here and, although Whitehead is sure that the chord originated with something structured, she also remembers her teacher Ron Tremain saying 'you should always play what you have written because sometimes your fingers play better than you wrote.' I've always thought that was a very wise saying.

Composing Women

GP       Were there many women studying composition?

GW     A few, although it was music, rather than composition, that we studied.  In Wellington I met Jenny McLeod, who was a contemporary, and I knew that Annea Lockwood had recently left New Zealand for overseas.  Although composing wasn't something anyone would choose as a career, because there were no commissions, no funding, there were probably as many women composing as men at that stage.  And I certainly found that when I went to Britain there were several women composers.  I suspect it always has a lot to do with wars. After the first world war there were a lot of women composers like Elizabeth Lutyens and Elizabeth Maconchy in Britain, and Dorothea Franchi and Dorothy Freed in New Zealand. Then there was a group, the composers of my generation, who grew up during or after the Second World War.  Then there was a gap again as composition was becoming an acceptable subject to be studied at universities. I think the fact that university courses were nearly always taught by men had a bit of an oppressive effect - something that had to do with university structures rather than the quality of the teaching of composition. And of course the music studied was inevitably written by men.  It's much, much better now. 

Ethnicity & Gender

GP       So when you write in the way that you do, threading across the cultures, how does that work for you?  Does that make you feel like you're claiming something back or do you feel like it's just there and you're kind of letting it out?  Do you think we have a genetic memory I suppose is what I'm getting at?

GW      Yes I do.  I've talked to a lot of people - talking about composition - who say it's difficult for women to be composers.  To me it's never seemed difficult at all. Is that because there were always Maori women composers? I have talked to anthropologists who say that generally the issue of ethnicity is a far, far stronger determinant than the one of gender and that that's a natural reaction. 

GP       You don't feel like you're claiming something?

GW      I suppose when I was living in Europe, I felt that I was missing the Maori/Polynesian aspect of New Zealand and somehow I started giving pieces Maori titles almost as a kind of link back here.  If I'd been living here I probably wouldn't have done that.  But I found that as I came back more frequently, the growth of interest just seemed to happen quite naturally, and increasingly it's become important to me.

GP       Well I think it's probably surfaced more and more in terms of the general culture.

GW      Yes.  And that whole surfacing started when I was overseas.  I suppose it had started prior to that but most of that renaissance happened in the 60's and 70's when I was away.

A Sense of Place

GP       How did it work when you came back?  Did you feel an enormous difference or had you kept up?

GW      The first time I was away it was for nine years. I came back in '75 for the first time.  It was just before Muldoon got into power and it just seemed such a wonderful country then.

GP       I had one of those experiences in '77.  I came back that year but I'd visited here in 74 and I just couldn't believe what terrific advantages it had, and yet how nobody seemed to know it.  And that was very dangerous of course, because there was a certain naivety attached to it all unfortunately.

GW      People have often asked why I didn't draw on my Maori heritage. But I couldn't for a long time. One thing that was really important was meeting Richard Nunns and hearing the voices of those ancient instruments. I also met Tungia Baker - she came to Melbourne to a Composing Women's Festival there and told me a story, which is the one I use in Ipu. When I saw her the next day I said "I want to use your story as the basis for a piece and I want to use Richard Nunns' taonga puoro and I want to use Judy Bailey, the improvising pianist who also grew up in Whangarei - and I want to use a cello".  And that was the beginning of a new journey.

GP       It's amazing how the people who form the bridges are so important.

GW      Yes.  But I found that there was a depth of knowledge in this country that I hadn't realised still existed and to be in the presence of that knowledge and to be able to tap into that knowledge, was absolutely wonderful and amazing.


GW      I met Judy Bailey in Sydney, and she had grown up in Whangarei just shortly before I had. When I heard her play in Sydney, I thought, if I worked in your field, that's exactly how I'd do it.  And she's had exactly the same reaction to my music. It makes you wonder the extent to which place is really important.  I mean we both grew up in the same valley, lived in the same sound world, and we were able to draw connections between the sounds we used later in our composition. Richard Nunns also lived for a while as a boy in Whangarei.  Is there something working at a very deep level that has to do with growing up in the same sound space? In which case is our perception of sound far deeper than we'd ever begin to think?

GP       I think it probably is.  I think it's interesting.  I think there's a genetic memory.  I think artists just might tap into it because you've got the time, the inclination and enormous focus to do it. 


GP       What about collaborations with other artists?

GW      That's something I really enjoy - it gets you out of the state of being a composer just working by yourself. Sometimes you're just working with the ideas thrown up by somebody's text, but sometimes you're involved with a range of people. For instance, if you're writing an opera, you're working with the librettist, the singers, the instrumentalists, the conductor, the producer.  It's a huge number of people and their perspectives coming together to make the project work, which can be wonderfully exciting and utterly terrifying at the same time.

By contrast a piece like Ipu has a narrator, a cello part that is fully notated and two parts for improvising musicians that are hardly notated at all. In the improvised parts, I'd tell Richard which instrument to play, and suggest that Judy play figurations that are suggestive of eddies of water, for instance, and then those things have to meld together, and it becomes my responsibility to get the overlapping sections right and the scale of the whole piece right, because every performance, while keeping the overall structure, is going to vary considerably in the detail.

Those are two of many different collaborative pieces, and they're all fascinating to work on.

Fleur Adcock was a special collaborator for Gillian: 'I just thought she captured the time and the place in her poem, it was beautifully researched and had such a compelling narrative'. The two women are currently working on a new monodrama, Alice, to be performed by Helen Medlyn with the Auckland Philharmonia in 2003.

 Gretchen Albrecht, Gillian Whitehead and Fleur Adcock

I've worked with Fleur Adcock on lots of projects - in fact I've probably worked more with her than with anyone else. There's one piece we wrote which was called Hotspur, and Gretchen Albrecht, who had worked on a previous opera of mine called Tristan and Iseult, created these wonderful banners as a backdrop. And the poem and the text were also published as a book; unfortunately we had to omit the music, because the original idea, which was to look through transparent pages of music at the text and drawings, was far too expensive.

GW      I find collaboration fascinating because it can just take you to so many different places, and then, by trying to solve the problems that are set up by the collaborations, you take off into new areas altogether which are fresh ones to explore either by yourself or in another collaboration.

A Pantheon of Maori Goddesses

GP       Gillian - can you tell me, as a kind of diary list some of the things that you do in an average week, just to get a feeling of how an artist's time is spent.

GW      Well, earlier this week in Auckland I did some proofreading of a score for publication, sorted papers for several Wellington meetings, updated my database, wrote programme notes for a Canberra performance, agreed to be on the Creative New Zealand music assessment panel and worked on the orchestration of the fifth movement of my next piece for the Auckland Philharmonia. It wasn't a very good week for composing though - too much other stuff.

GP       You're painting a picture of an artist who does quite a lot of work for the artistic community.

GW      It seems to be how it is at present.  There have been times in the past when I've been able to focus a lot - almost totally - on composing.  I'm finding with things at present, I'm just getting up earlier and earlier in the mornings to start writing and work through until early afternoon before I have to switch to work on other things, whatever they might be.

For example, yesterday I spent four hours chairing a meeting of the Composers' Association and after that I had a meeting with Richard Nunns to talk about a piece we're doing for the Festival next year.

GP       So what is the piece you are working on at the moment?

GW      It's a piece involving Maori instruments, one of a series based around Maori goddesses, and at present I'm rereading a fascinating thesis about the pantheon of goddesses.

GP       Were there a lot of Maori goddesses?

GW      Yes. The ethnologists who worked here in the nineteenth century and wrote about religion were all male and they talked to men rather than to women, so they were told about gods rather than goddesses.

As far as can be worked out from the little information that's still around, there were possibly as many goddesses as gods, and they had the same importance as the gods we know today.  So there's a whole missing pantheon of goddesses and it's very tantalising because there are only fragments of knowledge that have been remembered in certain tribal areas. 

GP       Do you think you're getting more done at this age than when you were younger, or do you feel that you're as busy as you ever were?  How do you think it compares in terms of your creative energy?

GW      It's difficult to tell because when I was younger, for long stretches I was able to focus 100% on writing; and now, even though I have a full-time residency with the Auckland Philharmonia, there seem to be just so many other things that I'm asked to do or seem to have volunteered to do.  There seems to be a lot less time.  Probably I work differently too. 

I was looking at a piece I wrote not so long ago -a Requiem for Voice and Organ which I realise I wrote in 6 weeks and now I can't quite see how I could have done it that fast. But it was all I had to do at that time.  I don't know that I write slower now - maybe in a more considered way or something. When you're younger, sometimes so much of the creative aspect goes into the complex structuring of a piece that it becomes two-dimensional, the content is the form. As you get older, you learn to leave room for your real voice to come through.