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  • Dorothy Buchanan

  • Born: 1945
  • Fully Represented SOUNZ Composer


Dorothy Quita Buchanan (born 1945) grew up one of six sisters in a musical family in Christchurch. Following an education in catholic schools she graduated MusB (Hons) in composition from Canterbury University in 1967. For the next decade she worked as a freelance composer, pianist, violinist (Christchurch Symphony Orchestra) and teacher.

In 1976 she was New Zealand’s first composer-in-schools and in 1979 became both president of the Composers’ Association of New Zealand and the first woman to join the Musicians’ Union. In the same year she founded the Christchurch Music Workshops. In 1980 she co-founded the music publishing co-operative Nota Bene which has published works by several New Zealand composers and also has a hire library of New Zealand music suitable for schools and community use. Dorothy has been a guest lecturer, musical director, adjudicator, advisor to teacher support services and an assessor on QEII Arts council (later Creative New Zealand) panels. She was for seven years on the artistic directorate of the Smokefree Women’s Composing Festival.

Organisations as diverse as school choirs, string quartets, dance and theatre companies and symphony orchestras have commissioned songs, operas, incidental music and film and television scores. Her work for the New Zealand Film Archive from 1984 carried on the family tradition begun by her maternal grandmother Molly Clarke, who played piano for silent movies on the West Coast in the early 1920s. Dorothy’s arrangement of the original score for the classic silent film ‘La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc’ is considered the finest rendering ever. Many of her works are settings for voice of text by New Zealand poets including Lauris Edmond, Fleur Adcock and Janet Frame. She has collaborated with New Zealand writers to produce major operas like the ‘Clio Legacy’ (Witi Ihimaera) and Woman at the Store and The Mansfield Stories, both from the short stories of Katherine Mansfield. ‘Fragments and Letters’, based on her friendship with singer Malcolm McNeill, won the Philip Neill Memorial Prize from the University of Otago in 1995.

Awards include a CANZ Outstanding Achievement Award, the Vernon Griffiths Memorial Award for Outstanding Musical Leadership and a Suffrage Medal. In 2001 she was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) for a lifetime’s involvement in music.

Though she often finds the beginnings of an idea arriving in the most mundane places, like the supermarket, Dorothy’s inspiration continues to spring from the land, light and sounds of Aotearoa: “bird song, flax in summer, a line of hills.”

Source: Dorothy Buchanan, September 2007


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