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Dame Gillian Whitehead was born in Hamilton, New Zealand in 1941. She studied at the University of Auckland from 1959-62, and Victoria University of Wellington in 1963, graduating BMus Hons in 1964. She then studied composition at the University of Sydney with Peter Sculthorpe from 1964-65, graduating MMus in 1966. That same year she attended a composition course given by Peter Maxwell Davies in Adelaide and in 1967 travelled to England to continue studying with him. She worked in London composing and copying music for two years and then with the assistance of a New Zealand Arts Council grant worked in Portugal and Italy from 1969-70.

For the next seven years she continued freelance composing, principally based in the UK. From 1978-80 she was Composer in Residence for Northern Arts attached to Newcastle University (UK). In 1981 she returned to Australasia to join the staff of the Composition School at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and was for four years Head of Composition there before taking early retirement in 1996. She now divides her time as a free-lance composer between Sydney and Dunedin, New Zealand.

In 1999 her opera, Outrageous Fortune, won the SOUNZ Contemporary Award and she was honoured with membership of the NZ Order of Merit.

In 2000 she became one of the inaugural Artist Laureates of the NZ Arts Foundation and is now a governor of the organisation. During 2000 and 2001 she was Composer in Residence at the Auckland Philharmonia and her orchestral work, the improbable ordered dance written during the Residency won the 2001 SOUNZ Contemporary Award. In 2003 she again won the Award for Alice, a major work for mezzo-soprano and orchestra which was also written for the Auckland Philharmonia. From 1998-2003 Gillian was President of the Composers’ Association of New Zealand.

Gillian Whitehead has written a wide range of music including works for solo, chamber, choral, orchestral and operatic forces, most of them direct commissions from performers and funding organisations. A number of her works have been recorded for commercial release, including a CD of her chamber works by Waiteata Press and a recording of her opera, Outrageous Fortune. Her scores are available from the Australian and New Zealand Music Centres or from her agents who can be contacted through the Music Centres. In 2003 she was given a Dmus (honoris causa) by Victoria University of Wellington, and in 2007 the KBB Citation for outstanding services to New Zealand Music presented by CANZ.

In 2008 she became a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, one of New Zealand’s highest honours, and she was granted the title ‘Dame’ in 2009.

In March 2009 Gillian was invited to be an artist-in-residence for 12 months at the Henderson House – a Plischke designed house in Alexandra, Central Otago.

[As an inaugural recipient of the Arts Foundation Laureate Awards in 2000, more information about Gillian Whitehead can be found on the Arts Foundation website.]

Source: Dame Gillian Whitehead, June 2007, updated by SOUNZ April 2009

Selected Works

Ahotu (O Matenga) for chamber ensemble  
Alice an eight movement monodrama for mezzo-soprano and orchestra  
Angels born at the speed of light for narrator, dancer and improvising trio (flute/saxophone, percussion, piano)  
Arapatiki a "landscape prelude" for piano  
Awa Herea (Braided Rivers) a song cycle for soprano and piano  
Beloved.... for solo violin  
Bright Forms Return for mezzo-soprano and string quartet  
Bright Silence for solo violin  
Eleanor of Aquitaine for mezzo and chamber orchestra  
Fantasia on Three Notes for piano  


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