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John Elmsly


Born: 1952


John Elmsly was born in Auckland on 1 July 1952. A childhood which included a dozen or so primary schools in Auckland, Melbourne, Blenheim, and the Hutt Valley managed to include music study on the piano with James Noice but his serious composing began at secondary school, with much encouragement from Laughton Pattrick (then HOD Music at Upper Hutt College). The major part of this was five years of participation in the creation of school musicals and other works for school orchestras and choirs. Later theatrical work included incidental music for a production of The Royal Pardon performed by the Heretaunga Players and later Unity Theatre in Wellington.

At Victoria University study in science (with a major in mathematics) was gradually replaced by music study, including piano performance study with Barry Margan who was then widely known for his touring with Music Players 70 and similar groups, and composition study with David Farquhar. Significant performances took place at the summer schools of Cambridge and Kerikeri. His study at VUW with such vital lecturers as Jenny McLeod, Margaret Nielsen, Gordon Burt and Ross Harris was vital in forming his deep and lasting interest in contemporary music and its composition. First work with electronic music was undertaken with Douglas Lilburn in 1975. The same year he took up a Belgian postgraduate scholarship and began study at the Muziekconservatorium van Brussel, taking a First Prize in Composition in 1977, and undertaking further study with Frederic Rzewski, Henri Pousseur and Philippe Boesmans in Liège. Throughout the period in Belgium he was also carrying out electroacoustic composition at the studios of IPEM in Ghent, under the mentorship of Lucien Goethals. Several pieces produced there were broadcast by BRT3.

Part-time teaching and composing in London was to follow, including classroom teaching in various inner city schools and a year running the music department at Queens College. In 1983 undertook a film music summer course at Dartington with Richard Rodney Bennett and Robert Saxton, and returned permanently to NZ to take up a teaching position at the University of Auckland in 1984.

An early Auckland performance was the Passacaglia of which William Dart wrote in ‘The Listener’: ‘to appreciate the calligraphic neatness and precision of Elmsly’s written score is to understand the nature of the music itself. The lucidity never wavers: all contours are perfectly gauged. There is a wealth of characteristic ideas that register vividly on first hearing, from the trills and glissandi of the first bars through the ‘alla chitarra’ section of pizzicato strings to a persistent repeated note motive for the pianist….in the central Fugue,…one is easily beguiled by the stealth and subtlety with which the cool four-part texture is built up and sustained’.

Thus began a long association with Auckland based performers, who commissioned the Dialogue series of five works (Uwe Grodd, Peter Scholes and David Guerin, David Jenkins and Christine Cuming, Nicola Averill and Jonathan Baker, Miranda Adams and Ingrid Wahlberg). Wendy Dixon and Christine Cuming commissioned On Home Ground for soprano and piano, and piano music was commissioned or premiered by Christine Cuming, David Guerin, Bryan Sayer and Ingrid Wahlberg The Auckland Philharmonia publicly performed or recorded on CD Neither From Nor Towards, Cello Symphony (Ribbonwood CD), Pacific Hockets (ODE CD), Intoit, Resound (Atoll CD), Metamorphoses and White Feathers, as well as workshop readings of Sinfonietta, and Champs de Cloches. In national tours Bridget Douglas of the NZSO premiered Response for flute and orchestra, and in 2017 Gisborne competition winner Singaporean violinist Jun Hong Loh premiered the Concerto for violin and orchestra with Orchestra Wellington.

In his thirty years at the University of Auckland (1984-2014) performance was also part of John’s work: he conducted the premiere of Gillian Whitehead’s The Pirate Moon and two NZ performances of Out of this Nettle Danger, and many other NZ composers featured in the regular programmes, often broadcast, of the Karlheinz Company. He has also performed frequently as pianist, harpsichordist, synthesist, flautist, and baroque flautist, and conducted various groups including the Ensemble Philharmonia and St Matthews Chamber Orchestra.

In 2014 he retired from the University of Auckland School of Music as Associate-Professor and head of composition, director of the Karlheinz Company contemporary music ensemble (which he has conducted in many broadcast recitals as well as performing on piano, synthesiser and flute) and director of the electronic music studio. He was the Acting-Dean of Faculty of Music 1997; Assistant-Dean, Faculty of Arts 1999; Acting Head of School of Music, 2000. Since 2014 he has been an Honorary Associate-Professor of the School of Music.

Gestauqua (for brass quintet and tape) represented NZ at the 1990 Paris Rostrum, and in 1992 Elmsly won the Philip Neill Memorial Prize from the University of Otago. He was President of Composers' Association of NZ from 1996 to 1999; Committee member from 1995 to 2012; and elected to the Executive Committee of Asian Composers' League from 1997 to 2002. In 2014 he was awarded the CANZ Citation for services to New Zealand music.

From 2015 to 2016 he was Jack Richards /Creative New Zealand Composer-in-residence at the New Zealand School of Music, and he was Composer in residence for Orchestra Wellington in 2017.

His music has been performed in concerts and festivals in Argentina, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Philippines, Spain, Thailand, US, UK. Works appear on a number of CDs, some appearing in the Naxos Music Library. Rattle released his String Quartet in Three Movements performed by the Jade Quartet, and Naxos released his Suite for solo guitar on a CD of NZ guitar music by Gunter Herbig.

Composed (134)


for flute/piccolo and electronic sounds


for flute, recorder and piano

After Death and the Maiden

for chamber orchestra, 5m


for clarinet, trumpet, cello and percussion, 8m

As Time Goes By

for flute, 2 clarinets and 2 bassoons, 5m


for chamber septet and electronic sounds, 11m

Beyond Ten Octaves

for daegum, kayagum, and percussion, 5m

Blue Swing

for piano, 1m

Calls from the Ark (bass clarinet version)

for bass clarinet duo, 3m


for clarinet, oboe and small orchestra, 8m


for violin, 8m

Catch the Sound

for orchestra, 5m 30s

Cello Symphony

for cello and piano, 24m

Cello Symphony

for cello and orchestra, 22m

Champs de Cloches

for orchestra, 8m


for electronic sounds


for tape, 10m

Dialogue I

for flute/alto flute and piano, 10m

Dialogue II

for clarinet and piano, 14m

Dialogue III

for cello and piano, 18m

Dialogue V

for violin and piano, 12m


for tape, 10m

Downbeat Delight

for violin and piano

Dream Fragments

for soprano and three clarinets, 10m


for viola and tape, 16m

East Wind

for alto flute and electronics, 11m

Echoes and Chorus

for clarinet and tape, 14m


for timpani and tape, 11m


for brass octet, 5m

Fantasia: Wild Rhymes of Spring

for orchestra, 13m

Five Miniatures

for piano, 8m

Four Echoes

for viola

Four Echoes

for cello

From Dancing Light

for orchestra, 9m

From Shoriken

for baritone voice and clarinet, 4m

Gaudeamus Fanfare 2000

for brass and percussion


for brass quintet and tape, 9m

Gnomic Lyrics

for baritone voice, flute, two horns and percussion, 10m

Go Gently into the Good Night

for flute and piano, 3m

Hall of Mirrors

for basson and live electronics


for solo violin


for clarinet, violin, 2 violas, double bass and accordion, 8m

In October Light

for chamber ensemble


fanfare for orchestra, 6m

Jack Jumps Back in Years

for variable ensemble, 4m

La Mort de Roland

for tape, 8m


for orchestra, 11m


for tape, 5m

Little Preludes

for piano, 6m


for chamber ensemble


incidental music for theatre, 15m

Masked Rituals

for tape, 16m

May's Mantle

for tape, 11m


for tape, 15m


for horn and piano, 6m


for orchestra, 6m


for recorder and electronic processing

Moto Perpetuo

for four violins, 5m


for flute and percussion, 8m

Neither from nor Towards

for string orchestra, 13m

Noah and the Weather Office

for SATB choir, 4m


for bass clarinet, gentle percussion and soundscape, 13m

Of Secrets, Echoes...

for orchestra, 10m

Old Songs

for oboe/cor anglais, 6m

Old Songs

for solo soprano

On Home Ground

for soprano and piano, 13m

One Mouth, Two Voices

for saxophone (soprano and alto played simultaneously by one player)

One Too Exciting Night

for clarinet, viola, trombone and harp, 6m

Pacific Hockets

for orchestra, 20m

Pacific Hockets

arranged for symphonic wind band, 20m


for flute, 10m


for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, 12m


for tape, 2 flutes, violin, cello and piano, 6m

Pieces of Eight

for horn, FB01 and sequencer, 15m

Plates in Collision

for viola and percussion


for brass ensemble and percussion, 5m


for melody instrument and piano


for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon, 14m

Refrains Below

for chamber quartet


for trombone and electronic sounds


for orchestra, 5m


for flute and orchestra, 11m

Ritual Auras

for flute, horn, percussion, piano, violin and cello, 15m

Ritual Echoes

for orchestra with concertino of clarinet, cello and piano

Ritual Echoes II

for solo clarinet, cello and piano with ensemble

Ritual Triptych

for piano trio

Rondo Sur-La-Fontaine

for orchestra, 8m

said the neighbours

for choir and chamber orchestra, 5m

Scherzo 122

for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, 6m


for flute and guitar, 2m


for oboe, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and 2 percussion, 16m

Seven Postcards

for piano trio, 19m


for mezzo-soprano and trombone, 18m


for orchestra, 20m


for orchestra, 9m

Sixteen High Fives

for recorder, piano and electronics

Soft dawn over whispering island

electroacoustic, 11m

Soft Drop II

for two flutes, 8m


for piano, 14m


for alto saxophone and piano, 10m


for flute and piano, 6m

Song of Autumn

for soprano, flute, cello and tape, 10m

Songs from "The Treehouse"

for mixed choir, 15m


electroacoustic, 17m 47s

Stay radiant: the singing will never be done

for three trumpets and gongs

Stilldream K...

for baroque flute and tape, 14m


for piano and whistle


for viola, 5m

String Quartet

for string quartet


for guitar, 13m

The Divine Image

for SATB choir and organ, 6m

The Lost Voice

for contralto, flute, 2 violins, cello, piano and spinet, 8m

The Voice of Experience

for piano and soundscape, 3m

Three Doubles

for flute, 8m

Three Pieces

for piano, 10m

Three Pieces

for cello, 9m

Three Short Studies

for piano, 9m

Three Songs

for soprano and piano

Three Winesongs

for SATB choir, 5m

Toccata for Two Mallets

for solo percussion, 4m


for 3 flutes, 2 oboes and 3 clarinets, 4m

Tree for Two

for bass clarinet and bass trombone, 1m


for trumpet and tape, 10m


for piano, 1m 45s

Two Songs

for soprano and piano, 5m 30s

Vox Vulgaris

for tape, 15m

Weep not for me

for baroque flute and electronic sounds

Whispering Island

electroacoustic, 10m

White Feathers

for spoken voice and orchestra

Wind Quartet

for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon