Early in 2020, just before New Zealand locked down in the face of COVID-19, composer Dame Gillian Whitehead wrote a commissioned piece for five viols. She called it Douglas Lilburn, travelling on the Limited, regards the mountains in the moonlight. The whimsical title refers to a story Lilburn told in his now famous talk at the first Cambridge Summer School of Music in January 1946, a story Whitehead referred to in her own 2019 Lilburn Lecture. She quoted his plea for us to have ‘a music of our own, a living tradition of music created in this country, a music that will satisfy those parts of our being that cannot be satisfied by the music of other nations’ and described how “hanging out the carriage door gazing at Ruapehu in full moonlight, he realized…the world in which Mozart lived was about as remote as the moon, and in no way related to any experience of his.”

With 2020 plans abandoned, the viol commission will have its premiere in August this year during a tour called “Music and Memory” by Palliser Viols. Led by Robert Oliver with taonga puoro musician Rob Thorne and artist/writer Greg O’Brien, the group will take a novel programme to fifteen centres on the Main Trunk Line, combining music with readings from potter Barry Brickell’s writings. They’ll begin at Pātaka, Porirua and end at Driving Creek, Coromandel, where Brickell established his popular railway. It’s a project Lilburn might have appreciated.

It may be, too, that Whitehead herself has come closer than any New Zealand composer to that “music of our own” that Lilburn envisioned. Paradoxically, the first half of her long composing career was characterised by many years outside her country of birth. She left New Zealand in 1964 for study in Australia and after meeting British composer Peter Maxwell Davies, moved to the UK to study privately with him. She said to me recently that meeting “Max”, as she calls him, was a major turning point. “That took me to Europe, and to the techniques that I developed over quite a time.”

Whitehead’s time in the UK and Europe led to a sophisticated and individual musical language, with influences as apparently diverse as medieval polyphony, Stravinsky’s rhythms and Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck. Described by the composer as “my usual expressionism”, her musical language also involved rhythmic complexity, a great interest in percussion instruments and mathematical structures including “magic squares”. The latter offered her structural possibilities in her works from about 1970, much as twelve-tone serialism offered compositional building blocks to the 2nd Viennese School. She was quite clear, however, that neither performers nor audiences need be aware of her internal workings.

When I asked this month about other watershed moments in her composing life, Whitehead mentioned the request from Richard Nunns in the late 1990s for a composition with taonga pūoro. Nunns had previously shown her the fronds of a spleenwort hanging from a Nelson tree. “This is the hair of Hine Raukatauri,” he said then. “One day I’d like you to write a piece about her.” “Hine Raukatauri”, says Whitehead, “is the goddess of music and dance. The pūtorino, shaped like the female case moth and played like a flute or trumpet, embodies her voice.” Whitehead’s Hineraukatauri, the first of many of her works using the traditional instruments, was premiered a year later in America by flutist Alexa Still with Nunns on taonga pūoro and will tour in a programme later this year with Bridget Douglas and Al Fraser.

For many decades Whitehead found it easier to pursue her composing career as an ex-patriate, with greater opportunities offered to her in both the UK and later Australia. I interviewed her in 1989 when she was visiting New Zealand on a short residency at Victoria University. She was then a lecturer at the New South Wales Conservatorium in a half-time position that allowed her six months of every year to travel and compose. Our trans-Tasman neighbours, having offered her employment, commissions, performances and recordings, may have had some justification for their claim that she was an Australian composer. But she hinted too at another fear that may have kept her distant from New Zealand. “I’m writing music drawing on my New Zealand experience while away – if I lived here,” she said, only half-humorously, “would I just look at the sea?”

The good news is that Whitehead’s residence in New Zealand over the past two decades has been enormously fruitful musically and her own country has, perhaps a little belatedly, acknowledged her stature with many awards and honours. Commissions continue to flow and performances  this year and next include several premieres of new orchestral and chamber works. “Looking at the sea” from her home on the Otago Peninsula and a newer second base with family connections in Ruakaka, Northland, translates musically into an enduring preoccupation with the land and sea-scapes of Aotearoa and the calls of native birds which appear in so many of her works.

Whitehead’s middle name is “Karawe”. It can be translated as “awesome”, and RNZ Concert has chosen it as the title of a programme of Whitehead’s music to be played on her actual birthday on April 23.  In that interview over thirty years ago I asked about the importance of her Māori heritage from her great-grandmother. “It’s very important,” she said. “I’m very pleased that I have this mix of pakeha and Maori in me; it’s something I’m drawing on in my best pieces, like Manutaki and Tongues-Swords-Keys and Resurgences. The spiritual aspect, I suppose. Something I’m drawing on, and somehow where I’m going…”.

When I asked Whitehead this month to re-consider both the question and her earlier answer after living in New Zealand since the turn of the 21st century, she replied simply “that still holds. It is a spiritual connection far stronger than any other. Working with Richard Nunns and taonga pūoro, and the many wonderful people I’ve met on that journey and the wonderful places that journey has taken me has changed my way of seeing the world and my musical language, quite profoundly, I think. And the two streams are reconciled now.”

Article to mark Dame Gillian Whitehead’s 80th birthday for the SOUNZ blog by Elizabeth Kerr.