Episode 4

The Magpie House

The Resonance Chamber

In the 1970s, Lilburn wrestles with synthesizers and other machines, and comes out victorious, composing some masterpieces of the electroacoustic medium. But then he quits. He never writes another piece.  Or does he? Lilburn’s collection in the Turnbull Library contains over 1,000 files, including some rare late-life scribblings on manuscript.

In the final episode of The Magpie House we speak to some of the people who knew Lilburn best during his last 30 years. We hear about his dying wishes for the Magpie House, and about its revival as a composer’s residence.

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In January 1970, Rita Angus dies and Douglas Lilburn retreats from society, spending long stretches of time at his cottage in Central Otago—the one place where he can go to try to understand himself, his relationships, his art, and the sacrifices he has made for it. But out in the wider world, Lilburn’s achievements continue to accumulate. In the 1970s, audiences no longer cringe at hearing new, New Zealand-made music, and Lilburn’s works are beginning to be widely recorded and released. 

In 1972 Lilburn returns to Wellington to teach part-time, holing himself up in the Electronic Music Studio at Victoria University where he wrestles with synthesizers and other machines, eventually mastering them and composing a number of masterpieces of the electroacoustic medium. He continues to lobby hard to ensure that composers are paid fairly, and also to make sure that their work is preserved—in 1974 he helps to establish the Archive of New Zealand Music at the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington.

As the years go by, Lilburn begins to notice that his walking pace up the steep hill to University has slowed. His hearing is deteriorating, arthritis is settling in, and he’s been diagnosed with skin cancer. In 1979, aged 64, he tells the Vice-Chancellor that it’s time to retire and get his affairs in order. He stops composing, and after two decades in retirement dies peacefully at 22 Ascot Terrace on 6 June 2001. 

“If you love a home enough to die in it, might something of yourself remain behind? A resonance or an echo, vibrating quietly, barely perceptible to those who enter. And if your home goes on to hold others, all of them pouring themselves into their art in this same space, for weeks and months on end…  might some of their energy collect as well? What might that sound like?”

In this final episode of The Magpie House we speak to some of the people who knew Douglas Lilburn best during those last thirty years. We see him quit composing at his peak, work to protect his legacy, settle into retirement, and finally pass into the afterlife. We also hear about his dying wishes for the Magpie House, and about its revival and new life as a composer’s residence.

Host: Kirsten Johnstone
Guests: Chris Cochran, Salina Fisher, Ross Harris, Margaret Nielsen, Jenny McLeod, Jill Palmer, Dan Poynton, Gillian Whitehead

Music in this episode
Rosa Elliot: Landfall
Salina Fisher: Mono No Aware
Ross Harris/Jonathan Besser: Toys For The Boys
Douglas Lilburn/Denis Glover: The Magpies (Instrumental)
Douglas Lilburn: Three Inscapes
Douglas Lilburn: Canzonetta No. 2 for Violin and Viola
Douglas Lilburn: Prelude No. 2
Douglas Lilburn: Prelude 1951
Dan Poynton: Nga Iwi E
Gillian Whitehead: Pukahe Ki Te Rangi

For additional information on the music in this podcast, please click here.

Production team
Producer: Kirsten Johnstone of Popsock Media
Research and Interviews: Jane Tolerton ONZM

Sound Engineer: Phil Brownlee
Script Advisor: Melody Thomas of Popsock Media
Production Assistance: Roger Smith, Jonathan Engle, Karlo Margetić, Alpana Chovhan, Nina Lesperance, Aimee Somerville
Executive Producers: Diana Marsh, Leoné Venter, Eva Radich

Special thanks to
RNZ Concert
The Lilburn Residence Trust
The Lilburn Trust
Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision
Atoll Records
Rattle Records
Ode Records
Performers in the podcast music excerpts
Cover Art: Kennedy Kioa Toi Faimanifo of Manatoa Productions

This podcast is supported by funding from Creative New Zealand.



© Copyright Centre for New Zealand Music Trust


Kirsten Johnstone
Kirsten Johnstone is an audio producer and editor, who learned to craft impactful stories and sound while working for RNZ. Through 16 years working for RNZ National and RNZ Concert as a producer, on-air host and content creator, Kirsten built a name for herself as an empathetic interviewer and thorough researcher. Along with Melody Thomas, she runs Popsock Media, a new podcast production company which in 2021 is producing a series about Lake Alice for Stuff, and is working with NGO Just Speak on another series.


Chris Cochran

Chris Cochran, is conservation architect, and trustee of the Lilburn Residence Trust.  A specialist in the treatment of heritage buildings, Chris looks after the Lilburn House in Thorndon, where he owns the heritage listed building The Wedge.


Salina Fisher

Salina Fisher is an award-winning New Zealand composer based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington. Her highly evocative music often draws on her Japanese heritage, as well as a fascination with the natural world. Her music has been performed worldwide, including at ISCM World Music Days, Melbourne Recital Centre, Walt Disney Concert Hall, and The Kennedy Center.

​Salina returned to Wellington from New York where she had graduated with a Masters in Composition from the Manhattan School of Music to take up the NZSM Composer-in-Residence scheme in 2019 and remains a resident through to 2022. Work completed during the residency includes:

  • Mono no aware for cello and piano
  • Between, for shakuhachi, koto, viola, and cello
  • Kintsugi for piano trio
  • Heal for string quartet


Ross Harris

Arts laureate Ross Harris is one of New Zealand’s leading composers. He has written more than two hundred compositions including opera, symphonic music, chamber music, klezmer and electronic music. His early composition was influenced by his years working with Douglas Lilburn in the Electronic Music Studio at Victoria University of Wellington.


Jenny McLeod

Jenny McLeod ONZM, is a New Zealand composer and former professor of Victoria University of Wellington. Her early work Earth and Sky established her reputation as the rising star of New Zealand music. In 2016 she delivered the annual Lilburn lecture, and a CD was released of her complete 24 Tone Clocks performed by Michael Houston and Diedre Irons. Her work Dark Bright Night  was given its premiere by NZ Chamber Soloists’ in 2021.


Margaret Nielsen

Margaret Nielsen is a Wellington pianist and former piano teacher at Victoria University for 25 years. Douglas Lilburn wrote several piano solos for Margaret who championed his solo piano works and gave many of their premiere performances.


Jill Palmer

Jill Palmer was a Music Librarian in the Manuscripts Department, Alexander Turnbull Library for many years. Jill worked closely with composer Douglas Lilburn in the establishment of the Archive of New Zealand Music at the Alexander Turnbull library. She also assisted Lilburn in archiving the large donation of his composition manuscripts and letters to the library. She became a close friend of Lilburn through this close collaboration.



Dan Poynton

Dan Poynton is a pianist and composer known as a champion of NZ music. His award winning CD, You Hit Him He Cry Out,  includes New Zealand composers such as Gillian Whitehead and John Psathas. He has also researched and recorded the first two CDs of Lilburn’s complete piano works and a violin and piano CD with Mark Menzies.



Dame Gillian Karawe Whitehead

Composer Gillian Whitehead’s continuous stream of works includes operas, orchestral works, choral pieces, vocal and instrumental chamber compositions, solo works, pieces involving taonga puoro and compositions including improvisation.
Gillian, normally resident in Dunedin, was the first composer to live at the Lilburn Residence as part of the NZSM Composer-in-Residence scheme from 2005 – 2006. Gillian’s work during this period included:

  • Hineteiwaiwa, for taonga pūoro, voice and 10 instruments
  • Karohirohi, for orchestra and harp for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Carolyn Mills
  • a movement for the Davy Passion, a collaborative project with Wellington composers
  • beginning Puhake ki te rangi for taonga pūoro and string quartet