Dame Gillian Karawe Whitehead | Ngāi Terangi DNZM, MNZM

Born and educated in Aotearoa, Gillian Whitehead (DNZM, MNZM), is of Ngai Terangi and Tuhoe descent. She lived and worked as a freelance composer in Europe and Australia for 15 years, then taught at the Sydney Conservatorium during the 1980s before returning to Aotearoa to resume her career as a free-lance composer.

Her music, written for orchestral, vocal, choral, chamber, operatic and solo forces, sometimes involves taonga pūoro, te reo Māori or directed improvisation. In 2018 she became an icon of the Arts Foundation of New Zealand, and in 2021 received a Ngā Tohu ā Tā Kingi Ihaka/Sir Kingi Ihaka Award, recognising her lifetime contribution to ngā Toi Māori.

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Timeline of my career



— born Hamilton, New Zealand

— spends childhood in Auckland and Whangarei


— studies composition with Ronald Tremain at the University of Auckland


— studies at Victoria University of Wellington

— composes Missa Brevis and Three Improvisations for solo oboe


— graduates B.Mus Hons


— studies composition at the University of Sydney with Peter Sculthorpe


— graduates M.Mus Hons from the University of Sydney

— studies at Adelaide Conservatorium with Peter Maxwell Davies

— composes film score Three Bridges to cross, for NHK-ABC documentary on Cambodia

— composes Fantasia on three notes



— travels to England to continue studying with Peter Maxwell Davies

— works in London composing and copying music for 2 years


Pākuru performed by Pierrot Players conducted by Peter Maxwell Davies in Berlin


— works in Portugal and Italy with the assistance of a New Zealand Arts Council grant


— continues freelance composing, principally based in the United Kingdom


Pākuru performed at Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London


— string quartet, Te āhua, te atārangi, wins NZBC/ APRA/ NZ Music Federation competition


Marduk for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble premiered by Fires of London, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London


— divides time between London and Orkney


— spends 6 months in New Zealand


— opera Tristan and Iseult premieres at 1978 Auckland Festival and wins a special award from APRA

— spends 6 months in New Zealand


— moves to Great Bavington in Northumbria

— appointed Composer in Residence for Northern Arts attached to Newcastle University in the United Kingdom



Hotspur given several performances and is the official celebration for Waitangi Day at New Zealand House in London

— is guest lecturer, then appointed lecturer in Composition at Sydney Conservatorium of Music

— divides time between Sydney and United Kingdom


— appointed Acting, and subsequently Alternating Head of Composition, Sydney Conservatorium of Music

— establishes an unofficial 6 months on, then 6 months off job-sharing situation, allowing 6 months each year for writing and travelling


— buys house in Katoomba


— opera, Bride of Fortune premieres at Perth Festival


— takes up short residency at School of Music, Victoria University, Wellington

— composes Resurgences


— diagnosed with breast cancer


— appointed Mozart Fellow at Otago University


— sells Katoomba house and buys apartment in Crows Nest, Sydney



— leaves Sydney Conservatorium  and divides her time freelancing between Sydney and Dunedin


Ipu, a CD produced in collaboration with Tungia Baker, released by Rattle

— opera,  Outrageous Fortune premieres in Dunedin


— serves as President of the Composers’ Association of New Zealand


Outrageous Fortune wins the SOUNZ Contemporary Award

— honoured with Membership of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) for services to music


— is one of the inaugural Artist Laureates of the New Zealand Arts Foundation and now a governor of the organisation

Composer Portrait: Gillian Whitehead, the third CD in the Waiteata Collection of New Zealand Music series released

2000 and 2001

— appointed Composer in Residence at the Auckland Philharmonia

the improbable ordered dance (for orchestra) written during the residency wins the 2001 SOUNZ Contemporary Award


— New Zealand International Festival of the Arts presents Composer Portrait concert


— wins the SOUNZ Contemporary Award for Alice, for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, also written for the Auckland Philharmonia

— with Richard Nunns attends the International Festival of Women in Music Today in Seoul, Korea where Hineraukatauri is chosen to represent New Zealand

— awarded honorary Doctorate by Victoria University of Wellington, University Dmus (honoris causa)



— founds ensemble Tuhonohono to perform in Jakarta, Indonesia

— visits Cambodia


— appointed New Zealand School of Music/ Creative New Zealand Composer in Residence

— lives in Douglas Lilburn’s former Thorndon home in Wellington, known as the Lilburn Residence, as the inaugural resident composer


Composer in Residence documentary broadcast on TNVZ’s Artsville programme


— awarded KBB/CANZ citation for services to New Zealand Music


— made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit

Puhake ki te rangi, a CD of chamber music released by Rattle


— in his absence, leads Jack Body’s delegation of 28 New Zealand artists to World Music Days at the Central Conservatory of Music, Beijing, China

— takes up position of artist-in-residence for 12 months at the Henderson House, a Plischke-designed house in Alexandra, Central Otago

— joins 10 artists on a trip to Dusky and Doubtful Sounds in Fiordland to create work as a fundraiser for the Caselberg Trust

— becomes patron of the Caselberg Trust who maintain the Dunedin house of Anna and John Caselberg for use as artist residencies



— biography by Noel Sanders, Moon, Tides, and Shoreline launched


— is featured artist at the City of London festival

— undertakes travels in Europe

— travels with Jack Body to Cambodia to audition and rehearse for his O Cambodia project

O Cambodia premiered at the  Auckland Festival


Arapatiki, a CD of chamber music released by Atoll


— attends performances of O Cambodia in Phnom Penh and China

— attends concert devoted to her works in Prague, curated by American-born Prague-based pianist Patricia Goodson

— takes up the James Wallace Arts Trust residency at the Pah homestead in Auckland

Alice, a CD of orchestral works released by Atoll


Shadows cross the water for chamber sextet, premiered in Prague

— moves to Ruakaka in the north of New Zealand


— presents a paper at conference, ‘Jack Body: Cross-Cultural Music’ at Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, China, where some works are also presented


— programmes of works performed in Prague and Berlin



— NZSO plays Turanganui in Gisborne and the main concert venues in Aotearoa

Shadows Crossing Water, a CD of chamber music, released by Rattle


Time steps out of line premiered by New-York group Juilliard415

— several first performances cancelled because of Covid

— honoured with the 2021 Te Tohu ā Tā Kingi Ihaka (Sir Kingi Ihaka Award) in recognition of a lifetime contribution to Ngā Toi Māori and strengthening Māori culture


— moves back to the South Island to a new house in Portobello, Dunedin

— violin concerto, Tai timu tai pari premiered by Andrew Beer and Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra

— collaborates to create Ad Parnassum with Daniel Belton and Good Company Arts

Moonstone, a CD of works for viola and piano, released by Rattle

Gillian Whitehead Composer