… the improbable ordered dance …


For full orchestra

I wrote … the improbable ordered dance … in 2000 for the Auckland Philharmonia, when I was composer-in-residence with the orchestra. They gave the first performance conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya in the Auckland Town Hall on 31 May 2001.

About the work

The title comes from a fascinating essay entitled ‘The Music of this Sphere’ in Dr Lewis Thomas’s The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher.

Thomas believes that the urge to make music is as much a characteristic of biology as our other fundamental functions, and wonders what we might hear if we could experience the whole range of sound, most of which is inaudible to us, created by most living things. Thomas believes that the rhythmic sounds might be the recapitulation of something else — an earliest memory, a score for the transformation of inanimate random matter in chaos into the improbable ordered dance of living forms.

The piece grows from a quiet beginning, introducing first a cor anglais melody, contained within a close range, then a wider-ranging cello melody. A section suggesting birdsong leads into a chorale, and these ideas evolve and develop around the central energetic dance-like section before the piece moves back to silence.


… the improbable ordered dance … is scored for 3334; 4331; harp, piano, timpani, 3 percussion and strings.

Scores and recordings

Buy or borrow the score from SOUNZ.

… the improbable ordered dance … — SOUNZ

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra has released this work on CD.

Alice — CD

Listen to and watch the Auckland Philharmonia’s 2016 performance.

… the improbable ordered dance … — video

RNZ Concert recorded an NZSO performance in 2006.

… the improbable ordered dance … — audio

Kenneth Young recorded an introduction to the work for RNZ Concert.

… the improbable ordered dance ..: introduction — talk


… the improbable ordered dance … won the 2001 SOUNZ Contemporary Award.

SOUNZ Contemporary Award



For full orchestra

The first public performance of Resurgences was given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Young at the New Music New Zealand festival in Edinburgh in December 1998.

About the work

Resurgences was written during my 6-week residency at Victoria University of Wellington in 1989.

It is about living away from the sea and being drawn back to ideas of the sea, ideas that are very strong with all New Zealanders — looking out to distant horizons.


Resurgences is scored for: 3 (3 doubling picc)333; 4331; timpani, 3 percussion, harp and strings.

Scores and recordings

Buy or borrow the score from SOUNZ.

Resurgences — SOUNZ

A recording by the NZSO of Resurgences was released by Continuum.

New Zealand Composers — CD


For Whitehead, the piece is very much in the New Zealand tradition, inspired by the geothermal activities around Rotorua, phenomena which she sees as related to the tidal elements that inform other works, including her 1990 string quartet, Moon, Tides and Shoreline.

A densely layered piece, Resurgences features the various sections of the orchestra (including a colourful contribution from percussion) used as both polyphonic voices within the whole work and within their own group of sonorities. Underpinning the score are complex mensural canons, although the listener is not aware of such structural niceties, as volatile shifts of texture and tempo give the score the primeval energy of an Antipodean Rite of Spring.

The landscape is never far from sight.’

— William Dart

Retrieving the fragility of peace


For orchestra

Retrieving the fragility of peace was commissioned by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra for their 2022 season. The first performance was given on 30 September in the Auckland Town Hall conducted by Alexander Shelley. Further performances were given in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.

About the work

While I was writing this piece, my dear friend and colleague, Lyell Cresswell, who I’d known for 50 years since we were young composers-at-large in Britain, was diagnosed with cancer and died a few weeks later. The piece is dedicated to Lyell and his wife Catherine.

One evening, replete with food and wine, the 3 of us were talking, and I was very tired. I opened my eyes and saw them looking at me strangely. ‘Did I say something?’ I asked ‘retrieving the fragility of the voice’, they replied. Sleep talking, and hence the slightly varied title.

Before I’ve heard a piece, sometimes it’s hard to know what to say about it, as it doesn’t come alive until it’s performed, and that’s certainly true of this one, which draws on ideas I’ve worked with recently, but in a more abstract way. I think it may reflect something of the times we’re living in, but words can’t express as music does. It must for itself.


Retrieving the fragility of peace is scored for 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo); oboe, oboe/cor anglais, clarinet, clarinet (doubling bass and E flat clarinet); bassoon; 4 horns; 2 trumpets in C; 3 trombones; tuba; 2 percussion and piano.

Percussion: timpani, 4 rototoms, bell chimes (higher), tapped stones; glockenspiel, 3 suspended cymbals, claves, 2 woodblocks and bass drum.

Score and recording

The score will be lodged with SOUNZ after the premiere.

Listen to and watch a performance by the NZSO in October 2022.

Retrieving the fragility of peace — video


A review of the September premiere is available for subscribers to the New Zealand Herald website. Here is an excerpt.

‘Dedicated to composer Lyell Cresswell, who died six months ago, this intensely engaging music might have encouraged one to detect specific tributes in its soaring cor anglais solo or, later, during a more tense cello turn.

‘Such memorable moments emerged then returned, seamlessly, into the all-embracing Whitehead world, as did twittering piccolo birdsong and the rumbling of a perhaps discontent earth.
This is a substantial composition, subtly fueled by the sound worlds of nature and man. If at one point we felt the relentless drive of Stravinsky’s Sacre, we were spared any sacrificial horrors. The last few exquisitely scored pages ended with shimmering strings and percussion, suggesting that treasured peace should not be taken for granted.

‘Conductor Alexander Shelley, having magnificently brought this to vibrant life, provided some background to it while a Steinway was wheeled in for the storms and sunshine of Mozart’s D minor piano concerto.’

— William Dart, New Zealand Herald, 5 October 2022

Max Rashbrooke reviewed the Wellington performance on 1 October 2022.

NZSO hits a few speedbumps with Legacy concert — Stuff

Steven Sedley reviewed the same performance.

A concert of “music from then and now” with the NZSO — Middle C

Symphony: the islands by Jack Speirs

Orchestra, Collaborations

For full orchestra and baritone

Poem by Charles Brasch

This symphony by Jack Speirs was incomplete when he died in 2000. I edited the first 2 movements. It is yet to receive a public performance but the 2 movements were recorded in 2010 by the NZSO conducted by Luke Dollman with David Griffiths (baritone).


Symphony: the islands is scored for: 3*333; 4331; timpani, percussion, harp and strings.

Percussion: 3 drums, suspended cymbal and side drum

Score and recording

Buy or borrow the score, or borrow a CD of the NZSO performance from SOUNZ.

Symphony: the islands — SOUNZ

RNZ Concert has recorded the first 2 movements.

Symphony: the islands — audio



For orchestra

Tūranganui was commissioned by the NZSO to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Cook’s arrival in Aotearoa. The first performance was given by them conducted by Hamish McKeich at the Michael Fowler Centre on 15 September 2018.

About the work

250 years ago, on 8 October 1769, Captain Cook and his men, with the best of intentions, made landfall in the Endeavour, on the east coast harbour of Tūranga-nui-a-kiwa (modern-day Gisborne). They went ashore to find water, but unfortunately things did not go to plan. In his diary Joseph Banks was to write, ‘thus ended the most disagreeable day my life has yet seen … and heaven send that such may never return to embitter future reflection.’

As a result of cultural misunderstandings that day, the first shots were fired in this country, and 4 Māori lost their lives.

While writing this piece, I was aware of what Cook and his party, and Māori arriving in the same place centuries earlier, would have felt — relief or elation at being on dry land, alongside heightened awareness, apprehension, wonder, fear. And for the iwi on shore, curiosity, maybe apprehension, but no foreknowledge of how the visitors would threaten and change their world order.

Tūranganui is part abstract, part programmatic — given the theme of landfall how could it not be — and I leave it to listeners to interpret it in their own way.


Tūranganui is scored for: 2222; 4331; harp, timpani, 3 percussion and strings.

Percussion 1: wind chimes, stones, tomtoms

Percussion 2: tamtam, bass drum

Percussion 3: suspended cymbals, marimba, stones

Score and recording

Buy or borrow the score from SOUNZ soon.

The premiere performance was recorded as part of SOUNZ’s Resound project.

Tūranganui — video

RNZ Concert’s recording from the premiere is available online.

Tūranganui — audio


The Otago Daily Times interviewed me after the premiere.

Making sense of Cook’s confusion — publication