Gillian Whitehead

Last updated 00:00 19/08/2007

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Gillian Karawe Whitehead is one of our most important contemporary composers, but with a reputation largely confined to the world of classical music. As Simon Sweetman explains, a new film about her attempts to break down that barrier.

Douglas Lilburn is this country's most important composer the Katherine Mansfield of classical music; the Colin Meads of composing - an icon and now an institution.

The house where Lilburn lived and worked, a typical ex-worker's cottage in Thorndon, Wellington, is now home to a composer-in-residence scholarship programme. Wellington film-maker Prue Donald captured the last few months of the inaugural Lilburn artist-in-residence, Gillian Karawe Whitehead.

The piece, commissioned by TVNZ for the Sunday night Artsville programme, captures Whitehead at work and play (often the two seem interlinked). Relaxed, candid, warm and engaging, this is a recorded portrait of an artist, yet she happens to be making, for want of any better term, modern New Zealand classical music (taking from her joint Maori and European heritage to create a distinctly New Zealand sound) but the documentary is as much about the artistic and creative process as it is about the music.

Whitehead could be a painter, sculptor or poet (some would argue that she is all of those things, working with opera, string quartets, orchestras, brass bands and solo improvisers) and Donald's filmed profile showcases the spirit of collaboration that is clearly dear to Whitehead and crucial to the evolution of her work.

From talking heads that include pianist Dan Poynton, fellow composers David Farquhar and Jack Body, film-maker Gaylene Preston, improvising performer Richard Nunns (the living authority and musical embodiment of traditional Maori instruments) and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra principal harpist Carolyn Mills, we get a sense of Whitehead as a passionate artist, someone who is deeply interested in the human connection - keen to create instances for collaboration and to use instant feedback to re-write and re-work her own creations; a fascinating glimpse into the creative process, particularly given that so often the actual working life of a composer (or any artist/writer) is spent in solitude, in a disciplined isolation.

"Filming Gillian Whitehead at Lilburn House for Artsville led us to some wonderful and rare opportunities for the camera to observe artistic collaboration at close range, which allowed us to focus primarily on the creative process," Donald says.

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"The warm welcome and support we received for our filming from the music community made it easy to portray the dedication, camaraderie and passion of our leading musicians who are appreciated and celebrated by music lovers both here and abroad, but remain relatively unknown as great artists to a wider audience in New Zealand. We were highly motivated to deliver a documentary that truly captures this compelling world. The star of this film is Gillian's music."

And the music rings out - through performances with the New Zealand String Quartet, the NZSO and the Royal New Zealand Air Force Band. We are treated to rehearsal footage; a brave Carolyn Mills is caught on tape midway through learning a challenging piece. She remarks that it is just so important to be in a situation where she, as a performer, is able to liaise with the composer; still living. This rarely happens in the classical music world.

But what is most endearing about the overall portrait is the feeling of camaraderie, of genuine support, that the musicians and composers feel for one another; an empathy that shows no outward signs of competition. It is a form of cold comfort no doubt, as we see Whitehead adhering to the tradition that Sir Douglas started of inviting young Victoria University composition students around to the Lilburn house for social drinks. These students and teachers have to form a huge part of their own - and each other's - audiences.

Donald believes this gets a lot less attention than it deserves. Her end result is a film that is friendly rather than filled with whining. She captures a musical world that is utterly engaging, far from snooty and pretentious. And hopefully it is just the beginning of a wider appreciation. The Auckland Chamber Orchestra is performing a concert to honour Whitehead's work (also this evening) and it is the start of New Zealand Harp Week.

Ultimately, Whitehead's music is deserving of discovery and recognition. And her character, energy and humour in the documentary provide the most accessible entry point to one of our greatest contemporary composers.


  • Artsville, TV One, tonight, 10.40pm.



- Sunday Star Times

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