artist q&a with dame gillian

A prolific 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.

Fourteen years in Britain and Europe firmly established Gillian’s international reputation. Returning to her Maori and southern hemisphere roots in 1981, and began a 15-year teaching career at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Gillian took extended periods of leave without pay to focus on composition. Today she lives on the Otago Peninsula in Dunedin, devoting herself entirely to writing and is acclaimed as one of the most important composers in Australasia.

You have been commissioned to compose a work for the up-coming tour of Juilliard415, a chamber baroque ensemble. First, could you explain the context for which you were writing the work?

When Marais, Corelli, Handel and Rameau we’re writing, what we now look back on as the baroque orchestra/ensemble was where composers were evolving and exploring the possibilities, sororities and delights of their medium, bringing it to perfection, and incidentally preparing the way for the unimaginable music of the classical era. Writing for such an ensemble today is very different – we hear that perfection, but in a very different way from audiences of the time. At first we see the limitations. How to write for such a group? Imitation?  Challenge? How do you deal with the continuo that underlines baroque music?

Did writing a composition for a baroque ensemble change your processes for writing in any way? What were the considerations, the challenges that you faced?

For a composer today, with today’s resources, the possibilities initially seem limited. A continuo group of low strings, bassoon, harpsichord and theorbo, two flutes and two oboes with a more limited range and gentler tone quality than the instruments of today,
a string group whose players traditionally don’t play above fourth position, and have a lesser dynamic range than today’s instruments. And how does the balance work between the differently-weighted instruments?

Writing for such an ensemble today is very different – we hear that perfection, but in a very different way from audiences of the time.

Dame Gillian Whitehead

Is the composition inspired by baroque motifs and musical textures, or did you opt for a contrast musically?

My first decision was to give solo opportunities to some of the continuo instruments – the bassoon, which opens the piece, the harpsichord and theorbo, which have short solo opportunities to improvise (tonally, atonally or in between). I wrote basically in my own style, but gave the upper wind instruments more soloistic opportunities than is usual in baroque music, and sometimes harmonies or gestures from the earlier time crept into the fabric of the piece.

Time steps out of line” evokes ideas of syncopation, a change of musical style, something out of step with what has come before. Or is it about something completely different? How did you come up with the title? 

The title comes from ‘At Home in Antarctica’, a poem by Claire Beynon; it had to do with the distance in time and place between the European baroque and Aotearoa New Zealand in the 21st century, and the way the two eras merge and separate in the piece.

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Creative New Zealand | Toi Aotearoa