Shindigs at the homestead

By William Dart

An energetic and spontaneous quality marks the latest work from Gillian Whitehead

NZ composer Dame Gillian Whitehead. Photo / Studio Guidon
NZ composer Dame Gillian Whitehead. Photo / Studio Guidon

Dame Gillian Whitehead is in the last days of her University of Otago Wallace residency at the Pah Homestead. "It's been like coming home ... to one of my homes," says the 72-year-old composer.

"Auckland is the first place I remember. The climate feels more or less right, the grass grows in the right way and you've got to trim the hedge and the oxalis under it."

Whitehead's three months came to an end this week with the premiere at Pah Homestead of an impressive dance piece, out the window bone breath feather, a collaboration with choreographer Carol Brown, four dancers, an actor and three musicians.

It was a magical experience at its Monday premiere, being ushered from room to room, moving from dancer-musician duos to full ensembles, energising to a rigorous 11 beats to the bar. "I thought it would be more fun than four," is the composer's playful explanation.

Whitehead explains how the piece involved a group exploration of the history of the 1879 Pah Homestead. She mentions "echoes of the past and the blurring of boundaries between music, dance and words".

On the night, actor Peter Tait delivered a laconic commentary and also spun, quite literally, among the dancers in a feverish reel.

Meeting Whitehead a few days earlier, her description of the new piece was enigmatic. There is a description of "an incoming tide, and the growing of energies as that tide comes in".

In performance, a few minutes of activity on the building's grand staircase, titled Tidal Patterns, featured Ligeti-like vocal clusterings and maniacally rushing dancers, muttering and whispering.

It disturbed, with the dancers being so close and yet strangely distanced.

I remember Whitehead's talk of "servants rushing up and down the stairs" but she was only revealing a fraction of its import.

This major dance piece could not have happened without the generosity and faith of Sir James Wallace in funding this residency.

"It's a very important residency," says Whitehead, and she should know, having held similar posts at Alexandra and Wellington.

Living for three months above the Homestead's splendid art collection, she draws parallels between reaching out as a composer and Wallace sharing his art with the community, "making the art so accessible which is very important in this country".

Whitehead's music, too, has moved on from the cerebral works of her earlier years. "I started writing at the height of modernism but, after I had breast cancer, I turned to writing more spontaneously." She has learned to loosen her composer's reins, allowing musicians such as jazz pianist Judy Bailey, taongo puoro maestro Richard Nunns and the three musicians involved in the new dance work, to add their own improvisations. "It's important that you give musicians something structured to do. Yet they also need the freedom to be less structured, according to my directions.

"There are improvised sections in the new dance piece which means dancers can sing and musicians can dance in an environment where they feel comfortable."

This woman, whose works range from the simplest of unaccompanied waiata to the great orchestral song of Alice, premiered by Helen Medlyn with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in 2003, has concerns about composers and their music in the 21st century. "We live in marvellous times, with the whole history of music to draw on, but there are dangers," she says.

"I do worry that music in our universities has come to be seen as research and not as exploring something new. There are many ways of being original and I don't like the fact that so much contemporary music feels contained within these institutions. It should just be one part of a bigger spectrum."

- NZ Herald

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