Composer and electronic pioneer Douglas Lilburn is to be inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame. Graham Reid looks back at his life and legacy ... and a possible connection with a well-known Time Lord.

Here's a post-modern idea for an episode of Doctor Who. The good doctor finds himself in London's BBC Radiophonic Music Workshop in 1963, where techno-boffins are fiddling with primitive electronic equipment. They're creating a distinctive piece of music for a new TV series called ... Doctor Who.

And who should be there but New Zealand classical composer Douglas Lilburn.

In Doctor Who's fantasy world this isn't impossible. And Lilburn - on a study sabbatical - did visit the electronic studio around then.

Whether he heard the famous Doctor Who theme is uncertain, but he certainly returned home changed by time in electronic studios in Canada, Germany and Britain. He established the first Electronic Music Studio at Victoria University and devoted the rest of his composing life to electro-acoustic music, a giant leap for the man who'd composed the first New Zealand symphonic works and championed a distinctively "New Zealand" musical expression.


Douglas Lilburn died in 2001 as this country's acknowledged grandfather of classical music. But he made such a dramatic change of musical direction in the last decades of his life that fellow composer Ross Harris would write, "In the early 1960s few imagined that [Lilburn] would renounce the musical idioms which he had already mastered and dedicate the final years of his composing life to this strange new world."

But Lilburn had often sought to realise the sound of the NZ landscape in his compositions. The possibilities of electronic music, which let him replicate birdsong, waves, wind, rivers and rain, and incorporate taped sounds from the natural world, was a revelation.

Lilburn in the electronic music studio at Victoria University, Wellington in 1969. Picture / Alexander Turnbull Library

Douglas Gordon Lilburn - born in Whanganui in 1915 - is this month being inducted into the Australasian Performing Rights Association's (APRA) New Zealand Music Hall of Fame, which is not only fitting but belated, given Lilburn was a prime mover behind the organisation.

More than a composer, Lilburn was an influential teacher, an advocate for composers to hold copyright on their work, and a generous benefactor. Not bad for a self-described "myopic bookworm" from Drysdale Station near Pukeroa (population about 50 when he was born) who didn't finish his music degree.

When awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Otago in 1969, he'd shaped the way at least two generations of classical musicians thought about their place in New Zealand's cultural life.

Lilburn initially studied journalism in Christchurch but quickly shifted to music. At primary school he'd had rudimentary piano lessons and sang in the choir; at boarding school near Oamaru he was the school orchestra's pianist and played the handsome pipe organ.

At Canterbury University College he hesitantly blossomed in the intellectual crucible where ideas about what it meant to be of this country were being debated.

Before completing his degree he entered the 1936 Percy Grainger composition competition and won with his tone-poem Forest, a remarkable feat given he'd never heard a live orchestra and had recently turned 20.

His prize money went towards a passage to England to study at the Royal College of Music (notably with Ralph Vaughan Williams) and while there he composed his Drysdale Overture, Festival Overture and the choral work Prodigal Country. The former two won first and second in the National Centennial Celebrations Competitions in NZ, the latter top award in the choral section.

He also composed Overture: Aotearoa for the London commemoration of the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Lilburn may have been away, but his head and heart were at home. With clouds of war rolling in, he returned to New Zealand.

His works were performed (not always to critical acclaim) but in a nation at war there was no place for a composer, so he worked on his sister's farm near Taihape until he was offered a short-term contract conducting the National Broadcasting Service String Orchestra.

He reconnected with friends and fellow-minds like Allen Curnow (for whose poem Landfall in Unknown Seas he provided a complimentary score) and - although increasingly aware of his homosexuality - had a relationship with painter Rita Angus.

The 1945 Rita Angus portrait of Lilburn (courtesy Te Papa/Rita Angus Estate)

Most notably, he addressed the inaugural Cambridge Summer School in January 1946. His talk, A Search for Tradition, is a landmark in New Zealand's cultural life as he argued for a unique musical expression: "I want to plead with you the necessity of having a music of our own, a living tradition of music created in this country, a music that will satisfy those parts of our being that cannot be satisfied by the music of other nations."

That became his musical drive, even when he later abandoned composing for instruments and engaged with boxes of wires and knobs.

Douglas Lilburn has been a long time gone. After he retired in 1979 he largely withdrew from public life but continued to advocate for composers' rights and supported friends. He pottered around in "the jungle" growing protectively around his Wellington home, watched his much-loved Coronation Street, drank cheap cask wine to excess and, by many accounts, became increasingly irritable.

As Philip Norman observed in his 2006 biography, Douglas Lilburn: His Life and Music, here was a man who spent much of his life isolated; an artist in a land with no artistic tradition; a male working in what was perceived as predominantly a female art; a composer in a country which believed worthy music came from overseas; a homosexual in a heterosexual world ...

Those electronic compositions of his later life are rarely broadcast and can't be performed, his classical work is occasionally played but, for many, it sounds dated. Just echoes of a distant era perhaps?

However, his legacy is not just in his music, but in encouraging composers to respond to this country, the politics of music (publishing, printing of scores, royalties, etc) and the generosity of the Lilburn Trust he established.

The musical voice of Douglas Lilburn might now be quieter, but he still speaks to us across the decades because this self-described "musician with the farmer's hands" articulated ideas that remain relevant.

In A Search for Tradition almost 70 years ago, he said: "We live in an international age and no one would want us to shut our doors to it, but I think there is that other danger that if we just sit back and soak it up, like so many culture-minded sponges, we are likely to lose our own identity, to become a haphazard creation of the BBC or Moscow or Hollywood, or any other of the new missionary influences at work in the world, and our own proper cultural life will remain an insignificant and unsatisfactory thing."

Watch an excerpt from the documentary Aspiring about a 1949 project when cameraman Brian Brake, poet James K Baxter, composer Douglas Lilburn and painter John Drawbridge attempted to make a 'cinematic poem' about an ascent of Mt Aspiring.

Douglas Lilburn, Memories of Early Years and Other Writing, edited by Robert Hoskins has just been published by Steele Roberts $39.99.
For more on Lilburn see and SOUNZ

Douglas Lilburn will be inducted into the NZ Music Hall of Fame at this year's APRA Silver Scroll Awards, at Wellington's TSB Arena, October 30. The full event will be streamed live on NZ Herald Online, thanks to Yealands Family Wines.