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Gillian Whitehead (b.1941)
the improbable ordered dance (2000-01)

Performers: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Young (conductor)
Recorded by Radio New Zealand in the Wellington Town Hall
12 May 2006

Anyone even remotely interested in the history of New Zealand music in the last 50 years will be familiar with the iconic status of Gillian Whitehead, or perhaps I should say, Dame Gillian, as she became a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2008 and was granted the title, Dame, the following year. The word 'iconic' is perhaps not a term she would be comfortable with as she is one of the most modest and gentle people it's been my pleasure to know and work with. She has a beautiful depth to her vision and much of her work has a spiritual quality to it which seems to me a reflection of her as a person.

I once asked Douglas Lilburn if he thought that any of our composers' music embodied the essence and soul of our country. He referred in particular to a beautiful chamber ensemble piece that Gillian had written entitled Manutaki. I had just conducted that very piece and I couldn’t help but agree.

During a childhood spent in Whangarei near the sea amidst hills and trees, Gillian absorbed the natural world about her, especially its Māori associations. One eighth Māori, she feels strongly she belongs in New Zealand because, as she once said, "the Māori part of me goes further back than 1642, the year of the Tasman explorations".

She was born into a musical family; her father taught music and conducted the local choral society while her mother was a pianist. She began composing early and while studying at Auckland University sang in the Holy Trinity Cathedral Choir, conducted by Peter Godfrey, a valuable training in 16th- and 17th-century English choral repertoire which would serve her greatly in the future.

She spent some time with Peter Sculthorpe in Sydney before moving to London to study with Peter Maxwell Davies in 1967. In London she earned a precarious living as a copyist and yet wrote prolifically, gaining considerable attention with premiers given by Maxwell Davies' contemporary music group The Fires of London.

In 1981 she joined the staff of the Composition School at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and was Head of Composition there for four years. Since. taking early retirement in 1996, she's divided her time as a free-lance composer between Sydney and Dunedin.

The work we're going to hear tonight is The Improbable Ordered Dance which was written during 2000 and 2001 when she was Composer in Residence at the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. It won her the 2001 SOUNZ Contemporary Award.

In his 1974 collection The Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas wrote a memorable essay devoted to the spectrum of sound made by all living creatures. He believed that as well as using sound for functional communication, all creatures have the urge to make some kind of music. The rhythmic sounds emitted by all creatures might, Lewis suggests "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." It was this essay that inspired this piece.

Its basis is the twelve possible three-note sets of the Western twelve-tone system, which here form molecular structures – harmonic, textural, gestural, melodic – some simple, some complex, often symmetrical. The piece could be regarded as part of a classical tradition, in that it focuses primarily on balance of pitch and orchestration rather than on gesture or programmatic elements, and instead of exploiting extremes, Whitehead has written well within the instruments' ranges.

The work is in a single movement and begins with a ghostly chant-like melody over a drone; this recurs in different forms several times during the piece. A transition section based on transformed sounds of nocturnal birds leads to a metrically free ‘dawn chorus’.

There comes a chorale-like passage in the brass accompanied by shimmering strings and random woodwind bird calls, which leads to an almost ancient and modal sounding  invocation from the winds against a backdrop of violin harmonics and random rhythms from 14 tom-toms. This builds toward an extremely urgent rapid section where Whitehead sets parallel harmonic movement in a rhythmically agile texture.

This is all part of what Whitehead describes as a restless upward-moving continuum which can never settle nor ever finish. It eventually subsides into a mournful cello solo before recycling, combining and finally dissipating the earlier material.

Much of Whitehead's music is redolent with the influence of natural sounds: "birds, the sound of wind from nothing, the sound of rain and the great sense of space and the changing light", as she put it. This evocative work demonstrates all of this admirably.

More about the improbable ordered dance on the SOUNZ website