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She studied at the University of Auckland from 1959–62, and Victoria University of Wellington in 1963, graduating BMus Hons in 1964. She then studied composition at the University of Sydney with Peter Sculthorpe from 1964–65, graduating MMus in 1966. That same year she attended a composition course given by Peter Maxwell Davies in Adelaide and in 1967 travelled to England to continue studying with him. She worked in London composing and copying music for two years and then with the assistance of a New Zealand Arts Council grant worked in Portugal and Italy from 1969–70. For the next seven years she continued freelance composing, principally based in the UK. Her first opera Tristan and Iseult was composed in 1975 and premiered in 1978. From 1978 to 1980 she held an English academic post, having been during that time Composer in Residence for Northern Arts attached to Newcastle University.
In 1981 she returned to New South Wales, to join the staff of the Composition School at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. She was for four years Head of Composition there, before taking early retirement in 1996.
Currently she divides her time between Sydney and Dunedin. In 1999 her opera, Outrageous Fortune, won the SOUNZ Contemporary Award and she was honoured with membership to the New Zealand Order of Merit. The following year, she became one of the inaugural Artist Laureates of the New Zealand Arts Foundation and is now a governor of the organisation. During 2000 and 2001 she was Composer in Residence at the Auckland Philharmonia and her major orchestral work, The Improbable Ordered Dance, written during the Residency won the 2001 SOUNZ Contemporary Award.
Whitehead has written a wide range of music including works for solo, chamber, choral, orchestral and operatic forces, most of them direct commissions from performers and funding organisations. A number of her works have been recorded for commercial release, including a CD of her chamber works by Waiteata Press and a recording of her opera, Outrageous Fortune.
Honours and awards
In the Queen's Birthday 2008 Whitehead was appointed as a Distinguished Companion of The New Zealand Order of Merit for services to music.
In 2009 titular honours of 'Dame' and 'Sir' were restored to the New Zealand Royal Honours System. In the Special Honours 2009 Whitehead accepted the offer to redesignate the Distinguished Companion to a Dame Companion which included the appellation of 'Dame'.
- Sanders, Noel, 2010. Moon, Tide & Shoreline: Gillian Karawe Whitehead: A Life in Music. Steele Roberts Publishers, Wellington, Aotearoa, New Zealand.
- Sounz, The Centre for New Zealand Music. A biography and selected list of works.
- Australian Music Centre | Gillian Whitehead : Represented Artist
- Opera Glass: Composers: W
- The Arts Foundation | Dame Gillian Whitehead | Ngāi Terangi | DNZM, MNZM Composer
- New Zealand String Quartet | Gillian Karawe Whitehead
- Arts on Sunday, Sunday 12 December 2010 Dame Gillian Whitehead and Noel Sanders talk about their book 'Moon, Tides, and Shoreline' which explores Gillian's life.
- Arts on Sunday, Sunday 12 December 2010 With a new biography out, Dame Gillian talks about her life in music.
- Live performance of New Zealand composer Gillian Whitehead`s Tom`s Serenade by oboist Vilém Veverka and members of the Stamic Quartet on YouTube