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by William Dart

New Zealand composers enjoy a thriving professional scene. They work in diverse styles, influenced by the environment, history, politics and Māori and Pacific cultures.

Establishing a new tradition

Composition of European-style classical music began in New Zealand in the 19th century. Classical music was introduced as part of the culture of British settlers, and was gradually supplemented by the work of local composers.

Alfred Hill

Australian-born Alfred Hill (1870–1960), New Zealand’s first important professional composer, was nurtured by this lively musical environment. He lived in New Zealand until 1897, apart from a period (1887–91) studying in Leipzig, where he developed a cosmopolitan compositional style that was influenced by the works of Schumann and Dvořák. A 2007 revival of Hill’s 1906 Commemorative Ode did not reveal the composer at his best, but contributed to a reassessment of his importance.

A musical encounter

A musical interface between Europe and the Pacific was inevitable, as first encounters showed. When Abel Tasman was greeted in Golden Bay in December 1642 by ‘an instrument of which the sound was like that of a Moorish trumpet,’ music was answered by music. ‘We then ordered one of our sailors (who had some knowledge of trumpet-blowing) to play them some tunes in answer,’ the Dutch explorer wrote.1

Hill sought to reconcile the music of Māori and Pākehā. However, works such as his 1903 opera Tapu suffered from a quaint libretto and a conservative musical idiom. Hill’s greatest cross-cultural coup came in his popular 'Waiata poi' (1904), which incorporated Māori chant and had the piano imitating the rap of the poi itself. It was recorded by artists from Ana Hato and Gracie Fields to Īnia Te Wīata and the Howard Morrison Quartet, and in the 2000s it still had a place in kapa haka (traditional Māori performance art) repertoire.

Douglas Lilburn

Douglas Lilburn (1915–2001) is unchallenged as the father of New Zealand composition. His background was non-musical, but studies at Canterbury University College led him into composition. After winning the Percy Grainger Prize in 1936, Lilburn opted for further training in England with Ralph Vaughan Williams, and then returned to Christchurch. Lilburn’s early work became associated with the rise of cultural nationalism in the 1940s; in Christchurch he made friends with emerging poets Denis Glover, Allen Curnow and D’Arcy Cresswell, and artists Rita Angus and Leo Bensemann. He established his name with works like Overture: Aotearoa (1940) and Landfall in unknown seas (1942).

Lilburn’s characteristic, rhythmically charged style informed his three symphonies, including the taut, single-movement Symphony No. 3 (1961), one of his last acoustic works before he turned to electroacoustic composition. His writings, including A search for tradition, a 1946 address to the first Cambridge Music School, proved prescient. Lilburn was also an influential teacher at Victoria University of Wellington between 1947 and 1980.

Later composers were, like Lilburn, supported by the emergence of professional music ensembles, including a national orchestra, and the growth of university music departments.

Musical legacies

Both Douglas Lilburn and Edwin Carr wanted to provide financial assistance for promising composers. Lilburn set up the Lilburn Trust in 1984: it funds many recording projects, publications and performances, and supports a composers’ residency. Carr left money in his will that supports a foundation named after him. It provides scholarships for composers doing further study.

Edwin Carr

Edwin Carr (1926–2003) excelled in lighter music such as the ballet The snowmaiden (1963), but was also an able symphonist. His Symphony no. 2 (1983), titled ‘The exile’, referred to the German refugee poet Karl Wolfskehl, whose work also inspired the composer’s 1977 Five Wolfskehl songs.

David Farquhar

Like Carr, David Farquhar (1928–2007) wrote symphonies and lighter works such as theatre music, including his well known dances for a 1953 production of Ring round the moon. Farquhar’s Symphony no. 2 (1982), cast in one movement like Lilburn’s third symphony, shared the older composer’s sinewy tenaciousness.

Larry Pruden

The finest work of Larry Pruden (1925–82) dates from the 1950s. It included the orchestral Soliloquy for strings (1952) and Harbour nocturne (1954).

Dorothea Franchi

Dorothea Franchi (1921–2003) was a harpist and pianist as well as a composer. Her 1949 Four pioneer portraits for mezzo-soprano and piano stood proud in male-dominated territory.

John Ritchie

In Christchurch John Ritchie (1921–2014) boosted the city’s music during his decades in the university’s music department. The neoclassical charm of his 1957 Concertino for clarinet and string orchestra has not waned.

Ronald Tremain

A significant teacher, Ronald Tremain (1923–98) emigrated to Canada in 1970, leaving a modest catalogue of elegantly scored works such as the unflinchingly modernist Five epigrams for twelve solo strings (1967).

Anthony Watson

Anthony Watson (1933–73), the first of the University of Otago’s Mozart Fellows in 1970, favoured a more international, modernist approach. His 1960 Prelude and allegro for string orchestra looked to Bartók and Hindemith. His 1969 Sonata for solo viola was a visceral protest against the Vietnam War.


New influences, 1960 onwards

By the 1960s women composers were more visible and audible. From this time, too, composition was often influenced by environmental and cross-cultural concerns, and interest in Māori music and instruments revived. The establishment of the Composers’ Association of New Zealand in 1974 was an important milestone.

Annea Lockwood

Annea Lockwood made her reputation in London’s avant-garde scene of the 1960s and 1970s. After emigrating to the United States, her 1982 two-hour sound installation A sound map of the Hudson River showed a move towards environmentally inspired sonic art.

Jenny McLeod

The magnificently sprawling Earth and sky (1968) was the signature work of Jenny McLeod. This theatre piece, based on Māori creation legends, used both young musicians and professionals, in idioms ranging from chant to sophisticated instrumental writing. Later she pursued a more populist style in the film score The silent one (1984), and embraced Māori issues in her massive choral work He iwi kotahi tatou (1993) and the opera Hōhepa (2012).

Gillian Whitehead

Gillian Whitehead’s oeuvre includes major orchestral scores such as Resurgencies (1989) and operas including Outrageous fortune (1998). She relinquished her cerebral approach of the 1960s and 1970s for more open, spontaneous methods, calling on the improvisatory skills of Richard Nunns and others. Nunns’ taonga puoro (traditional Māori instruments) featured in many works, including the poignant 1999 Hineraukatauri.

John Rimmer

The New Zealand landscape proved a potent force in the music of John Rimmer. Rimmer’s major orchestral scores ranged from his 1980 Concerto for viola and orchestra to the 2002 Europa, a concerto for orchestra and brass band. On the electroacoustic side, there were 10 ground-breaking Compositions for various performers and electronic sounds (1968–77). Fleeting Images (1985) used granular synthesis to catch the subtle inflections of nature.

Ross Harris

Early on, Ross Harris balanced serious and popular. As well as producing complex instrumental and vocal compositions he wrote the soundtrack for the 1977 television series The governor. He also joined in freewheeling live performance with Jonathan Besser as the duo Free Radicals. His 1984 Waituhi – the life of the village, with librettist Witi Ihimaera, was an ambitious operatic venture, and his collaborations with poet Vincent O’Sullivan were significant. In addition, five symphonies, two concertos and other works were commissioned by the country’s two major orchestras.

Cross-cultural composing

The gamelan, a traditional musical ensemble from Indonesia using instruments such as gongs, drums, metallophones and xylophones, and tuned according to two different systems, has strongly influenced several New Zealand composers. In particular, it features prominently in the output of Jack Body, and is also central to some of Gareth Farr’s work.

Jack Body

Much of the music of Jack Body looked to the East, including his award-winning electroacoustic work Musik dari jalan (1975), the 1987 Three transcriptions written for the American Kronos Quartet and his opera Alley (1997), based on the life of Rewi Alley. Body was unstinting in encouraging other composers, organising projects such as Sonic Circus events in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. His enthusiasm for the transcription of other musics culminated in the Songs and dances of desire: in memoriam Carmen Rupe (2013).

John Cousins

John Cousins was best known for electroacoustic work and performance art. His 1979 Sleep exposure involved taped material, often evocatively sourced from real life.

Lyell Cresswell

Lyell Cresswell moved to Scotland after his New Zealand studies, establishing an independent European reputation. His terse, sometimes rugged style could reveal an idiosyncratic humour and his numerous local commissions included the brilliant 2006 Alas! How swift for trumpet and orchestra.

Consolidation, 1980s onwards

From the 1980s composers benefited from the increasing professional status of music in New Zealand. Significantly, not all of these composers found it necessary to study overseas.

Christopher Blake

Christopher Blake established himself in the early 1980s with a series of orchestral works, culminating in Symphony the islands (1992) and Northland panels (2000–7) four symphonic poems. Blake’s rough-hewn, direct style and sense of musical architecture also served him well in his 1993 opera Bitter calm.

Dorothy Buchanan

Dorothy Buchanan wrote sympathetically for young musicians, with an immediacy of idiom that made for effective theatre works. These included short operas inspired by three of Katherine Mansfield’s stories.

John Elmsly

John Elmsly was a fastidious craftsman, with an extensive output. Highlights were the politically aware In Memoriam: Rainbow Warrior (1987) and a series of highly approachable Dialogues for various solo instruments with piano.

Chris Cree Brown

The more radical Christchurch-based Chris Cree Brown drew inspiration from the natural wind sounds of Aeolian harps and created an electroacoustic diary in his impressive 2008 sonic collage, Pilgrimage to Gallipoli. He returned to the concert hall with the subtle variational recastings of Memories apart (2001) and the brilliantly orchestrated Celestial bodies (2004).

Anthony Ritchie

Anthony Ritchie favoured a traditional compositional approach and his music was well represented on concert schedules. Extremely industrious, his output included three symphonies and a 2004 opera, The God boy, based on the Ian Cross novel of the same name. Ritchie’s voice was strongest in fluently expressed chamber music such as the 2006 Clarinet quintet.

David Hamilton

Auckland composer David Hamilton, unlike many colleagues, did not hold a university position. He wrote prolifically, always in an approachable style. Large-scale works ranging from the 1985 Nix Olympica for chamber ensemble to the 2005 Missa Pacifica were influenced by minimalism, and the composer enjoyed an international reputation for his shorter, welcoming choral pieces.

Martin Lodge

Martin Lodge had success with his Symphony no. 1 (flowers of the sea, 1994) and a series of shorter orchestral works (the 1997 Hinterland and the 2002 Aër). Later the Hamilton-based composer extended his interests to film (the 1997 multimedia After Dürer) and a number of works with taonga puoro such as the 2003 Toru.

Returning composers

In the 2010s New Zealand expatriate composers Juliet Palmer, Dorothy Ker and Jeroen Speak returned to take up Lilburn residencies. Palmer, based in Canada, explored collaborative and interdisciplinary projects, while Ker and Speak addressed, with individuality, the potential of intense timbral subtleties.

Eve de Castro-Robinson

The work of Eve de Castro-Robinson is well represented in several CDs of her music. Her 1991 residency with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra occasioned a Triple clarinet concerto, with the timbral invention and quirky wit that were staple features of her style. Four pieces titled Chaos of delight showed her ingenuity with colours and textures using restricted resources. The 2012 LEN LYE the opera transferred these skills to a larger canvas with striking theatrical success.

Michael Williams

Michael Williams, after a number of characterful instrumental commissions, achieved a stage success with his 1998 one-act opera The prodigal child. A full-scale opera, The juniper passion (2008) received a series of performances in Italy in 2013.

Composing a book

A versatile composer and musician, Philip Norman is also an accomplished writer. His 2006 biography Douglas Lilburn: his life and music won the biography section of the 2007 Montana Book Awards.

Other composers

Other composers with distinctive styles who emerged during this time included:

  • Christopher Marshall, a talented composer of highly accessible choral and instrumental music
  • David Griffiths, a leading baritone who wrote well for voice, especially in choral works such as Five Landscapes (1992)
  • Philip Norman, who penned popular stage works such as Footrot Flats (1983) and A Christmas carol (1993)
  • Peter Scholes, the energetic Music Director of Auckland Chamber Orchestra, who wrote explorative scores such as Wireless for clarinet (1987) alongside film scores and ballet music
  • Leonie Holmes, who wrote fluently for specific commission, revealing orchestral ingenuity in Frond (2004)
  • Helen Fisher, who composed an outstanding 1989 choral piece Pounamu and some powerful chamber music, as well as the full-scale multicultural choral work, Taku wana – the enduring spirit (1997)
  • Nigel Keay, who made his mark with music of textural intensity
  • Kenneth Young, an experienced conductor, who wrote some fine, if conservative, orchestral scores
  • Helen Bowater, who took a daring colourist approach in scores like the orchestral Urwachst (2002)
  • Brigid Ursula Bisley, whose music was characterised by emotional intimacy, particularly evident in her eloquent song-cycle Come back safely (1995).

Resounding reputations

International recognition

In the 1990s two composers increased the profile of New Zealand music both in this country and beyond.

John Psathas

Wellington’s John Psathas made an impact with his singular style, deriving its rhythmic momentum from jazz, funk and his own Greek heritage. He impressed British percussionist Evelyn Glennie with his Matre’s dance (1991), and the influential American saxophonist and composer Michael Brecker chose to premiere Psathas’s 2000 saxophone concerto Omnifenix.

Psathas received weighty commissions, providing music for the 2004 Olympic ceremonies. This echoed his percussion concerto, View from Olympus, written for Glennie two years earlier.

Although Psathas’s music often exuded extroverted energy there was gentler poetry in the hypnotically wavering chords of his 1996 Abhisheka for string quartet.

Gareth Farr and Lilith Lacroix

Gareth Farr’s compositions were heavily influenced by his training as a percussionist and his innate theatricality. So was Drumdrag, a show starring his drag queen alter ego, Lilith Lacroix. It was billed as ‘booming bass drums, crazy costumes, death-defying dance, terrifying tom-toms, preposterous platforms, big bad bongos and wild wacky wigs!’1

Gareth Farr

Gareth Farr, also Wellington-based, and a professional percussionist, shared Psathas’ preoccupation with rhythm. Sometimes inspired by his alter ego, drag queen Lilith, he secured a reputation for spectacular orchestral canvases, starting with his 1996 From the depths sound the great sea gongs.

The sound world of Indonesian gamelan informed his 1995 Kembang suling and few could weave textures as diaphanously as Farr in works such as his 2007 piano piece, The horizon from Owhiro Bay.

Farr’s theatrical instincts ensured the success of his 2005 score for the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s The wedding, and his skill in melding Western instruments and taonga puoro were revealed in the 2008 He poroporoaki.

Local significance

Exciting rhythms and novel effects also featured prominently in the work of several composers whose impact was more local than international.

Philip Dadson

Philip Dadson first came to notice when his percussion ensemble, From Scratch, launched its first album, Rhythm works, in 1979. He wrote for orchestra (a fanfare, Maya, for Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in 1999) and created individual sound worlds with exotic and often fantastical hand-fashioned instruments.

David Downes

David Downes’s work ranged widely in style. CDs like the 1994 Pavilion navigated rock, ambient and new age idioms. He also brilliantly engineered instrumental pieces such as Defense mechanism (2013).

Victoria Kelly

The resourceful Victoria Kelly wrote for the concert hall, including a lyrical Sono (2000) for NZTrio. She became best known for apt and evocative music for the screen, such as Magik and Rose (1999) and Under the mountain (2009).


Young composers, 2000 onwards

In the 2000s a new generation of composers benefited from the committed and stimulating teaching in the country’s various universities. They were also encouraged by new prizes, scholarships and residencies and by opportunities to workshop their ideas.

Michael Norris

Michael Norris showed a remarkable versatility. He could be cerebral, as reflected in his essays for publications such as Canzona (the yearbook of the Composers’ Association), and works such as his 2006 Volti for piano and orchestra reflected this. Yet he could also offer the post-Baroque musings of Timedance (2012), a collaboration with choreographer and filmmaker Daniel Belton. His Dirty pixels (2004), recorded and extensively played in concert by NZTrio, was a work of some intellectual complexity, yet the effect in performance was one of ebullient energy.

Chris Watson

Chris Watson favoured complex musical language. He impressively marshalled large orchestral textures in works like Pivotal orbits (2002) as well showing an aptitude for fluttering, evanescent chamber music such as . . . vers libre . . . (2002).

Philip Brownlee

Philip Brownlee’s music was also complex, revealing pointillistic delicacy in pieces such as Sparks among the geysers (2003). He wrote imaginatively for solo instruments — in for instance Harakeke (1999), a work for flute — and composed haunting electroacoustic music.

Dylan Lardelli

Dylan Lardelli, a guitarist, wove sonic filigree that demanded musicianship of exemplary precision, notably in Four fragments (2002). The work won him the Young Composer’s Award at the 2003 Asian Composer’s League.

Anthony Young

Anthony Young’s practical experience in musical theatre and sensitivity to the setting of texts led to an effective song-cycle, Three songs on poems by Jean Toomer (2006) and a prize-winning short opera, Ulla’s odyssey (2012).

Samuel Holloway

Samuel Holloway found international success with his 2005 piano trio Stapes. Like Terrain vague (2007), his contribution to pianist Stephen De Pledge’s 2008 CD, Landscape preludes, this was an intensely finessed score. Holloway also explored a more open-ended approach, allowing performers to contribute more directly to the shape of the piece, for instance in Sillage (2010).

Chris Gendall

Chris Gendall employed a buoyant orchestral palette in works like his 2011 Gravitas and the 2012 ‘surround-sound’ Triple concerto. His 2007 Gung-ho, a virtuoso showpiece for trombone, piano and percussion, revealed his ingenuity with smaller forces.

Chris Adams

Chris Adams has held a number of important residencies, including the Mozart Fellowship in 2010–11, and wrote music of broad appeal, often with political overtones.

Working with an orchestra

As a major supporter of New Zealand compositions, the Auckland Philharmonia has supported a Composer-in-Residence since 1990. During the 12-month residency the chosen composer helps implement the orchestra’s contemporary music programmes. Since 2007 the orchestra has also had a Young Composer-in-Residence, who writes chamber works for the musicians.


Some of the new generation of composers were recognised by major awards. Dylan Lardelli and Anthony Young shared an Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra residency in 2004. The prestigious SOUNZ Contemporary Award was won in 2012 by Alex Taylor and in 2013 by Karlo Margetic.

Workshops held by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra recorded some extremely promising pieces from such names as Claire Cowan, Robin Toan, Celeste Oram, Alexandra Hay, Tabea Squire and Jeremy Mayall. Mayall’s music embraced jazz, rock and turntabling, forging connections that recharged the composing community.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: William Dart, 'Composers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 June 2024)

He kōrero nā William Dart, i tāngia i te 22 o Oketopa 2014