May Howlett, born in Subiaco, WA, in1931, won various scholarships, including a secondary studentship to study Music at Melbourne University Conservatorium (majoring in Pianoforte and Singing), graduating in 1954 with a Bachelor of Music, and obtaining a Diploma of Education the following year. She was given extra-mural coaching in composition by Arthur Nickson.
Howlett received her first commission in 1971, for a cantata to be performed at the inaugural concert of the Canberra New Music Society. She was active in recital as pianist and singer, frequently on ABC radio, in productions of the Canberra Repertory Company and the newly-formed Opera Group, as well as in running a high-profile teaching practice, and being involved with the Canberra School of Music. Six Meditations on the Katha Upanishad, performed by Gaudeamus, was well-received; she was offered the first composition scholarship at the School.
In 1973 she toured with Young Opera for the Arts Council of NSW and later appeared in an ABC TV opera production of Malcolm Williamson's Violins of St. Jacques, which later had a Royal Command screening in London. Howlett then turned to acting and for approximately the next twenty years she appeared in many top-rating TV productions and series, six films, at various music clubs as well as in stage productions ranging from contemporary drama to satirical revue, from Leagues Club musicals and cabaret to touring with Barry Humphries as associate artist (pianist), and taking her original one-woman show to Carnegie Recital Hall in New York, NY.
In 1987, Howlett was able to turn once more to composition. Another choral piece, Ashes of Roses, was performed by Gaudeamus on its Bicentennial tour. The live recording was broadcast repeatedly on 2MBS-FM as were the children's version of the opera The Boy Who Wasn't There, and the Flute Suite Exhibits, which led to recordings of other compositions for flute and a feature concert of solo and trio works performed by Ozmosis in Cork, Ireland, at UTM, KL in Malaysia (2013) and Burradoo (2014), when her first signature CD, Celebrating May, was launched.
1988 saw Howlett involved in major productions for the NSW Department of Education in the performing Arts unit as coach, director and coordinator. In 1989, she designed and initiated two State wide programs - the State Drama Camp (1989) and the State Drama Festival (1990).
In 1996, she was the recipient, with Audley Green, harpsichordist, of an artist-in-residency to complete a work-in-progress, Fantasia, for harpsichord, viola and cello at Bundanon, Arthur Boyd's Nat’l Trust property on the Shoalhaven. A string quartet, To Times Recalled, followed.
In 2006, Howlett graduated with a MA in Music from Macquarie University with a thesis entitled 'The Production of a Contemporary Chamber Opera', which was accompanied by a revised score, with piano reduction and workshop recording of her chamber opera, The Boy Who Wasn't There.
After joining Wirripang Publications in 2007, works published included two orchestral pieces, one of which was performed in New York, June 2014, by the North/South Consonance orchestra, two song cycles, pieces for French horn, clarinet and violin, solo works for violin, cello, and a long list of solo piano works, featured on a dedicated CD, May in Black and White (2015) and in recital here (2016) and overseas, performed by Italian concert pianist, Alessandra Garosi.
Whilst Howlett’s style is somewhat influenced by the works of the French Impressionists, she seeks to explore, in an unprogrammed way, divergences of key and texture occurring where a more comfortable solution is bypassed, to produce a different outcome. Larry Sitsky, writing of her music in his Australian Chamber Music collection said, “There’s always a sting in the tail.”
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