University of Otago 2012 Mozart Fellow Robbie Ellis. Photo by Linda Robertson.
From composing orchestral music to performing comedy and
improv, Robbie Ellis is a versatile musician. Charmian Smith
talks to the 2012 Mozart Fellow at the University of
When Robbie Ellis learned he was to be 2012 Mozart Fellow at
the University of Otago, he offered to write music for many
different people, so it's been a busy year.
Not only has he been composing for orchestras and other
groups, he also performs, writes songs, accompanies Dunedin
improvisation troupe Improsaurus and runs Song Sale. Song
Sale is a monthly event at which people can, for $5,
commission songwriters and performers to write and perform
music on any topic or in any genre they wish. The musicians
go out the back, write their piece and perform it later in
the evening. The last Song Sale for the year takes place next
Thursday, which happens to be Ellis' 28th birthday.
"It's an idea that started in Wellington last year and I
liked the concept so much I thought, 'let's bring it to
It's good fun and gives an innovative performance opportunity
to different types of musicians and creative people -
composition students, composers, singer-songwriter types,
comedians, theatre improvisers - and combine them all in
together. Not everyone can play an instrument but some are
lyrically clever,'' he says.Sometimes he revisits a song, as
with his root vegetable opera.
"Someone wanted a song about root vegetables in the style of
opera and I performed it again at a lunchtime concert in
Marama Hall. It's a massively overblown tragic thing. I had
Corwin Newall as piano accompanist, as I needed all my powers
for my untrained voice to hit high notes and present it in a
very operatic, overblown way, all the while articulating my
words so that everyone can understand everything, unlike a
lot of modern English-language opera,'' he says.
Ellis says he would rather write a musical than an opera -
although he admits the dividing line between the two can be
difficult to draw.
"Basically, if you put on an opera, you are going to have 30
of your colleagues and mates come and say, 'that was
interesting'. But if you put on a musical, you can start
engaging with the wider world and publicise it as a theatre
event and also, you can escape all the horrible snobbery
around using microphones, because you just use them. And
maybe the language you are writing can be comprehensible for
the audience, as it's in their native language. The number of
times I've gone to operas which are in English and the words
are not comprehensible - I don't know why people do that,''
"The type of voice training required for opera doesn't make
sense in a world where we've developed instruments to such a
point where they are louder than what any reasonable human
physiology can balance with, but yet we are still turning out
voice students to try to compete with that. It distorts their
voice and makes the language sound very strange and it's not
the sort of thing I want to be associated with too much. It
doesn't make sense to me, when you can mike people up.''
This year he has written three orchestral works. The largest
piece is Relish in immature bombast, a concerto for
organ, drum kit and orchestra, which will be performed at an
Auckland Philharmonia concert in the Auckland Town Hall on
May 23, the culmination of a year-long collaboration allowing
composers to explore the challenges of writing for organ and
"With a drum kit in it, it's got a sort of funk rock bass to
it. The big difficulty we've had is that you've got an
orchestra that knows how to play together, then you've got an
organ that speaks slower than the orchestra and a drum kit
that speaks faster than the rest of the orchestra, and
getting those two to be in time with each other - recently we
had two decent sessions with the drum kit player and organist
nailing the piece together before they meet the orchestra. It
reached a point in the last session that we managed a full
run of the 12-minute piece uninterrupted, with no screwing
up. It's got to the point where they are secure enough that
they are discussing what they are going to wear in the
concert. The current thinking is brightly coloured suits and
Ellis also hopes to complete a work for Dunedin duo Tessa
Petersen and John Van Buskirk, and is working on music for
comedienne Penny Ashton's one-woman Jane Austen show that he
will record in Albany Street Studios. He is one of the few
New Zealand composers who are also involved in comedy and
improvisation and plans to travel to the US and Canada next
year to explore the improv scene, rather than return to his
former job in Wellington as a producer for the Concert
programme of Radio New Zealand.Ellis started composing while
at high school in Auckland, it "being less about the
front-incentive-virtuosic-performing side and more about the
puppet-master-producer-concepts-and-ideas side'', he said.
"I found I had some good ideas and it was worthwhile keeping
lthough he composes in whatever musical style he considers
appropriate, he says he likes to think that whatever he is
writing "has him in it'' and people who know enough of his
music will recognise that.
He loves putting "wonkiness'' into his work, something he
calls "out-of-tune tonality'' which he describes as something
"you know is meant to be fitting in with some sort of tonal
framework, but it sounds wonky''.He likes melodies that
aren't immediately singable but are distinctive, and he loves
cramming many syllables into a bar or eliding syllables to
make new words.
"I like to make it sound authentic. I don't want to distort
people's patterns of speaking too much just to fit it into
singing, or what we think singing should be. It should always
bear relation to how people talk,'' he says.
He identifies with Prokofiev's sense of fun and rhythmic
drive and sense of melody. He'd also like to emulate the
young Prokofiev, who was the enfant terrible at the St
Petersburg conservatory. He entered his first piano concerto
in a competition and everyone hated it, Ellis says.
"That's the sort of fun I really love, though I probably want
to be [an enfant terrible] more than I actually am.''
See it, hear it
The last Song Sale for the year is at 7pm on December 13 at
The Church on Dundas St, Dunedin.
Ellis says he will perform the 25 songs he has written this