Cultural Storytellers: Robbie Ellis

Robbie Ellis.
Renee Liang interviews Robbie Ellis, a musical artist who crosses the boundaries between music an


Renee Liang interviews Robbie Ellis, a musical artist who crosses the boundaries between music and theatre.  Robbie is currently touring NZ and Australia with Austen Found – the Undiscovered Musicals of Jane Austen.

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I’ve talked quite a lot about collaborations and the benefits it brings.  I particularly enjoy collaborating across disciplines because it offers so much potential for a “new take” on things: all sides bring their steps to the dance, and though there’s often a bit of initial shuffling as people get in rhythm, the results can be rich and surprising.  And it’s nice when the dance continues for more than one song too. 

In a very literal sense, that’s happened with Robbie Ellis and I: we first met as theatre nerds, and then some years later Robbie set some of my poems to music.  Now we’re working on an orchestral score for actor and orchestra, which has led to some of the most exciting workshops I’ve been to yet.  I talked to Robbie about music, theatre and working as an improv artist.

Renee: How would you describe yourself?

Robbie: Broadly speaking, a musical artist. It's hard to encompass everything in one term.

Renee: What does "musical artist" mean? Unpack that a little....

Robbie:  Well, at the moment I concentrate on two main things, outside of my day-job: composing and music for improv theatre. But I've done quite a few different things in the past: I used to do a lot of musical theatre, orchestral playing, being in bands, even some acting and directing for theatre.

Renee: And you use all of those skills in your two current activities.

  Well it all feeds into each other, absolutely. It's an asset to have a really broad musical experience to accompany improv, and to a similar extent in composition as well. My dots-on-paper composition is a pretty broad church of styles.

Renee: Tell me about that.

Robbie:  My background there is the usual academic one: start "composing" in high school for School Cert to Bursary; decide I want to pursue it further; sign up to a Bachelor of Music; and study Composition, Orchestration, Electroacoustic Music etc up to Honours level.

But along the way I remain conscious that composing, even for assessment, isn't about pleasing an authority figure (i.e. teacher or lecturer).

I always tried to subvert the process: I suppose my lecturers (Eve de Castro-Robinson and John Elmsly) had seen the same sort of stunts before in other students, but when you’re studying you’ve got to inspire yourself in your own writing.

Renee: I couldn't agree more. What questions drive you at the moment?

Robbie:  Right now I don't think it's about finding my own voice... I think I've always had that. But it's more about consolidating a way of telling musical stories and making them effective. Trying to be my own dramaturg, distlling the essence... but it's a lot more abstract in music than in theatre.

For example, a dramaturg can come to the draft of a play, and his/her suggestion might be to keep the same story and same circumstances but to tell it from a different perspective. That's not too hard to imagine, but doing the same thing in music? It could be worth exploring, I suppose.

Renee: Are you using your musical skills to tell stories, or are you using theatre to make your music more effective?  Or is that irrelevant?

Robbie: That's where my theatre experience informs things: some recent works have included a piece for piano and pre-recorded voice: the music is definitely subservient to the text in that regard. Same deal with "The Lover's Knot" for actor and orchestra, which uses your text but puts my interpretation on it.

But what I meant in that scenario was finding successful pathways and "story arcs" through abstract pieces of music. And yet again I resort to theatrical and literary terms...

Renee: So maybe you're an actor trapped inside a musician's mind... or rather, a playwright trapped inside a composer's...

Robbie: Or maybe I'm an actor who's too self-conscious of physicality, so I resort to being the musical puppetmaster.

Actually actors and composers have something in common: both of those groups of artists determine the pace of delivery. And this is especially true when setting words to music, in song, opera etc.

When I set text as a composer, it's up to me to define the tempo, the stresses, the duration of each syllable. In the world of theatre, the playwright would be mad to go into that level of detail.

The playwright leaves that up to the actor, with input from the director. There are many playwrights who take huge care with their words, the rhythm of speech etc, and there are good interpreters and bad interpreters of that, but it's nowhere near the same level of specificity that you find in music, particularly “contemporary classical”.

Renee: So how does that work in improv music?

Robbie: I'd just like to clarify a semantic point here: musicians and actors both use the term "improv", often being completely unaware that the other does what they do. My stock-standard phrase in bios for the music world is "musician for improv theatre, including Theatresports". I try not to confuse it with the likes of free jazz, Vitamin S, etc - though I have done all that in the past too!

So, to answer your question, how does composing and time-setting influence playing music for improv theatre?

The essential difference is that the performers are constructing the scenario together at the same time, rather than me reacting to a pre-set text, long after it’s been written. But a big part of improv is anticipating what's going to come next... and most importantly, when the moments are going to change. Volume and balance are INCREDIBLY important things. In most improv theatre, where the performers are generally drawing laughs a lot, modulating the volume is key. Playing over the top of an audience at full applause is wildly different to accompanying a softly-spoken scene. But setting aside volume and balance issues, the more you work with particular performers, the more you'll begin to perceive when scenes are going to come to an end. In long-form "Harold"-based improv (the essential Harold is where you establish a small number of independent scenes and storylines before weaving them together over the course of the show), this becomes very important from the midpoint onwards.

Once the scenes have been established, I'm always trying to think about which scene is going to come next, which storyline haven't we seen lately, what needs to return and be advanced? My role in that scenario is bridging the two scenes: finding music that is appropriate to both what has just gone and what is about to come. And it's going with the audience as well: music subconsciously affects improv audiences, and if the performers (and lighting operator, for that matter) have left the audience laughing at the end of a scene, I instinctively try to manage the pace of the laugh by playing some music that will bring a resolution to the laugh at an appropriate time for the show to carry on.

Often performers will start a scene without speaking: object work, etc. Usually I'll accompany this, but sometimes the action can be heightened by no sound at all. And often something will happen in the scene which is a sudden break from what came before: if I've been accompanying quietly throughout the scene, a slight boost in volume before cutting off the music entirely can create a very effective "crickets" scenario - you know, when someone commits a faux pas in a Hollywood movie and all you can hear are crickets?

Renee: Ahhhh. You're letting a few of the secrets out!  Where do you learn all this?  How does one "train" to be a musical artist?

Robbie: The University of Auckland is setting up a new Improv Studies Department in a disused cleaning cupboard at 55 Symonds St... no, I'm kidding.

You learn by doing - being a part of the decision making process and the immediacy of the performance. Playing with the same people for a good while, you get to know their strengths and weaknesses - but most importantly, you get to know how they work, what their likely reactions are to be. But it’s once I moved to Wellington and met a whole new group of improvisers that I felt like I was really expanding my craft.

Renee: How did you get involved in "Austen Found"?

Robbie: Austen Found: The Undiscovered Musicals of Jane Austen began as a Penny Ashton brainchild: “Let’s do an improvised Jane Austen, but as a musical!”
She worked it up with ConArtists to debut it at the inaugural New Zealand Improv Festival in November 2008. The festival is organised through the Wellington Improvisation Troupe (WIT) - I had moved to Wellington earlier that year, but ConArtists still wanted me to play for that show!

That very first performance was a riot: I had about 90 minutes' workshop with them on the day, the first time they'd run that format with a musician, and it all seemed to hold together. (All the players there, however, were experienced improvisers and had done plenty of improv theatre singing too.)

Their first full season needed an Auckland-based muso, Ross Devereux, as did a one-off recording for Radio New Zealand (still available for download)

Those two iterations happened in 2009. Following that, Penny looked at taking it to the 2010 Adelaide Fringe Festival, and because Ross wasn't available I was asked. My very understanding bosses allowed me a month of leave without pay, and Adelaide was a real triumph: I think we averaged 95% houses, something like 12 out of the 14 performances were sold out.

And now Penny has made a STAMP season happen at The Edge. It's not so much of a problem for me to relocate from Wellington to Auckland for a couple of weeks, since I can transfer a lot of my day-job up there.

Renee: So what is your day job?

Robbie: I work for Radio New Zealand Concert in Wellington: my official title is Administrator/Producer, but I do bits and pieces of a whole lot of things for the network: producing spoken features about music, producing live music recordings, on-air continuity presentation, interviews, and administrative tasks too.

Renee: Would you say you have a nice "flow" between you day-job and what you choose to do in your artistic life?

Robbie: It's a very nice flow. They're flexible about working arrangements and when I take my leave. For things like out-of-town tours, festivals etc, the dates are known so far in advance that it's quite straightforward to arrange the time off with work.

Renee:  It sounds perfect. And how about your composing work? As well as readily helping out others, you're also quite active with your own projects. Are you ultimately heading for a traditional role as a composer?

Robbie: There aren't many people out there who maintain a "traditional role" as a composer any more: most who do work at the universities or are retired.

Even Gareth Farr, who out of all composers in New Zealand is probably the "most freelance" (bad English, but I hope I'm clear): writing works for traditional concert settings is a small minority of his time. A lot of what he does is for TV and film, and musical theatre too. Another example: Ross Harris, who now has a very busy roster of commissions, was a university lecturer for about 30 years before retiring and becoming busier than ever.

New Zealand creatives are inherently all-rounders, and I'm no exception. I could see myself maintaining a freelance career with composing in that mix, but there ain't a whole heap of money out there to do so.

There are a few residencies (the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra Composer-in-Residence; the Mozart Fellow at Otago University; the Lilburn House Residency at the NZSM), but they're only temporary appointments.
As well as that, I need to do the living-overseas thing for a few years before I get too old for working holiday visas!

Renee:  I agree we tend to be all-rounders...but is that due to opportunity, or lack of opportunity? I favour the former. Our collaborations being a case in point. Our community is so tiny, the divisions tend to become meaningless.  If we find something interesting, we work on it.

Robbie:  I agree... I've faced this dilemma since high school, spreading myself too thinly. Consequently my instrumental technique on piano, while perfectly adequate for something like improv theatre, is just not up there with a lot of other musicians in the "classical" world who have focused on that.

Renee:  But on the other hand, had you stuck to becoming a strictly classical musician, you wouldn't have done any of those things we've just been talking about.

Robbie:  Composing is time intensive, but you can do it by yourself and make your own schedule. Some improv theatre formats need workshopping, but it's nowhere near as much as bands or scripted theatre require. I suppose I’ve gravitated towards those two pursuits for reasons of time efficiency!

Renee:  Let's talk about your more scripted work.  As well as the projects we've worked on, you've also written a number of other works, for solo performers and ensembles.  That takes a fair amount of time and energy, but it also slowly builds a presence. For both our composition projects you've been the driver, and I've been happy to have your energy and reminders to push me along.  Well, for the first one I didn’t need to do much….

Robbie: The first one, Seven Banana Songs, was a very traditional scenario: composer takes poet's poems and turns them into songs for solo singer and piano. I wrote the songs specifically for Frances Moore, who I met at the 2008 Nelson Composers Workshop - that's a gathering for emerging New Zealand composers, professional performers and composer mentors. She's an amazing performer, a soprano, and I could see she had great acting and stage presence in the couple of pieces she workshopped there - so I told her "I'm going to write a piece for you!"

We'd bump into each other at different music things around Wellington, and I'd keep reiterating: "I'm going to write a piece for you!"

So when I came across your poems, I was already hunting for something to spark off a song setting. A planned recital concert on a tour with NIMBY Opera was the perfect excuse to get writing, so finally after 15 months of promises and delays, it took only 3 days to write 16 minutes of music! That's some of the fastest I've ever composed, but I'd been cogitating the texts for a number of months and had the order in place.

Renee: That's impressively fast. Though playwrights work faster... my record is 30 minutes (one act) in 4 hours.  Just takes the right balance of sleep deprivation and fear of shame at not having any material at a playreading.

Robbie: I think the comparison is a bit unfair! Playwrights generally don't write for more than one voice at a time...

Renee:  Anyway... you were saying about your orchestral work…

Robbie:  Orchestral work is a bit of a funny one in my compositional career to date.

Back in high school, I routinely wrote pieces for huge forces - a couple of orchestral pieces which I entered in young composer competitions; big band charts; something for a competition with the 7-piece chamber ensemble 175 East; incidental music for the school play which was for 8 players.

Then at university, I got so involved with all these different theatre things that the idea of allocating the time to compose for orchestra just became so daunting! I did some arrangements for orchestra as part of Orchestration courses in second year and Honours year, but no compositions.

It wasn't until I was out of uni that I forced myself to put together a few pieces, and I've written three in the last couple of years. In a sense, it's a lot easier once you have a day-job. You can just block out the time to yourself, sit somewhere with no internet access, and get the writing done. When you're at uni with constant deadline pressure, it's a lot harder.

Renee: Time management is becoming harder for me what with increasing age and increasing bandwidth.  How do you do it?

Robbie: Trying to stick to the routine and the predictable in how you live your life: and taking on gigs that are similar.
For example, producing an improv theatre show is a very simple arrangement. You know the show will start at this time, you aim to finish it at that time, props and set are minimal, lighting is predictable. It’s still the fun of performing, but without the months of pre-production stress.

And for composing: I just find that I'm good with a lot of lead-up time and cogitating. I've got a solo piano piece to write for Buz Bryant-Greene. At the moment I know the starting gestures, but I'm constantly fleshing out more and more in my head. Playing it over and over again in my head means that when I come to Sibelius (music notation software), I don't have blank page syndrome.

I pretty much never force myself to create from scratch at the computer - every time I do that, I come up with patent nonsense. But if I approach the computer with the beginnings in place in my head, I can easily keep creating.
When I’m writing big pieces for orchestra, I can't keep every last detail in my head, but I can make the small detail decisions at the computer and be happy with myself, not sweat the small stuff. Often the detail work is like solving logic puzzles – how to voice this chord, notate this rhythm, balance these instruments etc.

Renee: Do you do much editing? I've been intrigued by the workshop process with the APO for our piece, The Lover’s Knot. It seems it's very different from the theatre process - because the orchestra's time is so expensive, most of the discussion will happen afterwards, not during.

Robbie:  I always edit the detail that is wrong or hasn't worked. But in terms of large-scale structural changes: I'm usually pretty confident that it'll hold together before I hear it played. For a 10-minute piece like The Lover's Knot, which is so defined by the script, there's a pathway there and it doesn't need large changes.

If I was putting together an opera or music theatre piece, that would be a different story.  But even then, I'd probably find myself quite resistant to major change. This comes from my conviction that with enough direction from me and willingness to alter the small things to make the whole process run more smoothly, I can make it work according to my intentions. Things are almost always "yet to come together", rather than "not going to work".

Renee: That's quite different to my editing then, where the difference between draft 1 and draft 2 can be a significant change in character, or even a total change in plot.  But then I am working in a different medium.

Robbie: I'm trying to work out whether my resistance is because I've invested so much time in the detail work, or because I'm actually convinced by the essence what I'm writing. Hopefully the latter!

Renee: Do you consciously direct how you are being shaped by your practice as an artist, or do you trust that you'll find the right directions?

Robbie: I trust that I'll find the right direction. Every project is a new one: you only develop by doing more and more of it, so if one piece doesn't work then you can just write another one. There are no instant results, but it all depends on what I want to achieve in my life overall: in the future, I may be taken off in a completely different direction entirely. Whatever the right direction is, I'll find it!

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ConArtists present
Austen Found: The Undiscovered Musicals of Jane Austen
Thursday 21 to Sunday 31 October 2010
Herald Theatre, Auckland
Part of STAMP 2010

The Improvisors present
Improv - The Musical
Friday 3 & Saturday 4 December 2010
Clarence St Theatre, Hamilton
Part of Christmas at Clarence St

Written by

Renee Liang

18 Oct 2010

Renee is a writer who is exploring many ways of telling stories, including plays, short stories, poetry (which she also performs), and cross-genre collaborations with composers, musicians, sculptors and filmmakers.

Caroline Norman & fans at The Music Zoo, APO 4 Kids (supplied)
Tom Hamill talks to Renee Liang about getting in deep with the community.
Amber Curreen (Te Reo Māori team), Briar Collard (producer at Te Pou and representing team Pākeha), Edward Peni (Team Samoa) and Renee Liang (Team Canto) find some chairs.
Te Reo Māori, Samoan, and Cantonese
It's a wrap! AWF18 has smashed attendance records, with over 74,000 seats filled across six days at 144 events. Renee Liang completes her three-day marathon with final reflections.
Renee Liang attends Saturday sessions at the Auckland Writers Festival.