About Me

Photo by Kate Little.

Photo by Kate Little.

My name is Robbie Ellis – I am a musician, composer, musical director, improviser, musico-comedic type, broadcaster, music producer and other. Born in New Zealand, I lived in Auckland (North Shore) from 1984-2008, then Wellington from 2008-2012, Dunedin in 2012, and Auckland (Grey Lynn) 2013-2014. In January 2015 I settled in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, United States of America, The Universe.

Composer

I write music in a genre that can’t figure out its own name. Some call it “contemporary classical”, some call it “new music”, “acoustic music”, “concert music”, “art music”, “serious music”, “dots on paper”, “slounge music”… I prefer to call it “it music”. (You know it when you hear ‘it’.)

It’s writing for orchestras, chamber ensembles, solo instruments, voice, other bits and pieces etc etc. Mostly acoustic instruments, mostly notated.

My concert music has been performed by the following…

My compositions are represented by SOUNZ, The Centre for New Zealand Music. You can browse, preview and buy sheet music from them. Here’s my profile, which has a more sensible composer bio than this. Some of my pieces have recordings on Soundcloud – here’s my page.

I’m a member of the Composers Association of New Zealand (CANZ) and the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA), and a graduate of the University of Auckland School of Music (BA/BMus 2003-2006; BMus(Hons) 1st Class 2007).

I was the 2012 University of Otago Mozart Fellow in Composition, based in Dunedin. I was also the 2012 Auckland Youth Orchestra Composer-in-Residence.

Songwriter

All of the above sounds pretty classical-based. That said, I do write songs and such. You know, singable, accessible melodies with words attached. Sometimes they’ve been for bands I’ve been in, often they’ve been comedic songs for me to perform from the piano, or in cabaret or stand-up comedy settings.

I ran Song Sale Auckland in 2014 and I used to run Song Sale Dunedin in 2012, and I’ve also performed in Song Sale Wellington. These are monthly gigs where any audience member can commission a song on a chosen topic/theme/title/genre etc. One of a group of songwriter-performers goes out back, writes the song, performs it that night. It’s a great way to get writing with few reservations and preconceptions.

It’s not unheard of to improvise songs on the spot, but this format allows the creators to have a bit more time to refine things. Did someone say “improvise”? Well that segues nicely to the next h2 header…

Music Director

I’m a musical director for improv, sketch, comedy musicals… the whole broad comedy theatre scene. There’s a lot of it in Chicago, and I’m doing a lot of it.

Regular improv shows of mine are VAMP at MCL Chicago (musical short-form), StoryTown (improv for kids), and ComedySportz Chicago (short-form). I am on the faculty of the Second City Training Center as a teacher and music director, and I used to play for Hitch*Cocktails at The Annoyance Theater.

I also did two cruise ship contracts for Second City aboard the Norwegian Dawn and the Norwegian Breakaway.

I’ve also co-written a few original comedy musicals: Self-Starters, Ask Your Doctor, The Great Annoyance Melodrama and Vaudeville Revue, Camp Psychopathways, and Independence Day, or Alien Locusts from Beyond the Stars.

For sketch: I’ve helped write for Legends in the Game, other independent sketch shows, and the Second City Training Center’s Writing Program.

The companies I’ve worked with the most, however, are all back in New Zealand: ConArtists (Auckland), The Improvisors (Wellington) and Wellington Improvisation Troupe (WIT). During my time living in the South Island, I performed regularly with both Improsaurus (Dunedin) and The Court Jesters (Christchurch).

I contributed backing tracks to Nancy Howland Walker’s very useful book Instant Songwriting (buy on Amazon), and there have been festivals galore too. I performed at the first six years of the New Zealand Improv Festival; at the 2009 Impro Melbourne Hallowe’en Classic, the 2010 Adelaide Fringe Festival and Improvention 2012 & 2013 in Canberra; and in 2007 I did gigs with Colin Mochrie for the 20th anniversary of Theatresports in Auckland.

Most of the time I’m the only musician, working with a larger number of actors and a lighting operator. When I’m the only muso, I usually use a one- or two-keyboard setup. When there are other musicians, you can add a lot more instruments: I’ve incorporated everything from the conventional (guitar, egg shaker) to the moderately unconventional (trumpet, saxophone, kazoo) to the downright “What on earth are they doing in the theatre that day?” (xylophone, didjeridu).

I’ve worked on a lot of full-length improvised musicals. Highlights have been multiple seasons of Austen Found: The Undiscovered Musicals of Jane Austen (Adelaide Fringe 2010 & Auckland 2010); Gary Starlight’s Christmas Special with Jeff Clark (Christchurch, 2013); tours of Improv: The Musical around New Zealand (2008-2011); and winning Best Comedy at the 2009 New Zealand Fringe Festival Awards for Improv: The Secondary School Musical. Also, I provided music for two seasons of Improv FM which have been broadcast on Radio New Zealand National. That segues nicely to the next h2 header!

Broadcaster

From February 2008 to January 2012 I worked at RNZ Concert in Wellington as a producer and presenter. I was the series producer for The Critic’s Chair, the weekly review of recently released recordings; the producer of Podcast Classics, a monthly series of free downloads; and I was Kenneth Young’s producer for Resound, a project to bring recordings out of Radio New Zealand Concert’s archive and put them on the web for all to hear.

I regularly presented Sound Lounge, and I worked for Upbeat as a feature-maker, fill-in producer and fill-in presenter. In August 2011 I completed a major three-part documentary series called Making Maestros, focusing on the inaugural NZSO Conductor Workshops and the state of conductor development in New Zealand. This won me one of two New Zealand Radio Awards in 2012. Now that I no longer work for RNZ, I like to call them “posthumous” recognition.

Since leaving my full-time position, I’ve continued to work for RNZ: presenting live concert broadcasts from the Auckland Town Hall, writing and presenting for The Critic’s Chair and Composer of the Week, as a part-time producer for RNZ Concert on a temporary contract, and as a composer and musician for RNZ Drama.

Now that I’m Chicago, I work for 98.7 WFMT as a fill-in presenter, where I host Sunday afternoons and one-off shows called Classical Cabaret.

The regular definition of “music director”

In the musical theatre world, I’ve done some things. I’ve been a music director for Dream Big Performing Arts and Windy City Music Theater in Chicago, and Tim Bray Productions on Auckland’s North Shore. Both of these companies have plenty to do with children.

I was also the Artistic Co-ordinator for Short & Sweet Song 2014 in Auckland (a festival of 10-minute mini-musicals), and I’ve participated in that festival as a composer and music director too.

Musico-comedic type

There’s a lot of crossover here with improv music direction and songwriting, but here are things I’ve done:

  • Stand-up comedy. Mostly performing songs.
  • Augmented Fourth: a musical comedy duo with Sam Smith that featured in the 2014 New Zealand International Comedy Festival.
  • Song Sale: as mentioned above.
  • Politics The Opera, with my erstwhile flatmate Andrew Grenon.
  • Customised songs for one-off occasions, like the 2011 Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards.
  • Odd little videos on YouTube.
  • Music production (backing tracks, incidental music) for people’s live comedy shows.
  • Whatever!

Other

Might have missed a few things out…

Contact

You can email me: robbie at robbieellis dot net. I’m also on Twitter as @ellisrobbie but I don’t use it all that much.

(Page last updated 26 June 2017.)


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