My name is Robbie Ellis – I am a musician, composer, improviser and broadcaster. Born on Auckland’s sunny North Shore, I lived in Auckland from 1984-2008, then Wellington from 2008-2012, Dunedin in 2012, and now it’s complicated.
From January 2013 I am overseas, travelling through Mexico, Cuba, the USA and Canada. In May 2013 I will settle in Auckland as an arts freelancer.
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…
- ensembles: the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, 175 East, Saxcess, the Karlheinz Company, Estrella, Chamber Vulgarus and more;
- instrumentalists: Anna McGregor, Buz Bryant-Greene, Sarah Claman, Aurélien Pétillot, John Van Buskirk, Tim Noon, Jono Sawyer, Tabea Squire and more;
- singers: Frances Moore, Daniel O’Connor, Claire Filer, Jono Palmer and more;
- conductors: Hamish McKeich, Kenneth Young, Antun Poljanich and more;
- festivals: ISCM World New Music Days, Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, Bay of Islands Festival, Festival of Colour (Palmerston North) and more;
- radio stations: Radio New Zealand Concert, ABC Classic FM, 3MBS, Radio One and more.
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).
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 songs for stand-up comedy. Sometimes they’re parodies of other songs. Those’re fun.
I’ve been part of Song Sale in both Wellington (as a writer/performer) and Dunedin (as founder/organiser/MC). 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…
I’m a specialist in music for improv theatre. If that means nothing, the two best-known names are Theatresports™ and Whose Line Is It Anyway?, however those two formats are but a small range of what is possible in improv.
The companies I’ve worked with the most are 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).
As a musician, I’ve performed a lot of full-length improvised musicals. Highlights have been multiple seasons of Austen Found: The Undiscovered Musicals of Jane Austen; tours of Improv: The Musical around New Zealand; and winning Best Comedy at the 2009 New Zealand Fringe Festival Awards for Improv: The Secondary School Musical.
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 use a 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 contributed backing tracks to Nancy Howland Walker’s very useful book Instant Songwriting (buy on Amazon), and there have been festivals galore too. I’ve performed at every New Zealand Improv Festival since its inception; at the 2009 Impro Melbourne Hallowe’en Classic, the 2010 Adelaide Fringe Festival and Improvention 2012 in Canberra; and in 2007 I did gigs with Colin Mochrie for the 20th anniversary of Theatresports in Auckland. I’ve also done two seasons of Improv FM which have been broadcast on Radio New Zealand National, which segues nicely, once again, to the next h2 header…
From February 2008 to January 2012 I worked at Radio New Zealand 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. I’ve also presented Composer of the Week, Music Alive and Young New Zealand; and 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.
That said, Radio New Zealand is a bit of a bungee-cord organisation – even when you leave, you don’t really leave. I continue to work freelance for them as a writer-presenter for The Critic’s Chair & Composer of the Week, a live broadcast presenter for Music Alive, a reviewer for Upbeat, and a musician/composer for Radio New Zealand Drama.
Might have missed a few things out…
- I am an MC/presenter-type person as well, including for Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra concerts.
- I’ve written/broadcast reviews for Theatreview, Scoop, The Critic’s Chair and Nights with Bryan Crump.
- Occasionally I do stand-up comedy. To clarify, occasionally I write comedic songs and perform them. Sometimes they even go on YouTube.
- I’ve also produced/provided music for comedians such as Penny Ashton, Sarah Harpur, The Comediettes, Derek Flores, Brad Zimmerman, and more.
- I have academic qualifications of a basic variety. BMus(Hons) in Composition and a BA/BMus in European Studies & Composition, both from the University of Auckland. I simplify it to “Music, Theatre and Languages”.
- In the past I did a lot more scripted theatre than I do now. I have acted, directed, designed sound and lit. (Lit? Yes. Past participle of “to light”.)
- What festivals have I done/been at? (Or “done been at”, if I speak Southern?) Bay of Islands, Hamilton Gardens, Rotorua, Taranaki, Festival of Colour, Wellington Fringe, New Zealand Improv Festival, Nelson, World Buskers Festival, Dunedin Fringe, Otago, Adelaide Fringe, Improvention, more. This year I add the Seattle Festival of Improvisational Theater and the Chicago Improv Festival.
- I used to play double bass for groups such as the National Youth Orchestra, Auckland Youth Orchestra, Auckland University Orchestra, St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra, Chamber Vulgarus and the Nelson Composers Workshop.
- I’ve got a soft spot for ska music: I used to be in bands called Jonny Doom & The Forcefields and The Army Of Skeggs.
- I have played the following instruments to varying degrees of competence (in alphabetical order): bass guitar, double bass, guitar, percussion, piano, trombone, trumpet.
You can email me: robbie at robbie dot co dot nz.
(Page last updated 9 January 2013.)