Tag Archives: Mozart Fellowship

We’re on a radio show about the arts on Sunday

15 Feb

It’s taking me all my will power to avoid writing Arts on Sunday when referring to Radio New Zealand National’s rebranded programme Standing Room Only.

Oh, Lynn Freeman’s still presenting, Simon Morris is still producing, Justin Gregory is still doing his out-and-about reports, but they’ve got a new name for 2014.

Yesterday (Friday) Andrew Grenon and I were interviewed in a pre-record for The Laugh Track, a segment where ostensibly funny people get to select their favourite comedy. They’re going to play bits of our videos under the banner Politics The Opera. Here are those videos:

Our other-people music choices start with Victor Borge’s pastiche of Mozart opera, specifically the bit about tenor arias from 3:47:

Then Corwin Newall’s amazing a cappella number Bass, which I really should have asked to upload to SoundCloud or something… this was a product of Song Sale Dunedin.

Finally, Tim Minchin. Not one of his amazing wordy, wickedly funny numbers with impeccable logical constructions and syllogisms, rather a far less wordy and achingly expressive but less funny number still with impeccable logical constructions and syllogisms:

…but not this recording. The far more beautiful one from Tim Minchin vs the Sydney Symphony that was broadcast on ABC television, which isn’t up on YouTube. That recording has amazingly warm piano sound which balances with and cushions Minchin’s voice, as opposed to the above YouTube clip which pushes the voice way out front and centre, not letting his natural little adjustments to the piano texture leave room for his voice (which they do)… argh. Mixing is hard.

Speaking of mixing (and writing and recording and editing and mastering), I made this theme tune this week for this show:

Anyway, back on topic to me and Andrew, not Christine Brooks. Listen in live at 2pm tomorrow (Sunday)! I can’t, cause I’ll be working. Standing Room Only tends not to podcast the Laugh Track segment, so listening live is usually your only option. DO IT.

General Update

9 Jan

A generic travel-related icon.

A generic travel-related icon.

There are a whole lot of things that I should have written about, but haven’t. It’s been a while since an update.

In the last month I’ve moved cities from Dunedin to Auckland. Over my last week down south (10-17 December), I had a whole lot of stuff to finish off: my last Song Sale, recording the tracks for Promise & Promiscuity, recording further vocals of songs with other Song Salers, and producing a live radio broadcast from Albany Street Studios. And of course there was the simple fact that I was leaving Dunedin after my one year as Mozart Fellow, a damn significant time in my life… maybe I should blog about these things when they come to fruition.

After Christmas with the family in Auckland, I was back down to Wellington to do some work as a presenter for Radio New Zealand Concert, and some development work on At Least We Have Our Jobs, a drama production for Radio New Zealand National. I spent a lot of time in the studio for that.

Tomorrow I fly off to Mexico and I’ll be away from New Zealand for four months. In that time I’m going to Cuba (Cuba!), the Seattle Festival of Improvisational Theater and the Chicago Improv Festival, and I’ll be in Austin during SXSW. I may not answer emails or Facebook quite as regularly.

I’m feeling a bit arse because of vaccines and dental work a couple of days ago. I still have tax and GST to do, not to mention packing for four months away. Eep.


9 Dec

Charmian Smith interviewed me for the Otago Daily Times – article m’nyahr.

Upbeat on Upbeat

28 Sep

Just had an interview with Eva Radich on Radio New Zealand Concert’s Upbeat programme. I talk about:

Eva joins the list of people who don’t like the title ‘Relish in Immature Bombast’. I suggest it’s still no less ridiculous than ‘Concerto for Organ, Drum Kit and Orchestra No 1’.

Listen below:

Upbeat – 28 September 2012 – Robbie Ellis

When plans change.

11 Sep

I'm probably not supposed to do this to the logo.A month ago I was informed that my application for the 2013 University of Otago Mozart Fellowship was unsuccessful.

Given the largely consistent pattern in the last decade of Mozart Fellows having two years on the trot, I was under the illusion that a second term was assured as long as you were doing good work and got your application in on time.

Obviously I was wrong – all applications are assessed against each other fairly and without favouritism. Consequently I offer my congratulations to composer Samuel Holloway and the four other fellows just announced.

I’m grateful one of the selection panel rang me to break the news personally. Extending the courtesy of a phone call sure beats the terse two-sentence letter subsequently posted to me by the university’s HR department.

Still, it hardly lessened the effective kick in the guts. I went into a disbelieving stupor – after all, two years in a row was standard. What the hell had I done wrong? How was my application deficient? Had I made an irrevocable departmental political faux pas at some point? Had I spent too much time outside Dunedin? (..he asked during his fourth trip to Auckland that year.)

Fortunately for me, I had to put all that bullshit aside and project positivity onto two high school music events later that day. At lunchtime, the St Peter’s & St Mary’s Sinfonia rehearsed my piece General Intransigence and I contributed the composer’s opinion. In the evening, I definitely needed an upbeat demeanour to present the monstrously large Westlake Music Gala, part of my high school’s 50th Jubilee: four hours of music from 17 different ensembles over two sessions.

In the intervening month, when I haven’t been wallowing in my own pity and being unproductive, I’ve had time to think about what I could get up to next year. I’ve reached the following conclusions with myself:

  • Shit happens. You had no divine right to a second year.
  • You’ve still got just half of your Fellowship time left. Pull your head in and do some more bloody work – that’s what you’re getting paid for.
  • Sometimes it’s nice to have your plans messed with. As Patti Stiles would say, every offer is a gift.
  • As annoying as it is to move cities twice in one year, Dunedin is not the place for a theatrico-comedic composer to make a freelance living. Without full-time employment, full-time study or any family ties here, I’ve got to move away. The lease on my unit comes up on 31 December, so it’s got to be before then.
  • As much fun as the busy annual summer festival season is (Wellington Fringe, Auckland Fringe, Dunedin Fringe etc), it’s financially a slow start to the year if you’re not in full-time employment. It’s not essential to my livelihood to be around for it.
  • It’s high time I did some sustained overseas travel. Consequently I will go to Central and North America from January to May next year, moving from south to north as the weather improves. First to Mexico to hang out and indulge my once-upon-a-time obsession with all music Latin American, then onto major hubs such as LA, Chicago, Toronto, NYC, etc for improv theatre and sketch comedy. Take some workshops, sit in on some gigs, see what comes.
  • The first commitments I have in 2013 are both in Auckland (reminder: APO Organ Spectacular, 23 May 2013, Auckland Town Hall), so it’s high time I based myself in the city of my birth for a while. Since moving away in 2008, I’ve continually kept up useful professional connections there, so I have enough opportunity to make a freelance living. Let’s do that then.
  • Despite working within in a university department this year, I still have no grand desire to embark on further postgraduate study. But if I change my mind, depending on what I want to pursue, the University of Otago and Dunedin would be quite pleasant places to work indeed. I will keep them in mind.
  • Nobody can hold the Mozart Fellowship for more than two years. Being rejected for 2013 means that I can apply for a second term some years in the future. If I’d retained the Fellowship for next year, I wouldn’t have that opportunity.

On that optimistic note, I leave you with this YouTube embed. Two years ago I went through a relationship break-up. At the same time, I had recently seen the episode of Making Tracks where Nick D visits Trinidad. Sitting at my desk at RNZ, unable to do any work, I played this relentlessly positive Soca hit over and over and over again. Actually, “hit” is an appropriate word – every time I played it, it was like getting a dose of cheeriness morphine.


I’m on TV and shit!

5 May

Well, it’s local TV. Still waiting for that big 7pm current affairs feature or whatever.

A Channel 9 crew came into my office yesterday to ask me some questions and shoot inserts of me noodling on two different types of keyboard. It’s a quickie look into what the Mozart Fellowship is about.

Story: University of Otago Mozart Fellow finds workload challenging


Orchan & Orgestra

3 Mar

I am one of six participant composers in the APO’s Town Hall Organ Composition Project. Yuss. We are each writing a piece for organ and orchestra – we’ve got three workshops this year, and a concert on 2 May 2013 23 May 2013. (Save the date.)

This is a joint venture of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and the Auckland Town Hall Organ Trust. A week or so ago I had a tour of the instrument and saw the innards… probably not every single innard, but most of the 5,291 of them. Here’s the back end of the console:

In due course I will blog further about this project, but for now I want to take you back in time to the application process in October 2011. I sketched this at my desk at work:

Roughly the first 40 seconds of my piece for organ and orchestra.

The above was my guide for the first of two a cappella mockups:

Organ & Orchestra Mockups by Robbie Ellis on SoundCloud

The call for proposals asked composers to give their ideas, and these audio snippets accompanied my application. They helped to illustrate my ideas as set out in my cover letter, reproduced below.


Lee Martelli
Education Programme Manager, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
PO Box 56024
Dominion Rd
Auckland 1446

31 October 2011

Dear Lee,

I am writing to apply for a place in the 2012-2013 APO Composers’ Workshop, to write a piece for organ and orchestra.

My connection to the APO goes back to my school days, with the Young Composers Competition and the New Zealand Secondary Schools Symphony Orchestra. As a participant in the 2010-2011 Composers’ Workshop, I felt very fortunate to renew that connection, and I would be grateful to continue it in the next two years.

As the 2012 University of Otago Mozart Fellow, I will be in the fortunate position of being able to compose full-time, and I would love to be involved in this project. Although I am moving to Dunedin in January, I will be involved in several other North Island-based productions in 2012, so I will be able to attend workshops.

I have never written for organ before but, to be fair, few New Zealand composers have. My concept is to subvert its grandeur, and to set the king of (keyboard) instruments against the peasant of keyboard instruments. So far, I’ve come up with three ideas to incorporate into a 10-minute piece:

  1. Organ and drum kit. I want to assign one of the percussionists to drum kit only. The kit will be a near-constant presence throughout the entire piece, playing in a heavy funk/rock/ironic bebop/dubstep/metal/Mr Bungle-like style. In parts, the work will seem like a double concerto, but it will never step over the line of having to pay a second soloist’s fee. (That’s what any good orchestra manager wants to hear, right?)
  2. Creepy Southern Californian/Las Vegas horror music. Again in the vein of Mr Bungle, I want to make the Klais organ sound like a cheesy, seedy, louche rotary Hammond. It’s as if a Southern Baptist church organist turned into a moral deviant, lived on the railroads for a couple of years with a bottle of Jack Daniels for company, and ended up in Vegas accompanying D-list Broadway performers in a shagpile-lined 70s nightclub. With more than a touch of lounge music and bossa nova, this isn’t real Brazilian music. It’s the Bastard Step-Child of Ipanema as interpreted by gringos who don’t quite Getz it.
  3. [redacted to retain the element of surprise]

Please listen to the attached CD [ed: the above SoundCloud embed] for massive multi-voice mock-ups of Points 1 and 2:

  • Track 1 is my idea for the opening of the piece. It’s hard to tell what instrument is what (and to be fair, I don’t know yet either), but the organ enters at 0:18.
  • Track 2 is an example of Creepy Southern Californian/Las Vegas horror music. In my vocal mockups, being in-tune is always a secondary consideration.

I can’t give you confirmed instrumentation yet, this depends on how the piece turns out. I can tell you the following:

  • The piece will not exceed the stated instrumentation.
  • One percussionist will be on drum kit only.
  • I will use every brass player you make available to me.
  • There probably won’t be a harp.
  • Ooh, a celeste. That sounds yummy.

Please find attached my application form and scores of two of my past orchestral works, Feral and Fanfare 10. This should suffice for my application, and I look forward to hearing the results of the selection process.

Yours sincerely,

[the not-so-elaborate scrawl that passes for my signature]

Robbie Ellis

Infested with Fringe

16 Feb

(This is yet another rush blog post written at Dunedin Airport just before boarding a flight. I have a history of these…)

Sapphire LaNeige, zombie Abby Pigden, Eden Honeypot & Frisky Business. The three burlesque girls are performing in Zomburlesue, 15-17 March.

Tonight the Dunedin Fringe Festival programme was released, along with zombies. There was a big box in the middle of the room, and at the moment of release, zombies broke out, shuffling among the crowd, wielding programme books. It was awesome.

I’ve always felt at home in fringe festivals. I did the Wellington Fringe for many years (generally no fewer than 3 shows per fest), although regrettably I’m not at all involved this year since I’ve moved to Dunedin.

However, Dunedin has a Fringe too, which is running from 15 to 25 March. I’ve wasted no time getting involved, and I’m in two shows that you should totally check out.

Zomburlesque. Somehow this is coming together, with over two dozen performers from both Wellington and Dunedin. Just today I finished arranging all the music for the band (I’m so stoked with who I have: aside from me on horns, there’s Emma Wollum on accordion, composer wunderkind Corwin Newall on keys, and Michelle & Maddy from Hunting Bears on bass & drums). Three-sixths of the Capping Show Sexytet make up a trio of backing vocalists, and there are also some local Dunedin burlesque performers taking part. Some were at the programme release – see them on the right.

Thu 15, Fri 16, Wed 17 March – 9pm – Sammy’s – $30/$20 – Ticket bookingsFringe Fest detailsFacebook event here

Song Sale. The first ever Song Sale in Dunedin took place on Monday just gone, and we had a great-sized crowd in The Church and wrote some fun songs. I have out-of-town guests during Fringe – many Wellington Zomburlesque performers, comedian Sam Smith, and just last night I confirmed the multi-instrumentalist awesomeman Adam Page for the Wednesday show. We promise a great time and it’s free entry.

Mon 19, Wed 21 March – 7:30pm – The Church, Restaurant Bar & Cinema – Free! ($5 to commission a song) – Fringe Fest detailsFacebook page here

Signing off so I can board the plane.

Faux-zart Mellowship

5 Feb

Previous Fellow Chris Adams put my name on the door. Ah, bless.

On 1 February 2012 I began my time/term/tenure as Mozart Fellow at the University of Otago.

I ran the numbers a while back looking at the list of all previous Mozart Fellows – at 27 years, 1 month and 19 days, I am the second youngest to take up the position. That’s cool.

Rather awesomely, I get my own office. In contrast to Radio New Zealand House in Wellington, you can actually open the windows and have contact with fresh, outside air. In fact, there are eight such openable windows. Rest assured, I can close them when it gets cold in winter.

My swipe card doesn’t seem to work yet… slightly concerning. That could require repeated phone calls. I hope not.

So what am I going to work on? Gigs and pieces!

Song Sale Dunedin - February 2012 posterGigs:

Song Sale. Monthly gigs where a collection of songwriter-performers is on call to compose brand new songs, commissioned by audience members on their chosen themes/topics/genres etc. First gig is Monday 13 February 2012 at The Church, 50 Dundas St. Tomorrow night, we Song Salers have a meeting/test session.

Zomburlesque. We did the show in Wellington, the Dunedin Fringe saw the review, they offered assistance in doing another production, and it’s happening. The core crew and performers are coming from Wellington; I’m co-ordinating the venue, the tech and the band in Dunedin. The first season was one of the most fun shows I’ve ever done; I anticipate the Dunedin season being the same.


– Reworking the 3rd movement of Three Sibilants for Eb clarinet for violin and beatbox. The violinist is Sarah Claman, the beatboxer is me. This will be performed at a Chamber Vulgarus gig in early March. You can hear the movement from 7:42 in the below SoundCloud embed:

Three Sibilants for Eb clarinet by Robbie Ellis on SoundCloud.

– A 4-5 minuter for the St Peter’s & St Mary’s Sinfonia, the senior orchestra of two Auckland Catholic high schools combined. Their conductor Antun Poljanich arranged to commission me. It’s going to be a bit of a percussion feature – I get three percussionists plus a timps player and a pianist. This’ll be in their 2012 repertoire, including at ASSBOF. (KBB Music has had naming rights on the event since 2002, but old high school habits die hard.)

– Something super secret squirrel which I will blog about in more detail later on.

– Something for Saxcess, New Zealand’s oldest saxophone quartet. Debbie Rawson has been great at getting my name out there as a composer, so I wanted to use the Fellowship to write something for her. Saxcess is doing a tour for their 20th anniversary, under Chamber Music New Zealand’s Encompass series. They’re hitting a motley collection of towns in June & July, including Cromwell (the closest to Dunedin).

– Something for the Estrella Quartet – four players, eight hands, two pianos. They’re all students at the University of Auckland under the tutelage of Stephen De Pledge, who contacted me about a piece. They won the 2011 Royal Overseas League Chamber Music Scholarship, which means they go to the UK in July/August to see a bunch of concerts, play a bunch of gigs (including at the Edinburgh Fringe). I’m thinking of calling my piece The Piano Tuner’s Performance Appraisal.

– A new piece for Auckland Youth Orchestra, an ensemble I played double bass in from 2003 to 2005. I’m currently reading Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks (my neighbour is a Masters student in Psychology and she regards Sacks’ writing as pop psych, but at least I can understand it). There’s a story about what sounds Robert Schumann was hallucinating near the end of his life… there could be something in that. This is for their September & October tour, with rehearsals beginning in early August.


21 Oct

I’m sitting in Dunedin Airport waiting for the 1710 to Auckland. Time for a quick blog update…

Early yesterday morning I flew from Wellington (current home) to Dunedin (next year’s home). This is my first time in Dunedin as an adult – growing up in Auckland, the only time our family made it this far south was on The Big South Island Trip one summer. (In the words of my mother: “You’re growing up in Auckland and you won’t be a real Kiwi unless you’ve seen the South Island!”)

Picking up a rental car at the airport, my first stop was Black/Sale House, HQ of the University of Otago Department of Music. I had a good chat with Dr Anthony Ritchie, the only Otago staff member I really knew prior to my appointment as 2012 Mozart Fellow. We talked about plans for the Fellowship – I’ll do a little bit of teaching, some tutoring, and some supervision of undergraduate work. All promising.

At a morning tea I met the Department staff – the academics and the admin. I also said hello to Chris Adams, the current Mozart Fellow.

Then the flat-hunt began. I’d set up 10 viewings for between midday at 6:30pm yesterday. Two were promising, and as it happens I got one of them – a nice little cosy 1-bedroom on the sunny slopes of North East Valley (it’s practically Opoho).

On a bit of a stroll around town, I popped into Twang Town on Moray Pl, a music shop specialising in string instruments. The independent owner-operator style reminded me of Alistair’s Music on Cuba St – I’ll happily take my guitar or bass there once I move. The proprietor, Hyram Ballard, is a good dude and recommended “the best coffee in Dunedin” at Mazagran across the road. It was pretty damn good coffee.

On the venues front, I popped my head into the Fortune Theatre; saw a student recital at Marama Hall on campus; had dinner and saw an amazing Celtic chamber ensemble at The Church (where this performance of my piece Ha! took place); and took a tour around Sammy’s with the owner, Sam Chin. It’s a grand old proscenium arch theatre which has variously been a brewery warehouse, a nightclub, and a big music gig venue. We’re in talks about bringing a show there for the Dunedin Fringe Festival… can’t say much more than that now but it looks exciting.

First boarding call for my flight so I’ll sign off now.

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