Current Issue

Back Issues




Victoria Kelly:
On Screen and Off

For most composers, choosing the medium of film composition as a career path means a lot of 'kissing up' to industry bigs, writing to spec and yielding to artistic compromise, with little more than a game of golf to look forward to at the end of the day. More often than not, this means an end to the luxury of writing one's own music, the music that stirs the soul and invites the audience into the secret depths where music is birthed and nurtured.

Then there is the talented Victoria Kelly, who has not only scored several feature and short films by the age of 27, but has also worked with the likes of the Strawpeople, Fiona McDonald and Joost Langeveld. Furthermore, she plays keyboards in Greg Johnson's band, and somehow still finds time to explore what she calls 'her own music'.

Victoria has been writing music ever since she can remember. At Iona College, she was encouraged to pursue music studies, despite the fact that there was no music department at the school at that time. 'I used to watch film and television and think that it was a beautiful idea to put music to other things, rather than just coming up with it by yourself in isolation.' She was always prompted to think practically about career viability, and it was partly for this reason that she took up the oboe, as it was suggested to her that a less common instrument would be more desirable when it came to getting work as a musician.

Victoria Kelly, Cambridge 2000
(Photograph: Lisa Meridan-Skipp)

At the age of 17 she began her studies in oboe performance and composition at the University of Auckland. In that initial year of study, during a brief trip to Australia, she was introduced to a well-known film composer who bleakly informed her that the film industry was a cut-throat business (if you were lucky enough to break into it), and that the only place in the world worth studying film music was the University of Southern California. She was also told that they took only a handful of students, and that it was virtually impossible to get in. To her it seemed a loveless profession, with composers churning out a lot of meaningless music to support their huge houses and expensive hobbies. She promptly decided to go back to university and put the whole idea out of her mind.

During the following few years, she won the Larry Pruden Award and several University prizes for her compositions, and gave a stunning New Zealand premiere of John Rimmer's Crow in 1993 as a member of the Karlheinz Company. While enjoying a certain degree of success in both performance and composition, she soon realised that playing the oboe was not really what she wanted to do-in fact she hated it. This realisation, coupled with the sudden and unexpected death of her father in the July leading up to her graduation recital (which she says was her worst nightmare come true), prompted her to re-evaluate her direction and make some changes. She took a break, and after graduating, returned to the University to take up further studies in composition. It was during this year, that the series of 'beautiful accidents' guiding her career, was set in motion.

Anna Reeves was making her first short film, La Vie en Rose, just five minutes long and on a miniscule budget. She had no money to pay a composer, but wanted original music. She was soon put in touch with Victoria, who was not initially keen on the idea, but decided it was worth a try. 'I hadn't the faintest idea what to do, but as I wasn't getting paid, I thought, why not?'

She says her epiphany came once they'd recorded the score, and started putting her music up against the pictures, seeing the two married together for the first time. 'My whole world changed in that moment in time. I loved that experience-the feeling that you've stumbled across something wonderful, and you don 't know what you did to deserve it or what you did to earn it and you feel like your entire success is an absolute fluke, but by the same token you're caught up in this wonderful thing.'
Stylistically based in early music, the score of La Vie en Rose features traditional string quartet writing, with a saxophone melody wafting over a quirky pizzicato minuet. The harmony is simple, underpinned by a drone over which unresolved suspensions create an evolving harmonic tension.

Stephen Papps as Fergus in Anna Reeves' The Imploding Self (1995)

The following year, she scored The Imploding Self, another short by Reeves which tells the tale of a boy who becomes obsessed with his pet axolotyl. The score similarly uses drones to create tension, but this time are set against lounging jazz harmonies. Strings and jazz organ are embroidered by Greg Johnson's smooth bluesy trumpet melody, conveying a sense of the bizarre.

After the Auckland Short Film Festival screening of La Vie en Rose, she was approached by Scott Reynolds, a film director who was in the audience and a year later began scoring his first feature, The Ugly. With the film set in a psychiatric prison, the strings of the opening scene are as dark, ominous and militant as the institution itself. Again a drone is coloured by sustained chords, while repeated timpani strokes usher in the pending attack of another patient (Marge) on Dr. Karen Schumaker. The tension explodes with wailing and shrieking string clusters, and is heightened when they are abruptly silenced. The score is stylistically literal and continually evades harmonic resolution. It draws upon limited materials: slow ostinatos, repeated motives over a drone (often no more than two alternating pitches), suspensions, slowly pulsing rhythms. Even after the closing credits, the harmonic tension is left unresolved, mirroring the lack of resolution in the plot.

With the assistance of a TVNZ Young Achievers Award and a Creative New Zealand Professional Development Grant, she set off to Los Angeles in 1996 to join a class of 20 students studying towards an Advanced Certificate in Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television, a one year post-graduate course at the University of Southern California. It was in fact the very course that, years earlier in Australia, she had been told that she would never get into. Poetic justice?

One of the most valuable experiences of her time in LA was coming into contact with the craft and wisdom of industry giants such as Elmer Bernstein, Christopher Young, Leonard Rosenman, and other film composers with a comprehensive understanding of the medium. There was none of 'this new fandangled computer technology-they did it the old-fashioned way . . . in the most minute detail by hand, which is fast becoming a lost art'.

She also learned a lot from the students on the course, made a lot of wonderful friends, and was awarded the Harry Warren Scholarship for her Piece for Orchestra. On the downside she had some bad experiences with the cut-throat nature of the industry over there. 'I saw how ugly and dirty it is and how music is so completely irrelevant on most high levels of that game.' She describes it as 'connections, back stabbing and eye gouging, double dealing and very little to do with music at all. I am grateful for that year, in that it taught me exactly what I did not want to be. As a composer you are lucky if you ever earn any money from what you do, but the reality is that you practically have to sell your soul to the devil in order to make it big in the American film industry'.

On her return to New Zealand a year later, she set about re-establishing herself here, working on films such as Angel Wings, an eight-minute short film written & directed by Stephanie Bauer, and Heaven, the second Scott Reynolds feature. As a dots-on-paper composer, she has encountered some difficulty with directors who will often fight to know every note in advance, requesting a 'monumental synthesiser demo', where every instrument of the orchestra is represented by its electronic counterpart. She has found that this can give a worse impression in the end than playing it to them on the piano.

The ultimate balance lies somewhere in between satisfying the director, while at the same time 'being happy that you are not writing music that you'll be ashamed of, and music that makes you feel that you1ve wasted your whole education. It 's a fine line between losing yourself and your personality to the service of what you 're working for, and at the same time you can't allow your ego to supersede the project because then it fails as well. You have to do more than anything what the film asks you to do'.

Working with dialogue can be a particularly difficult task-the music should evoke a sense of drama, without becoming a distraction. In Vanessa Alexander's feature Magik & Rose, this balance can be heard in a scene between Magik and her daughter, a poignant moment, punctuated by a wistful guitar line woven into the silences in their conversation. A subtle back-drop comprising a guitar drone and slowly shifting string harmonies further highlight the emotive exchange between the women.

As a woman working in an industry strongly dominated by men, she has found that she has been largely unaffected by her gender. She has written music for a transvestite being sodomised by two thugs in the back of a car, for men killing each other and for very violent 'boy films by boy directors'-maybe a man would have done it differently? She has, on the odd occasion, come across people who are blatantly sexist, but doesn't think that it is necessarily industry specific. 'The range of human emotion and experience is as true for men or women and both experience the basic emotions of love, hate, fear . . . the basic emotions that show up in the plots of films'.

Her diverse taste in music is a defining feature of her creative output, and this is reflected by the many strands of the music industry she traverses so effortlessly. She considers her induction to the pop industry, and her work with the Strawpeople, yet another accident. After a chance meeting back in 1994, Mike Chunn took her under his wing and invited her to sing at the APRA Silver Scroll Awards. This accident subsequently created opportunities with Sony and the Strawpeople, resulting in her appearance as vocalist for their hit single 'Beautiful Skin' and later, string arrangements and contributions to the writing and production of recent albums such as Vicarious and No New Messages.

After some initial collaborative experiments with Paul Casserly, she was invited to front the band, but it became obvious that Mark Tierney was not comfortable with the turn the band was taking. In Andre Upston's radio documentary on the Strawpeople, she noted 'I came in as a new influence at a bad time . . . I wasn't entirely happy with the way the Strawpeople was evolving. They were a formidable duo . . . I felt quite intimidated by them'. Although she enjoyed the work, she considers herself a composer first and foremost, so when the opportunity arose in America and she was faced with a choice, she decided to pursue her career as a film composer.

Her string arrangements also appear on albums by Greg Johnson, Fiona McDonald, Breathe, NV, Peter Stuyvesant Hitlist and the infamous Kiwi pop stars True Bliss. Writing arrangements which exist purely to supplement other musical ideas often means an aesthetic compromise and this can become frustrating when facing a large volume of work, little rehearsal time, and limited resources.

Another important working relationship developed between Victoria and Joost Langeveld back in 1998, when working on the radio drama Claybourne, a meeting which Victoria describes as yet another miraculous accident. Langeveld is the only person she really collaborates with, in the true sense of collaboration, where they both do everything. She describes him as composer, technician, producer, sound sculptor and god of electronica. Coming from such opposite musical backgrounds has proven to be a successful collaborative mix.

Victoria has very clear ideas as to where the dividing lines lie between film music, collaborative work and what she considers to be truly her own music. There is an issue of ownership which is manifest in film and collaborative work, in that the ideas or seeds of those works often express something that exists independently of the composer. The primary difference in her approach to film music and that of her own music, is one of structure. When writing a piece to her own ends, she is free to dictate her own structures; in film music the form already exists and is dictated by the film itself. Collaborative work is more of an evolutionary process, where music begins to take on a life of its own and is shaped and moulded by the connections between people, rather than by several individuals. 'If you choose to write a piece of music simply because you have a musical idea which occurs to you independently of any project or any associated thing, and you just write it because there is some burning need that you must express yourself and if not you'll explode, that music I consider to be truly my own.'

The death of her father has had a profound impact on her music. This is evident in her Piece for Violin and Piano written a year later, which she describes as a landmark work. The solemn tone of this piece is encapsulated in a long unwinding violin melody which hangs precariously above a rhythmically static piano part, a dislocated series of broken chords which span the outer extremes of the piano. But more than melody, this piece is about harmonic tension, created by a juxtaposition of diatonic chords with repeating pedals or ostinato figures, small cyclic fragments over a gradually shifting harmonic fabric. A slow relentless rhythmic pulsing, with long silences and unresolved dissonances serve to heighten the sense of desolation.

It was six years before Victoria wrote for the concert stage again. Commissioned by the Turnovsky Trio, her Trio for violin, cello and piano was premiered in Wellington in March 2000 (subtitled Sono, a Portuguese word describing the state of being infused with the desire to sleep). The work is in three sections, Introduction, Nocturne and Sono, but these subtitles are intended for the performers' benefit rather than that of the audience, as she greatly dislikes attaching titles to her pieces, saying that words attached to music set up expectations and 'just give it away'. As with her Piece for Violin and Piano, the harmonic language is based on diatonic clusters and scale fragments: starkly dislocated chords in the piano, often underpinning clear melodic ascents in the strings. The slowly pulsing rhythmic unwinding, which is a feature throughout many of her works, including film, has a characteristic rhythmic displacement of the accent onto the second beat. This syncopation is further exemplified by a central pedal note in the third and longest section, first introduced by the cello in the second section, and then relentlessly repeated by the piano until the conclusion. Throughout, there is a sense of continual expansion and contraction of harmonic tension, chord density and spacing-an organic unravelling of simple yet intuitively cohesive structures.1

While her father's death was the catalyst for her previous work, she says the catalyst for the Trio was 'falling madly and irrationally in love with a dream'. She considers herself to be extraordinarily romantic, and her music to be highly programmatic, with each idea being based on a very specific extramusical meaning. It is those personal and private experiences which Victoria believes make being a composer worthwhile.

Admitting that she is far more interested in emotion that compositional technique, stylistically her work to date is not unlike that of Arvo Prt, in that most of her writing is quite conservative, grounded in minimalist techniques and traditional harmony. However, she says that contemporary concert music is a side of her musical personality that she's still exploring. She lists Bach, Schnittke, Ligeti, Stravinsky and Piazzolla as important influences and says of them: 'Bach, I rediscovered when I heard an authentic recording of the St John Passion while at University. I discovered Schnittke, also at University, and fell in love with his Piano Quintet-which is the one piece of music in the world that has affected me the most profoundly. After reading about Schnittke's passion for Bach, and hearing it reflected in his music, I then went back and began to discover more about Bach's music (and personality). I think that Bach is the greatest composer to ever have lived.'

Over the past couple of years she has been able to earn a fairly good living from composing, but still supplements her income by working as a secretarial temp. She says that the two opposing roles of composer and secretary balance each other out, as secretarial work satisfies her need for tangible and immediate results, and a sense of order and completion. As for composing, she says 'I would never take a job just for money or financial reasons. I think if you make a creative decision, then by default it's a career decision because if you're faithful to yourself then you end up with a career that you want as opposed to a career that you don't want.'

Victoria is currently working on her first television series, in collaboration with Langeveld. This project presented an exciting opportunity to work with producer Vanessa Alexander once again. Being Eve, a 'kidult drama', goes to air in February. Also due for release in February is The Irrefutable Truth About Demons, written & directed by Glenn Standring, for which she and Langeveld co-wrote the soundtrack. She has recently signed a publishing deal with an Australian company which will secure representation across the Tasman, and hopefully generate some income. This is the beginning of a move to go international, although Victoria is determined to achieve this while still being resident in New Zealand for the most part.

So, does she have a plan for the future? 'No plans, all accidents -I'll do as many different things as I can, try to take as many opportunities as are offered to me, and will say no to anything which doesn't feel right.'

1. This score has since been revised and now existed as a single-movement work.

 Next article Issue 38    Contents Issue 38    Home