In this instalment of Art Work, composer and musician Victoria Kelly explains how she finds the time and inspiration to pursue her award-winning practice.
Victoria Kelly is an award-winning composer and arranger. She has won multiple awards for her compositions, including an APRA Silver Scroll Award, a NZ Screen Award and an Aotearoa Film and Television Award. She has collaborated with countless titans of the film and music industry, including Neil Finn, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Peter Jackson and Moana Maniapoto. Most recently, her work Requiem premiered with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra at the Auckland Arts Festival 2023.
The working week
There is no such thing as an average work week for me as a freelance composer.
I’m married to a cellist (Ashley Brown of NZTrio), so there are two musicians in the house. And we have three children. Like me, Ash has a constantly evolving and changing schedule. He plays in two different groups – the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and NZTrio, so my work schedule fluctuates depending on what I’ve got on, what he’s got on, what’s happening in the kids’ lives, what deadlines I’m trying to meet, and the degree of pressure I’m under from life in general.
Finding a flow when I’m writing is crucial but also elusive. I try to sit down every day and work, but ideas don’t miraculously appear just because you want them to. Working to a deadline can be genuinely terrifying. You need to be able to pursue ideas to their natural conclusion in an unbroken way – but of course life is full of interruptions.
That’s one of the greatest challenges of a freelance creative job: trying to create some space and structure around a fluid and amorphous process, in a noisy and distracting world.
Sometimes I work at the piano, sometimes I sit and think about ideas and string them together in my mind, or on a piece of paper. I’ll try and draw them and plan them out. Sometimes I’ll mock the music up on the computer and try to get some objectivity about what it sounds like, or where it’s leading.
The needs of the day can be very distracting. When you work from home, the lines between life and work get very blurred. Because you’re at home, everyone thinks you’re available. There’s often other music happening in the house. My husband has a similar experience to mine, it’s hard for him to find the space too. We have to negotiate each other’s priorities. It can be complicated and chaotic sharing a creative life and a family, and working from home.
So it’s kind of a strange, slow-motion juggling act where different objects are thrown at you… sometimes you drop them, sometimes you don’t even manage to catch them, but sometimes everything is flowing through the air and it’s beautiful.
I’m a person who finds it hard to concentrate on more than one thing at the same time, so I try to sequester myself away to really focus. Frustratingly for everyone around me, I can’t always say when I’ll be finished. I have to inhabit the space until I come to a point where I can stand up and walk away.
I think I do a lot of background processing in my head. If I’m working on a piece of music, it’s writing itself in my mind constantly. Even when I’m not sitting down at the piano or at my desk, I’ll be formulating ideas, imagining stuff, playing it in my mind. I often dream it. It doesn’t leave me alone. I usually carry a notebook around with me, or sing stuff into my phone. Then, when I finally sit down to work, I find myself starting from a new or transformed place.
Managing the freelance lifestyle
Being a freelance artist was entirely the best kind of life for me when I was young. I did office work to earn money, and then I went home and wrote music. I lived by myself. I could work when I had the mental capacity and inspiration to work. There’s a cost though, to your relationships and friendships.
As I’ve grown older, the freelance life has become harder to manage. For a while, I left it behind completely because the lack of security became too difficult. When I had children, my decisions didn’t just affect me anymore. Balancing a creative life with parenthood is challenging.
The other thing that’s difficult about freelance creative work is the income uncertainty. You are under a lot of pressure to ensure that you’re covered for the times when work is scarce, you’re making hay while the sun shines.
You end up having an interesting relationship with the flow of money because you don’t have it arriving in your account with any regularity or predictability. You don’t get the latitude to calculate the logistics of your life in advance when you don’t know where your future work might be coming from, or what that work might demand of you.
In the end, I returned to composing because there was a piece that I simply needed to write – Requiem. I don’t know how to explain it other than to say that I couldn’t live with the possibility of not writing it. I think something people don’t always understand about a strange and difficult career like composing, is that it’s not necessarily something you choose. No one in their right mind would choose it, thinking it would provide continuity and stability and security. For me, it’s a strange kind of compulsion.
How my career has changed over time
Today’s music industry is totally different from how it was when I started out. I was born into a world before personal computers, before mobile phones, before the internet, and before streaming. The transformation has been powerful and profound. Technology has found its way into, shaped, and forever influenced my work.
The nature of my career also changed when I had children. When you have children, you’re no longer responsible for only yourself. You have to think about the sustenance of your family, and the routines that their lives demand. A child needs routine to feel safe… to sleep when they need to sleep, to eat when they need to eat.
But that routine is at variance with a creative routine. I had three children under five, I was writing music for a living, working to insanely short deadlines on low budget film productions where I had to put in many, many hours.
I might have had the energy to do that as a young person, but that quickly ebbed when I had twins. Now that I’m 50, I feel like a very different person… less tolerance for extreme hours, but a greater sense of balance and perspective. There is a beautiful advantage to getting older as a creator – you have a deeper sense of your own identity. The anxiety of creating never goes away, but your perspective on it transforms.
It hurts me to see music continually undervalued though. That is a change that’s continuing to unfold in a disturbing way. Income and rights are being perpetually eroded in favour of technology companies and at the expense of creators. The way algorithms direct music towards the audience – the passivity of the musical experience – is changing the landscape profoundly.
Mid-level and senior careers are much harder to sustain in Aotearoa than emerging careers. It’s fine to be breaking your back on low budgets when you’re a beginner, thinking it’s a temporary sacrifice to get your foot in the door and trusting that the projects you’re working on will grow in scale as you become more experienced and capable. But when you work in an industry where that doesn’t necessarily happen… where the budgets stay low and sustainability is always a challenge, it’s a very different career proposition.
The importance of education to the arts sector
When I was young, I remember music being taught in every classroom. Every child had access to it. Somewhere along the way a decision was made to decentralise school budgets, which meant that schools could choose whether or not to prioritise music, and more broadly, the arts. Many didn’t have the resources and many needed to place a greater focus on core subjects.
That had a profound effect on the environment we now find ourselves in. It turned the arts into an option, it failed to recognise the fundamental importance that the arts have to core subjects, and it ultimately denied access to specialist arts education for large numbers of kids. Today, the opportunity to have a specialist music or arts teacher at primary school comes down to the priority of individual schools, their socio-economic realities, the degree of literacy in their school communities. Music education at a young age has been shown to increase literacy and numeracy and help kids develop crucial skills – yet it’s the first subject to be deprioritised when it comes to educating kids who need it the most.
So, if there was one change that I could make, it would be to give every single primary school in the country a great, specialist music teacher.
I’d like to see every child have access to classical music, to songwriting, to Māori music, to Pasifika music, to music that represents and teaches the depth and breadth of our culture and our society. I’d love to see our generations of young people learning how to articulate and understand themselves and each other in that artistic dimension, how to think creatively, and appreciate the world in that way.
If we all got that in primary school, and if that was followed through over a generation or two, our society would be profoundly different. Just as our cultural landscape has been negatively impacted by the devaluation of the arts and humanities over the past couple of decades in favour of STEM subjects, which are obviously important but which also really need the context and creativity that the arts can bring to them. That landscape could also be positively transformed if we revalued the arts and humanities. We would be so much the richer for that.
We’re living in a time where everybody’s talking about the importance of creativity. Everybody’s talking about the future economy and how it’s going to look unlike anything we’ve ever seen, and how we’re going to need creative skills to navigate this perpetually changing space. Yet the subjects that teach people how to be creative, that allow them to practise creativity and incorporate it into their everyday existence, are being eroded from the curriculum. That feeds through into secondary school, and into tertiary institutions.
That drives the arts into an elite space, where only wealthy people can afford to participate, and only kids from financially secure backgrounds can contemplate artistic careers, because financial uncertainty isn’t a barrier for them.
So if I could wave a magic wand, I would transform society’s attitudes to the arts. I would resource and embed creativity – artistically and philosophically – into the curriculum from primary school onwards, for all children.
What makes it all worth it
I recently had a work, Requiem, performed at the Auckland Arts Festival and I had been wanting to write it for about 30 years. It was about the death of my parents, and then over the time it had taken me to realise the work, it became about so many other things too, so many other powerful moments and experiences in my life. It’s not a religious piece of music, but a piece of music that contemplates what it means to be alive.
It was finally performed this year with an orchestra, two choirs, two soloists. A hundred and forty people onstage. The work of my lifetime, really. I don’t know if I’ll ever write a work like that again.
Whenever music is performed, there’s a moment between the final note, and the audience response – where people process what they’ve just heard and then react to it, collectively. When Requiem was performed, there was an incredibly long silence. A full minute. I was so nervous, and so worried about how it would be received. But as that silence was held in the room, I realised that people were still inside the piece. I have never felt such a profound connection to other human beings as I did in that moment. I hope I never forget that feeling for as long as I live. It was the culmination of a lifetime’s worth of wondering and waiting – and finally communicating. It felt like an eternity, and I can still feel it.
That makes it worth it. To feel as though you can say something true to somebody who needs to hear it, and who understands it in their own unique way.
– As told to Sam Brooks