“Hello friends,” she posted, “I would like to break my listening habits and would very much appreciate some recommendations for amazing/interesting new music that might have passed me by because I’m middle-aged and stuck in my ways. Hearty thanks in advance.”
Almost 100 of her friends responded with suggestions: everything from local artists Princess Chelsea and Motte to American Chris Stapleton and German grindcore satirists Excrementory Grindfuckers (that last one from fellow composer Eve de Castro-Robinson).
Kelly was delighted and – with musical curiosity running from soundtracks to fangirl affection for Prince, whose ‘Little Red Corvette’ she heard at eight, a moment that “changed my tiny life forever” – you could guess she’d explore a fair number of them.
On her her website Kelly describes herself, accurately but with economic modesty, as “a creative professional with a rich and varied background in the music industry – a composer, performer and producer of music – and formerly the Director of NZ Member Services at APRA AMCOS.
“I compose, arrange and produce music across a spectrum of genres: contemporary classical music, popular music, music for film, television and theatre.
“I’ve worked as a musical director and composer for large scale events and television programmes – as well as being an advisor and assessor for local and national arts organisations.”
She has also presented radio programmes, given pre-concert talks, and been a guest lecturer in schools and tertiary institutions. That’s impressive without even drilling down to details.
Outside of her compositions for, or commissions by, the APO, NZSO, Michael Houstoun and the NZTrio, Kelly is familiar to popular music audiences for her recent collaborations with Neil Finn (his Dizzy Heights and Out of Silence albums), SJD (Sweetheart), Tami Neilson (Kingmaker) and Finn Andrews for The Veils’ And Out of the Void Came Love album. She has worked with Anika Moa, Don McGlashan, Strawpeople, Shapeshifter, Greg Johnson, and TrueBliss.
She was in the Bellbirds (with McGlashan, SJD and Sandy Mill), collaborated with taonga pūoro artist Horomona Horo, and was composer/musical director for the Okareka Dance Company.
Any way you cut it, victoria Kelly is the go-to person for artists across a broad spectrum
Kelly also wrote the music for Jonathan King’s comedy-horror film Black Sheep and his feature Under the Mountain, Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones and many others for film and television: The Almighty Johnsons with SJD; Being Eve and Ride with Joost Langeveld; Vanessa Alexander’s debut feature Magik and Rose among them.
Oh, and she was musical director for the 2011 Rugby World Cup opening ceremony and won the APRA Silver Scroll in 2014 for Best Original Music for a Feature Film (for Field Punishment No.1). Nice for her to be on that podium: she’d been the Scrolls’ music director from 2003 to 2007, the latter two years with Langeveld.
Any way you cut it, Kelly is the go-to person for artists across a broad spectrum, not just for her obvious abilities but for her humour and energy.
Moana Maniapoto – in her 2016 speech when she was inducted into the Hall of Fame – described Kelly as “an artivist if ever there was one”, a conflation of artist and activist.
“The spectrum of music is vast,” said Kelly in 2022, “and I’ve always been a magpie, obsessively drawn to whatever interesting thing catches my ear. And then to the next thing ... and then to the next.
“Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky, Ellington, Herrmann, Prince, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Aphex Twin, Mahinaarangi Tocker, Neil Finn, Tami Neilson, SJD ... How lucky am I to have worked with four of those people?”
Victoria Kelly grew up in Wellington in a supportive family. “My mother surrounded me with classical music from the moment I was born (and probably before that). She wasn’t a musician herself but she was an avid and passionate listener.
“I was never forced to learn, but as soon as I showed an interest I was fortunate enough to be encouraged and enabled by someone who knew the profound value of music.”
Kelly studied oboe at the University of Auckland and was drawn to composition, gaining first equal in the university’s composition prize in 1993, completing her BMus the following year.
However, she was increasingly interested in film music. After winning a TVNZ Young Achievers Award, and with a Professional Development Grant from Creative New Zealand in 1996, she studied composition at the University of Southern California. (See Victoria Kelly: soundtrack composer.)
As a composer, she makes the clear distinction between soundtrack work and classical composition
As a composer, she makes the clear distinction between soundtrack work and classical composition. “Film music is a different art-form. As a film composer, you are constantly looking to another source to shape your work. You’re looking to the film, to the director, to the rhythm of the edit, to the performances of the actors, to the tone of the atmospheric sound, to the narrative, to the audience experience, as well as to yourself when you write.
“As a composer of music that’s intended to stand alone, you’re looking to the abyss for feedback. And if what emerges from the abyss is a voice that belongs to anyone except you, then you need to cover your ears until the abyss stops talking.”
On her return home, her career took off when the commissions started coming and her emotional and musical flexibility was apparent. Word of mouth brought her name to attention, and filmmakers checking the small print on local albums they admired – by Strawpeople, Neil Finn and many others where Kelly had been an arranger or contributing performer.
In the past two decades Kelly has been just two degrees of separation from pop, rock and classical musicians. She’s there and she delivers.
In 2006, when writing for King’s Black Sheep, she was also arranging Shapeshifter’s music for their concert with the APO: “You wonder how it would work because the two kinds of music are so seemingly far away from each other. But there’s all sorts of things I hear in their music that suggests an orchestral sound. Shapeshifter’s music can sound enormous.”
Parallel to her soundtrack and arranging work, Kelly also wrote her own classical pieces, among them Songs Without Words for the New Zealand String Quartet (2008) and the much hailed Unusual Silence in 2017 performed by the Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir in the Auckland War Memorial’s World War One Sanctuary.
“This sort of composing is my most private work,” she told William Dart in a Herald interview, admitting that Unusual Silence was emotionally difficult to write. “Sitting in a warm house, with my children running around and food on the table, I was aware of my privileged perspective, looking back at this terrible war.
“The letters that the men wrote home often avoided any mention of the war,” she said. “They talked about everything except the grim reality of it all, protecting both their families and themselves. Yet, strangely enough, when they did describe the conflict, they did so in musical terms, talking about wailing choirs of shells and the moaning harmonies coming from the injured and dying on the battlefield.”
It tells you much about her openness to ideas and challenges that at around the same time as Unusual Silence she was also collaborating with both rapper Raiza Biza and Estère (playing keyboards and singing) for exclusive video clips supporting the Volume: Making Music in Aotearoa exhibition at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.
For Neil Finn’s 2017 album ‘Out of Silence’ Kelly wrote arrangements of baroque-pop strings
Her arrangements of the baroque-pop strings for the live recording of Finn’s Out of Silence, simulcast on YouTube, were described by Michael Dwyer in the Sydney Morning Herald as allowing Finn’s songs to be “set in a strange, instantly arresting harmonic landscape pulled this curious way and that by carefully calibrated voices, strings and the occasional acoustic guitar from youngest Finn, Elroy”.
That sonic setting was described by Karl Puschmann in the Herald as “subtle, yet rich and exquisite and filled with admirable restraint”.
For pop and rock, hip-hop and neo-soul artists, Victoria Kelly – still musically curious to the point of asking for suggestions of “amazing/interesting new music” – is a first-call arranger, conductor and backing singer.
Kelly and her arrangements were integral to Tami Neilson’s Kingmaker; included was a spot-on arrangement-cum-homage to Bobbie Gentry on the song ‘Green Peaches’. After the songs were played live with the APO, Neilson told Marty Duda’s website 13th Floor, “It’s overwhelming. For so many reasons, like performing with an orchestra, hearing the songs come to life live for the first time, being on stage with Victoria who collaborated with me and wrote all of the arrangements, and who’s been such a part of this journey with me.”
In 2021 Kelly also appeared with the Veils’ Finn Andrews and the NZTrio (her husband Ashley Brown is the trio’s cellist) for a concert at Auckland’s Wintergarden where her arrangements were similarly a feature.
Kelly – the one who also loves Prince and composed an ambitious classical Requiem with poems by Sam Hunt, Bill Manhire, Ian Wedde, James K Baxter and Chloe Honum – takes a widescreen view of her work and life.
“I certainly feel lucky to be a 21st century woman in this particular place, with the personal and financial freedom to write a 40-minute secular Requiem and have it performed by extraordinary musicians, with the added benefit of not going hungry, negotiating a war, or fearing for my life.
“I’m also mindful that we have an abundance of incredible female, non-binary and trans creators in Aotearoa New Zealand – alongside wonderful male talent of course. And how important it is to acknowledge that the reason we know the names of so many of our talented musical minorities is not because they’ve had an equal opportunity to succeed, but because they’ve transcended the barriers to their success.
“And how important it is to also remember that there are many more talented people who have not yet been able to transcend those barriers.
“So I hope that each new work (including my own) that’s commissioned, created, recorded or performed here is able to open more doors for more people, and contribute to a more equitable and sustainable musical future for everyone.”
In October 2023, at the APRA Silver Scroll, Kelly's Requiem was awarded the 2023 Sounz Contemporary Award Te Tohu Auaha; on the night an excerpt from the work was performed by a chamber orchestra dressed in gold lamé cloaks.
Read more: Victoria Kelly, soundtrack composer