The Mid-30s Guide to the Orchestra

I have a concert coming up. It’s quite a special concert. It’s me performing my comedy songs with a symphony orchestra on Sunday November 24, and I’m calling it The Mid-30s Guide to the Orchestra.

The Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago and their music director Mina Zikri have given me this extraordinary opportunity. I’m the composer, lyricist, arranger, host, singer, pianist, bass guitarist, and very occasionally conductor and ukuleleist ukulelist string-strummer.

You’ll hear songs from my album Pumpkins with technicolor sound: “Symphony No 1 in Eb”, the “Root Vegetable Opera”, “Book Club”, and “Love is a Four-Letter Word” are all in there. read more

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Podcasts lately

Hey! I’ve been on some podcasts lately. They range from a straight up public radio interview, to beer tasting, to musical ramblings, to musical and actor ramblings, to one epic theme tune. Enjoy and listen!

Nine To Noon

A tonne of people in New Zealand heard this radio interview at 10 o’clock on a Friday. Kathryn Ryan of RNZ National asks me about my album Pumpkins, being a music director for Second City and other theatres, and also working in radio in the States. From July 2018.

(Info | RNZ audio)

A Brew with You

Blake Mikol – who designed my album cover art – invited me on to talk with him and Jeff about beer, the All Blacks, New Zealand, and my album. From June 2018.

(Soundcloud | YouTube | iTunes)

J-Train

Fellow musical comedian Jake Dewar has this podcast about “the improvisational ramblings of the human mind”. We come up with witches, talking stomachs, and French lounge music. From August 2018.

FYI: Jake has an album coming out in October 2018 and I have contributed to that too. More details soon.

(Machine Culture Collective episode page | iTunes)

Me, Anna Gaetke, Ansel Burch and Arne Parrott. Source: starlightradiodreams.com .

Starlight Radio Dreams

Conceived as an old-timey radio variety show, I got to adopt a bunch of characters: stunt jazz pun-pianist, Scottish shepherd aka MacMiyagi, Basically David Bowie, and something close to myself. There are two serials in here: Celtica (set in Roman Britain) and NPC (a menu-based adventure game). From September 2018.

(SRD episode page | iTunes full episode | iTunes Celtica serial | iTunes NPC serial)

How ‘Bout This?

These three Australian improvisers are long-time friends of mine. In advance of their podcast reaching 200 episodes, I put together an epic 5+-minute theme tune with recorded messages from 20+ listeners, or Thiseners as they’re known. I also called in near the end of the episode via Facebook Messenger. From August 2018.

(Soundcloud | iTunes)

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Pumpkins everywhere, including The Den on April 15.

Dear world,

My debut album of comedy songs is out! It’s called Pumpkins.
– Listen on Bandcamp, and buy CDs, downloads and T-shirts there!
– Listen and download on iTunes & Apple Music!
– Stream on Spotify!

And come to The Den Theatre in Chicago on Sunday April 15 for an Album Party! Doors open at 6:30pm, and it is FREE.

Here’s the Facebook event – I’ve got Jake Dewar, Abby Vatterott and Witty Cindy opening. The three of them are covering songs from Pumpkins: Track 6 (Bike Lane), Track 10 (I am a Cat) and Track 4 (An Icelandic Psychedelic Rock Song About Poland) respectively.

I have even more friends covering my songs, including six people from Riff: Chicago’s Improv Party. Also on the bill: Arne Parrott aka Mister Arne, who in addition to covering Track 7 (Ukulele Comedy Song) is joining me for this one-off number we co-wrote last year:

Come out for a fun night at The Den (1331 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago):
– Doors 6:30pm
– Absolutely free!
– Except if you want to buy CDs, downloads and T-shirts.
– Oh by the way there will be T-shirts.

Pumpkins everywhere!

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New album. (Not mine. (Yet.))

Hello world, here’s an update.

After an emotionally turbulent yet ultimately successful crowdfunding campaign, and a packed seven-week trip to Australia and New Zealand; my album is recorded. Not yet edited or mixed or mastered or promoted, but at least recorded.

In the meantime, there is an album already out with a piece of mine on it.

Available on Rattle Records.

The Jade String Quartet is made up of players from the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. Their debut release is called Parlour Games. It’s entirely New Zealand works that they have premièred over the past few years, including my 2015 piece Fragments of Noir – written while inspired by Chicago, just as I was new to Chicago.

More info about the recording and how to acquire it at Rattle Records. There are also pieces by David Hamilton, Peter Adams, Kenneth Young, Peter Scholes, Leonie Holmes, Karlo Margetić, and John Elmsly – folks who’ve been my colleagues, my teachers, and my co-performers.

As for my own album… I wanna say February or March 2018 for a release. Stay tuned.

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A quick trip home!

At the first workshop of Relish in Immature Bombast, 24 May 2012, Auckland Town Hall. Photo by Oliver Rosser.

At the first workshop of Relish in Immature Bombast, 24 May 2012, Auckland Town Hall. Photo by Oliver Rosser.

I moved to Chicago on 5 January 2015. Three months on, I’ll be back in New Zealand for a couple of weeks.

To clarify for both Chicagoans and Kiwis: no, I’m not moving back. I still definitely live in Chicago. This trip is to fulfil a long-standing commitment with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra because they’re playing my Relish in Immature Bombast again.

If you’re unfamiliar with this piece, it’s for huge-ass pipe organ, full-on funk/rock/jazz drum kit, and symphony orchestra, take a squiz at this video:

The APO is performing this at Open Orchestra Central, at their home venue of the Auckland Town Hall. Reprising their roles are original soloists Tim Noon (organ) and Jono Sawyer (drum kit) – in fact, it’s ten years since Jono and I first worked together in ska band Jonny Doom & The Forcefields. I’ll be introducing the piece as MC and composer, interviewing some of the performers, and also MCing the rest of the afternoon’s proceedings.

Best of all, this event is totally, 100% free. Come to the Auckland Town Hall at 2pm on Saturday 11 April, and hit “Going” on the Facebook event if that’s your thing.

I also have a fundraiser concert!

Sir James Wallace has been quite generous with both his funds and his home – I’ve got a couple of Wallace Arts Trust-funded compositions in the works, and on Sunday 19 April he’s hosting a house concert for me. Poster:

Robbie-Ellis-Rannoch-RGB

I’ve invited two other composer-performers to join me:

Corwin Newall isn’t all that well-known outside of Dunedin, but he and I got to work together quite a bit during my Mozart Fellowship year. He’s got a new song cycle called Scientists read more

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New-ish photos!

These images were taken by Kate Little, an Auckland photographer beloved of New Zealand’s comedian community. Thanks to the New Zealand Comedy Trust for kicking in some subsidy with these.

I’ve been using these all over: 9746 is on my business card, 9797 is my LinkedIn profile pic, and 9856 & 9858 are just fun!

If you need to promote anything me-related, you’re welcome to use these photos with a credit to Kate Little. Wonderful!

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Get out please Robbie, head overseas.

So, news.

Uniquely American objects.

Uniquely American objects.

I have a US green card. Well, I have a thing in my passport which entitles me to enter the USA within the next five months and hold permanent residency.

It was nearly two years ago I entered the Diversity Visa lottery on a whim, but my number came up (literally) and I went for it. It’s been a long process – from entering the lottery to entering the United States will be 26 months all up – but hardly an arduous or harrowing one. All in all, if you meet the criteria and are careful and conscientious with your paperwork, getting from the chance stage to the “heck yes I got me a green card” stage is straightforward*. My interview at the US Consulate had remarkably few questions for me to answer – just a two-hour wait while I read some Thomas Mann.

So I am moving in less than five months. Today I booked flights from Auckland to New Jersey to see my sister and my nephew (who is currently -6 weeks), and following that I will migrate westward to Chicago and settle there.

What a lovely view.

What a lovely view.

Why Chicago? In short, because the North Side of that city has the highest concentration of comedy, sketch and improv on the planet. Three of the best improv shows I’ve ever seen were during a short stay in Chicago last year. Also, thanks to the heritage of The Second City, there’s great respect for the role of music in comedy.

Furthermore, just this year there have been all sorts of venue expansions for the better:
iO is relocating from two stages in Wrigleyville to their new four-stage home in Goose Island, with one theatre dedicated to a new sketch revue from TJ & Dave;
The Annoyance has just moved from Uptown to Belmont;
– The Second City is expanding its premises in Old Town;
– and least of all, but most excitingly for me, Chicago now has possibly the world’s only theatre dedicated specifically to musical improv and musical comedy.

This image, on my own site, is 14th in my Google Images search results for "improv troupe stock photo".

This image, on my own site, is 14th in my Google Images search results for “improv troupe stock photo”.

However, there is a wider question: why improv? To compare to other things I’ve done and could pursue overseas, it’s not as stable as a job as a radio producer or presenter; it’s not as well-paying as composing (assuming you can attract commissions); and it’s a lot more niche than music recording and production.

But out of all those things within New Zealand, there are many composers, lots of broadcasters, and plenty of people who produce music, yet there are very few of us who do musical direction for comedy. There are even fewer who play music for improv. If I’m going to pursue something, it should be the thing that I am the most specialised in. The United States is a big place with potential careers that simply do not exist here in New Zealand, and you don’t just turn down a green card.

This is a daunting time – I’ve never moved countries before, I’ve never sold a large proportion of my worldly possessions, I’ve never calculated rent by the month, and figuring out the United States’ health insurance systems scares the crap out of me. Also, January is not exactly the warmest time to move to Chicago. Regardless, I am finally fulfilling every middle-class kiwi’s destiny by living overseas.

I will hold a massive farewell bash in Auckland on Saturday 13 December (also my 30th birthday), and departing New Zealand exactly two weeks later. In the meantime, you should give me lots of well-paid work, cause I’m freelance and I need the money.

This is happening!

— — —

* As long as, like me, you are an educated, healthy, white, middle class male native speaker of English with a sensible haircut, a clean criminal record and no visible piercings or tattoos, and are not a member of any organisation to the left of the Labour Party. It also made life administratively simpler that I am unmarried, have no children, and have never lived in a country other than New Zealand. And it helps I live only 35 minutes’ walk from the only US Consulate in this country. Your mileage may vary, but in most cases you have nothing to lose by applying. DV-2016 opens October 2014.

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Lots of work for one performance.

One grand cliché of being a composer is that it’s straighforward enough to get the first performance of a new work, but damn difficult to get the second. However, some of my favourite experiences have been writing songs that are very much intended never to be done again.

Andrew Grenon benefit posterLast night I MC’d a Wallace Arts Trust fundraiser concert for my flatmate, tenor Andrew Grenon. A lot of Andrew’s supporters know me as his piano partner in Politics The Opera, although it’s been a long time since we’ve made one of those videos. Life gets in the way, you see.

Andrew has a sense of humour and is a Song Sale writer-performer, so he asked me to sing my Root Vegetable Opera at his concert. That’s always huge fun, though when I perform it in the company of actual real opera singers I give a mountain of disclaimers about my vocal technique beforehand! Andrew also told me I was free to introduce the concert as I wished… maybe something musico-dramatic?

Two-and-a-half years ago I was fortunate enough to write the opening number for the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards in Wellington – very much in the style of a Tony Awards opener. That’s a song that has so many specific references to Wellington theatre, film and current events circa 2011 that it will almost certainly never be performed again.

I did something similar for Andrew. The song has so many particular references – e.g. the setting of the concert, the night’s fellow performers, our Grey Lynn flat, his circumstances (heading to the Wales International Academy of Voice), and the country of Wales itself – that it will never be performed again. It’s a one-time bespoke job.

But you know what? Those jobs are bloody fun. You can go as specific as you like, and your song can be tailored exactly for the assembled audience and their context. I get a kick out of making comedy and art out of the timely, specific and the local. That’s no way for a work to appeal to a wide or enduring audience, but I’ve got other material for that. And given that one of my life’s ambitions is to write the opening number for the Tony Awards, I’ve got to take these opportunities to practise the rather niche craft of occasional songs.

I’ve uploaded the sheet music (hang piracy, I’m never going to sell this song for money) and chucked the video on YouTube. Massive thanks to the pianist Claire Caldwell for adding flair to my Sibelius copy-and-paste dots & chord symbols.

Good luck Andrew!

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Perfunctory blog post

Eketahuna German Literature Society coverPoint the first:

I’m now a published author. Given that I expended so much of the effort of publication late last year and well earlier this year, these launch events feel more like niche geeky parties than big culminations of work. I’m not good at writing about these things, but I spent A LOT of time consulting German poetry collections in the University of Auckland library.

You should buy a copy via instructions here – we will deliver to anywhere in the world. $20 if you buy one off me in person.

In a couple of months’ time, I will look back and realise, holy shit, I’m an actual proper published author. Not bad for a composer by training.

Point the second:

Augmented Fourth? Pledge Me? $400 short? 4 days to go? Get pledging. We’ll write you a song. We need us some wireless mics.

Point the third:

Oh god, there’s more? So much self-promotion going on. I should become a much better blogger and write about one thing at a time. About half of my franticisms can be traced back to the New Zealand International Comedy Festival. Go see shows. Most of all, go see ours in Auckland or Wellington. Especially Auckland. We’re driving like 10 minutes to the theatre and 10 minutes back. Not like those Wellington people who only have us doing a 16-hour drive.

Point the fourth:

Just friend me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter. Or keep up with the events in the sidebar, I’m quite good at updating those. But on this blog… I’m really not making it easy for you in this Web 2.0 age… wait… it’s not Web 2.0, that was like 2006. Man, I’m 8 years out of date.

Article the Fifth:

Ko tangata whenua te nope I can’t speak Treaty of Waitangi.

I should not publish this post.

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Give us all your money.

Please.

Sam Smith and Robbie Ellis are Augmented FourthSam Smith and I make up a musical comedy duo called Augmented Fourth. We’ve known each other literally half our lives, and through school, university, post-university, and real life we’ve performed together in all manner of musico-theatrico-comedico-debating events.

This is the biggest project we’ve ever undertaken together: a one-hour show in the New Zealand International Comedy Festival called Augmented Fourth.

Now, I could ask you simply to book tickets for either Auckland or Wellington, but we’re getting more creative than simply ticket sales… we’ve arrived three years late to the crowdfunding party.

Specifically we want money for headset mics. Buying, hiring, whichever, but the Festival quoted us $1200 for two mics for two weeks. Here’s our pitch video!

Head on over to our PledgeMe page which details the pledge rewards – tickets, custom-written songs, namedrops and even singing telegrams. We’d be grateful for any contribution you’d care to make.

Also, we have another video which we recorded with our old high school orchestra. Granted, we both played double bass and percussion in this orchestra, not trombone…

PHWAAAAAAAAMP
PHWAAAAAAAAMP
PHWAAAAAAAAMP

PHWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMP

Also, see us in Song Sale next week. Monday 24 March on Ponsonby Rd.

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