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More strings, bright bow

By Sue Green

It takes a lot of drive, but composing can be a satisfying, viable profession, writes Sue Green.

Making a living composing music may sound as practical as deciding to become a movie star or marry a prince. But as Australian composer Leah Curtis attests - and so, too, no doubt actor Cate Blanchett or Princess Mary of Denmark - dreams can come true.

Curtis, 34, has made the leap from winning a composing competition while a student at Canberra's St Clare's College to being based in her Los Angeles home studio, creating choral and orchestral works and composing film scores.

Her career journey has involved luck, talent and hard work - it's a journey that requires commitment and passion, says the head of composition at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, Associate Professor Stuart Greenbaum.

"I never tell anybody they should become a composer," he says of his students. "That is their risk, they have to be driven to do this of their own volition."

For Curtis it has been a risk worth taking, but it wasn't just about mastering composing.

"Creativity, dedication and an entrepreneurial spirit are all necessary to pull together a sustainable career," she says.

"There are many parts to my work, from conducting, composing, guest lecturing, classical commissions, releasing soundtracks, and there's a delicate balance to find between all of this, but they all contribute great things."

Greenbaum, who has about 40 undergraduate and postgraduate students, agrees.

"From a composing perspective and an instrumentation perspective we ask them to dream things up in response to the world they live in," he says.

This can include everything from designing websites to staging concerts, promoting themselves and recording music.

"By being with us they gather a lot of generic or associated skills. We don't just ask them to write a string quartet that they keep in the third drawer down on paper, we ask a lot more of them.

"We often say to them that you should have more than one string to your bow because that is part of how you get connected and find work."

For example, graduate Tim Davies's passion is big band but work on Hollywood film scores pays the bills. And "we should never frown on the non-artistic jobs", he says of those who also make coffee.

Philip Glass, for example, drove a taxi, leaving him the energy to compose, more difficult with a demanding arts-related day job.

For Curtis, who plays piano and flute, conducts and composes, the journey to Hollywood began at age 15, in 1995, when she entered the Shakespeare Globe Centre of Australia's annual festival.

"In the evenings after school, sitting at the home piano, and note by note, I created overtures for Much Ado about Nothing and The Tempest, and recruited my good friends who played instruments to perform the music along with me," she says.

Winning Young Shakespearean Artist of the Year and a British study tour opened her eyes to the possibilities of the world of theatre.

And performing her score at an Australian Society for Music Education competition led to a commission from the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

She was "very much transformed by the experience of having a full symphony rehearse and perform a work of mine".

Music study at the University of NSW followed, then, in 2000, the screen composition program at the Australian Film Television and Radio School in Sydney. But it was winning a Fulbright scholarship to the US in 2005, becoming visiting composer at the University of Southern California in the scoring for motion pictures and television programs, that she says was a "life-changing" experience.

There, she was mentored by industry leaders, selected for the prestigious Aspen Music Festival in Colorado and made crucial connections with the Los Angeles music and film world.

Her work has ranged from classical commissions to orchestrating movies and composing original soundtracks - for the American film Exitus Roma, for example.

Her song Animula Vagul was nominated for multiple Australian awards. "For the onscreen version of the film, I was on set under the stars in LA in a vast water tank in a wooden boat, coaching our lead actress [Teri Reeves from NBC's Chicago Fire] as she sang my song on camera."

Curtis's diverse skills have been key in her success. And to anyone who dreams of taking up composing, she says: "My main advice would be to take creative risks, always be willing to learn and be challenged."


Published: 12 February 2013

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