The eclectic range of Kiwi composer Rhian Sheehan

by James Belfield / 19 October, 2018
Cinematic scope: Rhian Sheehan. Photo/Ian Robertson

Cinematic scope: Rhian Sheehan. Photo/Ian Robertson

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Rhian Sheehan is hitting the road with a collection of intimate tracks – a world removed from soundtracks for theme parks and alien-zapping virtual-reality games. 

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write a spy theme as catchy as the Mission: Impossible tune.

Oh, and can you time it so that the audience follows this storyline as they go around this rollercoaster, too?

As briefs go, the one that landed on Kiwi composer Rhian Sheehan’s desk courtesy of Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi was a standout. The request was for an orchestral score for a spy-themed roller coaster in a theme park that’s already home to the world’s fastest ride and that’s looking to combine immersive Hollywood blockbuster special effects with a leading car brand in its latest attraction.

But this is all in a day’s work for the 42-year-old. As a composing “gun-for-hire” based in the heart of Wellywood suburb Miramar, he’s amassed an eclectic CV that includes music for huge planetarium shows (the most recent, We Are Stars, is voiced by Andy Serkis) and art installations (he helped transform Auckland Museum into an iceberg).

Most recently, he’s done the music to accompany an augmented-reality game, Dr Grordbort’s Invaders – picture yourself wearing a headset and shooting aliens in your front room – that’s based around a steampunk interplanetary explorer character created by Weta Workshop. The game features the voices of Stephen Fry and Rhys Darby, and is due out this year for the Magic Leap One virtual-reality goggles released last month.

It all seems a far cry from the personal work of a man who started “noodling around” with electronica in his late teens, released an ambient album, Paradigm Shift, in 2001 and has just completed his fifth studio outing, A Quiet Divide, a collection of intimate, emotional tracks that rely mostly on strings and piano.

“Yes, some of these scores I’ve written, if you had only heard my albums, you wouldn’t recognise as my work at all,” he says. “This game soundtrack, for example, that I’ve been working on for two years is imperial and bombastic and all a bit absurd. And those planetarium films are quite different again, with big atmospheric synths and a child-like Harry Potter-ish score.

“But it’s a completely different way of writing music, and I like to be thrown in at the deep end. The music for the game has to interact with the actions of the players so you’re constantly writing adaptations of themes that are dynamically different. That can be quite overwhelming, because you’re not writing for something that’s linear.”

Strangely, for someone who can seemingly compose to order in any number of different styles, starting A Quiet Divide proved quite difficult.

“When I first sat down, I had writer’s block and felt I had nothing to say with my own music – and that was hugely frustrating.”

But after he settled into general feelings of “nostalgia and reflection”, the tunes and melodies started to flow and he’s created a stirring album – one that certainly draws on his cinematic work but is, at the same time, natural and honest. We Danced Under a Broken Sky, for example, ebbs and flows like a John Williams film score and Soma’s Dream was named by his five-year-old daughter, Soma, because, well, she said it sounded like her dream.

“It’s really hard to think about my process because I try to avoid that when I’m working. If I overthink things, then nothing seems to come out.

“A lot comes from experimentation, and I love writing. But I had just finished a score for a short documentary on the Sahara [The Mauritania Railway: Backbone of the Sahara] that’s now on National Geographic and that style is probably my favourite sonically to write and it just comes out the easiest.

“That became the starting point and the chords and melodies and the rest of the tracks would come together afterwards.”

His other inspiration for A Quiet Divide was the desire to play the album live, so he’s surrounded himself with Weta professionals – including boss Richard Taylor, who helpfully works with Sheehan’s wife, Raashi Malik – to create what’s intended to be a fully multimedia experience. No roller coasters this time, but plenty of animation, light shows and timelapse space photography, courtesy of The Art of Night photographer Mark Gee.

His set-up will also be the largest he’s played with live and includes string sections, an eight-piece band (including Malik on piano) and promised “special guests”.

“Much of my work can be isolating and lonely because it’s not like I’m being flown around the world to actually go on this roller coaster,” he says. “I spend so much time in an isolated environment, just beating my head against a wall trying to get these ideas out, that it’ll be nice to be around some musicians and play these tunes to people.”

Rhian Sheehan will be touring his multimedia version of A Quiet Divide to Nelson Theatre Royal, October 20 & 21; and Q Theatre, Auckland, October 26 & 27.

This article was first published in the October 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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