Leah Curtis: From New to Hollywood
Article Photo by Stephanie Neal
Leah Curtis lived at New College for 3 years from 1996-98 while she studied a Bachelor of Music and a Bachelor of Music Education at the University of New South Wales. Leah went on to complete both a Graduate Diploma (Film and Television - Screen Composition) and a Master of Arts at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. Furthering her studies even more, Leah undertook a Graduate Certificate in Film Scoring through UCLA. She is now an internationally recognized, award winning composer.
Achievements throughout Leah's career have included being the BMI & UCLA Jerry Goldsmith Film Scoring Fellow Winner, the USA Reg Waite Award Winner, the Queen's Trust Achiever, the Young Shakespearean Artist of the Year (Globe Centre of Australia), a finalist in the Young Australian of the Year Awards (ACT), the ASME (Australian Society for Music Education) Young Composer Winner, and the USA Sydney Symphony Orchestra Composer Dialogue Winner. Leah was also a Fulbright Postgraduate Scholar.
New 'n' Old, the alumni magazine of New College, interviewed Leah recently. This is the extended version of that interview.
Leah, what instruments do you play?
I learnt flute and piano growing up, and currently spend most of my time composing and conducting.
Do you remember when you first identified yourself as a composer?
I was 16. I was drawn to a competition being run by Shakespeare’s Globe Centre of Australia. There were categories for acting, directing, production design and music composition. With music being central to everything I was, I thought composing would be a lot of fun. I spent my evenings at the piano with manuscript and pencil in hand. I dived into composing straight after Mum’s last piano student had left, creating music that swept through the drama of Shakespeare’s Tempest and Much Ado About Nothing. I harnessed the energy of my friends to perform my new works and entered the competition.
The result of my first composition was a two-week study tour of England as Young Shakespearean Artist of the Year, and a commission to compose for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. It was more than my 16-year-old self could have imagined.
England was a brilliant, adventurous and rewarding experience. I travelled with four equally excited Australian teenagers taking in nightly theatre in London and Stratford-Upon-Avon.
For me, at 16, composing meant hours at the piano lost in the music, the challenge of bringing stories to life through music, sifting through whatever books I could find on instrument ranges and techniques, working with incredible musicians, and adventurous international travel. I needed to take a chance on this.
Where did you grow up and what led you to studying music at The University of New South Wales?
I grew up in Canberra and worked with a mentor during the Shakespeare experience who was also a professor in Music at UNSW. I explored the possibility of studying there and applied to New College. Thankfully I was accepted into both, and the adventures in Sydney began.
What were your apprenticeships in Hollywood like?
I’ve enjoyed worked as an orchestrator for some brilliant international composers, requiring me to delve into the intricacies of their music, including Alex Wurman (composer of Something Borrowed) and Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil (composers of Sophie Scholl). Australian composer Christopher Gordon (composer of Master and Commander and Mao’s Last Dancer) has also been a generous mentor and influence, and gave me my very first film music role before I left for the US. They have been demanding roles that actively immersed me in the world of film scoring for which I’m very grateful.
I discovered that music in film opens up another, potentially very powerful avenue with which to tell a story. A truly great score is able to evoke the essence of the film and reveal the subtleties of its message, even when it is experienced without the images.
How did your career as a composer really take off?
It has been a gradual process where there is a long trajectory of learning as projects become larger and more adventurous. Every project teaches me something new. Every film needs its sound uncovered from nothing.
A significant moment was when I applied for and won the Fulbright in 2005 and took up a role as Visiting Composer at the University of Southern California within their Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program. This program is almost considered a rite of passage in the Los Angeles industry, and I am very grateful to have had the support to have been a part of it.
The Fulbright helped me significantly in connecting with the Los Angeles Music and film world. It enabled me to spend precious time at USC’s film music department, being selected for the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado and mentored by some of the international leaders in film music (Oscar and Pulitzer prize winner John Corigliano taught me at Aspen). It helped me connect with similarly aligned colleagues, and be reached and challenged by new collaborators. It provided me with encouragement to keep moving forward in what is an unpredictable and challenging industry.
Every day I am identified as Australian, and my projects have required extensive international collaborations, and I love this about the work. I’m naturally drawn to uncovering and understanding other people’s unique stories, and I think it helps me understand my role as an Australian artist working internationally.
Personally, as my work has centred so far on films in international locations, times and perspectives (wartime Kuwait, ancient Rome, country New South Wales, Topanga Canyon) and with collaborators from equally diverse backgrounds, Fulbright has taught me to approach the world with an openness and understanding that existing as an Australian in an international arena has required, in order to authentically connect and understand others and to ultimately succeed in my work.
You’ve composed for a wide variety of genres and instrumentations, do you have a favourite?
I will always love scoring for orchestra - the sheer range of sounds you can evoke from this ensemble is truly breathtaking. For projects, the team is the most critical attractor for me, moreso than genre. That being said, I’ve really enjoyed exploring international films with personal stories in epic times.
Once on the project, inspiration can come from anywhere – a memory, a fabric, the rhythm of a character’s dialogue, the visual rhythms of the film, the quality of light, a vivid colour, a facial expression, or simply delving into the subtext of a scene that might not yet be fully present. Anything can spark an idea. I rely on my own strong internal criticism and judgment to determine if an idea resonates.
For the short film Exitus Roma, the director shared rich historical accounts of the fall of Rome in 410AD. These intense, beautiful and sometimes poetic descriptions sparked musical approaches. I sought out specific Ancient Roman instruments for the score and was informed by the gravitas of the epic time.
For the war drama To Rest in Peace, I discovered an American ethnomusicologist, who is a fellow Fulbright scholar based in Kuwait. She documents, researches and collects local music – such incredibly detailed work. She opened up a rich and authentic window into the world of Kuwaiti and Arabic music. Reaching out and connecting with colleagues such as this is a treasured part of my role as composer.
What does it feel like to be in a studio having your music recorded?
This is my absolute favourite place to be. There’s nothing quite like a film recording session. You walk in with an enormous stack of your music that has never been played, and there’s always that anticipation and a new team coming together to make it happen. It’s exhilarating.
Do you still conduct your own work?
Absolutely. Conducting is one of my favourite parts of the process. It is one of the final expressions of the music and the opportunity to shape what you’ve written. I relish working with musicians on the scoring stage and having to think on my feet and strive to offer my collaborators enough direction, space and trust for them to produce their own best work.
What music are you most enjoying listening to at the moment?
I’m exploring native American Coyote Jump as I’m composing a work for them, Max Richter’s Recomposed: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, a contemporary take on the original, Björk’s Biophilia, Damaged mixes with Berlin based Australian friend Fiora on vocals, and, Falu, a mix of Hindustani classical music with pop, South Indian and Arabic influences.
When someone says, “New College”, what do you think or see in your mind’s eye?
Great friends, diversity and respect, spreading your wings.
Outside of your musical career what has been happening for you since leaving New College?
Work has brought a lot of travel, which I really enjoy. I’m naturally drawn to uncovering and understanding other people’s unique stories, and I think it helps me understand my role as an Australian working internationally as I discover new places and cultures. This month I travel to Rome, Palm Springs and New York, and I look forward to taking some time in each to explore. My travel has also sparked an active interest in cultural diplomacy and potential in that field.
I also love history, art and architecture, and write in an Arts and Crafts 1920s California bungalow surrounded by eucalypts making California a little more like home. I cherish time with my family and good friends and like to try new things and challenge myself regularly plus I really enjoy public speaking.