Claire Cowan's spellbinding tunes

From pop songs to symphonies, the composer makes everything sound better

By Rebekah Hebenton
You may not recognise her face, but most Kiwis will have heard the sweeping melodies created by Claire Cowan.
The 40-year-old composer has won awards for her work scoring TV shows such as Under the Vines, has worked with the likes of Benee and Marlon Williams to put a classical spin on their hit songs, and holds the special privilege of being the first and only woman to compose a full-length ballet for the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB).
Claire will never forget the day she received the life-changing request from the RNZB. Her longtime friend Loughlan Prior was choreographing the 2019 production of Hansel and Gretel, and convinced them they needed Claire to compose a new score.
Without actors saying dialogue, music is an essential part of telling the story in ballet and every movement of the dancers is built around the score. Most ballet companies choose to use music from classic composers as it is a costly and lengthy endeavour to commission one for a full-length ballet. The last time the RNZB had commissioned an original score was in 2007.
"I was extremely excited," Claire says. "It's been a life-long dream of mine to write a ballet. Loughlan convinced them it was a good idea to take a risk on a composer who hadn't written a ballet before, and I'm really honoured they trusted me with such an enormous task.
"For 10 years I tried to get in touch with the ballet, but it was like an impenetrable wall. But finally, I met Loughlan and he was my key to the door."
Their modern retelling of the classic fairy tale was such a hit with audiences that the RNZB released a digital version for audiences to enjoy at home during lockdown, and they're bringing the show back for the special 70th anniversary season later this year.
It was also the start of a beautiful creative partnership between Claire, Loughlan and the ballet, which has seen them continue to create stories she wishes she could have seen when she was a young queer kid.
"We came to this realisation that if we wanted to see people like us represented on stage, others surely would, too," she tells.
Claire's proudest achievement was creating the company's 2022 production of Cinderella, which made headlines for including the first same-sex kiss in an RNZB production. Claire says she still gets goosebumps remembering the first time she watched with an audience.
"It makes me feel emotional when this sort of thing gets such a great reaction from the audience, especially young people," she enthuses.
"Some of the dancers were queer themselves and had homophobic experiences in their past. They had nerves about doing the school shows, but it was amazing to do those performances and hear the students cheer and clap for all the characters. There was not a negative word to be said. That was amazing – we were all crying."
In another world, Claire could have been one of the dancers on the stage. She took ballet lessons as a child, but the second she picked up an instrument, she knew her future lay in music.
When she was 17, Claire landed a mentorship spot as a cellist in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, but quickly realised she would rather be the person crafting the music than spending endless hours trying to perfect a single performance.
But having a dream and achieving it are two different things. Though Claire knew exactly what she wanted to do, she had no idea how to get her foot in the door and she spent years after graduating from the University of Auckland struggling to find the work she sought.
Claire wrote the score for TVNZ's hit show Under the Vines, starring Charles Edwards and Rebecca Gibney.
"I had a music degree, which was mostly academically focused and left me clueless about where to find composing work. It was disheartening."
Though she was frustrated and struggled to pay her bills, Claire never wavered and focused on bringing passion projects to life. Her tenacity and talent have seen her become one of the most sought-after composers in the country.
"I had no money," she recalls. "I would photocopy scores at the library and tape them together. It taught me you can't wait around for opportunities to come to you – you have to make them. You're the person you've been waiting for."
  • undefined: Rebekah Hebenton

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