Claire Cowan is the first female in the history of the Royal NZ Ballet to score a full length ballet. A composer for screen and stage, her award-winning music sets the mood for numerous television shows and films, and is performed around the world.
Making a living as a musician in New Zealand is not easy, but with a talent for composition like that of Claire Cowan she couldn’t possibly do anything else.
If you are a fan of New Zealand television then you have heard her music – she composed the soundtracks to Hillary, One Lane Bridge and Runaway Millionaires to name a few.
Each of those works were award-winning – the trophies sit atop her piano in her cosy Kingsland studio. One of them is a Silver Scroll, New Zealand’s most prestigious songwriting prize, which she received in 2017. Another is the APRA Professional Development Award for Film and TV music.
The second-hand couch in her studio (Claire is an avid op-shopper) has played host to many iconic Kiwi musicians – including Tami Nielson, Julia Deans, Tim Finn and Benee - all seeking to incorporate Claire’s music into their own.
And at only 37 years of age, Claire has decades of songwriting left in her and plans to focus her creative talents on compositions for the film industry.
“The time I spent at university was most valuable in helping me meet a great circle of musicians, many of whom I work with to this day. It also helped me figure out what I was most passionate about - soundtracks! I did a short paper in film scoring and absolutely loved it.
“I have one foot still in the classical concert world, and the other in the soundtrack world. I feel like my foundation in the classical world really gives me an advantage in the other.”
Claire’s classical work is unique in that it incorporates popular idioms in a way that is both natural and accessible. As a result, her music offers a very strong connection to audiences.
“I love to connect with my audiences through deepening the emotional impact of the themes or storyline of the visual. I’m a translator of sorts and I have to feel things deeply and translate that into music.”
Claire’s talent was spotted early. In her final year at Macleans College she was named an inaugural New Zealand Symphony Orchestra mentee.
“It was a really big deal to me at the time. My mentor, Robert Ibell, a cellist from the NZSO was key in encouraging me to pursue music. My high school music teachers were also influential on my journey to where I am today, through encouragement and positivity in helping me achieve my goals.”
Claire went on to study composition at the University of Auckland, graduating with honours in 2006 and along the way winning a University Cultural Blue Award, the University’s Top Composition Scholar Award, and the Auckland Philharmonia Young Composers Award.
Since then her musical output has been varied and consistently excellent. Her chamber music has been performed around the world and her percussive piano trio Subtle Dances remains the most performed composition by the NZTrio.
She also directs the Blackbird Ensemble - a vagabond chamber orchestra that creates highly visual and theatrical musical experiences in non-traditional spaces. And in 2019 she completed the first ballet score ever commissioned from a female composer in the history of the Royal New Zealand Ballet for Hansel and Gretel and went on to record it with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in 2020.
As well as her outstanding musical abilities, Claire says being able to network is essential to making it in the music industry.
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And talent can only take you so far. Learn how to make friends and network that way. It’s way better than cold-calling!
“University seems a long time ago now - I’m a different person now - older, wiser. I know my musical strengths but I’m still learning so much every day. The learning journey will never be over and I love that.”