New Zealand composer Rhian Sheehan has written and recorded music for everything from Formula 1: Drive to Survive and American Idol to the British National Space Centre and Wētā Workshop.
But creating something reflective and poignant for the New Zealand Liberation Museum – Te Arawhata, which tells the story of Kiwi soldiers who liberated the French town of Le Quesnoy during World War One, was one of his most challenging projects yet.
“There are many tragic stories. Some of the casualties, between the ages of 18 and 28, were from Wellington where I live. Killed so far away from home.
“Many had previously been on the Western Front at the Battle of Passchendaele and only a couple of weeks out from the end of the war they are charged with liberating the town of Le Quesnoy on the other side of the world.
“It brings it home how extraordinary it was, but also the tragic nature of the time they lived in.”
So, Sheehan had many conversations with Wētā Workshop Senior Creative Director Andrew Thomas about Te Arawhata to help get a sense of how to tell the story through the music.
“The exhibition is designed to create a very immersive and emotive storytelling experience, to highlight the human stories behind the liberation, and the music is central to that,” says Sheehan.
The result is a stunningly beautiful, yet considered score with strings, brass, and woodwind, that is essential to creating a sensory and emotive environment for museum visitors to reflect and remember those involved in Le Quesnoy.
The music, recorded at Stella Maris Chapel in Seatoun because of its acoustic qualities, includes a nine-minute-long piece for the Encounter Room, which features a giant soldier reminiscent of Wētā Workshop’s Gallipoli exhibition. A seperate composition is a key part of the Voices exhibit featuring stories of the soldiers who liberated Le Quesnoy on Novemeber 4, 1918.
The NZ Liberation Museum – Te Arawhata, which opens on October 11, will commemorate the triumph of Kiwi soldiers who liberated the people of the town and the approximately 12,500 New Zealanders who died in Europe during World War One.
Sheehan’s diverse musical output includes scores for film and television, multi-media installations, planetarium shows, rollercoaster rides, and games. His albums as a solo artist, including 2009’s Standing In Silence and A Quiet Divide from 2018, are works of sonic beauty.
Writing and recording his own albums is very different from composing, what he describes as, “location-based music experiences” such as for the NZ Liberation Museum – Te Arawhata.
“Writing your own music, you’re writing what comes to you in the moment. Whereas with location-based experiences you are guided by the story. The story is everything – and it’s about reinforcing the narrative.
“But I’m pretty slow at recording my own albums – one every five years,” he laughs. “So, it gives me lots of time to do this sort of work with Wētā Workshop, which I love.”