Clovis McEvoy is on the phone but you can tell his eyes are sparkling. The giveaway is how his voice comes alive the moment he starts talking about virtual reality.

"VR is already being used to treat PTSD, phobias; it's been shown to reduce the perception of pain in burns victims. They're using it all through psychology and the medical fields and seeing very, very intense reactions from people."

It's no surprise McEvoy is excited about VR. It's the Aucklander's current area of academic interest and he's just landed a $10,000 prize to continue his research. But McEvoy is not a medical scientist, psychologist or even a video game developer.

He composes classical music. McEvoy is one of three recipients of the 2017 APRA Professional Development Award, a songwriting and composition honour as prestigious as it is lucrative.

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The award, bestowed every other year, is given in three categories: classical; film, TV and video; and pop contemporary. McEvoy, the classical recipient, is joined by Claire Cowan (film and TV) and pop artist Chelsea Metcalf, better known by her stage name Chelsea Jade. Between them the trio reflect three facets of 21st century music making.

Pop artist Chelsea Metcalf, better known as Chelsea Jade.
Pop artist Chelsea Metcalf, better known as Chelsea Jade.

Like many Kiwis, Metcalf left New Zealand to further her career and, since relocating to Los Angeles, a sheen has been added to her haunting dreampop. Music labels, publishers, writers and producers make LA a good town for songwriters but she has no romantic illusions about the city.

"[LA is] where the industry is tangible. It's a job," Metcalf says. "I appreciate the lack of fantasy in it. You do the work and your repertoire grows. It feels like realising there's no such thing as a muse to wait for, there's only the work and how much you put in."

The work is paying off. Her song Life of the Party is a finalist in this year's Silver Scrolls, while a pair of co-writes with Canadian EDM producer Attlas have been streamed millions of times on Spotify and appear on the label owned by electronica star deadmau5. She's using her prize money to attend songwriting camps and writing sessions in Paris and New York.

A Chelsea Jade album - urged on by friend and supporter Lorde - is due by the end of the year. In other words, Metcalf is hot right now.

So's Cowan.

An in-demand composer for film, TV and adverts, she's also creative director of Blackbird Ensemble, a loose collective of genre-straddling musicians who play in non-traditional venues and whose repertoire stretches from contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Part to her own arrangements of Radiohead and Amy Winehouse. Blackbird Ensemble is a joyous release from the solitude of composition, she says.

Film and TV composer Claire Cowan.
Film and TV composer Claire Cowan.

"The majority of soundtrack composing is long hours by yourself with headphones on."
Her prize money will be spent in Berlin, Cologne and Los Angeles tapping into a community she's never before reached.

"I don't know many other film composers and I never get to work with them," Cowan says. "It'll be interesting to find out how other composers have their studios set up, how they deal with creative blocks, the technologies they use to make their jobs easier - all the sorts of things I've never had a chance to ask in person - and see if I can get on top of what the people at the leading edge are doing and how I can use that to inform what I do."

Meanwhile, McEvoy is already at that leading edge in his own discipline. His music is steadfastly experimental - don't expect to whistle along. He has nothing against tunes, he says, but believes melodies can constrain a composer.

"I'd liken it to backing yourself into a corner. A strong melody has certain demands and pushes you in certain directions, whereas exploring texture and timbre and rhythm, without those harmonic or melodic concerns, can be very interesting."

McEvoy is realistic about the number of people likely to visit a concert hall to listen to such music, but if that implies he's not interested in his listeners, McEvoy insists it's not the case. Indeed, his work with VR is an attempt to engage more fully with his audience.

"There's never enough of an audience, especially for contemporary classical music," he says. "In many ways, my interest in VR is a way of trying to tackle that, because if I can envisage a future where people have a VR set in their home the same way they have a TV, and experience an artistic work unlike anything anyone's seen before, it could galvanise people."

It's an opinion shared in unlikely places. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra has just released its own VR app that lets people wander virtually among the players, while the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra has, for some years, used digital technology to reach new audiences, including live streaming concerts. A recent performance had an audience of 1200 in the hall but 70,000 online with viewers as far away as Greece and Russia.

"It's a matter of accessibility," says McEvoy of his own work in the digital realm.
"Things made available over the internet, things people can experience in their own homes or however they want, I think that's a key part of the future of music."