Former dancer Eden Mulholland composes music for dance and theatre. The youngest of four musician brothers from Christchurch, his latest work is the soundtrack to Peer Gynt [recycled] in the Auckland Arts Festival.

1. You grew up in a large musical family in Christchurch. What was that like?

There were always guitars and instruments lying around the house and we all played. I learnt from listening to my older brothers. Jolyon and Sam would be playing guitar in their bedrooms at full bore. Will's a drummer. I have strong memories of living in a big old house on Kilmore St beside Hagley Park. We were on the top floor and the people downstairs used to constantly hit the roof with their broomsticks to get us to shut up. I think that was mainly from playing basketball in the lounge rather than the music. We had pretty groovy parents. Our dad John's an artist and our mum Isabel's an author.

2. What did you want to be growing up?

A ballet dancer. As a little boy I was always running round the house doing leaps and putting on shows so when I was 8 Mum took me to ballet. I loved being on stage. I'd cry whenever a production finished. I didn't mention I did ballet to anyone at Shirley Boys High. I just knew that wasn't a good idea. In fifth form I switched to Hagley Community College where I met a bunch of like-minded kids and then did a diploma in dance at Unitec.


3. You danced in the Black Grace dance company for a season. What was that like?

It was a steep learning curve. Neil Ieremia is a hard taskmaster. I'd never encountered that old school hierarchy, so it was pretty full-on, but I had a ball dancing on stage with guys I'd grown up watching like Taiaroa Royal and Taane Mete. It was very physical. For lunch, I'd eat two filled rolls, a sausage roll, a pie and two chocolate milks and just burn it off. Those were the days.

4. Do you have Maori or Pacific Island ancestry?

I'm Ngati Porou. We didn't find that out until we were adults. We knew there was something going on because a lot of our family members look Maori. Mum did a whole lot of sleuthing and found out our roots are from Ruatoria. We went back to our marae there, it was really cool.

5. Why did your OE in London last only nine months?

Being broke in London was pretty soul destroying. I stayed too long with my sister and when she kicked me out spent a month in a hostel bunk room with two guys who stank. That was a real low point. I finally got a job in a record shop and found a flat with a 91-year old lady. She was lovely - deaf as a doorpost. I spent most of the time in my bedroom teaching myself how to make music on my computer using sequencing software. After seeing The Strokes play at Reading I decided to come home and start a band with my brother Will called Motocade. We made two albums before going on hiatus.

6. How did you get into composing music for contemporary dance?

I kind fell into it while I was dancing. Choreographer Malia Johnson from Footnote Dance Company asked me to create my first full length piece for her show Weathervane People. It's usually a combination of electronic beats and guitars and vocals.

7. How does the creative process work in creating music for a dance show?

Usually it's a collaborative process where the music and the choreography are created in parallel. I'll often go to rehearsals and make music in the room while they're practising. If the music's going to be live it's especially helpful to have it embedded in the work from the start. Malia and I are such good friends our process is quite organic. Being a dancer is an advantage because movement can be hard to describe in language.

8. You've also done a lot of sound design for the Auckland Theatre Company. How is that different?

I work closely with director Colin McColl to ensure the music underscores a scene and really supports what's going on on stage. Sometimes you're doing sound effects like door bells ringing or cars revving which is quite fun but I enjoy building my own sounds effects too. So instead of using the actual sound of a storm or the sea, I'll change the dynamics of musical tones to create sounds that suggests those things.

9. Do you collect sounds you might use when you're out and about?

I've recorded some weird things - planes, beaches. Once I recorded the ambience in my flat for 20 minutes in each room and then distilled each room down to its essence. That base sound could then be used as a texture or even an instrument by mapping it to a keyboard so it changes pitch as you go up and down.

10. What's the most challenging aspect of composing?

With commissions, the hardest thing is finding the core element of the music. Once I find that seed of an idea I can develop it really fast. The secret is to just start - whatever comes out, even if it's totally wrong, can spark off other stuff. Deadlines are good because I'm a bit of a last minute guy. Sometimes I sit in front of the computer and there's nothing coming out, I'm dry. My wife tells me to get out of the house and go for a walk. Sometimes it doesn't hit me until there's enough pressure.

11. You've composed advertising jingles and had your songs played on TV shows like Home and Away and Hamish and Andy. What's been your greatest commercial success?

A TV show called World Kitchen I did for five years. Chef Nicki Wickes would travel the world sampling different foods and cultures then come back and cook recipes inspired by what she'd seen. My job was to write a quirky, upbeat take on ethnic music from around the world. That was the coolest job ever.

12. Your latest composition is the soundtrack to Peer Gynt - Auckland Theatre Company's contemporary take on the classic play by Henrik Ibsen. What can audiences expect?

It's going to be a real cool head trip. A lot of theatre-goers will know the original play about a serial seducer who wanders the world in search of fame and fortune. It's been reimagined by young Kiwi playwright Eli Kent and its very self-referential, very meta. I'm trying to emulate that musically by recycling and warping the style of songs by R&B singers like Kanye West and Jason Derulo and twisting them back on themselves to come up with new textures. You probably won't recognise the original songs, they're pretty mangled. It's going to be a thrilling ride.

Peer Gynt [recycled], ASB Waterfront Theatre, 7 to 18 March, part of the Auckland Arts Festival.