You're most likely to have heard Victoria Kelly's music on screen, through her scores for Kiwi movies such as Black Sheep and Under the Mountain, or television projects like The Almighty Johnsons.

Most recently, she provided the "orchestral upholstery" for Neil Finn's solo album Out of Silence but this weekend, it will be Kelly's own The Unusual Silence which provides the centrepiece to a choral concert like no other.

Atmospherically set in Auckland War Memorial Museum's WWI Sanctuary, The Unusual Silence is one of the most imaginative responses yet to the tragedy of WWI.

Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir, led by conductor Karen Grylls, is part of a programme inspired by the museum's war artefacts, including letters from New Zealand soldiers. While Grylls maintains the superlative musical standards we've come to expect from the choir, NZ Opera's Stuart Maunder has fashioned a presentation he describes as smudging together some of the great popular music of the time with personal reminiscences and great choral music.


Along with Keep the home fires burning and They didn't believe me, you'll hear works by Eric Whitacre, David Hamilton and Jenny McLeod's magnificent 1984 Dirge for Doomsday.

It follows the choir's release of the CD Requiem for the Fallen.

Kelly's concert hall output may not be large but it is immensely characterful. It includes an atmospheric Landscape Prelude titled Goodnight Kiwi for pianist Stephen De Pledge and Songs without Words for New Zealand String Quartet, a charming response to the budding personality of her young daughter, Sasha.

"This sort of composing is my most private work," she says, explaining how she dislikes the pressure of deadlines as well as expectation.

But one senses the visceral power of Kelly's The Unusual Silence almost bursting from the printed page; a power that will doubtlessly be spectacularly released when it's performed by the two dozen choristers of Voices NZ, along with 17 young men from three Auckland boys' schools.

She says it was a brutal piece to write, involving much research to find suitable texts to set. Kelly was inspired, in particular, by her friend Hamish Macalister, who published a collection of letters his grandfather wrote from the trenches as well as the manuscripts and papers made available from the Museum's archives.

Putting words to music stirred unexpectedly intense emotions.

"Sitting in a warm house, with my children running around and food on the table, I was aware of my privileged perspective, looking back at this terrible war."

She points out the irony of the word "silence" in the work's title. Tonight, there will be 41 voices exploring a fascinating sound-world but contemporary newsreels of the war were silent.

"The letters that the men wrote home often avoided any mention of the war," Kelly says. "They talked about everything except the grim reality of it all, protecting both their families and themselves. Yet, strangely enough, when they did describe the conflict, they did so in musical terms, talking about wailing choirs of shells and the moaning harmonies coming from the injured and dying on the battlefield."

Voices NZ Chamber Choir led by the world-renowned conductor Karen Grylls.
Voices NZ Chamber Choir led by the world-renowned conductor Karen Grylls.

Writing The Unusual Silence, she hopes the complexities of the printed score will have a direct and emotional impact on the audience.

"There is a very clear and human articulation at the heart of it all, spelling out that this war shouldn't have happened," she says. "If the textures are sometimes dense then it's because I'm trying to get a sense of the scale of the event, although the story itself is told through the words of the individuals who experienced it."

Further performances are scheduled for Napier, Wellington and Toronto, Canada on the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day in 2018; performances in Europe will hopefully follow. It means the universal message of The Unusual Silence will reach out to the ears and hearts of the world.

What: Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir, The Unusual Silence
Where & when: WW1 sanctuary, Level 2, Auckland War Memorial Museum, Saturday at 8pm