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12 June 2024

"My career is never boring": Jessica Wells celebrates turning fifty

Jessica Wells Image: Jessica Wells  

American-born, Jessica Wells is now recognised as an established Australian composer across many genres in the art, commercial and film music worlds. Her music has been performed, to critical acclaim, by almost all of Australia's major orchestras. In addition to her own compositions, Jessica has worked as an arranger, orchestrator and producer for orchestral, jazz, theatre and film projects. As Jessica turns fifty, it is an opportunity to celebrate her career so far and to learn more about what is required to achieve success in these many and varied musical roles.

I was introduced to Jessica while researching the article, Significant Others, unaware at the time that I, along with many others, had been listening to her work for many years through her themes for ABC television. I was also to discover Jessica's contribution, as orchestrator, to other familiar projects such as Nigel Westlake's music for Paper Planes, Ali's Wedding and Blueback, as well as co-orchestrator for William Barton's Of the Earth, which was premiered by Simone Young and the Sydney Symphony as part of the re-opening concert for the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall in 2023. However, it is the opportunity to discover Jessica's original compositions that has been the chief delight of preparing this article.

We will return to Jessica's musical collaborations shortly but let us begin by learning more about this multi-talented musician. Jessica is first and foremost a composer. However, her apprenticeship in film - beginning as a copyist for composers such as Christopher Gordon (Ladies in Black, Mao's Last Dancer, Master and Commander) in the 1990s, then orchestrator and producer in the 2000s, has helped to develop her own skill and confidence as a composer, both for film and the concert hall. "As a young composer in my twenties I would often spend long periods of time working out structures to pieces, discarding drafts, researching techniques and finally emerging with a piece that may still have issues to solve in rehearsal," Jessica says. "Now, due to my experience in working with musicians, working in the recording studio, understanding how to balance music in different spaces and knowing my own compositional 'palette' - from which I can quickly dip into for techniques that I know will work - composing is MUCH easier and more efficient!"

Through her work as a copyist and attending film recording sessions, Jessica was introduced to the processes and pitfalls of screen composing. "I began to realise I could be a successful composer in this area myself, having an approach to music that encompassed skills such as arranging music for jazz and rock bands through to writing for a full orchestra. The understanding of a wealth of genres that are utilised in films was the ticket to having a varied and interesting career."

Those other roles, and the opportunities they provided to grow and learn the craft of composing through her work with other composers, were also important in providing an income for Jessica. Despite, as Jessica says, "coming blazing out of film school [AFTRS]" with three nominations at the Screen Music Awards of 2005, she was unable to secure for herself any consistent work as a screen composer or get many commissions in the classical music world.

This reality, combined with parenthood in her thirties, led to Jessica establishing Jigsaw Music. The business has grown to be a successful team of dedicated music specialists working for composers worldwide, preparing scores for recordings, concerts and the stage. In the beginning, it allowed Jessica to continue working from home, which enabled her to volunteer at her children's school, pick up the children after school and go to extra-curricular activities, while continuing to nurture her skill and satisfying her creative drive, despite composing being largely put on hold at this time.

Jessica is also quick to acknowledge the support of her husband and extended family in providing the time and freedom to pursue these professional opportunities. "Michael and I were able to juggle the care of our children and work with the help of family and childcare, and when deadlines loomed for my business or creative pursuits he would take the kids out for the day, letting me have quiet space to write."

There were times, earlier on, when combining parenthood and work required careful arranging of a different kind. "I often brought my young babies to the recording studios along with a helper (grandmother or auntie) to mind them in between feeds. I am super grateful to the clients who did not bat an eyelid at this, even enjoying the chubby cheeks to pinch in between sessions, taking babies for a cuddle and letting me park the pram inside the control room if needed!"

The work of orchestrator and arranger continues to be important in Jessica's working life. She was commissioned to layer a large string section into a synth-rich soundscape, composed by Matteo Zingales for The Convert (2023), a feature film set in 1800's New Zealand. She has also contributed her orchestrations to films including Elvis, Shadow and Bone, Brahmastra, Ivy and Bean, and "Pickmans' Model" from Netflix's Cabinet of Curiosities. However, for the past ten years, composing has, once again, become an important focus in Jessica's creative output - both for the concert hall and film.

The language of film music has been established during the past one-and-a-quarter centuries, combining the influences of art music and the avant garde, jazz and electronic music in an eclectic mix. The skill of the film music composer is in taking this familiar musical vocabulary and imbuing it with fresh perspectives. Sometimes, creating new and original expressions to add to the vocabulary. One has only to listen to scores such as Perdition, to appreciate Jessica's ability to employ both of these skills. She uses dissonance and diatonicism with equal surety, the latter laced with the chromatic piquancy familiar in contemporary music, while moving with deceptive ease from one genre to another.

Over the years, Jessica has been commissioned to write a wide variety of styles. From a Ligeti-inspired choral work for a tense TV-show underscore (Wake in Fright Channel 10 for SONAR music) to a country guitar for a McDonald's commercial. As Jessica says, "My career is never boring!" Among her latest film commissions are a forthcoming nature documentary for Envoy Films recorded with the Sydney Symphony, and the feature-length documentary, Mozart's Sister, which was premiered at the Sydney Film Festival on 7 June - for which Jessica played Carey Beebe's harpsichord and forte piano. This will have a cinema release in October.

Another key aspect to film making is collaboration. Jessica enjoys the group approach and the challenges it brings as she explained when speaking to Genevieve Lang on ABC Classic about being a screen composer. "It's not just you. You have to be more open and try things out until everyone's happy but that's the fun of it too. I love writing for screen because you are all working towards the same effect of that story really reaching your audience". 1

Creating that effect for the audience requires the ability to compose the music that the director would write, if they could, and the complementary skill of discovering just what that music might be. As Jessica explains, "You need to speak to your director and find out what they are trying to feel. The director may say, 'I don't really know, I'm not a music person' but you say to them 'No, no, that doesn't matter, just tell me what you want to feel. What are the moments in the film that you want to pick up on'." 2

Like her film music, Jessica's concert music traverses a range of emotions as well as styles. She describes it as an "eclectic mix of ideas" gathered from her years of working with Australia's top composers and performers. The sound world is at once familiar but laced with melodic and harmonic twists and turns that both intrigue and captivate the listener. With the ability to move seamlessly from playful to pathos and all the feelings in between, Jessica takes her audience on journeys that both surprise and delight with their charm and wit.

The music demonstrates Jessica's mastery of instrumental colour - a skill evident in her earlier works but honed during her years as an arranger and orchestrator - as well as the confidence and freedom of a maturing composer. "I love writing for concert music because you're a bit free. You know you can decide on your own topic. In some ways it's hard because you have to form your own boundaries when you're writing a piece but that's something that you get to know about yourself." 3

Jessica draws inspiration from events, experiences and environments around her. However, she is not just an observer. Her music expresses her empathy and a rich emotional life that enables her to connect audience and subject. One particular skill of the film composer is the ability to distil a character or dramatic element into a fragment of music known as a leitmotif. The ability to also capture character in an extended form is demonstrated in Jessica's chamber composition, Portrait of Row. In this gentle and luminous piece for piano and string quartet, Jessica presents a portrait in sound of a patient at the Alfred Hospital, Melbourne. The patient's name was Row and the title was provided by her husband, Mark Green, in response to first hearing the music. Like film music, this piece has both an abstract and an applied function. It was designed to be played on loop, to be used as the hospital's hold music. Jessica and Mark shared a deep desire that the music play a role to bring healing to those connecting with the hospital in times of distress. 4

As well as working with her team at Jigsaw Music, Jessica has recently been involved in mentoring, both younger women composers and also emerging indigenous composers, through NATSIMO (National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Music Office of APRA). "I quite enjoy doing some mentoring. I definitively love seeing young people benefit from experience. I think that it's a very important part of the industry to pass that along." 5

In reaching this milestone, Jessica is both reaping the rewards of her career thus far in music but also looking forward with confidence to the projects and possibilities that lie ahead. These include plans for a concerto and a full length ballet. "Music flows from me quickly and with a surety that feels satisfying, especially since I had to battle to get to this stage of my career, and I am finally feeling the hard-won benefits in middle-age. I'm just grateful I've been able to lead the life I have and now, at age fifty, the rewards are beginning to show".

To celebrate her 50th birthday, Jessica is presenting a concert of her chamber music on 9 August in Sydney.

The program will include works that span Jessica's composing career, beginning with Seven Pieces for Wind Quintet, written in 1996, when Jessica was studying at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and which she describes as a definitive work in her career development. In addition to Portrait of Row (2022), other recent works in the program include Sati (2023) for flute and piano, and Heartbeat (2019), commissioned by the Australia Ensemble, which examines human heartbeats in tempos ranging from the fluttering of a foetal heartbeat to our slowed down pulse during sleep, to the pulsating rhythm of when we fall in love.

Jessica's film music will be represented by a live score-to-picture presentation of Neptune's Daughter. This is a significant piece of Australian, and indeed, world cinematic history, which starred Australian professional swimmer and vaudeville star, Annette Kellerman. Made in 1914, the film grossed over a million dollars and earned Kellerman the title of 'Million Dollar Mermaid', which then became the name of Kellerman's biopic that starred Esther Williams. Jessica scored the film as a commission from the Women in Music Festival of 2019.

The Chamber Music of Jessica Wells: A 50th Birthday Celebration will be performed on Friday 9 August at the Neilson Pier 2/3 commencing at 7pm.

The concert is kindly supported by a grant from the Johnny Dennis Music Awards.


1, 2, 3, 5 Lunchtime Concert: Jessica Wells talks to Genevieve Lang about being a screen composer 2024, audio podcast, ABC Classic, Sydney, 7 March, accessed 8 May 2024, https://www.abc.net.au/listen/programs/lunchtime-concert/jessica-wells-film-composer-lunchtime-concert/103603502

4 Andriani, R. 2023, Healing with on-hold music. ABC Classic, viewed 30 April 2024, https://www.abc.net.au/listen/classic/read-and-watch/news/healing-with-on-hold-music/102219716

Subjects discussed by this article:

Philip Cooney is a music educator with a special interest in Australian Music. He has written educational material for the Australian Music Centre, the Sydney Symphony and the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre. In addition to the AMC kits, White Ghost DancingDance with Nature, and Compassion, he has written educational material based on Ross Edwards’ Maninyas Violin Concerto and the Second Symphony: Earth Spirit Songs.


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