Keith Ballantyne was a professional trumpet player touring around New Zealand in the early 1970s, when he and two TVNZ directors came up with a “really ridiculous” idea to make documentaries and sell them to the world.
Ballantyne’s job was to write music for these productions, something he’d never done before. He joined Keith Hunter and Bruce Morrison to create Sprocket Films, funding it partly with profits from a house Ballantyne sold. It was a big risk to take, as at that point relatively few documentaries from New Zealand were selling internationally.
But the gamble paid off and Ballantyne made enough money from 1977’s deer hunting documentary Red Deer to build a studio in his Ponsonby house, which he still uses to this day.
Ballantyne’s music career is eclectic: he toured South Africa for nine months playing in the pit orchestra for West Side Story, and recorded The Mutton Birds' self-titled debut album in his home studio; he has composed music for many episodes of iconic Kiwi TV show Heartland, 30 years of TV ads, and “crazy” experimental music for theatre. In 2017 he began work on his first feature film, composing music with old friend Don McGlashan, for Vermilion. The movie is directed by Dorthe Scheffmann.
Music has always been a big part of Ballantyne’s life. His father Ernest gave him a cornet at age five, while Keith was growing up in Waterview, Auckland. Ballantyne senior was very musical and encouraged his four children to read music from a young age. Keith played the cornet in brass bands until 1965; his first job out of school was playing trumpet for the Symphonia of Auckland (now the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra).
In the late 1960s, he became fascinated with jazz and left the world of orchestral-playing to tour Australiasia for many years with bands, operas and shows, including touring with James Brown. "Jazz was magical in those days for me. It was new and exciting. I studied jazz for 15 years but when I got to understand it better, it lost some of its magic and I found myself just as interested in orchestral, funk, rock, ska, etc — which led to my eclectic compositional style.”
Writing music for the screen honed Ballantyne’s ability to “hear” music.
“I hear music when someone tells a story. I honed it doing television advertisements. When I first started doing music for ads, I would watch a film and play the keyboard to try ideas. That evolved over time to hearing music in my head, and now when I watch a film I pretty much hear the music that I think will work for a scene.”
A number of projects that Ballantyne has worked on have netted awards and nominations. His work on The Roaring Forties Tour, where Gary McCormick and Sam Hunt hit the road for a poetry tour, netted a nomination for Best Original Music at the 1996 TV Guide Film and Television Awards. Dorthe Scheffmann’s short film The Beach (1996) competed at the Cannes Film Festival, and won a prize in Hamburg. High profile local documentaries The Road to Jerusalem and Back from the Dead both won local awards for best doco.
Although documentaries dominate Ballantyne's work for the screen, there are dramas scattered through his CV. In the late 80s he composed music for early projects by director Stewart Main (My First Suit), Alison Maclean (Talkback) and Garth Maxwell (Beyond Gravity). Later, short film Aphrodite's Farm won the top award at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival.
Ballantyne is most proud of his work on short films The Bar, Funny Little Guy, art documentaries, and on 2006 NZ Festival of the Arts production The Holy Sinner. “I feel good about Holy Sinner because it was very experimental and original. I had 10 days to write the music. I had an old sequencer…rhythmically it’s crazy, in a good way. I like it.”
When Ballantyne’s not working, he can be found travelling around the world with his wife Christine, and jamming with his friends. Their children are also involved in the creative arts. Daughter Armagan Ballantyne directed 2009 drama The Strength of Water, and son Cam Ballantyne composes music for film and commercial work.
Profile written by Natasha Harris
Perceptual Engineering website. Accessed 29 September 2017
Roger Horrocks, ‘New Zealand Film Makers at the Auckland City Art Gallery: Bruce Morrison' (Catalogue) 1985