Ross Harris at 60: new beginnings


(Article by 
Chris Watson – Canzona 2006)

At the public forum held prior to the Auckland Philharmonia premiere of Ross Harris’sSymphony No.1, the event’s compere suggested that there was an emerging feeling that Harris was gradually assuming the mantle of the late Douglas Lilburn. The suggestion sparked an audible hum of disagreement in the audience, and Harris was quick to deflect it. But if New Zealand music needed such a Lilburnesque figure (which, arguably, it does not) then Harris would surely be at the top of the list of candidates.

It is perhaps indicative of the greater public’s conservative attitude towards new music that this Auckland audience (which could easily be a Wellington or Christchurch one) would rail at the suggestion of promoting Harris to the fairly safe milieu occupied by Lilburn (notwithstanding Lilburn’s electroacoustic output, which is largely passed over in the public’s positive estimation of him). But herein lies the duality of Ross Harris: that audiences can at once be terrified by the uncompromising auditory alien-ness of works such as At The Edge Of Silence and overwhelmed with Mahlerian delight at the unashamedly ‘beautiful’ world of Music for Jonny, is testimony to the polarising effect he can have. This is not a situation Harris has set out to create: “I use whatever language I need to say what I want to express. Also, the ensemble I’m writing for tends to influence the complexity of the language.”

Since retirement from Victoria’s School of Music, where he lectured for thirty-three years, Harris has been immersed in a frenzy of compositional activity, producing, by the end of 2005, some thirteen new works. Not one to promote his music much beyond appealing to performers for opportunities to write, Harris has nevertheless enjoyed a higher profile since his ‘retirement’, thanks largely to successes in the SOUNZ Contemporary Award, his composer-in-residence position with the Auckland Philharmonia, the inclusion ofMusic for Jonny on the NZSO’s 2005 international tour and Stroma’s numerous performances of At the Edge of Silence on its Chamber Music NZ tour in 2004. There is also the pairing of his music with that of James MacMillan in a concert as part of the 2006 International Festival of the Arts, a welcome Festival gig after the disappointment of hisKing Lear-based opera, A Wheel of Fire, previously missing out on Festival inclusion in rather cruel circumstances.

Two major concurrent streams of composition have emerged in this time: Harris the confrontational symphonist and Harris the explorative chamber craftsman. In the former, works such as the Rasputin ExcerptsAs Though There Were No GodSymphony No.1 andLabyrinth for Tuba and Orchestra are, in the main, thickly textured, aggressive and propulsive. There is little recourse to exploration of extended technique, with primacy of pitch and architecture the chief concerns.

In contrast, chamber works such as At the Edge of Silence and Ka wawara te hauinvestigate the sonic possibilities of the instruments and their players. This latter style is highly detailed, its filigree occupying a largely subdued soundscape. The intimate worlds of such pre-retirement works as Ghost Dances (String Quartet No.2) and Three Rilke Songshave now been expanded into a throughly integrated quartertonal language, a sweet-and-sour world in which sonic pleasure and disorientation co-mingle. Harris views his move to quartertonality as one means of widening his palette of colour, timbre and melodic inflection. He says, “quite often an ethnic influence drives decisions to use quartertones, but I don’t want my music to reflect these motivations. Rather, it should sound like an extension of my existing language.” His application of these notes-between-notes is hierarchical: they are a chromaticism or colouring of chromaticism in the traditional sense, an inflexion of middleground material.

Harris is acutely aware of style and often describes his music as falling somewhere on a continuum that ranges from absolute (traditional) coherence at one end to complete chaos at the other. To compare Harris compositions that live at opposing ends of the scale is to place side-by-side the Gurrelieder and Pierrot Lunaire or Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew. While most works remain fairly stylistically fixed on the Harris style continuum, some works visit contrasting points along it. Take the angular language of most of the Three Rilke Songs and compare with its thoroughly ‘beautiful’ conclusion, or the serene chorale finale to the otherwise wild As Though There Were No God.

In rare cases the style-o-meter is bent in two, with markedly opposed languages co-mingling, such as in the sublime passages of At The Edge Of Silence, where a straight quote from the Schumann Piano Quintet is deliciously ‘soured’ by quarter-tonal intrusions and eventually eaten alive. Sometimes quotation is used to serve a social or political agenda. In String Quartet No.3 “Blood Red Roses”, music thought to be the last played in Hitler’s bunker, a middle-of-the-road contemporary song, is initially presented innocently before being violently torn limb from limb, a revisiting of the horrors of tyranny last heard in To the Memory of I.S. Totska.

This use of mixed materials over many works prepared Harris well for the unusual Auckland Philharmonia commission that resulted in Cento. The work celebrates the first twenty five years of the orchestra by referencing many of its successes, amongst them Mahler’s 1 st and 3 rd, Le Sacre du PrintempsNimrod, Tchaikovsky’s PathetiquePictures at an Exhibition and even Goldenhorse’s Riverhead. Harris set himself strict boundaries. All the quoted material is at original pitch and tempi. What came together as a musical jigsaw is not a simple cut-and-paste job. A tonally coherent musical fabric is built up by the juxtaposition, overlapping and overlayering of the musical fragments. The compositional process was apparently quite similar to Harris’ normal approach except that the decision “what note next?” became “what quotation next?” That Harris regards himself as the work’s composer, rather than merely its arranger, is validated by the observation of one listener that Cento’s stylistic similarity with his Symphony No.1 makes it seem as if Harris is quoting himself; despite the complete absence of original material, the techniques employed and the nature of the fitting of musical elements are readily identifiable.

Harris lives and works in the Aro Valley character home that he shares with his freelance translator wife Barbro, and three small animals. Literature, film, Swedish cuisine and televised rugby (deciphering the commentaries of Murray Mexted are as important as the action on the field) feature highly in daily life. A row of books in the lounge bookshelf, dealing with Hitler and Stalin in particular, point to the motivations behind some compositions. One might now add the fictional monster Tony Soprano, whose antics have recently given the Harris DVD player a thorough workout and whose New Jersey universe Harris jokingly says he intends writing a PhD on.

Upstairs, Harris presides over an increasingly high-tech studio in which pen and manuscript have, in recent years, largely given way to Sibelius software powering a range of sound generators. He goes to quite some trouble to realise high-quality simulations of his work, to the extent that, in addition to the use of high-end software sampling, actual recorded samples of the playing of his commissioning musicians are at times integrated into the Sibelius renditions. These simulations are not for the purpose of creating a “performance” of any sort, functioning instead as an aid for performers and “for company.” Says Harris, “My training in the early days [in Lilburn’s studio] was from sound feedback so I never thought it was wrong to use Sibelius – but I do think that its use requires caution for students.” While sound-stimulated composition of notated music is the norm, a return for Harris to pure electroacoustic realisation is unlikely, this requiring the sort of close and high-output monitoring of sound that would likely retrigger the tinnitus that recently necessitated his abandonment of the saxophone.

Harris achieved prominence in the 1980s with the Witi Ihimaera penned opera Waituhi. The medium has been a love ever since. The King Lear-based A Wheel of Fire, composed in 1996 but yet to receive a premiere, is regularly pulled from the drawer and reorchestrated in the hope that different renderings might persuade a company or festival to run with it. That this and another opera, Rasputin (libretto by Vincent O’Sullivan), lie neglected, would be cause for despair for many composers, but Harris remains upbeat about the prospects of performances and doesn’t rule out writing further operas. This is perhaps testament to a long and varied career in which a great many set-backs have necessitated an approach of quiet perseverance and an entirely philosophical view of factors beyond the control of composers. That greater recognition and a creative purple patch in Harris’s music have coincided with a period of unparalleled support for the arts in New Zealand makes the struggle of the long career seem worthwhile.

It feels like Ross Harris is just getting started. As Tony Soprano has stated, “There’s no retiring from this.” Happy sixtieth, Ross.

Ross Harris: works from retirement to the end of 2005:

String Quartet No.3 “Blood Red Roses”
Seven Haiku
Trees
Ka wawara te hau
As Though There Were No God
At The Edge Of Silence
Orchestral excerpts from Rasputin
Symphony No.1
Cento
Senryu
Ornamental Gorse
Roimata
Jazz Suite for Wind Quintet
Paoro (to echo)