2005 SOUNZ Contemporary Award Winner:                  Ross Harris Opening a new world of tuba sound!

(Article by Stephen Gibbs)

In winning the 2005 SOUNZ Contemporary Award for his Labyrinth, for tuba and orchestra, Ross Harris was congratulated for making a tuba 'sing in uncompromising musical language' and opening up 'a whole new world of tuba sound!'

The SOUNZ Contemporary award, a collaborative project between APRA and SOUNZ, the Centre for New Zealand Music, is the major annual prize celebrating creative excellence by a New Zealand composer. It was presented along with the APRA Silver Scroll and APRA Maioha Awards in Auckland on Monday 12th September.  

Ross Harris' Labyrinth was the first of twelve works commissioned by the NZSO pairing a New Zealand composer with one of the orchestra's principal player as soloists. The tuba is rarely regarded as a solo instrument and tuba concertos are few and far between, but when Ross heard Andrew Jarvis, the NZSO principal tubist, he was impressed with the brilliance of his playing and was keen to write a work specifically for him.

The idea of a Labyrinth ­ the mythical maze ­ came from several sources. 'The tuba itself is a labyrinthine tangle of tubes,' Ross explains, 'and our inner ears contain bony labyrinths. In this piece the term also describes the many pathways scattered through the piece. The tuba finds itself caught in a dense web of possibilities, perhaps of its own making, and must struggle to find a resolution.'

'Members of the selection jury were particularly impressed with the piece¹s Ounrelenting energy and ongoing momentum, as if controlling a volcano', reports Scilla Askew, executive director of SOUNZ, the Centre for New Zealand Music. 'They felt that Ross had pulled off an amazing feat in overcome the difficulties in balancing the solo and orchestral brass energies. The tuba is not a traditional solo instrument, but they thought he made it  sing in uncompromising musical language and opened up a whole new world of tuba sound!'

Contemporary 'classical' music ­ or 'Art' music, as Ross refers to it, is enjoying an expanding level of interest and appreciation in New Zealand. 'I believe that 'Art' music is like a relatively demanding novel or movie,' Ross says. 'It is a transforming experience. It doesn't just entertain ­ it makes demands.'

It would appear that New Zealand concert audiences are welcoming those demands as, increasingly, they are expecting to hear works written by Kiwi composers. A surprisingly large number of New Zealanders are dedicating themselves to the musical muse and the SOUNZ database registers almost 300 New Zealand composers writing significant musical works across all the genres of orchestral, chamber, choral and electronic music.

Writing a twenty minute work for a full scale symphony orchestra of 70 or so players requires a tremendous depth of knowledge and experience. Balancing the diverse timbres of the host of available instruments among the strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion as well as being aware of their individual techniques and sonic capabilities is a hugely demanding task. It comes as no surprise that Ross has had an experience of both brass and orchestra that spans many years. 

Born in the small town of Amberley in North Canterbury in 1945, it was the local Addington Workshops Brass Band that first caught Ross' ear as a child. While at Christchurch Boys' High School he was encouraged to play the tuba and was soon proficient enough to be the tuba player in both the National Youth Band and the National Youth Orchestra. After completing a BMus at  the University of Canterbury he moved both to Wellington and to French Horn which he played in the NZSO.

Completing his Masters degree at Victoria he was offered a position teaching at the university which occupied him for the next thirty years. Ross found himself encouraging and inspiring generations of young composers and instrumentalists along with colleagues that included Douglas Lilburn, Jack Body, Jenny McLeod and David Farquhar. Originally attracted by the rather rarefied realm of electronic and electroacoustic composition, Ross has gradually moved towards the more traditional acoustic performance ensembles ­ but in anything but a traditional way. He has now written over 100 works including operas, songs, chamber music, electronic music, symphonic music and jazz. In 1985 he was awarded a QSM for Public Service following the premiere of his opera Waituhi with libretto by Witi Ihimaera and in 1990 he was awarded the CANZ Citation for Services to New Zealand Music.

Ross has had a strong connection to the SOUNZ Contemporary Awards over their eight year history, an indication of his accomplishment as an innovative and versatile composer. He previously won the award in 2000 for his piece To the Memory of I.S. Totska for soprano and chamber ensemble. I.S. Totzka died in Ravensbrüch concentration camp during World War II and Ross took the text for the work from subtitles of the BBC series The Nazis - a lesson in history.

He was also a finalist in 2004 with At the Edge of Silence for chamber quintet and in 2003, Chaconne, his work for solo viola, was given a special commendation by the SOUNZ Contemporary Award jury.

Ross is scarcely resting on his laurels. He is currently the composer-in-Residence for the Auckland Philharmonia and they have premiered several of his works this year including his Symphony in August and Roimata in September. A creative collaboration between Ross and Mahinarangi Tocker Roimata is the story of a girl who uses the world of fantasy and her love of the night time to cope with the 'real world' that she lives in. Mahinarangi, who wrote the text, sang and narrated the work accompanied by the orchestra.  

Three finalists were selected by the jury from 39 works submitted for the 2005 SOUNZ Contemporary Award. The other two finalists  were Symphony No. 2 by Kenneth Young and Gu Ta by Jeroen Speak.