2005 SOUNZ Contemporary Award Winner:
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
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
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
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.