The Music of Ross Harris - Nicholas Baragwanath
Ross Harris belongs to the group of New Zealand composers who have sought, in varying degrees, to work within the European tradition while retaining at the same time a distinctive national identity. On one level, it could be said that Harris writes music expressing or representing something of the European settler identity. This necessarily involves an interpretation of the Western tradition as reflected in the experience of the Pakeha.
Harris’s music is however far more varied and many-sided than this introduction gives it credit for. He could in fact be called a ‘universal’ composer, writing in whatever genre seems to suit the occasion or the inspiration.
Although a composer firmly grounded in the European tradition (even if occasionally only as a reaction), Harris did not come from one of those middle-class, classical music loving families that attend concerts and opera regularly in order to judge them by comparison with their record collections. No member of his family played an instrument. The long winter evenings were not occupied with renditions of Mozart sonatas or parlour songs, and he was not taken to Town Hall concerts and told to sit religiously still while others played lengthy works by Beethoven, Bruckner and the rest. On the contrary, his father worked as a stock agent in the rural districts around Christchurch, and his mother was a keen rugby fan. His first musical experiences were as a Bb bass tuba player in the Addington Workshop Brass Band from 1958. Wanting to get into orchestral playing, he soon took up the French horn. His first serious compositions date from student years at the University of Canterbury in the late 1960s. He himself begins his list of compositions in 1967. After graduation, from 1970 he played French horn in the NZSO. His talents were perhaps not displayed to the fullest in this capacity, and, after further graduate study, he started teaching composition at Victoria University in 1971. The rest, so to speak, is history.
In many ways Douglas Lilburn provided the starting-point for Harris’s concept of composition. He first heard Lilburn’s music and teaching as a student at Canterbury. The parallels between the two are striking. The foundations of Lilburn’s technique were those of strict, abstract counterpoint – ‘the rules’ as taught by Dr Bradshaw at Canterbury University in the 1930s. Lilburn consolidated his personal style through study with Vaughan-Williams at the Royal College in London from 1937-40. The music of Harris is likewise founded upon the principles of strict counterpoint, and he confesses a strong empathy with the music of Vaughan-Williams. Perhaps most significantly, Lilburn, at the Cambridge Summer Music School in 1946 (the year before he started teaching at Victoria University), set out on his search for a national musical tradition. He warned against an emulation of the so-called nationalist styles of 19th-century Russia or Eastern Europe (Musorgsky, Smetana etc.), but proposed instead that ‘our cultural problems have to be worked out in the totally new context of these islands’. Essentially, Lilburn did not see the heritage of Maori culture as the basis for the founding of a national music. Instead he focused upon the incorporation of visual aspects of the landscape within the European tradition, with the suggestion that the ‘sunlight and the seasons’ would by themselves give rise to a national identity in music. Harris, following the lead set by Lilburn’s students such as David Farquhar, has created a style with undeniably ‘New Zealand’ features yet still firmly anchored to the European tradition. Even the ‘visual’ elements mentioned by Lilburn are discernible, especially through the inspiration afforded by the Kapiti coastline as seen from his beloved bach at Paekakariki. One final parallel concerns electronic music. After Lilburn’s Third Symphony (1962), often cited as his last work in the European tradition, he turned to the electronic medium, opening an electronic studio at Victoria University in 1966. From his arrival at Victoria, Harris too was known as an electronic music composer. In addition to the tradition established by Lilburn, Harris has assimilated many other European influences. Many of these came about through academic studies and teaching at Victoria University. Perhaps foremost amongst these are Heinrich Schenker’s ideas of structural levels and the relationship of ‘free composition’ to strict counterpoint. In general Harris follows the primary, most essential tenet of the Western tradition: the primacy of pitch. He also maintains the secondary tenet, as perceived from J. S. Bach onwards: the logic of motives. Other important influences have been Stravinsky and the Second Viennese School. Like many New Zealand composers, following Frederick Page’s visits to Darmstadt and Donauschingen in 1958, Harris has also taken on the innovations of the post-war European avant-garde: in particular, Stockhausen, Berio, and Varèse. Messaien’s influence is also noticeable, perhaps consolidated through Jenny McLeod, a student of his in Paris 1941.
It would be wrong, however, to classify Harris entirely as a composer in the Lilburn or European/New Zealander mould. His music does incorporate, where it seems appropriate, Polynesian and Maori influences. The opera Waituhi (1984), for instance, is based on a libretto by Witi Ihimaera dealing with issues such as land and the contrast between the power of a local Marae and the attraction of the city. Although the framework is that of traditional opera, it is interspersed with Haka, Poi, action song and Waiata. As well as Westernised Maori hymns, the opera also incorporates the vaguely ‘octatonic’ modes (alternating semitone/whole tone, disregarding the occasional quarter tones) of traditional Maori chants. More recently, Harris has made use of Cook Island drumming – a favourite source of inspiration for Gareth Farr – in a work that dispenses with pitch altogether: Strike (1999).
Fragmentation of Material
Much of the musical material used by Harris is not thematic (meaning a self-contained melody of distinctive lyrical or emotional character) but rather based upon figures traditionally associated with ‘accompaniment’. These figures are raised, as far as their inherent meanings allow, to the level of themes or motives. They accompany nothing. This characteristic is easy to define, even though Harris himself denies the fragmentary nature of his themes. Typical figures found throughout his music include the tremolo, scales and flourishes, and isolated ‘accompanying’ chords. At crucial points of his compositions, extended themes of definable character do occasionally coalesce, but they are always either (1) melancholy, (2) ironic (i.e. while the fragmentary texture crystallises into a melody, the accompaniment dissolves into freedom), or (3) cut short. If one wanted to read a social interpretation or ‘meaning’ into this, it is as if the oppressed (the accompanying figures) are emancipated from their traditional role and granted a voice, but, due to their established subordinate position, their expression is necessarily fragmentary. Another typical feature of Harris’s music is that as soon as ‘pleasure’ is reached, usually through the appearance of a romantic or lyrical theme, it either disintegrates or has its meaning undermined by irony, showing that true pleasure, taken as the gratification of individual desires, is unattainable. His music portrays a society of disparate individuals (what David Riesman in 1964 called the ‘lonely crowd’) who are granted an obscure voice.
The fragmentary figures that feature throughout much of Harris’s music appear driven by a process that no one understands or controls. There does not seem to be an overall controlling device, according to which everything progresses. In Beethoven, for instance, a tonal plan controls the music together with a logical progression and dialogue of themes and motives. Harris allows his fragmented material to cohere through a democratic process. The overriding texture is that of two and three-part counterpoint. As in some late Mahler, the counterpoint is unfettered by reliance upon set vertical harmonies. Contrapuntal lines coincide and crystallise into harmonic fields – what Carl Dahlhaus termed ‘matrix sonorities’. These collections of pitches, from which smaller units may be quarried, serve to stabilise long stretches of music. But in this process the composer does not act as dictator, forcing the material to follow a preconceived course of action. All events are equal in importance, hence equal in insignificance. Although every figure, however insignificant, is granted expression, often its message is lost within a texture of numerous individual, isolated moments of expression. If, however, there were truly no controlling scheme other than vague, ill-defined harmonic fields resulting from independent contrapuntal lines, then the music would scarcely cohere into a meaningful whole.
In terms of form, Harris admits to following the inspiration of poetic or autobiographically conceived programs. Nevertheless, some forms are purely abstract musical creations, such as the strict Chorale and Variations of the Second String Quartet (1998). As a general concept of form, Harris seems to construct movements according to Mahler’s principle (also evident in Wagner and Musorgsky) of ‘psychological variation’. This is connected with Schoenberg’s principle of non-repetition or developing variation. Unchanged repetition is very much the exception in Harris. Another connection with Mahler is that Harris’s endings are seldom positive, but rather often resigned or transcendent.
Pitch versus Timbre
There is a fundamental opposition between pitch structures and timbre in Harris’s music. An exploration of pure sonority undermines the rigorous pitch structures of functional sound. It is perhaps no coincidence that this is the same antithesis as that which faced the European modernist composers of the 1890s. In some ways, Harris continues to search for answers to questions that were not closed fully at that time. The sheer quantity and variety of timbral effects in a ‘classical’ genre like the String Quartet No.2 (1998) show how important the innovations of the European avant-garde are to Harris. Indications include sul ponticello, sul tasto, strumming with finger or fingernail, tapping, bouncing behind the bridge, col legno with or without ricochet, natural harmonics, slapping the back and fingerboard, even ‘normal’ playing. Harris’s use of rhythm, like his use of timbre, also tends to question the validity of rigorous Western methods. In general his rhythmic complexity, involving numerous irregular divisions of an essentially stable underlying pulse (such as 7 in the time of 5), tends toward aleatoric music.
(This article is published in Music in New Zealand)