“If you played Douglas [Lilburn] a piece of music, in progress, watch out for him lighting up a cigarette. That was a bad sign.” – Ross Harris
For the ninth annual Lilburn Lecture, composer and Arts Laureate Ross Harris dove deep into his own musical past, sharing colourful snapshots from his life and career.
He called his lecture The Endless Search for the Next Note: An Outline of a Composing Life from an Unlikely Beginning to an Unlikely Present.
From a ‘salt of the earth’ family with little interest in arts or culture, Ross emerged as a largely self-taught composer. He talks about his early childhood obsession with sound, learning by example from Lilburn in the 1970s as he listened to him wrestle sounds out of the primitive equipment in the Victoria University Electronic Music Studio, collaborating with writers Witi Ihimaera and Vincent O’Sullivan (who gives the Vote of Thanks at the end of Ross’s lecture), tackling symphonies – seven so far, the freedom of composing and performing Klezmer music, and much more.
Ross illustrates his stories with a generous selection of musical excerpts from all throughout his career.
[Scroll down for the full script]
The Lilburn Lecture 2022 was recorded by RNZ on 2 November 2022 (the anniversary of Douglas Lilburn’s birth) at the Tiakiwai Conference Centre, National Library of New Zealand, Wellington.
(Producer: Ryan Smith / Engineer: Marc Chesterman)
The Endless Search for the Next Note: An Outline of a Composing Life from an Unlikely Beginning to an Unlikely Present
Script by Ross Harris
[NB: This script contains extra material not used on the night of the lecture]
The highpoint of my career ……… as a rugby player was when I was about 10 years old and captain of the Beckenham Primary School rugby team playing a local derby against Waltham. (This was in Christchurch). I scored a try in that game by accidentally falling on the ball when it crossed the opposition goal line. I refer to this historic moment because I came from a family for whom sport was very important. Both my father and brother played rugby reasonably seriously.
Sport of Nature
I, on the other hand, was more of a sport of nature – a very late arrival in the family and, let’s face it, a mistake. I was shy and oversensitive and most often described as a spoilt brat – to this day, I expect – and certainly ill-suited to rugby or much else until I discovered music years later.
One time, when I very young, I was standing with my parents watching a Christmas Parade or something, when a pipe band started up right next to us. I burst into tears. Was I perhaps a budding music critic? – no, just too sensitive to sounds or indeed most things!
My father was a stock agent, my mum a housewife who was not in good health from the day I was born. My much older brother and sister were involved in farming, my brother later in insurance. My sister trained as a hair dresser before marrying a Canterbury farmer. The family were typical kiwis. They were honest, church going and conservative. They were good people and I’m grateful for my relatively harmonious upbringing.
But culture, the arts, art music simply didn’t feature in our family lives. The ‘culture’ of following our beloved Canterbury rugby team was as near as we ever got.
Strangely enough, my much older brother and sister had learnt the piano but with such indifference that, by the time I came along, my parents decided to sell the instrument.
Now here’s the weird thing, while preparing this talk I suddenly remembered improvising on our piano. It was a dark presence in our front room and I don’t remember anyone playing it so for me it was just a miraculous sound machine. My parents must have heard me exploring the instrument in a disturbing manner, and thought it best to get rid of it. I went away during the school holidays and came back to – no more piano!
My first composition was to rearrange the beaters of the chiming clock in our front room.
My sister maintains that my musical education started with her. We always sang pop songs while doing the dishes. I always sang harmony. It was the same in church too – singing harmony when not giggling helplessly at something inappropriate.
With my brother and sister being 10 and 15 years older than me, I was, more or less, an only child. My childhood was spent playing with my toy cars, trains, planes and marbles – marbles arranged into armies or football teams. Thinking back on it, those imaginary worlds I created feel like the ones I inhabit when composing. Basically, I have always enjoyed the isolation necessary for making up music. Just picking away on an instrument or poring over music paper, or these days, poking around on a computer. It’s a bit like lining up my toys to go on some adventure or other.
Carry a gun
When I went to high school, a neighbour of mine said: ‘join the school band and you won’t have to carry a gun.”I took his advice, went into the music room and, being a large lad, was given a Bb bass (also known as a tuba). Very quickly my life changed when I found I could actually do something. What a relief after my meagre academic results. My tuba playing got me into the, National Youth Band, National Youth orchestra and acceptance into the 1962 National Band. Then I changed to the French horn for a 50 year battle with that hardest of all instruments. Mostly, I came off second best.
When I got hold of a Bb bass I immediately joined the Addington Workshops Brass Band and entered a competition after two weeks on the instrument, and was awarded a prize in a melody section. I played Mozart’s O Isis und Osiris. Some other members of the band were incensed by this upstart.
In the third form at Christchurch Boys High I met a boy who became my best friend for about 10 years. That was Gordon Burt, who later, for a time, lectured in music at Victoria University. I consider him a major influence on my intellectual development (such as it was) at that time
Fighting over Webern
We explored new music, modern art, movies and literature together. Such was our dedication to contemporary music that we once, literally, had a physical fight in a record shop to see who would get a solitary box set of the music of Anton Webern.
Stravinsky on the Radiogram
At some point during my early teens I bought a bargain copy of Stravinsky conducting his early ballets. When I came home from school at that time I’d lie with my ear right up against the radiogram speaker and listen to the music. I suppose I was avoiding upsetting my parents. I didn’t understand the music but for some mysterious reason loved it, and still do.
So, where do such activities belong in NZ culture? What was European modernism doing in Christchurch in 1959? What were these kids in their coarse textured school uniforms doing pursuing such things?
Be a composer?
Anyway, that was the path I took. And despite playing instruments professionally or semi-professionally throughout my career, (tuba, French horn, accordion and many other instruments,) I always wanted to compose.
From my earliest days in music I was always heading manuscript pages with ‘Symphony for Brass Band’ and the like. Followed by blank pages. My first efforts were pathetic. One time I showed my brass instrument teacher Merv. Waters something I had written and he said with great authority “you’ve got consecutive fifths.” I was horrified (aged about 15) and stopped composing for ages for fear of doing something else ‘wrong’.
Another important person in my development was the music teacher at Christchurch Boys High School – Clifton Cook. He was conservative but fanatical about music. He managed to maintain music in a boy’s school by sheer drive and energy. I was told later that he had moved to another school and within a few months there was little music left at the old school. He once gave me ‘six of the best’ for crashing out clusters on the Music Room piano. A modernist in the making!
Self-taught at Canterbury
At Canterbury University one couldn’t major in composition, back then, so I muddled along by myself until my horn playing took me Wellington to join the National Orchestra and I also started doing a masters’ degree in composition at Victoria University. After a year in the orchestra I had the opportunity to become a temporary junior lecturer so I gave up professional brass playing and became a teacher.
But, I’ve jumped ahead. I was a big Lilburn fan and for the end of my degree at Canterbury I did a setting of Denis Glover’s Arawata Bill poems for tenor, French horn and strings. Not a million miles away from Lilburn’s very famous song cycle Sings Harry!
The premiere of Arawata Bill took place in the great hall at Canterbury University with Denis Glover himself in attendance. Shortly after the piece began Glover started groaning audibly and before it was finished, he stood noisily, and, staggered out of the hall mumbling as he went. At the time I was pretty upset by this but I see now that it was all too arty for Glover’s musical taste and I’m sure poets often have a hard time with composer’s interpreting their work. It must be disturbing to have another artist’s mind imposed on their art.
In my undergraduate years at Canterbury I was involved in some very experimental improvisation with the Gordon Burt and another student – Denis Smalley, who went on to a very prestigious career in electroacoustic music. Gordon and I each bought Sony two track tape recorders which could record the tracks separately and, combined with mixing between the two machines, we were able to produce rudimentary tape pieces. There was some very wild experimentation all of which is lost – fortunately.
Students in Wellington
About this time a group of us Canterbury students decided to visit Wellington to see the famous Music Department and meet Lilburn and visit the electronic music studio. Vic was greatly admired for having actual composers on the staff and actively supporting new music.
We move to Wellington
When I finished my degree at Canterbury I had an opportunity to move to Wellington. My wife and I left Christchurch and I started and finished my fully professional career as a horn player in the National orchestra in 1969. I carried on as an ‘extra’ for about 15 years. Playing as an extra in big symphonic works by Mahler, Bruckner, Wagner, Stravinsky etc, meant I had lots bars rest to study scores of the music….and learn – especially orchestration. This may be a reason why I got so interested in writing symphonies later on.
So, I started a masters degree part time while playing horn in the orchestra and joined the university staff in 1970. I did electronic music with Douglas Lilburn and instrumental music with David Farquhar. With the arrogance of youth I didn’t take advantage of David’s tuition but I was keen to work with Douglas in the electronic studio. I realised that, in following Lilburn into electronic music I was consciously looking to find sounds that could be considered as part of our broad cultural and natural background – to write New Zealand music as Lilburn had defined it in his Cambridge lectures.
At that time, the studio was possibly the only one of its kind in Australasia. For a period of time from the mid 1960s till the mid 70s the Vic studio became the destination for young composers from other centres – John Cousins from Canterbury, John Rimmer from Auckland for example.
Working With Douglas
Douglas didn’t teach composition in the studio but led by example. From him one learned to treat the equipment with respect and to spend many hours searching for the next sound. And of course – to use the sounds around us. It was partly because of the very basic nature of the studio, in the early days, that one was likely to begin with already existing sounds. NZ birds were an obvious source as was the composer’s own voice. The equipment in the studio came from castoff gear from RNZ – some oscillators, modulators, filters, huge tape recorders and a very important and brand new reverberation plate.
Watch out for the cigarette
If you played Douglas a piece of music, in progress, watch out for him lighting up a cigarette. That was a bad sign. Douglas did this once when I was working on the piece To a Child. I was in the process of producing NZ’s first minimalist composition (smile) but it was snuffed out under the influence of a cigarette.
So in the end I have remained largely self-taught. I did not go overseas to study as was expected of serious music students at the time. I had a young family and didn’t feel fully confident in my compositional prowess to commit to such a move. Later, two subjects I taught at Vic became crucial for my development as a composer:
- Schenkerian analysis
And, like Schoenberg, I learned from my students.
QSM for possums
Even so, I had a lack of confidence which stayed with me to the extent that when, in the 1980s, I was awarded a Queen’s Service Medal for the opera Waituhi. I had doubts about whether I was the right person being awarded. At the presentation, at Government House, I seriously thought, for a moment, that I might have been mistaken for an opossum hunter from the Wairarapa – another Ross Harris! I knew such a person existed because of some confusion over tax returns at some point.
Lilburn at 44 Kelburn Parade
When the electronic music studio moved from the basement of the Hunter building to 44 Kelburn parade Douglas and my offices were adjacent and on the same floor as the studios. This was where I overheard his long battle to find sounds that were meaningful to him. At this stage the studio had three voltage controlled synthesizers (two Synthi AKS and VCS3). These were the instruments used by Pink Floyd and other bands that were into electronic effects. The pieces he composed during the decade of the 1970s were a profoundly important contribution to NZ music. What a fight he had to get those pieces right!
Mahler and Berg
As I’ve already mentioned, during the 70’s I was committed to being a New Zealand composer (in the Lilburn sense) – using the medium of electronic music to create something that literally belonged here. But I also became interested in using fragments of other composers’ music. Electronic pieces like To a Child and Shadow Music create a dialogue with – Mahler and Berg in the cases of these pieces. My focus was shifting away from NZ music and Lilburn’s influence.
To a Child
My second piece in the studio was To a Child. In it I quoted the children’s choir movement from Mahler’s Third Symphony. I chose this because it had been played at the funeral of my daughter Victoria who died a few days after her birth. There is a child’s voice in this piece too. It is the recording of my 2 year old son Julian (now in his 50s) improvising in the style of Stockhausen’s piece Stimmung. Stockhausen’s piece includes a sort of European version of Tibetan throat singing. (imitate) To a Child received an honourable mention at the 1975 Bourges Electronic Music Festival
The deliberate borrowing of ideas from other composers has become something of a theme in my work and quite a few commissioned pieces have required the deliberate influence of another composer’s music. Perhaps the most obvious example is the Three Pieces for Orchestra commissioned by Peter and Catherine Walls for the NZSOs tour of Europe in 2010. The pieces used fragments of Mahler, Wagner and Schumann.
33 years at Vic
In 1971 in the second year of my masters degree I started a 33 year long career teaching at Victoria University. My composing life gradually developed within the university environment. I wrote mostly for students and staff members.
Few commissions but composing as research
Of the, more than, 100 pieces I wrote during that time I had very few commissions. This was partly because, being a well-paid academic, Arts Council Funding was frowned on. And my composing was accepted as research so it was funded within the academic environment.
That environment meant I was free to experiment with all manner of strange genres – for example – the band Free Radicals.
The late Jonathan Besser and I formed a live electronic ensemble with guitarist/flute player Gerry Meister and for about 10 year in the 80s and early 90s performed and recorded as Free Radicals. The name was taken from the Len Lye scratch film. The musical language we inhabited owed something to Stockhausen, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and the like. We adopted new technology like drum machines and synthesizers to write ‘rock’ influenced music.
Many Free Radical pieces involved some commentary on New Zealand. One of my favourite pieces is called Drive it. “Drive it” was the lineout call of Sean Fitzpatrick the All Black hooker at the time. It is a collage of war and sport related samples including Winston McCarthy broadcasting an All Black/Springbok game with his characteristic phrase ‘wait for it….it’s a goal’ and soccer parents screaming at their children. The excerpt I will play starts near the end of Drive It after a long build-up of tension with distorted guitar (Ross) and synthesizer (Jonathan) and a raging drum machine and programmed synthesizers putting down the backing. At this point Jonathan is ‘scratchin’ on a record of Winston McCarthy.
I wrote three very ambitious operas during my University tenure.
The first of these was Waituhi (1984) with a libretti by Witi Ihimaera. The opera is based on one of his early books – Whanau. The director, Adrian Kiernander, knew that both Witi and I wanted to write operas and brought us together. Writing Waituhi took about four years and I had to become seriously involved in the Māori world. Quite a lot of the libretto was in Māori so I had to teach myself how to set Te Reo.
The work caused a stir for the novelty of putting a Maori village onto the operatic stage and I picked up an alarming amount of white hair conducting it. Many of the performers had never performed with a conductor or an orchestra.
The performances were often hair-raising for me to keep together. On one occasion the RNZ engineers recording the work were quite sure it would all fall apart as the orchestra and those on stage got so far out of time with each other. Somehow I held it together – maybe by conducting at two different speeds at the same time. I don’t recall!
My story –Tanz
The second opera I wrote with Witi was Tanz der Schwáne (The dance of the Swans) which was premiered in 1993. While Waituhi was about Witi’s world Tanz der Schwane was more about my world. I had met my second wife in the mid 1970s and as a European living in a ‘foreign’ country there were some parallels between her and the tragic female role in Tanz.
Barbro was often made aware of her ‘otherness’ (not always a bad thing of course!). The opera was about a Jewish woman who came to NZ as a refugee only to find discrimination and brutality here.
Both of the lead female roles in these operas featured the wonderful soprano Lesley Graham who gave her all to perform these difficult expressionist roles. Although there was some small payment to a handful of performers these were amateur productions based around university support and mostly university performers. That was the pattern – writing music for the people around me.
The third opera I tackled during these years was A Wheel of Fire. It was based on Shakespeare’s King Lear. I had made my own libretto and that was probably a mistake. It was ‘this close’ to being put on at the next Arts Festival but was beaten to it by a gender reversal version of Lear.
End of time at Vic
At the end of this ‘university’ period of my composing life I wrote two more pieces for Vic staff and students. They were both important to my development. One was the monodrama To the memory of I.S.Totska which featured the soprano Susan Roper. The other was Music for Jonny written for the VUW String Orchestra.
SOUNZ Contemporary Award
Totska won the SOUNZ Contemporary Award in 2001 This gave me the courage to take early retirement from the university a couple of years later. That decision was a major turning point in my work. Combined with winning the SCA and a having couple of residencies I launched into major works – seven symphonies, violin, cello, and tuba concertos, operas, and chamber music. It was a bit like flood gates opening and with the zigzag creative path of my university years behind me I started to free up my musical language..
Totska and the BBC
The idea of Totska came from a BBC TV programme called The Nazis: a lesson from history. Ilsa Sonja Totska was a shy woman who was reported by her neighbours for being antisocial. The work is a tribute to this lonely person about whom almost nothing is known. I constructed the libretto from the English subtitles so there were excerpts from many different languages in translation. When I tried to get copyright for the words the BBC took a long time to decide to give up and let me use the materials. The ensemble included accordion, tuba, guitar etc and imitated kind of Nazi band. The words of the excerpt: “About seven or eight people were hanging from the gallows, their feet were tied together with stones attached to them. They were lowered slowly so they would die a slow death..”
Music for Jonny
The other piece important to me at the end of my university life was Music for Jonny. It was written in memory of a nephew of mine who died at a young age. I hoped that the directness of the tonal language might be something my sister (who had lost her son) might be able to relate to.
In my final research leave from the university I collaborated for the first time with Vincent O’Sullivan on an opera based on Rasputin’s bringing down of Czarist Russia – Black Ice. One aspect of the story of Rasputin was the use of a phonograph to simulate the sounds of a party in the Yusapov palace. This was to lure Rasputin to the ‘party’ and his death by poisoning. An actual phonograph recording of the song Yankee doodle dandee was played. I think this was the thing that stimulated Vincent’s interest in doing the piece. The phonograph is imitated in the opera of course.
Black Ice is a big opera with many soloists and chorus. It was a great subject for an opera but probably not the topic to interest NZ Opera. It has not been performed.
Symphony No. 2
My second collaboration with Vincent was Symphony No.2 – written as part of a residence with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.
I wrote the soprano solo for Madeleine Pierard and she has been the soloist in all 6 performances to date.The work’s germination came from a newspaper article about the official pardoning of a young New Zealand soldier who had been court-martialled and shot during the WW1. He had gone awol and met and fell in love with a French woman. This was the basis of the narrative which was woven into a four movement symphonic structure.
Hooray for the APO
I established a remarkable and, I believe, fairly unique relationship with the APO which premiered all the symphonies 1-6 (they were all written for them) and number 7 is coming up in 2023. They also premiered my Cello Concerto, the oratorio Face and a celebratory piece for the 25th anniversary of the orchestra called Cento.
I would like to play one complete musical example – the second scherzo from my 5th symphony. There are words in this work by the Hungarian poet Panni Palasti who lived in Nelson. It is the story of a 10-year-old girl in Budapest in the 1940s. The movement which we are going to hear is the nightmare scenario of an individual shot and dying alone during the war. There is no voice in this movement.
Requiem for the Fallen
The next project that Vincent and I worked on was commissioned by Voices NZ with Funding from CNZ – Requiem for the Fallen. Vincent’s brilliant text combined words of the Latin Requiem with words about a New Zealand soldier’s horrific experiences of war. The composition acknowledged the creative contribution of taonga puoro player Horomona Horo with a percentage of the royalties.
The other forces were Voices NZ, The NZSQ, bass drum player R.Harris and Richard Greager who sang the role of an old soldier thinking back on time in the war.
Then, Vincent and I came up with a chamber opera with a small orchestra – Brass Poppies (2016) The composition of the work was commissioned by CNZ and a few years later the production was funded by a joint commission between NZ Festivals and CNZ. It was premiered in Wellington and Auckland as part of their respective festivals.
Vincent and his strange ideas
In many of the pieces we did together Vincent would come up with incredibly interesting topics. On many occasions I was pushed in directions I wouldn’t otherwise have followed. The oratorio Face based on NZ surgeons’ development of plastic surgery in the First World War would be such an example. So far it’s been a very fruitful collaboration and thanks to CNZ another opera is in the pipeline.
I’ve mentioned the close relationship I had with the APO. There was one other group that I’ve written a lot for – The NZSQ who were colleagues at the School of music and personal friends.
There are ten string quartets, a piano quintet, a quintet with double bass, Requiem for the Fallen, The Abiding Tides for string quartet and soprano as well as a number of pieces for separate members of the group.
I think the most notable of these solo works or duets was Chaconne for Solo Viola.
The Chaconne was commissioned to be performed at the Adam Chamber Music Festival by international violist Atar Arad. I wrote the piece and sent it off to him, but I didn’t hear anything back . With a couple of weeks to the performance I got a message saying he couldn’t play it. The first page was impossible. Gillian bravely stepped up and learnt the piece and in his concert he left the stage and Gillian came on and played it beautifully. Then Atar came back on and finished the concert
The funny thing is that I composed the first page of Chaconne with a viola in my hand. I had in mind those images of refugees wandering around the roads of Europe in the World Wars. I wanted to get the viola to sound like a slightly wonky balalaika. Our international star either couldn’t get his hands into the same positions as I did or so disapproved of the piece and refused refused to learn it.
The Kugels play klezmer
Another musical adventure began around the time of the second symphony. I was invited to join a Klezmer band by Robin Perks and other friends. They asked me because I had a little accordion that I had used in some Free Radical tracks.. This was about 2005. I went to a rehearsal not knowing what to expect. I had even had to check the spelling on the web. I immediately took to the genre which offered me a number of things.
- The chance to play more accordion (my horn playing was tailing off and I still wanted to perform).
- Access to an idiom with folk origins.
- The chance to write music in a simple form of melody and chords
- Most importantly – the Jewish connection. I had become increasingly interested Jewish history after my research into the opera Tanz der Schwane and had always loved the rich complexity and ambiguity of Jewish artists and composers – Mahler, Schoenberg for example. And favourite authors like Daniel Mendelsohn and Timothy Snyder.
It is my hope that my writing Klezmer music can be thought of as expressing compassion and empathy for the appalling history of the Jewish people.
Something else happened by working with the Kugels, I found I had an instant sounding board for new pieces. The band would generously tackle new works as soon as I had written them. Quite different from waiting years for a performance.
Having written over 50 pieces for them including 10 songs setting Yiddish language, The Kugels have started to change my more ‘serious music as well.
The players are – Robin Perks (vioin), Debbie Rawson (Clarinet), Anna Gawn (voice), Nick Tipping (bass) and RH on accordion.
Antony and Cleopatra
I spent the 2020 lockdown writing an opera based on Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra. The libretto was beautifully crafted by my great friend Adrian Kiernander. Tragically, he died from a long illness on the same day as I finished the score. It is yet to be performed.
SUMMARY Part 1
To summarise, writing music is a journey of self-discovery (or delusion) and I can’t really live properly without doing it. You could say it’s a fairly harmless addiction. Although I’m sure there are performers out there who would consider the music potentially harmful! Both physically and mentally.
SUMMARY Part 2
Here I am at this unlikely present somewhat surprised to have collected a body of work (whatever it is worth) and I’m surprised to find that despite my occasional reaction against writing music that ‘belongs here’ quite a lot of it does seem to. At the recent premiere of my Chamber Symphony audience members at a Q&A session were sure they were listening to NZ music.
As well as the overtly local themes – the New Zealand experience of World War 1 (Requiem for the fallen, Brass Poppies, Symphony No. 2), New Zealand history (plastic surgery, the Waihi strike), New Zealanders (Alexander Aitken, Beatrice Tinsley)
Titles – Waituhi, Orowaru, Te Moanapouri, Symphony No. 4 To the Memory of Mahinarangi Tocker, Landscape with too few lovers.
But then there are pieces about Chagall, Csarist Russia, the Holocaust, settings of Yiddish, German, French, Swedish, Japanese, Celtic and Latin.
SUMMARY Part 3
I’ve never pushed my work forward but have been very lucky to have people like Douglas Lilburn, Jack Body, Peter Walls (and many others) supporting and encouraging me. There really was a feeling of uncertainty about the worth of it in the early years. More recently I’ve come to accept that, whatever it is worth, it is actually what I do – a bit each day digging away to find the next note.
Composing requires a lot of technical knowledge of course but, in my experience, the day to day decisions seem often to be irrational or intuitive. Somehow, the brain churns away under the surface and it’s important to give it time to operate without too many day to day distractions.
Anyway, I guess I’ve done what I always said to my students – don’t be put off if your music is considered irrelevant in the current climate. Do it anyway.
I feel very privileged to have been able to devote my life to this weird thing – writing music. I love composing and feel very uncomfortable when I have a gap between pieces.
My family has always supported my writing although they have had to put up with the distractions of thinking up music.
And then there are the dogs – Sylvia, Sammy, Morky-pie, Harry and Katie. And Simon and Dolly, who will be waiting anxiously for our return home tonight.
I’ll give my Dad the last word: When he learnt that I might pursue a career in music he reckoned I’d end up on a park bench. Not so far.