5 Minutes With Ross McHenry

14 Dec 2018
  • Behind the Scenes
  • Meet the Artists
by Ashleigh McManus
5 Minutes With Ross McHenry

We sat down with Ross McHenry, Curator of Gigs at Grainer Now Meets Now, to chat about the musical soundscape he’ll be creating, where his passion for music developed from, and how this is not a traditional jazz-meets-orchestra event. Grab your tickets here

ASO: Ross, you are born and bred Adelaidian. How does it feel to be performing with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra?

Ross: It’s an incredible honour. To have the opportunity to write for and perform with one of Australia’s flagship orchestras is just tremendous. I have always wanted to write for orchestra and so I’m really excited

What’s your earliest recollection of seeing the orchestra perform?

My mother was a professional ballet dancer when she was younger and my family on my mother’s side are big classical music fans, so we always listened to classical repertoire at home. For this reason my experience of the orchestra in performance was a very early one, so early that I can’t really remember what age, but I remember going many times to what was then the family concerts series when I was quite young. We lived in the Adelaide Hills and didn’t go to the city a lot, so I remember it was always an exciting adventure!

Growing up in Adelaide what and who were your musical influences?

I was fortunate, through my parents, to be engaged in Adelaide’s many wonderful festivals and musical institutions from a young age. In particular WOMADelaide had a major impact on me as a young person. It introduced me to a range of musical styles that I wouldn’t have engaged with if it wasn’t for that festival. I have also been fortunate to have come up as an artist surrounded by, and being a part of the Adelaide Jazz community. I have been influenced by many of the key artists within that community, including people like Mark Ferguson and Adam Page, who have a history with the ASO.

Your Gig at Grainger features two world class premieres for improvising piano, how much will be improvised on the night compared to fully composed?

The concert is split into two distinct parts. The first part features two world premieres. One is my Concerto for Improvising Piano and Orchestra. The concept for this work is that the piano feature elements of the concerto are for the most part improvised, but improvised within harmonic and rhythmic frameworks that fits structurally within the concurrent parts which are completely notated. For the most part, the work is fully composed, but I feel that the freedom that the improvised elements adds creates interesting point of difference.

The second world premiere is Matthew Sheens’ new work which is completely notated with no improvisation at all, even though Matt is one of the worlds pre-eminent improvisors! I’ve heard some excerpts from the score writing software audio and I can honestly say, even with the terrible sounds of computer orchestras, that it’s a remarkable and exciting piece that I can’t wait for the world to hear.

The second part of the concert features my trio with the ASO, featuring Matthew Sheens, NZ based drummer Myele Manzanza, and myself on electric bass. In this part of the concert there is a lot of improvisation from the trio in between orchestral sections. It’s a nice contrast from the first part of the program.

As the piece is improvised and won’t be ever be repeated how unique will the piece be from the rehearsals?

The answer is completely different, but also in many ways very much the same!

I think one of the myths around improvisation is that it comes from nowhere, like a divine intervention! Actually in the form that Matt, Myele, Adam and I practice is incredibly structured, and is the culmination of a lifetime of study of methodical music structures and the language of improvisation. For this reason, even though every performance is different, the various abstractions or gestures can be controlled in a way that we understand what will happen in performance even if we don’t know exactly what will happen in each moment.

Perhaps a better way of looking at it is that there is a rigid framework for what will happen in performance, which is governed by strict harmonic and rhythmic guidelines. The desired outcome that this framework supports does not change, but the approach that will be taken to achieve a certain outcome (which generally is melodic content of the improvisation as well as any re-harmonization or abstraction of rhythmic elements) is open to the performer. As the composer of this music I trust the performer, who has generally spent their life studying the language of jazz and music, to reach the desired outcome on their own terms.

You strive to make genuine music, could describe your soundscape for Now Meets Now and your connection to the work?

It’s always very difficult to describe music in text. What I would say though is that both Matt and I, and also Adam who has done much of the orchestration for the trio repertoire we will be performing, are artists who have always had a profound love of orchestral music. Due to this, even though we are jazz musicians, this is not a typical jazz-meets-orchestra concert. It is a concert of new music and orchestrations that aims to bring our experiences of creating original music into an orchestral setting while also honouring our love of classical music.

I have always been influenced by a wide range of composers in my writing, with Stravinsky, Bartok, Reich, Glass, Hindemith, Schoenberg and many others serving as important touchstones. I’ve not tried to directly realise any of these musical influences in this concert, but rather incorporate a perspective where jazz and the orchestra understand each other, rather than imposing one style upon the other. 

Tell us about your relationship with Adelaide born New York based pianist Matthew Sheens?

Matthew and I were in the same year at the Elder Conservatorium. We played a lot together when we were studying but didn’t play together for many years after he left Australia. Around 2015 we started regularly playing again, and since that time have been involved in many performances, tours and recordings together. Matt is a remarkable musician – an inspired improvisor, and in my mind, one of the most important composers operating in the world today. I strongly suggest that anyone interested in his work listens to his most recent album American Counterpoint (Spotify link). It’s written for string quartet and jazz trio and I personally think it’s a masterpiece. I value our musical relationship and friendship very highly.

You are a composer, bass player and producer, what do you enjoy most and why?

I don’t know if I can answer that. What I can say is this: I need to write music. I am driven by a burning desire to write music, and I am so thrilled to be writing for orchestra because it has always been a dream of mine. I am also driven by a unshakable desire to play music, especially with other people, and this is why I love playing bass. For me the most important thing is just to be playing, so I think that if I had started on another instrument I could have been just as happy as a pianist or drummer.

With respect to being a producer, this was something that just happened as a result of needing to play and needing to write. Producing is about needing to realise a sound in a complete sense and for me is a logical extension of composing – the two aren’t really so different in many ways.  

How many instruments do you play? Do you have a favourite and why?

I am a bass player. I write music at the piano but I am not a piano player! Really I just play bass. For me, and this is just a personal thing, I don’t consider any instrument I don’t perform on an instrument that I “play”!

As a father how important do you feel music education is and why?

Music education is of profound importance to a happy, healthy society. I cannot begin to quantify the incredibly positive impact musical education has had on my life and my capacity to be a happy functional member of society, and so as a father I obviously feel very strongly that music will be a part of my children’s lives. To me music is a gift, and I’m so thankful I had it given to me, and that I will be able to give it to my children. I also believe that music provides a framework for a deeper understanding of self and also provides a context for an emotional understanding of many aspects of the human condition.

I believe that access to the arts, or perhaps simply access to a means through which children can express themselves in a creative way is a fundamental human right. The joy that one is able to experience playing music is first and foremost, coupled with the joy of sharing this experience with others.

Finish these two sentences:

Music to me is…  the most important thing in my life outside of my family

Adelaide’s music scene is…one of the most generous and high achieving scenes in the world 

Grab your tickets to this unmissable event here

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Recording courtesy of ABC Classic

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