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31 July 2007

From West to East: Roger Smalley

Roger Smalley Image: Roger Smalley  

When Roger Smalley packed his bags and moved to Sydney in July, it marked the end of a 30-year association with the University of Western Australia and a remarkably rich and sustained contribution to Perth’s musical life.

Smalley first visited Perth in 1974, at the invitation of UWA’s Frank Callaway, and enjoyed it so much that he returned in 1976 for a year-long research fellowship that was extended and renewed, as he fell in love with the city and its lifestyle, and ultimately developed into a 31-year appointment.

...moving from the vibrancy of London to a small and conservative music department in such an isolated city...had a profound impact and took its toll artistically.I first got to know Smalley during the 1980s when he was my piano teacher at UWA. We subsequently went on to become colleagues in the UWA music school for some 15 years, after I returned to Perth following postgraduate studies in London. As he is prepared to retire as Professor of Music and leave Perth behind, I asked him to reflect on his time at UWA and the impact he has made on music in Western Australia over three decades.

With characteristic modesty, Smalley prefers not to discuss his own monumental contribution to Perth’s musical landscape but is drawn rather to explain how moving to Western Australia, at the age of 33, changed not only his career trajectory but significantly shaped his developing musical voice.

When Smalley accepted Callaway’s invitation to visit Perth, he had already established a high profile in London’s new music scene, if not yet a lucrative career. His performing group Intermodulation was touring extensively and Smalley was also in demand as a writer and critic. He had previously worked with Stockhausen in Cologne and was steeped in the European avant-garde.

However, Smalley felt that by the mid-1970s Intermodulation was reaching the end of its life and, despite being busy and artistically satisfied in London, there were the inevitable financial frustrations and concerns about future employment prospects. These factors combined to make the prospect of a fellowship in Perth quite appealing.

The dislocation Smalley experienced in moving from the vibrancy of London to a small and conservative music department in such an isolated city, whilst appealing in terms of lifestyle and job security, had a profound impact and took its toll artistically. No longer immersed in a cutting edge musical environment, Smalley had to look for new inspirations and motivations and, for his first few years in Australia, he suffered something of an artistic crisis as he searched for a new voice.

Smalley composed comparatively little during the late seventies while he adapted to this new life, with new colleagues and a new audience with different musical expectations and limitations.

Smalley describes these years as ‘rather thin compositionally. Whereas in London there were separate and knowledgable audiences for new music, for early music, for choral music and so on, in Perth there was only one audience and these people attended everything’.

Finding himself with a totally different type of audience was a difficult experience and one that saw him abandon much of his musical past...As a composer-performer, Smalley already had a greater awareness than many composers of the nexus between these two aspects of music making and understood the importance of the audience in the creative process . Finding himself with a totally different type of audience was a difficult experience and one that saw him abandon much of his musical past, including electronic music, in order to discover new ways of communicating musically.

Smalley regards his music theatre piece William Derrincourt, which was completed in 1979, as his first important Australian work. Here, for the first time, he felt he had found a way to broaden his musical language and also tailor his writing to allow for the uneven abilities of the performers.

Subsequent works moved Smalley further away from the rigorous intellectualism of his European background towards a softer, more romantic sensibility with gradually increasing tonal references emerging in his scores.

Reflecting on his compositional output overall, Smalley himself seems a little surprised that his musical style has taken such a conservative direction (given his early career), but puts this down very directly to his changed environment.

Another unexpected development arising from Smalley’s move to Perth was the blossoming of his career as a performer, both as pianist and conductor. While he had achieved some success as a new music pianist in Europe, especially performing works by Stockhausen and Boulez, at UWA he quickly became the in-house pianist and his repertoire broadened considerably both through choice and by necessity.

My first memories of Smalley in the early eighties are actually as a pianist, rather than a composer, giving concerts with visiting artists such as soprano Jane Manning and violinist Geoffrey Michael, as well as solo recitals. His extraordinary sight-reading ability coupled with a very facile technique, allowed him to cover an extensive repertoire that included Mozart, Schumann and Liszt as well as some lesser known romantics such as Alkan, Busoni and Reger and, of course, a huge range of contemporary music.

Smalley also formed chamber music groups with local musicians from time to time, including the Arensky Trio and the Australian Piano Quartet. He also occasionally played piano concertos. On one memorable occasion, he gave a performance of Beethoven’s third piano concerto with the WA Arts Orchestra, which included the extraordinary first movement cadenza by Alkan.

When discussing his career, Smalley doesn’t seem to ascribe much importance to his performing activities, seeing them somewhat as an adjunct to his principal concern, which has always been composing. It’s also telling that, while he has several commissions to work on since his move to Sydney, he doesn’t see this next phase of his life including much performing.

However, there is no doubt that the broad repertoire he studied through his wide-ranging pianistic activity had a major impact on the direction of Smalley’s compositional development. In looking for inspiration for his own composing, Smalley often found it in the music he was practising and performing as a pianist.

To some of his former London colleagues, it was inconceivable that the Smalley they knew from the ‘60s and ‘70s, the uncompromising modernist, would develop such an intense interest in composers like Brahms and Chopin, to the extent where he would actually write pieces based on their music. Yet, from the late 1980s, Smalley explored the notion of writing works based on thematic fragments and structural ideas from existing piano pieces by romantic composers such as Chopin, Brahms and Schumann.

Several major works employ this technique, yet the work Smalley regards as pivotal in his process is his Chopin Variations of 1989. Based on the well known opus 24 Mazurka in B flat minor, this highly crafted work utilises Chopin’s thematic material as well as mirroring the Mazurka’s structural shape. Smalley is justifiably proud of this piece and followed it with a series of pieces based on fragments of other composers’ works.

His second piano concerto, premiered in 2006 by Sydney Piano Competition winner John Chen, seems to be the last work in this series. It is based on a very short piano piece (only seven bars long) by one of Smalley’s former teachers, Peter Racine Fricker.

Smalley feels this phase of his composition is now over and points out that his most recent works have avoided using any musical fragments from other composers. He is obviously still interested in appropriating musical style, though, as demonstrated by his Birthday Tango, written in 2006 for the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Another important source of inspiration for Smalley came from his developing interest in visual arts, especially paintings and installations. He became an avid collector of art works, quickly filling every available area of wall space in his home and office with a wide range of, mostly, Australian art. His friendship with artist Brian Blanchflower inspired the composition of what Smalley regards as one of his best pieces, Diptych: Homage to Brian Blanchflower (1991).

Printmaker Lesley Duxbury also inspired Smalley with her 1998 work Crepuscule, a series of 15 postcard sized paintings hung in three horizontal rows of five boxes. Each painting has a wonderfully evocative title such as elusive, intangible, ephemeral, transient. Smalley’s piano quartet of the same name mirrors the structure of the artwork as he explores the titles through a series of 15 variations on a Brahms intermezzo.

It is impossible to reflect on Smalley’s music without mentioning the extraordinary success he received with his first piano concerto, written in 1985. Commissioned by the BBC and originally performed and recorded with Smalley himself as soloist, this work re-established Smalley’s international credentials after a decade in Australia, notably through winning the top recommendation of the Paris International Rostrum of Composers in 1987.

Smalley’s performing activities also extended to conducting and, in 1989, he became the Artistic Director of the WA Symphony Orchestra’s new music ensemble. At the time, this was the only ensemble of its kind within an Australian orchestra, and Smalley actually allows himself a measure of pride in discussing the success of this enterprise and the incredible array of music that was performed and broadcast by the ensemble.

The final aspect of Smalley’s professional life that we touch on is his teaching at UWA. Here Smalley is quite reticent. He echoes the commonly heard complaint that the repetitious nature of undergraduate lecturing is something he won’t miss at all, but overall this is a topic about which he is just not very enthusiastic.

As a former student of his myself (albeit of the piano, not composition), I remember him as leading by example; inspiring us to work hard and to discover how to make things better. He just expected us to get on with it rather than rely on him to nurse us through the process and explain things in detail. This is certainly an approach that only works for a certain type of student and Smalley’s greatest frustrations as a teacher were always with students who lacked initiative and self-sufficiency.

This approach reflects somewhat his own undergraduate experiences at the Royal College of Music where, he declares emphatically: ‘the teaching was lousy’. The composition students were largely ignored by the institution and had to organise their own forum for performing and discussing new music. This seemed to instil in Smalley the view that it is much more valuable to learn than to be taught.

Smalley has been the pivotal figure in composition, performance and musical thinking...for more than 30 years.Smalley’s departure from Perth will create a void that will not be easily filled, if at all. In his understated and self-effacing way, he has been the pivotal figure in composition, performance and musical thinking generally in Western Australia for more than 30 years. He has inspired generations of aspiring composers and performers to simply be better, to push themselves as far as they can and, above all, to be thinking musicians. He has also nurtured and developed Perth audiences, bringing to this city music that would not otherwise have been heard here.

When asked about his regrets: Smalley only has one; that his family found the relocation to Perth too difficult and decided to stay in the UK. However, in his retirement, in between all those commissions, Smalley plans to travel much more and make up for lost time with friends and family around the world.

In summing up his compositions of the past 30 years, Smalley is content and as modest as ever. ‘I’m happy with my output and the standard I’ve maintained. I never cheapened myself for quick success… which is obvious, since I never had it’.

Further Links

Roger Smalley (www.amcoz.com.au/composers/composer.asp?id=445)

Ford, A. 2006, ‘Interview with Roger Smalley’ The Music Show, ABC Radio National. (www.abc.net.au/rn/musicshow/stories/2006/1728179.htm#transcript)

Australian Chamber Orchestra, 2006. ‘Interview with Roger Smalley’, Australian Chamber Orchestra website. (www.aco.com.au/Index.aspx?EID=267)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Mark Couglan is the former Head of the UWA School of Music.


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Thanks Mark, for this wonderful tribute to a remarkable musician, whose music also reminds us that he is indeed a living treasure! To those who are interested, make sure you click on the link below the article to read Andy Ford's great interview with Roger in 2006, just prior to the premier of Roger's 2nd Piano Concerto, also a wonderful work.

Smalley also on ABC Classic FM

Yes, great article.

FYI ... I have just interviewed Roger about his two piano concertos and the creative changes he's undertaken throughout his careers. You can hear the interview live on ABC Classic FM this Friday night, the 31st of August from 7:30pm, along with a performance of the Piano Concerto #2 with John Chen and The Queensland Orchestra.

I'll also be playing Roger's award-winning first Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, along with more of the interview, in New Music Up Late on Saturday the 15th of August from 10:30pm.