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9 June 2015

George and Ira in Kangaroo Valley: the Wesley-Smiths at 70

Martin (left) and Peter Wesley-Smith on their first day at school in 1950 Image: Martin (left) and Peter Wesley-Smith on their first day at school in 1950  
© Wesley-Smith family albums

Andrew Ford reflects on the genius of the fabulous Wesley-Smith brothers on the eve of their 70th birthday on 10 June 2015.

Because Martin Wesley-Smith is such a multifaceted composer - a trailblazer in electronic and computer music (via the tape recorder and Fairlight CMI), an enthusiast for multimedia performance (dating back to the days of the slide projector), a devotee of the writings of Lewis Carroll, an unswerving and eloquent advocate for the people of East Timor, a purveyor of musical agitprop on behalf of a multitude of causes - one tends to forget that he is, at heart, a song writer, and a fine one too.

Peter and Martin Wesley-Smith
in Kangaroo Valley last weekend.

Like Schubert and Mahler, like Ives and Gershwin, the song is the centre of his creative world. And like his famous forebears, Wesley-Smith has required a steady supply of words to feed this habit. Schubert had Goethe and Müller, Mahler had Rückert and Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Ives had Longfellow and Byron and Tennyson (and when he ran out of poems would write his own words or call on his wife to do so). But George Gershwin had his brother Ira, and Martin Wesley-Smith has Peter Wesley-Smith.

It's easy to forget about lyricists - even easier if they're family and look like the composer (Peter is Martin's twin) - but it's important that we don't, because lyricists affect composers deeply, the words often serving to explain the sound and nature of the music. For example, the vigorous, outdoorsy Richard Rodgers who teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein was not at all the same as the sophisticated romantic who had worked with Lorenz Hart. Jerome Kern wrote different sorts of music for Oscar Hammerstein (Show Boat) and Dorothy Fields ('I Won't Dance', 'The Way You Look Tonight').

When a lyricist has not only the wit and erudition of Peter Wesley-Smith, but also the ability to clinch an idea in a perfect rhyme, it follows that his collaborating twin will compose music that suits the diction, metre and rhythm of the words. Take the celebrated 'Freddie the Fish', originally from Who Killed Cock Robin? (1979). The rhymes here don't so much click as shimmy into place.

Said Freddie the Fish
Were I granted a wish
I would make an official decree:
'I don't swim in your closet,
So please don't deposit
Your untreated sewage on me.'

Baby twins.

The internal rhyme in line three is worthy of Cole Porter, but notice also Freddie's mounting dudgeon, restrained by politeness until the final line. Martin Wesley-Smith certainly noticed it. He cranks up his musical setting so that the loudest and highest note is on the second syllable of 'sewage'. The first syllable would have been the obvious place to put it, since it's the syllable we stress in speech, but by emphasising and elongating the schwa, the composer makes an ugly word uglier and angrier, and also funnier. He is using his music in much the same way his brother uses rhyme.

A well-turned rhyme can enhance a text in all manner of ways. The best rhymes, which are always perfect rhymes, contain an element of surprise, though once heard should seem inevitable. That's why rhymes that are too clever aren't quite so effective. But a good rhyme will also help a writer make a point, and the effect can be oddly emotional - in a rhymed poem, the rhyme is generally where we feel the writing, it's the moment we laugh or cry and want to call out 'Yes!'. Martin Wesley-Smith achieves much the same effect with harmony.

The success of the Wesley-Smiths is all the more impressive in that they so often work within familiar templates, generally popular song forms of yore. The parlour song, the music hall song, the Anglo-Celtic folk song, the barbershop quartet, the hymn, 1920s ragtime and 1950s doo-wop have all been grist to the Wesley-Smiths' mill, but it is the subversion of these forms, now subtle now blatant, that contributes to their songs' success. 'Freddie the Fish', it occurs to me, is actually in the form of one of those old cowboy songs, like 'Home on the Range'. I first heard 'Freddie' more than 30 years ago, but this has only just struck me.

Martin and Peter after an Aussie rules
football match circa 1958.

Martin Wesley-Smith's principle method of musical subversion is harmonic. He is above all drawn to close harmonies (which explains his predilection for barbershop and doo-wop), but he is always pushing the boundaries of what is possible or, for that matter, in good taste.

To take another of the twins' best known songs, 'Who Stopped the Rain' (see: Let's have music)- at least as sung by the Song Company - might be from the repertory of the 1950s American close harmony group the Hi-Los. But the more closely you listen, the more you realise it's the Hi-Los singing Delius! It is no small matter to point out that there isn't a composer in Australia with a better or more original grasp of chromatic harmony than Martin Wesley-Smith.

If these niceties sometimes get lost, if, come to that, we fail to appreciate the sheer quality of the Wesley-Smiths' songs, the reason, of course, is that we're far too busy enjoying them. Certainly that was how a packed village hall responded in Kangaroo Valley, NSW, on Saturday 7 June at the Wesley-Smiths' 70th birthday concert.

When Martin announced twenty years ago that he was moving from Sydney to Kangaroo Valley, more than one person told him this was a bad career move - he would be forgotten in Sydney and his music would no longer be performed. His response was that the performers would have to come to the Kangaroo Valley.

Last Saturday (and not for the first time), they did. The Song Company, together with extra vocalists, sang the Wesley-Smiths' songs to the Wesley-Smiths' neighbours for 90 minutes, and by the end of the concert had barely scratched the surface of this rich and still growing repertoire.

'The Wesley Three' circa 1963: Martin (left)
and Peter Wesley-Smith (right)
with Keith Conlon.

AMC resources

Martin Wesley-Smith - AMC profile
'Martin Wesley-Smith's Who killed cock Robin? - a reflection by the composer' - an article by Martin Wesley-Smith on Resonate (18 December 2009)
'Boojum! in America' - an article by Martin Wesley-Smith on Resonate (29 December 2010)

Recordings (AMC Shop)

MP3s of Martin Wesley-Smith's works
CDs with Martin Wesley-Smith's music
Vox Australis CD: Boojum! - nonsense, truth and Lewis Carroll; a musical by Martin Wesley-Smith and Peter Wesley-Smith

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A paradox

Knowing Martin's Left-oriented politics to some extent, it never ceases to bemuse me that he chooses to indulge in a harmonic language (i.e. that of the barber-shop quartet, and other bourgeois Americana) the semiology of which connotes everything that is antithetical to that political orientation - an amazing cognitive dissonance!