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28 August 2015

Roger Smalley remembered

Roger Smalley at the 2007 Art Music Awards, Sydney Image: Roger Smalley at the 2007 Art Music Awards, Sydney  

A speech given by Andrew Ford at Roger Smalley's funeral in Sydney 26 August 2015.

I spent Sunday afternoon searching for an appropriate quote from Roger for the back of the leaflet you're holding. I thought it would be easy, but it wasn't. I realised, as I searched, that Roger had never been one for overarching statements about the meaning of music, let alone life. In his interviews and writings, he concerned himself with musical evidence, his observations unfailingly precise, germane and accurate. No grandstanding.

Then on Monday, as I wondered which tie I might wear with my suit today, something else struck me. I never saw Roger Smalley in a suit; I never saw him wear a tie. I suppose he must have had clothes other than the black skivvy of my memory, but if he did, I can't imagine what they were. So that's why I'm not wearing a suit.

The writer Alan Bennett once suggested that all modesty is false modesty. Perhaps he was right. I don't think Roger was especially modest (he certainly knew his worth), but what mattered to him, above all, was music. When talking about music, it was more important to be precise than to indulge in feel-good generalisations. When leaving the house, dressing in basic black meant you didn't have to waste time on something as unimportant as outward appearances.

What it boiled down to was that Roger was more interested in composing than in being a composer. The work was what mattered. Roger took his time and got the music right. When he wasn't sure how best to proceed, he would set aside the score for months - 18 months in the case of his Symphony, 11 years in the case of his Cello Concerto - until he came up with the solution. By the time the score was ready, you could be certain every note had been considered, every detail was in place. Roger's music was exceptionally well-crafted and he valued this in the music of others.

In 2007, when he was a finalist in the category Best Composition by an Australian Composer at the Australian Music Centre's annual Awards, he was up against stiff competition from the likes of Liza Lim and Brett Dean. They'd made the final short-list with impressive, large-scale works: Liza's Mother Tongue and Brett's Viola Concerto. Roger was represented by a little piėce d'occasion for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, barely nine minutes of music for strings entitled Birthday Tango. Even the title suggests something insignificant.

If you didn't know, you've probably guessed: Roger won. The judges were unconcerned by the surface triviality of the piece. What they saw and heard was just how very well made the music was, and how beautifully written for the instruments. And it was witty, too - a rare commodity in contemporary music; not so very common in music, full-stop. The piece now goes by the title, Footwork.

Roger was perhaps more musical than anyone I've ever known. By that, I mean he thought about music constantly. If you were actually talking to him, the music playing in his head might fade to pianissimo - Roger, after all, was a courteous fellow - but any lull in the conversation (ten seconds could be enough) and you'd see his eyes start to lose focus and his hand begin to gesticulate as he conducted some imaginary orchestra or articulated a tricky chord on an imaginary piano.

The only thing that seemed capable of switching off this stream of music, was the sound of music itself, and Roger listened to a lot of that. Old or new, familiar or obscure - when I say 'obscure', I mean composers you'd never heard of - he listened to it all and could tell you about it. I'm talking about classical music, of course. He didn't have much time for pop music - I mean that literally: if your classical listening extends as far as the symphonies of William Alwyn or the songs of Othmar Schoek, it won't leave you much time for anything else. Even so, sometimes Roger's ignorance of popular culture was staggering.

He was once at my place for dinner with some other people. A CD of Louis Armstrong was playing. Now I don't know about you, but I'd say Louis Armstrong had perhaps the most instantly recognisable singing voice of the 20th century. After a while, Roger had to ask who it was.

I think it's fair to say that Roger wasn't terribly worldly. In particular, for a man so interested in modernism, he was often at odds with the modern world. When he was still in Perth, we didn't see each other that much, but we often talked on the phone. For a time, I was also sending emails to his address at the University of Western Australia. One day, I phoned him at his office to chase him up about some question I'd asked in an email. Iain Grandage answered the phone, Roger was in a rehearsal. We chatted for a while and then I mentioned to Iain the reason I was calling. Would he mind asking Roger to answer that question in the email?

'Roger doesn't have a computer,' Iain explained.

I said before that Roger was courteous. Of course he was much more than that. He was kind, he was funny. He was exceptionally shrewd in his judgements. When he mentioned something he liked in one of your pieces, you felt it was a feather in your cap.

And he was generous. To so many musicians, in particular younger composers, he was a great supporter. I'm not sure I've had a greater supporter in my career. I was thinking about this the other day. Either as pianist or as conductor of the WASO 20th-Century Music Ensemble or the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Roger must have performed eight or nine of my pieces, usually in a concert he'd organised himself.

But for all the help and encouragement he bestowed on other composers - and pianists and other instrumentalists, and singers - I can't think of an occasion he tried to call in a favour. He promoted other people's music, not his own.

Perhaps he felt his music should speak for itself. Perhaps he believed it was up to others to discover it and play it and promote it. And it is, now.

> Roger Smalley (1943-2015) (article on Resonate 18 August 2015)
> Roger Smalley - eulogy (by Darryl Poulsen, Resonate 28 August 2015)
> Composer Roger Smalley dies (article by Stephen Bevis in The West Australian, 18 August 2015)
> Composer Roger Smalley: Import who put Perth on musical map (obituary by Vincent Plush in The Australian, 25 August 2015)
> 'Master of musical invention created unique beat' (obituary in The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 August 2015)

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