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27 September 2019

Martin Wesley-Smith (1945-2019) - composer, activist, pioneer

Martin Wesley-Smith with his 'Jarrah' Image: Martin Wesley-Smith with his 'Jarrah'  

The composer, activist and important pioneer of Australian electronic music, Martin Wesley-Smith (1945-2019), has died on the evening of 26 September, peacefully at his home in Kangaroo Valley NSW, after a long illness.

A multifaceted and multitalented composer who often worked together as a songwriting team with his twin brother Peter, Martin Wesley-Smith was known for his fearless advocacy for causes dear to his heart, particularly the people of East Timor, and our natural environment. The composer himself saw his East Timor work as one of the main themes of his creative output, and it also earned him artistic accolades: in 1997 the Wesley-Smiths' 'documentary music drama' Quito, about schizophrenia and East Timor, was awarded the prestigious Paul Lowin Song Cycle Prize. The other main theme grew out of Martin Wesley-Smith's interest in the life, work and ideas of Lewis Carroll - this led to some of his best-known work, particularly the music theatre work Boojum!.

Martin Wesley-Smith's talent for melody and songwriting became apparent when working with his brother, as Andrew Ford points out in his 2015 article about their songwriting partnership:

'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.'

Using popular forms came naturally to Wesley-Smith, whose curious nature led him to experience and experiment with a multitude of different kinds of music, both as a performer and as a composer. The composer reflected on his background in an article on Resonate in 2009:

'By 1979 I'd had lots of different musical experiences and had developed eclectic tastes and interests: I'd played banjo in a Dixieland band, and in a symphony orchestra playing works by Weill and Eisler; I'd played analog synthesiser in a symphony orchestra performing Stockhausen; my folk group had sung on Brian Henderson's Bandstand as well as on numerous other television shows, and we'd sung in coffee lounges and clubs, including the notorious Motor Club in George Street in Sydney, considered at that time to be the roughest club in Australia (that experience taught me a thing or two about getting across to an audience); I regularly wrote children's songs for my kids, and for Here's Humphrey and Playschool; I'd analysed Webern and played in an orchestra under Peter Maxwell Davies as well as in free-form improvisation groups; I once played reel-to-reel tape recorder in an ensemble conducted by Luciano Berio (for his Differences); and I taught electronic music composition, created music from tape recorders, designed musical installations, and was exploring audiovisual composition.'

Martin Wesley-Smith's influence in the development of Australian electronic music was profound. He founded and directed the Sydney Conservatorium of Music's Electronic Music Studio, and taught composition and electronic music at the Conservatorium. He also founded the electronic music and audio-visual performing collective 'watt' (1976-1998), which presented a regular series of concerts in Sydney. He was Musical Director of TREE, a group whose final environmental event at Wattamolla Beach in Sydney's Royal National Park in 1983 attracted more than ten thousand people. His audiovisual work found an avenue in concerts with clarinettist Ros Dunlop and cellist Julia Ryder, both in Australia and overseas.

Wesley-Smith's best known large-scale work, Boojum! was restaged recently in the composer's birth state of South Australia, following a succesful season in Chicago in 2010. His vocal works were favoured by many singers and choirs, in particular by The Song Company, who performed his work in numerous concerts all over the world.

In 1987 Martin Wesley-Smith received the Australia Council's Don Banks Composer Fellowship. In 1998 he was awarded an AM (Order of Australia). The justification for this honour gives an idea of his multifaceted and engaging artistic career: it came for services to 'music, as a composer, scriptwriter, children's songwriter, lecturer, presenter of multi-media concerts and a member of various Australia Council boards and committees'.

Martin Wesley-Smith believed in artistic freedom, and repeatedly spoke for what he called audience-friendliness in music.

'I detest any pressure to conform to someone else's ideal, particularly when it's applied to artists, and I believe that such pressure has stymied the development of much Australian music of the past forty years or so', he wrote in 2009.

What mattered most, though, was the inner compulsion to write music.

'Let me say here that I have no problem with anyone writing whatever they feel they must. In fact I insist they do, for if music doesn't come from an inner compulsion then it's probably not worth much.'

AMC resources

Martin Wesley-Smith - AMC profile (works, events, articles, biography)

'Martin Wesley-Smith's Who Killed Cock Robin? - a reflection by the composer' - Resonate 18 December 2009

'George and Ira in Kangaroo Valley: the Wesley-Smiths at 70' - Andrew Ford on Resonate 9 June 2015

Boojum! music resource kit for secondary schools by Kim Waldock - AMC Shop

Digital audio and CDs of Martin Wesley's music - AMC Shop

Further links

'Martin Wesley-Smith, composer' - a radio interview on ABC RN's The Music Show (6 December 2014)

'Australian composer Martin Wesley-Smith as died, aged 74' - tribute by ABC Classic (27 September 2019)

'Martin Wesley-Smith has died' - tribute by Vincent Plush in the Limelight magazine (27 September 2019).

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